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Taking the Hard Road: Life Course in French and German Workers' Autobiographies in the Era of Industrialization.

From a field of approximately four-hundred autobiographies of lower-class authors, whose publication spanned from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Mary Jo Maynes chose ninety to analyze with the broad aim of rescuing workers' voices from silence and obscurity, and thereby to "democratize the historical record." (p. 203) At first sight a straightforward project, Maynes offers at once an ambitious, highly complex and richly rewarding analysis not only of these voices, but of autobiography as a literary genre.

Maynes narrows her focus to the question of how those who came from the milieu of manual labor constructed working-class identity in childhood and youth during the era of industrialization. The effort to make generalizations about change over time within this broad chronological scope, to compare French with German-speaking inhabitants of Central Europe, and to analyze gender differences, proved no easy task given the small subsets within an already relatively small sample, and given the daunting challenge that these autobiographers did not represent typical members of their class. Always conscious of these limitations, Maynes turns them to her advantage and offers a rich interpretation embellished within the context of existing feminist, family, and working-class historiography, as well as literary analysis.

One of Maynes's most interesting findings is that the genre of working-class autobiography emerged along with, and as a result of, working-class political and labor organizations. Directly or indirectly, these organizations inspired workers to take up the pen and influenced as well their selective memories about subjective experience. Most of the narratives thus revolve around plots about becoming militant or about becoming successful. Although accounts differ markedly by gender, culture, and over time, Maynes found that childhood experiences generally instilled in these authors a sense of being different from the bourgeois "norm," and of having been painfully deprived. Key formative experiences came with the religious, economic, and educational rites of passage out of childhood and into the workplace, where most often (for men) the awakening to class identity occurred, thus setting a subsequent life course.

Although Maynes addresses issues of gender masterfully, her schema raises, but does not allow her to answer with any depth, how one might understand the construction of female working-class identity, for female autobiographers numbered few in either the "successful" or "militant" categories. In this regard, her decision not to carry her analysis further in the life-cycle than early adulthood - based on the finding that key moments of class identity formation had occurred by that point - seems somewhat puzzling. Perhaps these autobiographies remained silent on issues of class identity construction beyond early adulthood. But given the focus on childhood and youth as key to identity construction, and given the important role motherhood had for women of the past, she might have analyzed her subjects' own experience with parenting - or their silence about it - and questioned whether they sought to transmit a class identity to their own children. After all, becoming a parent bridges one's adult identity with one's own childhood, continuing the process of self- invention. This line of inquiry might have been another key to class identity construction, particularly for women.

But even the unanswered questions this book raises are provocative and important. Maynes adds a new and timely dimension to working-class historiography, succeeding in, as she puts it, historicizing class analysis rather than abandoning it.

Elinor A. Accampo University of Southern California
COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Accampo, Elinor A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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