Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review of Murolo and Chitty's From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend

Priscilla Murolo and A.B. Chitty. From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States. New York: The New Press. 2001. xx + 364. Cloth.

“It was past time to compile these insights into a new general history” (Murolo and Chitty, 2001: xi). This simple line sums up one of the critical differences between From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend and other scholarly works addressing labor history in the United States. Murolo and Chitty’s work is primarily a “general history,” in that its intention is not to provide an analytic, philosophical, or theoretical monograph on the course of labor history in the American nation. Instead, Folks is a narrative history of the United States, with the working members of society and their efforts highlighted throughout. The authors are careful to state their objectives from the start with hopes to provide “a comprehensive survey of U.S. history for the general reader...;” address that “the labor movement itself had changed...” since the last major general history had appeared; and finally, to correct what they saw as a defect in the American educational enterprise, that “much of what we learn and teach in schools is just not true” (Murolo and Chitty, 2001: xi-xii). Why is this relevant to assessing the value of Folks with regard to contemporary historiography? Without doing so, one risks unfairly critiquing Murolo and Chitty for not creating something they never intended to write.
Such unfair criticism would include challenging the lack of citation throughout the book, parenthetical, footnoted, or otherwise. While this indeed hinders readers from easily accessing the direct sources of information from which the authors draw their examples, incorporating them into this form of book hinders general readers and often conflicts with the publishing standards many companies have with regard to constructing monographs. In trying to create a review narrative for non-scholars, at least for those interested in having their work read, authors must adapt to the genre. This form exists in contrast to works focused on providing analysis and theory; those works necessitate providing clear citation in order to allow for verification and assessment by other scholars. Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (2002) and Alice Kessler-Harris’s Out to Work: A History of Wage Earning Women in the United States (1982), both impressive analytic monographs which are of great utility to future scholars, include substantive citational and discursive notes to clarify and reinforce their efforts. When writers of analyses, including Bruce Laurie’s Artisans Into Workers (1989), fail to incorporate these mechanisms, their work is left open to challenge, loses some credibility, and may be limited in its utility to researchers. Folks, meanwhile, is not intended for such a purpose. Murolo and Chitty’s effort is instead focused on whetting the appetites of readers to look more closely at labor history and how the discipline can provide different perspectives on old, familiar, topics. When discursive footnotes are included, they provide both a momentary outlet from the central narrative, and again, stimulate interest for other areas to look. What does lend credence to the author’s understanding of the topic is a generous Suggested Readings section and fluent narrative style.
This fluency comes from a substantive background in issues of labor history. Murolo is a faculty member in the Department of History at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, where she is Director of the Women’s History Graduate Program. She has a PhD from Yale University (1993), where she studied under noted labor historian David Montgomery. Her other major monograph was The Common Ground of Womanhood: Class, Gender, and Working Girls’ Clubs 1884-1923 (1993) Arthur Ben (A.B.) Chitty is a Library Systems Officer and Higher Education Associate with Queens College, City University of New York. Chitty has produced eight short books analyzing topics as wide ranging as cities in the Southwest, university development in the Reconstruction South, and an autobiography of bi-racial, illegitimate child in Reconstruction Era Tennessee. They live in Yonkers, New York.
Murolo and Chitty use this scholarly background to their advantage in Folks. Their work is incredibly fluid and easily read, as they have the necessary practice to present the larger historical components with solid prose that feels well practiced (almost as if they are used to teaching the subject). The two are careful to include a wide variety of peoples, especially during their discussion of the colonial and Revolutionary periods, when general histories often are predominantly from the perspective of white, rich, male voices. Though this particular reader would have liked to see some referencing to the source material for these characters, that interest is primarily to assuage selfish curiosity, rather than scholarly expectation.
The inclusion of Joe Sacco’s fascinating illustrations provides a stimulating experience in its own right, and one could easily connect this history through cartoon to later historical works employing the graphic narrative form, especially Ari Kellman and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s recent Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War (2015).
Reviews of the book were generally favorable, and most, like Paul LeBlanc’s review in International Labor and Working Class History (Fall, 2004), recognize that while the book is “hardly the last word on the story of the US working class,” but it does give readers, “valuable knowledge, rich insights, and challenging interpretations,” useful, “not only for those just learning about US and labor history, but also for experienced hands who can benefit from, and be stimulated by, a fresh and sometimes audacious retelling of the story” (LeBlanc, 2004: 218). “Undoubtedly,” notes James Spady, reviewer for The Radical Teacher (Fall 2004), “specialist researchers will object to elements of the narrative, theory, and method implicit in the book” (Spady, 2004: 16). Indeed, objecting to these elements is, in large part, what provides jobs for scholars. This book is not for those readers though.
What general readers may struggle with is a problem inherent to many analyses in labor history, alphabet soup. A five-page section at the beginning of the book lays out a compendium of government, corporate, and organizational and programmatic name abbreviations. Even with this, readers may struggle to identify the difference between subjects, and they may get a headache trying to ascertain how these pieces fit together. This confusion, though, is not a problem created by Murolo and Chitty; it is a by-product of the complex system they discuss.
The final chapter of the book is one area in which this reviewer is uncertain. Murolo and Chitty bring their analysis chronologically as close as is possible when producing a book. While this would be unsurprising in a sociological, economic, or political science text, its incorporation in a substantive chapter (rather than in the Epilogue) is odd for a history text. One important considerations for historians attempting to support their claims is by ensuring “historical distance” from their subjects to preserve objectivity, that is, as Mark Phillips suggests in History Workshop Journal (Vol. 57, 2004), “in terms of emotional identification and detachment - and, by extension, of the political or social loyalties that engage both historians and readers with their stories” (Phillips, 2004, 127). The generally accepted exception to this concept is in appended sections (particularly Epilogues, Codas, and the like) where it is common for authors to highlight contemporary shifts and concerns as areas for future scholarly inquiry. This may however, be an attempt by the authors to represent their own advocacy for the study and importance of labor history. Such advocacy is also a commonplace occurrence, particularly for subfields seen as marginalized or shrinking, such as labor history.

This distance does not substantially alter the utility or tone of the book. It is, rather, a discursive difference in how one structures a history monograph (Itself obviously a far from settled formulation, something the thousands of “how-to” books available can attest to). Instead, this quirk provides an interesting opportunity for a new edition, one which incorporates all of the chaos caused by 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, the Tea Party, and our current era of income/wealth disparity. Perhaps, though, this would simply reiterate the lack of distance inherent to “compiling” the insights of contemporary history. It will certainly be interesting to see what makes the cut for the next generation of “general labor history.”

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