- An Artisan Intellectual: James Carter and the Rise of Modern Britain, 1792–1853 by Christopher Ferguson
Louisiana State UP, 2016, 304 pp. ISBN 978-0807163801, $48 hardcover.
Finding autobiographies, memoirs, or biographies of nineteenth-century working-class men is very difficult, since lack of education and time made it impossible for most such men to write about themselves. Furthermore, the surviving manuscripts are often fragmentary or unemotional, lacking the self-examination often found in more middle-class texts. Working-class men are often assessed as members of a class, according to the criteria of whether they fit within a particular vision of social solidarity, rather than as individuals. But as Christopher Ferguson points out, any autobiographer is going to be individual and idiosyncratic. Fortunately, Ferguson has found a fascinating subject in James Carter, an early nineteenth-century British tailor who published an autobiography and numerous works of poetry. As Ferguson notes, historians have only briefly mentioned Carter as an emblematic tailor, albeit one lacking in the correct class consciousness. But it is this very idiosyncrasy that makes Carter valuable, as both representative and distinct from others. Ferguson addresses astutely the problems of life writing, for he draws not only on Carter's own memoirs, but also on his letters to the Royal Literary Fund and Carter's published poetry. He shows how Carter shaped his writings for his audience: for instance, Carter defended tailors against charges of intemperance in his guide to their trade, while criticizing them for the same vice in his autobiography. Ferguson also shows how Carter changed his views over time: as he [End Page 397] moved from the country to the city, he became less deferential, even when he returned to a less cosmopolitan life. Ferguson is also using Carter as the subject for a microhistory, as in Carlo Ginzburg's famed The Cheese and the Worms, which uses an individual to open up a whole social world in the past, and more specifically, larger issues such as the industrial revolution and literacy.
Ferguson uses Carter to illuminate the condition of the British working class. We usually identify the industrial revolution with factory workers. While tailors were not subject to the mechanization of work in cotton mills, the same processes of the division of labor produced the sweating system, an assembly line running through the streets, that robbed tailors of their skill and high wages. Carter started out as an "honorable" tailor with good pay and respect for his skill, deteriorated into a sweated worker himself at low pay, and finally ended up unemployed and unable to make a living at his trade. Ferguson has made the ingenious and convincing identification of Carter with the anonymous tailor who spoke to the journalist Henry Mayhew at a larger public meeting about the plight of his trade. A tailor named "C" told Mayhew that the tailors were to blame for their own fate, because they used the labor of their own wives and other female relatives to earn more, thus undercutting their own wages. Ferguson shows that Carter used much the same argument in his memoirs. This argument, therefore, buttresses the authenticity of Mayhew's reporting.
Carter constructed a persona of himself as a breadwinner, but as Ferguson notes he did not write very much about his wife. He reveals that Carter actually practiced the same strategies that he complained of in other workers in terms of relying on his wife's work. Carter sometimes hid and sometimes admitted that he needed his wife's earnings as a schoolmistress to supplement his own. However, the analysis of Carter's masculinity could have been a little richer by considering the different versions of masculinity available to him. Nonetheless, while feminist historians such as myself have criticized Carter for espousing respectability and the breadwinner wage, Ferguson offers more compassion for his subject by going into detail about Carter's struggles with underemployment, unemployment, and the humiliation of losing the value of his skill.
Ferguson contributes to a growing movement in life writing to analyze how people produce their own sense...