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Herbert G. Gutman, 1928-1985, and the writing of working-class history.


On October 29, 1985, hundreds filled the New School auditorium in New york City for a moving memorial service for Professor Herbert Gutman of the City University of New York. Speakers who shared their memories of Herb included a range of historians whose work had been touched by his--Ira Berlin, John Hope Franklin, Greg Kealey, Bruce Levine, Joan Scott, and E. P. Thompson. In addition, his family presented a scenario of visual images of Herb from the various stages of his life. The combination of anecdotes and photographs, as well as consideration of the intellectual oeuvre, sought to create a fuller assessment of Herb's crucial role in the development of U.S. social history in the last twenty years, a role that the short bibliography appended here only begins to hint at; few U.S. historians in recent years have had as great an impact on the international writing of social history.

Who was Herb Gutman and why was his work so important?

The son of Jewish immigrants, Herb was born in 1928 in New York City, a place whose variety and vibrancy he loved. He attended Queen's College from 1944 to 1948 and then studied for a M.A. at Columbia. His thesis, a study of aspects of the 1873 depression in New York City, including the unemployed workers' demand for public works, was written under Richard Hofstadter's supervision, and later dismissed by Gutman himself as boring "conventional labor history." Gutman then moved on to Wisconsin, the birthplace of North American academic labor studies, and wrote his Ph.D. thesis, "Social and Economic Structure and Depression: American Labor in 1873 and 1874." Supervised by Howard K. Beale, a scholar of U.S. Reconstruction and early U.S. imperialism, Gutman also worked with Merril Jensen, Merle Curti, and Selig Perlman. While the political traditions of Wisconsin and the university's history department were both deep and left-leaning, one nevertheless suspects that it was Gutman's graduate school colleagues, who included Warren Susman and William Preston, and his own earlier left-wing involvements with Jewish radicalism, the Communist movement, and the Wallace campaign that shaped his intellectual formation.

His thesis, completed in 1959, already hinted at many of the themes that would characterize his later work and that rpresent his major contribution to social hisfory. Despite, or perhaps because of, working with Selig Perlman, Gutman had already developed a far-reaching critique of the Commons-school tradition which had dominated the writing of U.S. labor history. Its almost total concentration on the "changing structure of the economic market" led Commons-school scholars to "minimize other considerations such as industrial and technological changes," Gutman wrote. While a "good deal had been written about trade unions," he argued, "less attention had been given to the working population itself and the relationship between labor organizations and the communities of which they were a part." Even more damaging, he continued, "little had been written of the day-to-day occurrences that affected the wage-earning classes."

In his attempt to move beyond the old labor history, he turned to a series of local community studies involving: eastern, mid-western, and southern railroad workers; Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania coal minersf and Ohio Valley ironworkers--all in the troubled years of 1873 and 1874. Initially puzzled by the workers' relative strength, he found himself reaching beyond the traditions of "labor history," left or right, to explain his findings:

[The] chapters explore the relationship between "interest" and "ideology" in these small industrial communities at a time when industrial capital still was relatively new and not fully institutionalized. The chapters suggest the need to modify the traditional notions that labor was "isolated," that the employer had a relatively "easy time" of it and a relatively "free hand," and that the spirit of the time--the ethic of the Gilded Age--worked to the advantage of the employer, and that workers found little sympathy from non-workers, and that industrialists swept aside many obstacles with relative ease.

These chapters, which constitute Part One, "Non-Urban Workers," of the Ph.D thesis, later appreared in a number of historical journals and established his early reputation. While usefully drawing attention to the strength of workers' resistance and to the revolutionary implications of industrial capital's drive to establish hegemony, Gutman's early thesis that workers derived their strength from their small-town millieus and from alliances with class elements unsympathetic to the rising industralists later proved inadequate. As he himself put it:

The argument would work ... if Chicago and Pittsburgh didn't exist! Chicago, after all, probably had as large a percentage of its ethnic male work force in trade unions as any other city in the world in the early twentieth century....

Rightly or wrongly, these essays argued that the class structure in small towns, coming out of residual or older forms of class relations, gave little noticed strengths to diverse workers.

In a less well known Part Two of his thesis, Gutman turned his attention to urban workers. Curiously, this section, while filled with insights about urban industrial structure and its child, female, and immigrant labor force, is almost totally bereft of workers' activities or ideas. The failure to apply the insights of Part One to the great U.S. indisutral cities undoubtedly explains why this work remained unpublished, although Gutman was to return to these concerns in the 1980s.

