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The Historian as Populist

Herbert Gutman, who died in 1985 at the age of fifty-seven, was one of a small group of older American historians who made the experience of workers, women, and racial minorities central to the study of American history. In so doing he became a guiding influence for many of the hundreds of younger scholars of the late 1960s and 1970s who were exploring such subjects as slave religion, immigrant family life, and the ideology of artisans. Gutman’s own writings concentrated on the blacks and European immigrants who did most of the labor on plantations and in factory towns and cities during the nineteenth century. Drawing on statistics, stories, poems, and his own provocative interpretations of historical events, he gave a version of slavery and industrialization quite different from the rather grim and dry portraits that are still to be found in textbooks.

Gutman was not an academic specialist constantly refining one small segment of the past. He passionately supported writers, inside or outside the universities, who tried to understand people who were once called “the inarticulate” by reconstructing their rich and diverse cultures. At times his uninhibited zealotry could be exasperating. Gutman was a man of great energy and a strong ego whose pleasure at having become a scholar with an international reputation sometimes hindered him from accomplishing more. At one conference in 1983, I heard him read a long paper at immense speed in order to keep within the time limit, ignoring the fact that his listeners could not follow him. Near the end of his life, he was plagued by writer’s block and frequently broke off his research for lecture tours to China, France, and Hungary.

However, Gutman’s commitment to his own version of social history was sincere and infectious; it helped him to overcome the insecurities that a druggist’s son from Queens brought to a profession that, when he entered it in the early 1950s as a graduate student at Columbia, was still dominated by such WASP historians as Allan Nevins, Henry Steele Commager, and Samuel Eliot Morison. Later, as a professor at the University of Rochester and the City University of New York, Gutman treated his own graduate students as comrades in a struggle against complacency in scholarship and politics, a struggle in which scholarship and politics could not be separated. “Gutman’s many courtesies were remembered,” observes the historian Ira Berlin, his friend and occasional collaborator, in the excellent introduction to the present collection of twelve pieces, several of which have not previously been published. “A review of the ‘acknowledgments’ in books published during the 1970s and 1980s, particularly the ‘first books,’ uncovers dozens of notations thanking Gutman for his suggestions, his assistance, and most of all his encouragement.”

Gutman became increasingly eager to make the new social history available to the widest possible audience. After speaking at the 1981 American Writers Congress, organized by the Nation magazine, Gutman fretted that “two decades of important historical discovery and rediscovery” were as unknown to the participants as if it “had been penned in a foreign language and had probed the national experiences of Albania, New Zealand and Zambia.” He considered most Americans to be “cut off” from the past of their slave and immigrant fore-bears. How could there be an authentic working-class history if contemporary workers and their children knew nothing about it? That same year Gutman founded, with his former student Stephen Brier, the American Working-Class History (later Social History) Project, which is based at City University in New York. So far it has produced several impressive documentary films and will soon publish a two-volume work, Who Built America?, written and illustrated for a popular audience.

In fact, Gutman may one day be regarded even more highly as a proselytizer than as a practitioner of new approaches to history. He published only one full-length book based on his own research—The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (Pantheon, 1976)—a badly organized study that, notwithstanding a great deal of original evidence about the history of black kinship, overstated the degree of independence from the control of their masters Afro-American slaves enjoyed.1 Each of his many articles about coal miners, barrel makers, railroad workers, and the like, while drawing on a voluminous knowledge about the particulars of class and ethnic life, tended to repeat the same conclusions, whatever the subject. Gutman had a few basic premises in which he fervently believed. His method, he once proudly admitted, was a simple one: to “drive my ideas through every piece of evidence” so that readers would have to confront them and join the debate on his terms.

For Gutman the history of working people was or should be the record of their collective resistance to the powerful people who dominated them, whether they were slave owners, landlords, employers, or conservative politicians. Unlike earlier left-wing historians, he had little interest in solemnly documenting episodes of exploitation. Gutman’s essays typically give the experience of hunger, unemployment, and government repression only a passing glance before they undertake their quintessentially populist mission—to demonstrate how the common people had created, out of their ethnic traditions and dense networks of kin and neighborhood relations, ideologies and institutions that the dominant classes could not destroy. For this frankly partisan historian, the workers were invariably filled with a spirit of cooperation while their class opponents were ruled by ambition, the desire for profit, and an unshakeable belief in the rights of property owners.

