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Tag: "books"


[ 11 ] May 5, 2017 |


My book Empire of Timber is now in paperback and thus at a price that is reasonably affordable, if still a little high for a paperback. If you have an itch that needs to be scratched around reading the first book to examine how workers used their unions to promote their own environmental agenda in a single industry over the twentieth century, you should buy it!


Environmental History Seminar Reading List

[ 15 ] February 1, 2017 |


To discuss something other than politics (well, not really since what is more political than our understanding of the past), I am teaching a graduate seminar in Environmental History. Here is the reading list. Read along if you want!

Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s

James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

W. Jeffrey Bolster, The Mortal Sea: Fishing in the Age of the Atlantic

Chad Montrie, Making a Living: Work and Environment in the United States

Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters

Brett Walker, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan

Marsha Weisiger, Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country

John McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914

John Soluri, Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States

Mark Carey, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society

Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest

Couple of notes–I wouldn’t assign a book that was more than $30, eliminating a lot of good options but making this easier to decide. You may also note that there is nothing on modern environmentalism. That’s not really intentional but perhaps is indicative of how boring and stale the discussions of a lot of that is, in my view.

A Historian’s Reading List for 2016

[ 27 ] December 31, 2016 |


Above: Free Angela Davis poster, Havana, 1971

I start each and every day by reading a couple of chapters of a history (or related) book. I do this primarily to keep up on the literature, making it possible for me to know what I’m talking about when I write my own work. Of course, I’m not reading the way most of you would read. I largely don’t care about the details and am mostly uninterested in the factual material except as it pertains to my own work. So I’m not always reading these books particularly closely like I would read a novel or a piece of literary nonfiction. But all of these books help me to build a structure that I can draw upon in the future, knowing I can revisit and read more carefully when they are relevant to whatever I happen to be working on at a given time. I provide this background so that people understand why this list is so long. Obviously this reflects my own interests in labor, environment, and capitalism, as well as my need to teach the Civil War course at my institution.

Here is every history I have completed in 2016. I put an asterisk after the works I would most recommend to general readers.