These chapters, despite this glaring weakness, did call attention to numerous important issues. For example, while arguing strongly for the advanced degree of urban industrialization that existed by 1873, he nevertheless stressed that the "scale and variety of enterprise in almost every important city also shaped the heterogeneous structure of the laboring class." In addition, he asserted in a particularly clear and striking passage that the "large percentage of foreign-born workers, especially among those engaged in manufacturing, makes it impossible to understand the behavior of the urban working class after 1870 if the immigrant remains a mere marginal consideration." And, finally, in a chapter on the material conditions of the urban working class, he noted in a particularly prescient passage that the "family unit itself--a husband, his wife, and one or more children--often kept the kin of the unskilled worker above the level of subsistence." Insights such as these came from the vast and detailed empirical research that typified not only the thesis but all his subsequent work. In 1959, however, these insights remained undeveloped, at least partially because of his inability to penetrate that urban world and discover the roots of working-class resistance there.

The closest Gutman came to this occurred in Part Three of the thesis where he analyzed the unemployed movement's demands for public works to create jobs, and the specific protests of New York City's unemployed, which culminated in the Tompkins Square "riot" on January 13, 1874. These chapters, like those of Part One, were published in the mid-1960s.

Gutman's move to New Jersey to teach at Fairleigh Dickinson in the late 1950s led to new and extensive research into the history of the working class of Paterson, New Jersey. This Paterson research, much of it never published, started Gutman on a process of confronting urban workers' resistance to industrial capital, in the course of which he found increasing inspiration in the burgeoning field of British social history, and especially in the work of E. P. Thompson, whose first trip to the United States came in 1964 when he visited Gutman at the University of Buffalo. Gutman's insights into the strengths of working-class resistance to industrial capitalism and the realization that one source of this resistance lay in traditions and ideas derived from previous forms of social organization made Thompson's emphasis on culture and the "making" of the working class particularly attractive.

Gutman's interest in the impressive work of the British social historians provided him with powerful new ideas to add to his earlier work. It also separated him from most U.S. historians of the day who worked with proudly provincial notions of the uniqueness of America. The rise of social history has led to a significant internationalization of scholarly discourse, and Gutman played an important role in this development, both as an early proponent, then as the exemplary practitioner, and later as a popular participant in Italian, French, German, Chinese, and Japanese conferences.

The impact of the British work in social history is most clearly seen in Gutman's two broadest statements about the U.S. working-class experience, the well-known "Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America," the title essay in his major collection, and the less noticed but equally important "Protestantism and the American Labor Movement." Both essays originally appeared in the American Historical Review, in 1966 and 1973 respectively, and cemented his by then considerable reputation.

While at Buffalo Gutman's work moved in new directions as he began to explore through quantitative methods the social structure of U.S. cities. Although he flirted with what would for a time be known as the "new social history"--a too often mindless study of urban "social mobility"--he resisted the siren call of fat grants and endless methodological debate. Instead he increasingly turned his attention to the black family, initially in northern cities after the Civil War. This work, begun in the late 1960s , culminated in his massive The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, a book which despite its hefty seven hundred pages, eliminated masses of additional material that Gutman had collected in his Buffalo and Rochester years. Ira Berlin is preparing much of this material, as well as the previously mentioned Paterson studies, for publication by Pantheon.

Gutman's work in Afro-American history also led to one of his relatively few polemical interventions into U.S. historical writing. While often an acerbic critic of establishment history within the confines of his seminars, he wrote few book reviews, functioning instead as an enthusiastic promoter of the work of young scholars and of nonacademic projects. But his one polemical exercise, Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross, commissioned by the Journal of Negro History and published there as a book-length issue in January 1975, demonstrated just how acute a critic he could be. This demolition of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's massively publicized work, subtitled "The Economics of American Slavery," helped to stop the uncritical flood of enthusiasm that had greeted its initial appearance. Moreover, his dissection of much of its authors' quantitative evidence and his exposure of their underlying ideological assumptions furthered the resistance to the then prevalent misguided enthusiasm for numbers and computers. In this battle, Gutman's great stregnth was that, unlike many traditionalists who rejected quantitative work out of hand, he used such data himself and thus understood both their strengths and weaknesses. As he argued in the conclusion to his critique, "Quantitative methods--that is, the use of numerical data to establish regularities in all sorts of social behavior--have a place in the writing of social history and of Afro-American history, but as just one of many techniques available to the modern historian." Such common sense now appears only too obvious, but in the heady 1970s, with the "new social history" and the misnamed "cliometrics" at the height of their popularity, it served as an important antidote to blatant hucksterism.