Gutman delighted in rediscovering aspects of working-class creativity and power that other scholars had noted but had not appreciated. One of his first published articles told of railroad strikers in Ohio and Pennsylvania during the mid 1870s who made violent confrontation unnecessary by taking control of repair shops and closing down local taverns to enforce sobriety. In so doing they had the support of middle-class citizens who had their own grievances against the arrogant railroad companies, whose unprecedented economic power seemed the scourge of individual liberty. The strikes were “seemingly pathetic and seldom lasting more than a week or two,” Gutman wrote. Their significance “lay not in their success or failure but rather in the readiness of the strikers to express their grievances in a dramatic, direct, and frequently telling manner.”2

The process and drama of resistance, quite aside from its outcome, run through virtually all of Gutman’s writing. He recounted how workers of different races and national origins were able to create the elements of a sturdy cooperative culture even while companies slashed their wages and blacklisted their leaders. He described how, after the Civil War, Irish and Scottish immigrant coal miners created a distinctive ideology of their own. They drew on the republican language of Chartism, the examples of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and quotations from the Bible to counter the industrialists’ praise of the free market and social order. Faced with white hostility, recently freed slaves built and financed their own schools even though books were scarce and there were hardly and experienced black teachers to be found. On two occasions, sixty-five years apart, groups of poor New Yorkers rioted to drive down the cost of a commodity basic to their diet; in 1837, it was bread; in 1902, kosher meat. Throughout the US artisans and factory hands managed to slow the speed of work to a human pace by staying home on “Blue Monday” and taking breaks for sweets and/or alcohol several times during a long day of heavy labor. 3

For Gutman, no historical detail was inconsequential if it testified to the self-reliant spirit of the oppressed. In a report of coal miners in a town south of Chicago, he even noted the score of an 1874 baseball game between two teams of striking workers, the Stars of the Grove and the Nameless of Lower Braidwood. “Other miners,” he added, “found pleasure in pigeon and prairie-chicken shooting.” He didn’t neglect the subjects that have always occupied labor historians—unions, reform laws, and radical third parties—but insisted that the beliefs and daily practices of workers, not their formal institutions, were the true sources of historical meaning.

Like most other American historians, Gutman was at home with facts and uneasy with grand theories. When he felt the need to discuss his larger purposes, he would often pluck a phrase or epigram from a celebrated anthropologist or philosopher. In a short piece written for the newsletter of the National Endowment for the Humanities just months before Reagan took office, he quoted Sartre’s view that “The essential is not what ‘one’ has done to man, but what man does with what ‘one’ has done to him.” Gutman refused to participate in the ceaseless debate over the failure of the American left to build and sustain a mass socialist movement. “We need to put aside notions that workers’ movements have developed properly elsewhere and in the United States they developed improperly,” he told an interviewer for Radical History Review. Others could agonize over why capitalism had frustrated the Marxist dream; he preferred to be busy discovering what visions working people did in fact create and pursue.

During the mid-1960s, Gutman’s interest in cultural sources of power became a central element in his work when he encountered the writings of E.P. Thompson. The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1963, and Thompson’s imaginative articles on the precepts of “moral economy” that early nineteenth-century British workers had enforced on the upper classes presented American historians with an elegant model for a different kind of working-class history. Gutman and his students set out to show how, on this side of the ocean, evangelical religion, the republicanism of Tom Paine, and ancestral notions of community rights had been combined into an American kind of class consciousness. Calling themselves “historians of the working class” in the European fashion, young American scholars described in detail the political attitudes and on-the-job experiences of everyone from butchers and bricklayers to salesclerks and nurses. To capture the texture of history as anonymous Americans had lived it, most narrowed their sights to one town, or corporation, or industry, each said to be a “microcosm” of larger experience. Of course, it can be difficult to create a synthesis or find a pattern when historical work becomes so concentrated. But the sum of such pointillist writings, which continue to pour out of academic presses and journals, has demolished the old assumption that labor history was merely a minor branch of economics or the chronicle of important strikes.

Yet E.P. Thompson’s example raised many difficulties for Americans. It was easy to identify elements of what he called “heroic culture” in the records of resistance by native-born whites, immigrants, and slaves to authority. But such examples of resistance did not document the “making” of an American working class resembling that in Britain, where sharp ancestral differences of language, status, and aspiration existed long before the Labour party gave them a political voice. Thompson’s often quoted thesis is that “Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.” To follow this view in America one would have to pay as much attention to what divided American workers (of both sexes) as to what enabled them to sustain an often admirable way of life. This, for the most part, Gutman was reluctant to do.