1. Darlene Rivas, Missionary Capitalist: Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela
2. Matt Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement*
3. Chad Montrie, Making a Living: Work and Environment in the United States
4. Robert Johnston, The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon
5. Stanley Aronowitz, The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement
6. Elizabeth Faue, Communities of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men, and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915-1945
7. Carol A. MacLennan, Sovereign Sugar: Industry and Environment in Hawaii
8. Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832*
9. Doug Rossinow, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America
10. James J. Lorence, Palomino: Clinton Jencks and Mexican-American Unionism in the American Southwest
11. David R. Farber, Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s
12. Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies*
13. Graham White, Henry Wallace: His Search for a New World Order
14. James Whorton, Before Silent Spring: Pesticides and Public Health in Pre-DDT America
15. James Green, The World of the Worker: Labor in Twentieth-Century America
16. Richard Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity
17. Elizabeth Jameson, All that Glitters: Class, Conflict, and Community in Cripple Creek
18. Steven Conn, Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century*
19. Kathryn Newfont, Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina
20. Willie Lee Nichols Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment
21. Landon R.Y. Storrs, Civilizing Capitalism: National Consumers’ League, Women’s Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era
22. Margaret Garb, Freedom’s Ballot: African American Political Struggles in Chicago from Abolition to the Great Migration
23. N.D.B. Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida*
24. W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward A History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880
25. Randi Storch, Working Hard for the American Dream: Workers and Their Unions, World War I to the Present*
26. Andrew Arnold, Fueling the Gilded Age: Railroads, Miners, and Disasters in Pennsylvania Coal Country
27. Carl J. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War
28. David Halle, America’s Working Man: Work, Home and Politics among Blue-Collar Property Owners
29. Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History*
30. Cindy Hahamovitch, No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers and the Global History of Deportable Labor*
31. Gunther Peck, Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880-1930
32. Kris Paap, Working Construction: Why White Working-Class Men Put Themselves—And the Labor Movement—In Harm’s Way
33. Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin, Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions
34. Deborah Rosen, Border Law: The First Seminole War and American Nationhood
35. James Barrett, William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism
36. Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Dams, Displacement, and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and Its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965-2007
37. Michael Todd Lands, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis*
38. Erin Royston Battat, Ain’t Got No Home: America’s Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left
39. Timothy Messer-Kruse, The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks
40. Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution
41. Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War*
42. Seth Garfield, In Search of the Amazon: Brazil, the United States, and the Nature of a Region
43. Thomas Klubock, La Frontera: Forests and Ecological Conflict in Chile’s Frontier Territory
44. Nancy Woloch, A Class By Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s
45. Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time*
46. Bruce Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South*
47. Michelle Brattain, The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South
48. Shannon Elizabeth Bell, Fighting King Coal: The Challenges to Micromobilization in Central Appalachia
49. William Bauer, We Were All Like Migrant Workers Here: Work, Community, and Memory on California’s Round Valley Reservation, 1850-1941
50. Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household
51. Matthew Frye Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad 1876-1917
52. C.J. Hawking and Steve Ashby, Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement
53. John Cumbler, Reasonable Use: The People, the Environment, the State, New England, 1790-1930
54. Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century
55. Bruno Ramirez, When Workers Fight: The Politics of Industrial Relations in the Progressive Era, 1898-1916
56. Gary Gerstle, Working-Class Americanism: The Politics of Labor in a Textile City, 1914-1960
57. Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer, Green Backlash: The History and Politics of Environmental Opposition in the United States
58. Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America
59. Christopher Jones, Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America
60. Richard Rajala, “A Dandy Bunch of Wobblies” Labor History 1996
61. Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom*
62. Michelle Mitchell, Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction
63. Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
64. Tera W. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War
65. Sonia A. Hirt, Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation
66. Robin Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression*
67. Peter Levy, The New Left and Labor in the 1960s
68. Brian Allen Drake, ed., The Blue, the Gray, and the Green: Toward an Environmental History of the Civil War
69. James Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty, 1900-1994
70. Ahmed White, The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America
71. Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics*
72. Thomas Devine, Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism
73. Michael Williams, Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis
74. Natalie M. Fousekis, Demanding Child Care: Women’s Activism and the Politics of Welfare, 1940-1971
75. Rolf Peter Sieferle, The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution
76. John Russo and Sherry Lee Linkton, eds, New Working-Class Studies
77. Chad Berry, Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles
78. Mark Hanna, Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740
79. Paul Greenough and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, eds., Nature in the Global South: Environmental Projects in South and Southeast Asia
80. Clete Daniel, Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretative History of Textile Unionism in the United States
81. Daniel Schneider, Hybrid Nature: Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem
82. Christopher Gunn, Workers Self-Management in the United States
83. E.A. Wrigley, Continuity, Chance, and Change: The Character of the Industrial Revolution in England
84. Bruce Baker and Brian Kelly, eds., After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South
85. Carole Boyce-Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones
86. Elizabeth McKillen, Making the World Safe for Workers: Labor, the Left, and Wilsonian Internationalism
87. Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland and the Tragedy of American Labor
88. Lara Vapnek, Breadwinners: Working Women and Economic Independence, 1865-1920
89. Phoebe Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place
90. Kenneth Warren, Wealth, Waste, and Alienation: Growth and Decline in the Connellsville Coke Industry
91. Kim Phillips Fein and Julius Zelizer, eds. What’s Good for Business: Business and American Politics since World War II
92. Robert Rotenberg and Gary McDonogh, eds., The Cultural Meaning of Urban Space
93. Pratt, Melosi, and Brosnan, eds., Energy Capitals: Local Impact, Global Influence
94. Alejandro Velasco, Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela
95. Stacey Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction
96. David Stradling, Smokestacks and Progressives: Environmentalists, Engineers and Air Quality in America, 1881-1951
97. Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918*

Nonfiction Open Thread

[ 137 ] December 30, 2016 |


Our esteemed colleague howard (Further research shows it was Patricia and not howard and I thank you very much!) recently purchased for me the first volume of the Library of America collection of the science writer Loren Eiseley. I am immediately enchanted by his amazing writing. Someone else (was it also howard? I can’t remember now, sorry!) Patricia also bought for me not too long ago the LOA collection of the African-American essayist Albert Murray, which after reading The Omni-Americans, completely blew my mind with its razor sharp critique of race in 1970, including a contempt for social sciences that far surpasses my own skepticism (this was right after the Moynihan report and between Daniel Patrick Moniyhan and Stanley Elkins, this was an infuriated response).