Gutman moved from Buffalo to Rochester and then to the City University of New York. The latter move came as both a positive return to New York and as a response to a political commitment to open enrollment, but it also represented an escape from political infighting in the Rochester history department, which aldo had Eugene Genovese and Christopher Lasch as members. As Buffalo and Rochester, and later in New York, Gutman contributed massively to the development of U.S. social history through his role as a graduate course teacher and thesis supervisor. At best an erratic undergraduate lecturer, Gutman excelled as a graduate teacher. His seminars never failed to stimulate, combining anecdote, methodological comment, and profound insight into an alchemist's brew of pedagogy. Moreover, what he offered his own students, he always shared generously with others. An entire generation of left-leaning social historians benefitted from his advice, his criticism, and perhaps most of all his limitless enthusiasm for history.

The years in New York saw him turn his attention to another of his major concerns. He had always warned against the ghettoization of academic history and against the trivializing effects of the massive growth in the historian's division of labor. In the introduction to Work, Culture, and Society, he wrote:

Much in the "new history" soundly examines greatly neglected but important aspects of past working-class experience. But too much of it is too narrowly classificatory, too narrowly statistical and behavioral. Such studies often describe with some precision regularities in behavior but they fail to explain them. Moreover, the new social history suffers from a very limiting overspecialization.

To emphasize this point dramatically, he then asked the reader to consider an Irish-born, Catholic, female textile worker and trade unionist involved in the 1875 Fall River textile strike. Owing to the balkanization of social history, he argued, her experience might be carved into ten or more specialized subsets of social history. None of these would capture the essence of her total lived experience.

To remedy both the ghettoization of academic history and the balkanization of social history, Gutman turned his attention to taking the work to the people. In a remarkable series of seminars funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Gutman taught trade unionists in the summers of 1977 to 1980. This course, called "Americans at work," was also offered to New york-area community college teachers. The enthusiasm generated by sharing U.S. history with these groups led to the "American Social History Project." This ongoing project, funded by the NEH and the Ford Foundation, aims to produce a two-volume general history of U.S. working people, synthesizing recent developments in the various fields of social history. Aimed at community college and trade-union education audiences, Who Built America? A Social History of Working People in the United States is to be combined with a series of innovative slide shows and a feature film, 1877: The Grand Army of Starvation. The six slide shows include: "The Big 'H'," a wonderful freewheeling introduction to the problems of historical study in the guise of an animated, 1940s-style detective story; "Tea-Party Etiquette," the American Revolution through the eyes of a Boston shoemaker; "Daughters of Free Men: Life and Labor in the Lowell Mills"; "Five Points," a description of mid-nineteenth century Irish working-class life in New York Cityd; "Doing As They Can," the life, work, and resistance of the slavesf and "Dr. Toer's Amazing Magic Lantern Show," a description of black Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War. The two volumes of Who Built America? will be published by Pantheon in 1988.

Gutman's commitment not only to the writing of the history of working people but also to making that history available to its subjects are among his most important legacies. Often criticized for an alleged overemphasis on working people and blacks as historical agents, and sometimes summarily dismissed as a "romantic" and lacking in sophisticated "theory," Gutman nevertheless had had an important impact on the writing of U.S. history. The insights first apparent in his Ph.D thesis and developed by his interaction with the British Marxist historians have been undervalued by the U.S. left. In one of his last publications, Gutman summarized much of what his life's work had demonstrated:

The history of American society is the history of inequality of all kinds: economic, sexual, and racial. But it is much more than that. It is also the history of how powe men and women won their democratic rights, how they have organized and used their power to try to expand their rights and to combat their unequal status.

But, in addition, he affirmed what too many forget in these dismall 1980s:

Historical understanding teaches us to transform the seemingly fixed and internal in our lives into things that can be changed. It teaches working people that the structures surrounding them have been made and remade over and over. It teaches that we live in history.
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Author:kealy, Gregory S.
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1986
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