"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
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.
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