Herbert G. Gutman, 1928-1985, and the Writing of Working-Class History

By kealy, Gregory S. | Monthly Review, May 1986 | Go to article overview

Herbert G. Gutman, 1928-1985, and the Writing of Working-Class History


kealy, Gregory S., Monthly Review


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. …

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