His treatment of the deep racial and ethnic differences that molded American politics in practice, if not in constitutional theory, betrayed his wistful conception of a past in which opportunities for class unity are seen as dangling just beyond reach. One finds this in his long essay about Richard Davis, a black organizer for the United Mine Workers in the 1890s. Gutman acknowledged that relations between black and white workers were often embittered not only by long-standing attitudes of white racism but by the use of blacks for strike breaking. This was true even within the United Mine Workers, one of the rare unions to admit blacks around the turn of the century. 4 Yet Gutman fixed his attention on Davis because his was a strong voice for interracial harmony whose admonitions spared neither blacks who crossed picket lines nor the whites whose hostility drove them to it. “Lay aside petty prejudices and get together, as men,” Davis urged miners, thus serving as a model, according to Gutman, of “older traditions of pride and hope and militancy.”

The problem with this judgment is that Richard Davis, who labored in near-obscurity and died at the age of thirty-six, was a tragic exception to the political rule of his age. Most blacks brave enough to defy Jim Crow did so within their churches, newspapers, and small business groups, or inside a few organizations like the NAACP that were funded and led by middle-class white reformers. In virtually all cases, they concentrated on freedom for their race, not what they believed to be the illusory goal of color-blind unionism. Richard Davis was certainly a hero, but it is not surprising that other blacks did not hail him as such. Reacting as self-respecting pragmatists to the barriers being erected all around them, they spoke of themselves and organized politically, when they could, as a people, not as the fraction of a class.

Gutman’s writings are always alert to the ways in which ethnic values could defend nineteenth-century European immigrants from the manager’s stopwatch and the wholesaler’s markups. But they also project an identity that does not reflect the reality of most immigrants’ experience. In a 1983 essay co-written with Berlin, he put forward the idea that the American working class, first formed by native-born artisans and factory machine operators early in the century, was “remade” during and after the Civil War era by the millions of men and women who crossed the Atlantic seeking work and perhaps some space in which to express themselves. Statistical tables drawn by Gutman and Berlin from the census of 1880 clearly showed that immigrants and their children were predominant among factory workers everywhere outside the South.

But the meaning of these statistics is less impressive than Gutman and Berlin supposed. Did these huge, diverse groups of men and women have anything in common other than a fairly recent experience of migration? Slavs and Irishmen made up most of the work force inside the booming steel mills of western Pennsylvania. But they spoke different languages, worshiped at different churches, drank at different bars, and trusted each other little or no more than they did the native-born Protestants who paid their wages. The Jewish and southern Italian women who treadled sewing machines alongside each other in the sweatshops of Lower Manhattan, were almost equally distant from each other. Even the experience of walking on picket lines together during the strikes that led to the creation of the ILGWU didn’t create a working class that remained unified for long. Most of the positions of leadership in these unions were taken by Jews, who negotiated contracts with largely Jewish employers.

While Gutman’s writings seldom drew on Marxist categories (to describe the American system, he used the term “industrialism” far more often than “capitalism”), his perspective owed much to an early involvement with the Communist party. He was a member of the CP only while he was a student at Queens College in the late 1940s—long enough for him to have been subpoenaed, in 1955, to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But a Popular Front faith in the innate virtues of American workers and farmers continued to animate his work. “I…soon grew wary of and then disgusted with vanguard leftist politics,” he told an interviewer in 1983, adding, “I remained a socialist—an egalitarian and a democrat.” E.P. Thompson had followed a similar trajectory, breaking from the British CP during the internal crisis that followed Khrushchev’s not so “secret” speech in 1956 and the invasion of Hungary. He then embraced a radical humanism that condemns Leninist governments and accords moral legitimacy mainly to workers, farmers, and others at the bottom of the social scale.

Of course, the pursuit of common subjects does not lead to ideological harmony among ex-Communist social historians (or any others, for that matter). In the 1970s, Eugene Genovese—who was expelled from the CP at Brooklyn College about the time when Gutman was leaving it at Queens—became both the leading historian of American slavery and Gutman’s harshest critic. Essays written with his wife, the economic historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, attacked Gutman’s book on the black family for neglecting the role of masters in the development of slave religion and social structure. “A romantic view of the slaves or workers that denies a reciprocal influence with their oppressors,” they wrote, “in effect denies the history they actually lived: it obscures, if not eliminates, the social relations central to class society and…the existence of classes altogether.”5 To Genovese, Gutman was a soft-minded “left-liberal” who would not undertake the dialectical thinking essential to a truly radical history. Lawrence McDonnell, a cruder exponent of such muscular Marxist views, attacked what he termed Gutman’s “sentimental” treatment of wage earners. “If workers survived so well, if they created so laudable a culture [as Gutman claimed],” McDonnell asked, “what was so terrible about the advent of capitalist hegemony?”6

