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LABOR HISTORY AT THE CROSSROADS: THE MID-LIFECRISIS OFWORKING-CLASSSTUDIES INAMERICA su~anPorter Benson. Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers,and Customers in American Department Stores, /890-1940. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986xvi + 322 pp. Susan G. Davis. Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Centut)' Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, t 986. 248 pp. Illus. Richard Jules Oestreicher. Solidarity and Fragmentation: WorkingPeople and Class Consciousness in Detroit, /875-1900.Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. xix +263 pp. Robert A. Slayton. Back of the Yards: The Making of a LocalDemocracy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, I986. xiv + 278 pp. Br.vanD. Palmer Theproject of rewriting and reconce1vmg the development of the American working class is now barely two decades old. Yet advances in our knowledge have beenconsiderable, just as the disciplinary boundaries fencing in the study of labor,once constructed of labor economics and bits and pieces from the outposts ofhistoryand sociology, have been broken down, expanding the possibilities for thoseconcerned to take the working-class experience seriously. As these volumes reveal,urban studies, sociology, folklore and communications are now receptive to historical analyses of class formation, while much of the most innovative writingin historical inquiry addresses the nature of class relations. To stop the assessment with this kind of self-congratulation, however, is to missother aspects of the meaning of working-class studies in the United States today.For as pronounced as have been the strides forward, there are signs that laborhistory is stalled at something of a crossroads. Many of those young historianswho once championed the cause of class politics are greying, physically ,intellectually and politically. The very same analysts who wrote passionately ten years ago of socialist movements and their capacities or of episodic upheavalsof workers, now appear at conferences and dampen discussion of the workingclass as central in the project of social change with talk of American labor'spassivity and penchant for defeat and demobilization. This attentiveness to failure is not always a sign of the waning of class commitment,as Mike Davis's extraordinarily important recent statement on the 248 Bryan D. Palmer American working class reveals, 1 but it often is. It is also related to the inabilityof labor historians to develop a viable interpretive synthesis of American workmo. class history, a process of struggle and accommodation complicated by diversiti;s of race, gender, ethnicity and region unparalleled among advanced industrialcapitalist nations. Long bemoaned by the late Herbert Gutman,2 this failureto bring together effectively the parts of workers' pasts into a powerful statementof the national contours of labor's complicated history and impact has insuredthat whatever the qMantityand quality of writing on working Americans, the redefinition of United States history, conceived as a class society, has yet to take place.As a consequence many academic historians of working-class life have begun todrift away from their previous stands and sensitivities. Labor history appears to bein the midst of something of a mid-life crisis. The volumes reviewed here range broadly over the vast terrain of working-class experience in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, revealing the strengthsand weaknesses of labor studies in the mid-I 980s. Stated briefly, what emerges asa contribution from these texts is the capacity to explore local contexts or !united spheres and tease meaning out of them, extending our appreciation of the texture of working-class life. The irony is that in the absence of any explicit and theoretically-poised attempt to situate such contexts and spheres in terms of larger arenas, wider experiences, and the long-term fluctuating fortunes of American labor, these strengths all too easily slide over into weakness, a trajectory more pronounced in some of these studies than in others. Oestreicher's Solidarity and Fragmentation is a richly-researched studyof workers in Detroit in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The period wasone of intense class activity, and the community was notable for its ethnic diversity, immigrant radicalism, and the presence of a few native American anarchosocialist figures of national importance, such as Joseph Labadie. In its attentiveness to the ways in which workers came together in a subculture of opposit10n,iti~ heir to the best traditions of the work done in the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 247-253
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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