This issue connects us at once to the intellectual wellsprings of our craft and to the topical as well as geographical frontiers that define us in the present day. The latter impulse is reflected in a special issue devoted in the main to historical reflections inspired by the past few years of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic. To what degree—we asked a distinguished crew of historians, who each work in different periods and on different global regions—do the social and political tensions exposed in the COVID era echo previous experience during plagues and other health emergencies? We reaped a bounty of responses. In an introductory essay, “On Work and Disaster,” Jacob Remes sets the treatment of past pandemics in the context of the even larger field of “disaster studies.” That field, he suggests, necessarily not only engages public health, demographics, and state action but also intersects with labor and working-class history in myriad ways. Samuel Cohn parses the contradictory literature on the economic impact on the laboring classes of the Black Death (or bubonic plague) that swept Western Eurasia and North Africa in the mid-fourteenth century; the long-standing conventional view of a general “silver lining” occasioned by labor scarcity must be replaced, he suggests, by a much more differentiated geopolitical map. Amid the most devastating plagues in a series across sixteenth-century Mexico, as historian Jennifer Scheper Hughes relates, Indigenous communities drew on a distinctive understanding of both religion and politics to challenge an ever more oppressive encomienda system of forced labor drafts that arguably was taking as much a toll on infant mortality as the ongoing epidemic itself was. South Asian scholar Aditya Sarkar draws our attention to the paradox of powerful labor upheaval during Bombay's bubonic plague pandemic, 1896–98, and the comparative quietism of today's Indian working class, “tamed” in part by authoritarian measures of a national government invoking authority originally mandated for health reasons more than a century before. In her excavation of public health politics in Saudi Arabia, Laura Frances Goffman uncovers dense connections between ethnicity, religion, state power, and basic health practices; remembrance of patterns of inequality and repression associated with the quarantine applied during the cholera epidemic of 1970, she suggests, continued to roil the kingdom's Shi'i-dominated Eastern Province as late as 2020.
As the editor of this journal can personally attest, no American historian claims a deeper impact on our field than Herbert Gutman (1928–85). Amazingly, it's been fifty years since Gutman's pivotal essay “Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, 1815–1919” appeared in the pages of the American Historical Review (AHR). Placement of the essay reflected a larger surge of interest in labor and social history, and Gutman himself became an ever more heralded figure in international academic circles. A collection of his work, which for the most part had previously appeared only in specialized state history journals and relatively obscure anthologies, received new and prominent attention in the 1976 collection Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, which included the AHR piece and seven other essays. To commemorate this golden anniversary, we have asked a diverse group of talents in our field to reflect critically on the continuing meaning of Gutman's seminal essay and the essays that surrounded it in the Work, Culture, and Society anthology. Not surprisingly, even as appreciation for Gutman's work not surprisingly centers on themes of race and class (see particularly Stephen Brier and Joe Trotter), Stefan Berger points approvingly to Gutman's likeness to contemporary German historians of everyday life as well as his ready adaptation of sociological and anthropological models. While applauding the larger conceptual ambition of Gutman's social history project, Eileen Boris finds his responses “incomplete”—“the manhood question haunts ