- More of a Man: Diaries of a Scottish Craftsman in Mid-Nineteenth-Century North America ed. by Andrew C. Holman and Robert B. Kristofferson
More of a Man is an annotated transcription of the diaries of Andrew McIlwraith (1831–91), a mid-nineteenth-century Scottish craftsman who emigrated to Canada West in the mid-1850s. The diaries are accompanied by three appendices and an introduction and epilogue written by Andrew C. Holman and Robert B. Kristofferson. The editors’ claim that McIlwraith’s writings “may be the only known diaries of a craftsman in Canada in the mid-nineteenth century” (3) has since proven to be premature, given the publication of the diaries of John Will Crouse, a mid-nineteenth-century millwright from Nova Scotia (Testimonies and Secrets: The Story of a Nova Scotia Family 1844–1977, University of Toronto Press, 2013). Nonetheless, there is no denying that McIlwraith’s diaries are rare and revealing documents.
The editors suggest that McIlwraith’s diaries challenge traditional working-class historiography, which paints craftsworkers of the period as proletarianized wage labourers who were universally dispossessed by industrial capitalism. Instead, the diaries support revisionist scholars who portray the effects of industrial capitalism as more fluid. As a patternmaker, McIlwraith sat atop the skilled metal trades and never experienced the same loss of control over the work process as other craftsworkers. As a result, McIlwraith exhibited a more “hopeful outlook” on capitalism (7), immersing himself in the cult of self-improvement; according to the diaries, he spent many hours reading, taking singing lessons, attending church services, participating in debating societies, and attending Mechanics Institute meetings. According to Holman and Kristofferson, McIlwraith’s diaries show how “self-improvement could become an intensively personal part of a craftsworker’s life” (8). They also flesh out the link between these self-improvement activities and the negotiation of working-class masculinity. The editors portray McIlwraith as a man “on the make” (3), who negotiated his manliness through a quest for respectability and financial security. Despite McIwraith’s outlook on capitalism, he did not have job security, and as the economy plummeted in the late 1850s, he joined many other young men on “the tramp” (7), looking for work in different locales, including a nineteen-month stint in New York City.
It is clear that McIlwraith’s diaries offer “good things” to “historians of work, migration, class, and gender in the Victorian Atlantic World” (396). The diaries also contain insightful nuggets for historians of [End Page 111] sociability. The self-improvement activities mentioned above form only part of the general pattern of sociability recorded in the diaries. The young man attended operas and concerts and took part in informal everyday sociability. For example, after dinner on 18 July 1858, McIlwraith and his friends “pulled rasp[berries] and sauntered thro’ the woods and fields,” read aloud on the veranda, watched the cows being milked, and sat up late and talked (168). McIlwraith also treated courtroom dramas and political rallies as opportunities for social interaction. According to Holman and Kristofferson, McIlwraith’s “description of his work regimen took pride of place” in his diary entries, which was an indication that he “defined his life very much according to what occupied him during the day” (9). It could be argued, however, that a larger portion of the entries described what he did outside of work, which signifies the important functions of sociability.
More of a Man will appeal to the growing number of historians who are interested in using diaries as historical sources. While the editors have a short introductory section entitled “Why Keep a Diary?” (5–7), this question deserves a more thorough interrogation than it receives here. Holman and Kristofferson cite scholars of life-writing who posit that diaries are “less pre-meditated” than working-class autobiography and “may provide an even more immediate, more candid, and less constructed window on workers’ identities in the past” (6). While there is some...