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…

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