Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review of Bruce Laurie's Artisans Into Workers (1989)

Bruce Laurie, Artisans Into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989. pp. 257. Includes Bibliographic Essay and Index.
*Note: Page numbers refer to Illini Books Edition, 1997.

In 1989, when writing Artisans Into Workers, Bruce Laurie had established himself as a historian interested in labor issues. Laurie graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971, having written his dissertation, “The Working People of Philadelphia, 1827-1853” which studied modernist laborers in America. By 1989, when Artisans Into Workers came out, Laurie had edited one major work on the subject and had successfully expanded his dissertation into a full-length monograph. Though Laurie’s research interests later on in his career would grow into studying conservativism’s development as well as abolitionism, at the time, he was primarily interested in the connections between labor and society in nineteenth-century America. These connections placed Laurie in the unique roll of being able to synthesize earlier institutionally focused labor history and the “new social history” of labor that was becoming popular at the time (indeed many of his reviewers noted this attempt as novel) as well as the intellectual roots of American radicalism.

It is important to note that Laurie was not the only scholar doing this work at the time, as many of Laurie’s reviewers drew comparisons between his work and David Montgomery's Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 which came out two years earlier. Interestingly, while Laurie does discuss some of Montgomery’s other works, Fall of the House of Labor is not mentioned (Though this may be more due to the reality of how long a book is in the publication process rather than academic concern, Laurie does include several references to materials published in 1987).

Laurie’s work reads more like a synthesis of popular history (in its diminutive citation and narrative form) and academic history (in its application of jargon and inclusion of substantial historiographical content) than deep analysis of schools of historical thought. If this was an attempt to explain historical scholarship to a wider audience, its publication from a university press and reviews in major scholarly publications are odd. In the beginning, Artisans Into Workers reads like an insider’s guide to labor history (see pages 9-11), but at other moments there are glints of cultural history (Chapter 3), institutional history (Chapter 5), and biography (on Gompers in Chapters 5-6). The early chapters of the book follow an easily discernable chronological pattern, supplemented at times by digressions into more specific emphasis on minorities and characters. The discussion of those minorities is at times clunky and awkward, especially in Chapter 2 when the discussion of black workers abruptly ends and a discussion of craftsmanship begins. (Laurie, 1989: 63) The biographical digressions are useful though and particularly fascinating persons included are Thomas Skidmore (pages 66 and 67), Samuel Slater (page 29), and the Molly Maguires (pages 141 and 142). These small asides are useful to the curious reader, providing enough information to begin research on topics that strike ones fancy. Additionally, Laurie’s incorporation of religious organizations into discussions of nativism in the third chapter are often underplayed in contemporary historiography.  The later chapters introduce Gompers and through him, the struggles of the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. In this way, they seem to step away from his interest in social history, and move back into earlier institutionalism of previous generations of historians.

While reviews were generally positive, a few, including Danny Samson of Queen University in Labor, do suggest that Laurie’s narrative structure, more than his insistence on ideological radicalism, hold the study together. (Danny Samson, “Review of Artisans Into Workers,Le Trevail/Labor 29, 272) This reviewer must agree, to a certain extent, with that assessment. Though Laurie attempts to attribute many of the challenges and gains of the labor movement to “radicalism,” he never provides a complete definition of the term. Instead, Laurie alludes to differences between European and American radicals without denoting what made them radical. This is highly problematic to a researcher who wants to employ Laurie’s theoretical, rather than simply factual, arguments.

What perhaps makes the task of employing Artisans Into Workers even harder though is the fact that there are no footnotes or parenthetical citations. While Laurie does reference fellow historians for quotes and theories, none of the statistical information he uses to undergird the arguments is easily verified (excepting a table on page 156). Even the choice of a bibliographic essay over a traditional bibliography in some ways obscures the utility of the materials it discusses. Sadly, this reduces Laurie’s book to the realm of being a tertiary historiographic primer on the subject when it offered the possibility of being much more.

Laurie does show himself to be knowledgeable on the topic of nineteenth century labor, but historians who were already familiar with his work would not be surprised by this knowledge. Laurie sees himself as an heir to previous generations of scholars, including both the Common School and “new social history,” obligated to synthesize the advancements of those two generations, but his synthesis loses the evidence used to create that scholarship. Instead of successfully incorporating the previous schools of thought, Laurie falls into what historian Fred Morrow Fling called in 1903 simply “erudition,” or regurgitating historical factoids in narrative form without developing a cogent model of analysis. (F.M. Fling, “Historical Synthesis,” The American Historical Review 9, no. 1 (1903), 1-22)

Perhaps then, the best use for Laurie’s work is as a textbook, providing introduction and contextualization of a wide variety of secondary literature. There is substantial enough historiographical content to push the work beyond the interests of most casual historical readers, but not enough evidentiary analysis to be of more than introductory utility to professional historians. In this sense, Artisans Into Workers matches a very old form of historical scholarship, the narrative history reliant upon the reputation of its author. This is not meant to demean Laurie’s work at all though with regard to its status as an important read. Indeed, Laurie is a fantastic conversational writer in that his prose is approachable, digresses as intuitively as is possible, and attempts to incorporate the plainspoken nature of his subject when possible.

Artisans Into Workers could have been dramatically improved by incorporating the referencing necessary for contemporary historical scholarship.

I’m surprised as well that the book was simply reprinted, rather than being revised as a new edition in 1997 to incorporate newer scholarship particularly covering the material in the original epilogue. That chapter reads a bit like an apology in that it incorporates areas that were weak within the original manuscript. Indeed, while Laurie was doing something “new” in 1989, by the time of the second printing, scholars had poured over the works of the “new social history” and begun to move beyond even its confines. While undertaking such revision is not easily done, the improvement to the book was potentially large. In its current form, the book provides interesting insights into a period when historians were grappling with understanding how very different previous generations could be useful in the present. My hope is that the insights Laurie writes about in Artisans Into Workers are not limited though by lacking something as simple as footnotes.

Regardless of the problems in Laurie's work, it is a superb introduction to a complex realm of Labor History scholarship for the uninitiated (or those like myself with a new interest). It is well worth a read if you are interested in learning about the transition between colonial and early industrial periods of work in the United States. Though definitely the shakier portion of the book, it nonetheless provides a good primer on the second half of the nineteenth century and turn of the century in American labor.

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