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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Taking the Hard Road is an engaging history of growing up in working-class families in France and Germany during the Industrial Revolution. Based on a reading of ninety autobiographical accounts of childhood and adolescence, the book explores the far-reaching historical transformations associated with the emergence of modern industrial capitalism. According to Mary Jo Maynes, the aspects of private life revealed in these accounts played an important role in historical development by actively shaping the authors' social, political, and class identities.

The stories told in these memoirs revolve around details of everyday life: schooling, parent-child relations, adolescent sexuality, early experiences in the workforce, and religious observances. Maynes uses demographics, family history, and literary analysis to place these details within the context of historical change. She also draws comparisons between French and German texts, men's and women's accounts, and narratives of social mobility and political militancy.

Excerpt

Writing an autobiography had by Baader's lifetime become something of a commonplace for politically active German workers. If hers marks the flowering of the genre of workers' autobiography, the memoirs of Valentin Jamerey-Duval marked the emergence of it. Born in 1695 into a French peasant family, Jamerey-Duval had become a learned man, a court librarian, by the time he wrote his memoirs between 1733 and 1747. He wrote his memoirs at the request of an aristocratic patron, and his story recounts his transformation from illiterate peasant to scholar. It is one of the earliest autobiographical accounts by a European of lowerclass origins.

Writing stories about growing up poor or working class echoed other expressions of European working-class consciousness. the genre flourished during the decades bracketed on one end by the innovative, often clandestine, and illegal organization of workers in the period before 1848, and on the other end by the decade of the 1930s when fascist and antifascist movements dramatically reshaped European working-class political organization. Later, in the era of complacence after World War II, when working-class identity had become the subject of mass-media nostalgia (in the West) or party line (in Eastern Europe), institutional and political support for the circulation of published workers' life stories was undermined. the voices diminished until "history from below" sought to revive them beginning in the 1960s.

This book addresses the question of what these stories reveal about the experience of growing up in the working class in Europe during the transition to industrial capitalism. Its focus is on the autobiographical construction of class identity in childhood and youth. These subjective and personal sources have a great deal to add to history, for they allow us to view and assess historical transformations from the perspective of people who lived through them. the subjectivity of autobiographical accounts provides a place from which to interrogate and refine the categories through which the past is understood. the autobiography's personal emphasis, moreover, points to the significance of private life in history-- a significance that historians are only beginning to appreciate. Such "personal matters" as family life, taste in clothing, and sexual experiences were all important dimensions of the history of class relations and class identities.

The ninety autobiographers whose works are the focus of this study wrote from positions widely ranging in time and space. the earliest mem . . .

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