Gutman died before he could answer that question, but he did respond to the Genoveses and to their claim, as he saw it, to be arbiters of class-conscious history. The analysis of a social system, Gutman argued, must begin from the perspective of those who do its work. The Genoveses’ emphasis on “the world the slaveowners made” (which, at times, indulges in its own romanticism about the paternalistic impulses of planters and their “seigneurial” way of life) seemed to Gutman erroneous because it did not adequately explain what the slaves themselves had experienced. A people could be dominated by a master class without accommodating itself to its culture. Slaves, like industrial wage earners, had to adapt their external behavior to the rulers of their society, but they maintained their integrity when sanctifying their own marriages and naming their own children. While their bodies could be bought and sold, Gutman believed, their minds remained free.

This debate had intellectual implications far beyond the polemical heat it generated. At issue were opposed conceptions of political power. The Genoveses, drawing on the insights of Antonio Gramsci, argued that even such elites as slaveholders achieve stability by convincing underclasses that their rule is the only possible guarantor of order and progress. The Genoveses acknowledged and documented the suffering of peasants, slaves, and factory hands but also implied they were somehow deficient for not having transcended the logic of capitalism and, through revolution, created a new order under their control. Gutman, on the other hand, thought it patronizing to measure working people according to an ideological standard, especially one harsher than that applied to their overlords. If the networks of working-class culture gained some power of their own, this in his view was always a hard-won achievement, one that called for admiration not apology.

Gutman’s populist convictions prevented him from developing a more sophisticated image of working-class communities, one alive to contradictions and frailties. Recently, however, social historians who value his vision have demonstrated an ability to surpass its boundaries. Christine Stansell’s study of laboring women in antebellum New York City, which is partly dedicated to Gutman, describes how the help people gave one another in working-class neighborhoods could also contain the seeds of victimization:

In 1839, a female shopkeeper on the Bowery agreed to watch an infant while its mother, a customer, went to get a friend to look at a hat in the store. Like the other women making these depositions, the shopkeeper ended up with an abandoned child—a tale that also illuminates…the ways in which women could use expectations of domestic cooperation, especially within the anonymity of a city, to exploit, trick and prey upon others.7

Similarly Roger Lane’s book about black criminality in late nineteenth-century Philadelphia acknowledges the existence of “a distinctive and valuable Afro-American tradition” but argues that a violent underworld within the emerging ghetto threatened the cohesive, monogamous family life that such black radicals as W.E.B. DuBois desperately wanted to preserve.8 Both these studies suggest a conclusion more sobering than uplifting. They do not see the self-reliant subcultures of the poor as embodiments of the Golden Rule. In the face of conditions that degrade both body and soul, tolerance and cooperation can only be sustained through an arduous struggle against long odds.

The limits of Herbert Gutman’s work were also, in a sense, its strengths. Ira Berlin affectionately calls him a “paleo-Romantic,” his unquenchable enthusiasm for new documents and intellectual comrades driven by “a profound respect for the sovereignty of the human spirit.” Had he analyzed his subjects more coolly and celebrated them less, he might have written more balanced history. If one thing is clear about him, however, it is that he could not abandon the moral commitment that separates the true intellectual from the skillful pedant.


Roll, Jordan, Roll’ November 24, 1988

  1. 1

    Gutman’s other books are the anthology Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in American Working-Class and Social History (Knopf, 1976) and Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of “Time on the Cross,” the revised version of a long article which first appeared in the Journal of Negro History. A complete list of his publications, compiled by Andrew Gyory, is included in Power & Culture.

  2. 2

    Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, pp. 295–296.

  3. 3

    These examples are from Power and Culture, pp. 124–133, 260–297; and Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, pp. 3–78.

  4. 4

    The Negro and the United Mine Workers of America: The Career and Letters of Richard L. Davis and Something of Their Meaning, 1890–1900,” in Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, pp. 121–208.

  5. 5

    Fox-Genovese and Genovese, “The Political Crisis of Social History,” in Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism (Oxford, 1983), p. 198.

  6. 6

    McDonnell, ” ‘You Are Too Sentimental’: Problems and Suggestions for a New Labor History,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 17 (Summer 1984), p. 635.

  7. 7

    Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (Knopf, 1986), p. 56–57.

  8. 8

    Lane, Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia, 1860–1900 (Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 3.

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