Anyway, this all made me realize that I need to expand my reading a bit into good quality literary nonfiction. And while I can find all the US history you can want (see tomorrow’s post listing my reading from 2016), what else should I be reading from the last 50 or 75 years? Could be something published last week or it could be some great piece from 1946. So consider this an open thread on non-fiction for a Friday evening.

Reading in Prison

[ 85 ] September 25, 2016 |


Above: A man too dangerous for Texas prisoners

The U.S. prison system is primarily designed to lock up people of color, control their labor, and humiliate them. There is very little about justice in the criminal injustice system. Anything that potentially empowers prisoners is something to be eliminated. In Texas especially, that includes reading anything that might possibly inspire prisoners.

Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News, says Texas has 15,000 banned books but the list “is growing exponentially. Once a book goes on it never comes off.”

The Texas list is not just long but diverse. It includes former Senator Bob Dole’s World War II: An Illustrated History of Crisis and Courage; Jenna Bush’s Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope; Jon Stewart’s America; A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction; and 101 Best Family Card Games. Then there are books banned for what TDCJ calls “racial content,” such as The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the Texas football classic Friday Night Lights, Flannery O’Conner Everything That Rises Must Converge, and Lisa Belkin’s Show Me a Hero, which depicts the struggle to desegregate housing in Yonkers, New York in the face of institutional racism.

But don’t worry: Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, David Duke’s Jewish Supremacism, and the Nazi Aryan Youth Primer are all kosher. (Clark would not directly respond regarding this issue.)

Book Notes

[ 7 ] July 5, 2016 |


As I am desperately trying to write the draft of my book on strikes, one of the things I’ve had to sacrifice is writing book reviews here. They take too long to do well. But I did want to note a few relatively recently published books I’ve read recently that could be of interest to you.

Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

This book got a lot of press, mostly for good reasons. Katznelson’s point that FDR had to rely on the South if he wanted to get any of his legislation passed and therefore had to compromise on all of it to preserve the racial order is highly useful, especially given the purity politics of the contemporary left that complains about incrementalism and then cites incredibly flawed and compromised New Deal legislation as counterexamples. So this is an invaluable point, richly detailed and also useful to show that many southern legislators could be quite economically progressive if the only beneficiaries were white people. But the half of the book on World War II really doesn’t add much to the story or the historical debate. And I’m really confused as to why, after a whole book on the Democratic Party needing to please the South, Katznelson does not discuss Truman’s decision to integrate the military in 1948.

Shannon Elizabeth Bell, Fighting King Coal: The Challenges to Micromobilization in Central Appalachia

Despite this book reinforcing my usual frustration with anthropological methodology (I get why people wouldn’t want their names used in a study like this. But if you are going to write “the largest coal producing county in West Virginia,” just name the damn county), this book asks a really vital question. We have lots of books on why people become activists. But isn’t the more useful question why don’t people become activists? Exploring the fight over mountaintop removal in West Virginia and the loyalty of West Virginians to coal despite what it does to their health and their land without actually providing many jobs, Bell helps answer this question. Very useful book. Highly recommended to those who take activism seriously.

Bruce Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South

Levine doesn’t exactly break new ground here, but this is a very good overview of the Civil War era, told with a focus on Southern planters watching their world fall apart around them. Reading the schadenfreude is not only interesting and insightful, but amusing too. Pretty good book. General readers will enjoy this.

Nancy Woloch, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers

This is a very good overview of the complexities of sex-specific labor laws in the twentieth century. Did they protect women or do they hurt women by being paternalistic and cutting them out of jobs? Mostly, as Woloch demonstrates, they proved useful as wedges to creating broader labor law that covered both sexes. Unfortunately, people like Alice Paul and the National Labor Party saw it the other way and turned politically conservative, fighting not only sex-specific labor law, but all labor law. Woloch extends the book to the cases of the 1970s and 1980s where companies tried to exclude women workers by not allowing them to labor in hazardous jobs.

Food History Reading List

[ 26 ] April 28, 2016 |


Backlist has published an excellent food history reading list for those of you interested in those sorts of things. I did a labor history reading list for them a few months ago. These are good lists and excellent primers for smart readers like you who want to read more history and support the efforts of poor historians through your generous readership.

This Day in Labor History: March 15, 1940

[ 39 ] March 15, 2016 |


On March 15, 1940, John Ford’s film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, was released to universal acclaim. This was perhaps the greatest moment of the cultural left during the Great Depression. Of all the New Deal-era art that broadly made up the Popular Front, none were more well-remembered and beloved than the book and film versions of The Grapes of Wrath, despite and possibly because neither Ford nor Steinbeck was closely associated with that movement.

Steinbeck’s powerful 1939 novel was a sensation. Its tale of the Joads and their bitter journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work and a new life was a huge hit. Produced at the tail end of the worst economic crisis in American history, it galvanized attention on the plight of the so-called Okies, even if it didn’t lead to any policy to alleviate their problems, despite the fact that the book and the film both played up the Resettlement Administration camp that treated people decently, with the film even going into a closeup on the RA logo. The plight of white migrants to California had received a good bit of attention from artists, most notably in the photographs of Dorothea Lange. These migrants, more victims of New Deal farm policy that encouraged consolidation and industrial farming than the Dust Bowl, as most, including the fictional Joads, originated well east of the Dust Bowl, were part of the national crisis of the Great Depression, which led to a lot of hand-wringing, no shortage of fear, and a belated and relatively small government response to provide relief for these small farmers. The Grapes of Wrath focused national attention on their plight, especially with the release of the film.

John Ford was a brilliant choice to direct the film adaptation. Although today best known for his often racist westerns, he was more of a broad believer in a salt of the earth white populism that simply assumed a Turnerian view of history (which was almost ubiquitous during the New Deal among intellectuals, politicians, and artists. That is on full display in the film. The original New York Times review well-summarizes the popular reception to it:

We know the question you are asking, have been asking since the book was acquired for filming: Does the picture follow the novel, how closely and how well? The answer is that it has followed the book; has followed it closely, but not with blind, undiscriminating literalness; has followed it so well that no one who has read and admired it should complain of the manner of its screen telling. Steinbeck’s language, which some found too shocking for tender eyes, has been cleaned up, but has not been toned so high as to make its people sound other than as they are. Some phases of his saga have been skimped and some omitted; the book’s ending has been dropped; the sequence of events and of speeches has been subtly altered.

The changes sound more serious than they are, seem more radical than they are. For none of them has blurred the clarity of Steinbeck’s word-picture of the people of the Dust Bowl. None of them has rephrased, in softer terms, his matchless description of the Joad family’s trek from Oklahoma to California to find the promised land where work was plenty, wages were high and folk could live in little white houses beside an orange grove. None of them has blunted the fine indignation or diluted the bitterness of his indictment of the cruel deception by which an empty stew-pot was substituted for the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. And none of them has—as most of us feared it might—sent the film off on a witch hunt, let it pretend there had just been a misunderstanding, made it end on the sunrise of a new and brighter day.

Steinbeck’s story might have been exaggeration; at least some will take comfort in thinking so. But if only half of it were true, that half still should constitute a tragedy of modern America, a bitter chapter of national history that has not yet been closed, that has, as yet, no happy ending, that has thus far produced but two good things: a great American novel (if it is truly a novel) and a great American motion picture.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad was classic casting. With his flat Midwestern accent and good looks, he personified the prototype of the All-American young man, an image he would build upon for his entire career (and of course play against type in Once Upon a Time in the West, nearly 30 years later). His ideological transformation from rough and tumble Oklahoma white to organizer and lefty is a story of what happens to people when they are beaten down enough. Sure, grandpa dies, the brother-in-law runs away, and the family falls apart. Preacher Casey gets murdered by the farm owner thugs. But the struggle continues. Ma keeps the rest of the family together (and Jane Darwell was brilliant in this role) and Tom builds on Casey’s legacy, not as an ideological radical but as a man seeking answers to the poverty of his life.

Steinbeck himself was thrilled with the film version, writing “No punches were pulled. In fact….it is a harsher thing than the book.” And as great as the book is, the film is better as it distills the key points with great power while rewriting the book’s dark and somewhat gratuitous ending to provide some sort of hope at the end, as opposed to the flood and endless despair of the last section of the book.

The film and the book both make one huge and regrettable error, which is erasing non-white labor from the land. California was not this agricultural paradise where everyone could eat all the oranges they wanted. Those farmers had always sought cheap, exploitable labor, whether Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, or Okie. It was to serve these farmers that Mexico was exempt from the 1924 Immigration Act. They recruited labor from the Philippines after Japanese migration ended. Those immigrants would play a key role in the history of farmworker organizing. The Bracero Program would be a solution for the disappearance of white labor from the fields during World War II. But neither Steinbeck nor Ford had any interest in these non-whites at all and their stories and histories are a very conspicuous absence.

In the past, I’ve wondered what would have happened to Tom Joad in the future. I still say that had he not been thrown in jail for life by the cops or killed as an organizer, he would have fought in the Marines in World War II. Had he survived, he and his family would be working in the California defense plants like many other Depression era migrant whites, he would have bought a home in Orange County, and probably voted for Goldwater in 1964.

This is the 173rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

History for the Masses

[ 87 ] December 29, 2015 |


Yesterday, in a different forum, our valued commenter Bijan Parsia complained about Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Basically, his complaint, if I may summarize, is that it is awfully simplistic. I agree, as I have stated before. The basic problem with Zinn is that while it was a very useful book in 1980, it is badly dated today. All those stories about the rich exploiting the poor, women, and people of color and all those stories about how people rose up to fight their exploitation have been explored in great depth by historians. The appeal of Zinn today is the idea that history teachers and professors don’t teach that stuff–but of course most of them, at least at the college level, very much do teach a bottom up history today. What often happens though is that the student is not ready to hear that history when they taking a 100-level intro U.S. history course at the age of 18. So Zinn still feels fresh to some readers. But to others, who do know some of this material, A People’s History reveals little but its own limitations. That’s not really a criticism–it’s a 35 year old book. Most 35 year old history books have limitations to today’s reader.

But there isn’t a ready text to replace Zinn either. Perhaps the closest is James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, which covers some of the same ground from a similar perspective. It has great value, but also is not a one-volume overview of U.S. history from a leftist perspective that takes into account the vast historiography of the past 50 years.

I told Bijan I’d provide some reading recommendations. Here are a few books I think any reader of this site would find useful and interesting. These are well-written and often argumentative books that provide a lot more complexity than Zinn offers and also are well-written. As I’ve said a few times, we are in a renaissance of good historical writing from scholars appealing to popular audiences and providing a lot more complex looks at tough questions than authors like Ron Chernow and David McCullough. People love those guys and that’s fine, nothing wrong with that. But they are also both basically celebrity biographers of historical figures that aren’t really forcing audiences to confront the dark side of American history in the way that Zinn does. On the other hand, we are lacking in good overarching synthesis. I suppose one might look at Eric Foner’s two-volume textbook as a possible synthesis, but it’s a college-level textbook and that style simply doesn’t lend itself to the same sort of writing and audience, as good as it may be. It’s also priced like a textbook.

Anyway, here are some books I think are really accessible to modern readers that provide pieces of what Zinn purports to do.

1) Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. I’ve reviewed it here. Some don’t like it because it is so openly political, but that’s hardly a problem for me or for most of you. An angry history of the Gilded Age written from the perspective of the New Gilded Age.

2) Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. We actually really need a new synthesis of Reconstruction and historians to challenge Foner’s dominance over this field, but this remains a wonderful book that retains great value today. See also Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.

3) Joseph McCartin, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America. Simply a great book on a key issue in modern history.

4) Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. I’m not sure that a short list like this should have a companion book to the McCartin, but the 1970s is blowing up in the recent historiography and this is a wonderful work of history.

5) Tiya Miles, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story. You might not think a book about a house in Georgia would be that amazing, but this is a fantastic microhistory that introduces readers to whole words of Cherokee history, domestic violence, trading networks, changing racial standards, white supremacy, and displacement. A must read.

6) James Green, The Devil Is Here In These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. Green’s new book centers the story of West Virginia coal miners right smack in the middle of the American freedom struggle, challenging historians for leaving them out. I reviewed this professionally so I can’t really go into it too much here, but if you read one 2015 history book, read this one.

7) James Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964. Title pretty much sums it up.

8) John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. A classic It’s also fascinating and heartbreaking story about cultural clashes in the 18th century.

9) John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. How the Japanese saw the Americans and how the Americans saw the Japanese.

10) Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Easy to read and very insightful if you want to know how the modern craziness started.

11) Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America. A very reader friendly book using McKinley’s assassination as an entry point into a rapidly changing and very contentious America.

12) Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. An older book but still one of the great social histories. Peiss makes it very easy to root for the immigrant kids of New York to make a new youth culture that will eventually transform the U.S.

13) Timothy Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Wiliams and the Roots of Black Power. This will really change your view of the civil rights movement.

14) Sara Dubow, Ourselves Unborn: The History of the Fetus in Modern America. A must-read for anyone concerned with reproductive freedom.

15) Jack Metzgar, Striking Steel. Half a history of the steel industry centered on the 1959 strike and half a personal memoir of growing up in a steel family, this is outstanding.

I’m not really satisfied with this list because a lot of the books are still monographs. It also reflects my own reading, which is defined largely by my scholarly interests, so there is a lack of books on the American Revolution, about which I basically don’t care, and slavery, which I should read more of but I don’t have time. I could have included some of the new critically acclaimed studies on slavery that I have not read but I figured that would be misleading. But barring spending even more time on this post than I already have, I can live with it. However, I am sure that many of you have recommendations on excellent histories as well.

Empire of Timber

[ 43 ] October 26, 2015 |


Listen people, you have two choices. You can eat this month. Or you can buy my new book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests, published by Cambridge University Press, at the modest price of $100. Or $80 on Kindle. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, it it available and I can only say that after working on something that long (12 years since I finished my comprehensive exams and started conceptualizing it), I’m amazed that it is out and a real thing that ended up in my hands today. No words. It will be a much, much cheaper paperback in about a year. This is the description from Cambridge:

The battles to protect ancient forests and spotted owls in the Northwest splashed across the evening news in the 1980s and early 1990s. Empire of Timber re-examines this history to demonstrate that workers used their unions to fight for a healthy workplace environment and sustainable logging practices that would allow themselves and future generations the chance to both work and play in the forests. Examining labor organizations from the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s to unions in the 1980s, Empire of Timber shows that conventional narratives of workers opposing environmental protection are far too simplistic and often ignore the long histories of natural resource industry workers attempting to protect their health and their futures from the impact of industrial logging. Today, when workers fear that environmental restrictions threaten their jobs, learning the history of alliances between unions and environmentalists can build those conversations in the present.

That pretty much sums it up and of course is a theme I have talked about so many times here–that workers and environmentalists are not natural enemies and that an examination of the past elucidates this point again and again.

This picture also includes a union bug timber hammer an old Carpenters union activist gave me during my research, a ponderosa pine cone from Deschutes County, Oregon, and a crack in my wall which may or may not say anything about conditions at the University of Rhode Island.

Worth mentioning as well that you can still of course buy my book from earlier this year, Out of Sight, for the “let’s steal half of Mexico to expand slavery” price of $18.46.

The Civil War’s Aftermath in Graphic Novel Form

[ 13 ] April 15, 2015 |


Above: Lincoln’s funeral

Ari Kelman and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm excerpt their new graphic novel on the Civil War. You should read it.

Black Power Revisionism

[ 70 ] March 27, 2015 |


Randall Kennedy has an interesting long book review of new biographies of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton. I haven’t read any of them, not even Manning Marable’s acclaimed Malcolm book, but there are a couple of points worth discussing here anyway. First, Kennedy accuses each author of engaging in hagiography over proper historical analysis. I can’t judge the claim, but that does seem to be the case with the Newton book, which just seems bad from multiple reviews. As for the other two, both Marable and Peniel Joseph (who is speaking at URI next week so come out if you are around) are both outstanding historians, but it is often a problem with biography that authors start apologizing for their subject. And as Kennedy points out, there is plenty that is distasteful about both. I find that more convincing with Carmichael, whose leadership of SNCC was disastrous and who seemed somewhat less serious about what he was doing after he achieved fame (although he did largely avoid the spotlight after he went to Africa). But with Malcolm, Kennedy’s problem is the Nation of Islam. I don’t think too many people are really going to defend NOI at this point. Its murders of its own members and the rank hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad are well known now. But while Kennedy admits that Malcolm shows significant room for personal growth, he also wants to make sure that he is held accountable for his actions before his expulsion from the organization in 1964.

Well, OK, but this gets to my second point, which is about context and the passage of time. In other words, it is very easy to write in 2015 about how the Nation of Islam was horrible, how the Black Panthers were violent and cruel, and how Carmichael ran SNCC into the ground. It’s not that Kennedy forgets the context in which these people were working, but it’s also worth reiterating it. Malcolm and Newton were operating in urban centers where African-Americans had moved for the promise of a better life, but that promise had been a lie. In 1960s Oakland, Los Angeles, Newark, Chicago, Detroit, etc., police brutality was a way of life. There were no jobs. Most people could not afford a car. Public transportation was almost nonexistent. The only economic outlet for many was drugs. The Civil Rights Movement could win concrete victories in the South because it battled legal segregation, but the de facto segregation of northern and western cities made victories much, much harder to win, as Martin Luther King and the SCLC found out in the failed Chicago housing campaign of 1966. It’s hardly surprising that black pride and black power organizations, whether Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, the Nation of Islam, or the Black Panthers, would rise out of this. It’s equally unsurprising that those organizations would be problematic and violent, as violence ruled the communities from which they arose and organized.

As for Carmichael, while his leadership of SNCC didn’t work out, the overall move away from racial inclusion to black power within the student led side of the Civil Rights Movement also makes sense in context, even if it was a bad idea strategically and organizationally. Let’s not underestimate the bitterness that led SNCC to design Freedom Summer because its organizers knew that only when white kids were killed would the media pay attention to anything happening in rural Mississippi. This analysis was of course exactly right when the three SNCC workers, two white, were murdered by the KKK. Ten years of struggle, suffering, and death in the face of overwhelming violence is a bravery I can barely imagine. If people burn out and snap or turn to black power and racial exclusion, it’s not surprising at all. It says much for John Lewis’ character that he never went down this road, but it is an understandable response to the horrifying experiences of these people’s lives.

Finally, I thought this was unfair to Malcolm X:

While Malcolm X and other followers of Elijah Muhammed put on cathartic performances in safe surroundings, however, King, Carmichael, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Farmer, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, James Lawson, and others risked their lives repeatedly in face-to-face confrontations with heavily armed, trigger-happy white supremacists. While Malcolm X was taunting King and company for rejecting violence, the tribunes of the Civil Rights movement were successfully pressuring the federal government to bring its immense weight to bear against the segregationists through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While Malcolm X talked tough—“if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery”—he and the NOI refrained seeking revenge when racist police brutalized Black Muslims. While Malcolm X spoke with apparent knowingness about racial uplift, at no point did he communicate a cogent, realistic strategy for elevating black America.

But Marable is not denigrating any of those other civil rights activists. No one is saying those people did not do amazing things or put their lives at risk. They were also, outside of Hamer, college-educated. This movement Kennedy lauds in comparison to Malcolm was a decidedly middle-class movement. They came out of a different African-American tradition than Malcolm. Second, one could basically say the same thing about the relationship between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, with the former safely ensconced in Cambridge and the latter risking his life in rural Alabama. Yet in this case, even most historians today sympathize with DuBois instead of Washington (in part because the Civil Rights Movement proved DuBois’ “talented tenth” idea correct and Washington’s rejection of political gains wrong). But mostly I don’t think this is a useful comparison to make at either time. There were many paths to African-American freedom. Some were more effective and some more problematic, but I don’t think basically calling Malcolm a poseur compared to SNCC activists is useful.

It’s an interesting and challenging review, but I think if anything Kennedy is moving toward hagiography toward the mainstream CRM (after all, he might well call Malcolm sexist and socially conservative, but MLK could certainly be accused of the same) and therefore overcompensates in his analysis of these people. He occasionally makes pretty easy judgements about which group was right or wrong in 1965 when in reality everyone working for black freedom in the 1960s faced overwhelming white violence and police brutality. That certainly doesn’t mean that we should take Huey Newton at his word or not question the self-mythologizing all three of these men could engage in, but, as always, everything should be contextualized and our own positions questioned.

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