Nell Irvin Painter


"HERBERT GUTMAN, HISTORIAN OF CLASS" Review by Nell Irvin Painter in The Washington Post Book World, January 17, 1988; Page x5

POWER & CULTURE Essays on the American Working Class
By Herbert G. Gutman Edited by Ira Berlin Pantheon. 452 pp. $29.95

WHEN Herbert Gutman died suddenly of a massive heart attack in 1985 he was, along with David Montgomery of Yale, a founder and leader of what is sometimes termed the "new labor history." Before Gutman and Montgomery and a handful of others began publishing in the 1960s, labor history had concentrated on unions and their leaders, whether to praise the moderation of the American Federation of Labor or to demonstrate American workers' false consciousness. A pioneer of social history, Gutman enjoyed high standing in Afro-American history as well.

Gutman's first major publication, "The Workers' Search for Power: Labor in the Gilded Age," which is included in the present volume, illustrates the convictions that made him so attractive to a generation of historians whose consciousness took shape in the 1960s: notably that workers had struggled continually against employers in the late 19th century. While Gutman was clearly left-leaning (he had grown up in a Jewish Old Left immigrant family in New York), he had moved away from the determinist strand of Marxist thought, retaining what he called "a really good set of questions" that Marx had inspired (e.g., what were workers, not just leaders, doing on a day-to-day basis?). These questions reshaped labor history and also appealed tostudents of Afro-American history.

Earlier studies of both immigrant workers and Afro-Americans had stressed what Gutman termed the "breakdown theory," which held that blacks/immigrants were unable to cope with modern life unless they jettisoned their older cultures in a mad dash into assimilation and individualism. Gutman discerned this view in Oscar Handlin's second book, The Uprooted, and in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report on the black family and answered both in his own work.

Gutman reshaped the issues, posing what he called the "Sartre question," that asked not only what had been done to people but also what they made of themselves, given their conditions. Gutman's response to Moynihan, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1976) makes black people, more especially black families, full-fledged historical actors, just as his work on the history of workers who had not been enslaved put them at center stage.

In the 1960s and '70s this approach made Gutman a mentor to (then young, now middle-aged) historians who were studying blacks, workers and women as makers of history, not merely victims. Once it became apparent that the relatively powerless nonetheless contested for power, conflict, not consensus, characterized the analysis. Such a perspective necessarily recast American history as a whole, a conclusion that Gutman had reached by 1949.

At the time of his death Gutman was working on a project that had occupied him on and off since 1967: a history of the American working class. Since 1978 Ira Berlin, a respected historian of Afro-Americans at the University of Maryland, had been a collaborator. Berlin has ably and affectionately edited this volume of Gutman's work to include an early, previously unpublished essay on coal miners in Braidwood, Illinois, an important piece from Gutman's earlier collection, Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America (1976), as well as other unpublished material. The most valuable essays in this collection had not been available before, notably "Schools for Freedom: The Post-Emancipation Origins of Afro-American Education," which had been cut from the manuscript of the book on the black family, and Gutman and Berlin's "Class Composition and the Development of the American Working Class, 1840-1890," Gutman's last project, up to now available only in Hungarian. Though meant to accompany Gutman's other two books, this collection nicely represents his evolution as a historian. BERLIN'S LONG, thoughtful introduction provides a sharply-focused picture of Gutman the man -- lively, energetic, deeply and perpetually engaged -- with a careful tracing of Gutman's own history, from Queens College to a frustrating year of graduate study with Richard Hofstadter at Columbia, to a PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1958. Berlin probes the connections between Gutman's two major fields of inquiry, free/wage workers and enslaved workers, and between his personal and political concerns and his writing of history. Berlin explains Gutman's growing preoccupation with the totality of workers' lives, the extension of his interest beyondthe workplace into family life, voluntary organizations, religion and politics.

Gutman's concern for the whole breath of workers' culture proved to be at once enormously influential historiographically and open to criticism for sentimentality. His critics, notably Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, held that his concentration on workers' culture ignored the larger issue of power relationships and the way relative powerlessness circumscribed the culture of the poor. Gutman's death did not close the controversy, which this book continues. Along with the obvious word "culture," Berlin inserted "power" into the title, to claim for Gutman (although not to occupy) the whole terrain.

Nell Irvin Painter's most recent book is "Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919.

Copyright Nell Irvin Painter.

Return to top               Return to Reviews

  Site created by:  Janet Shafer Designs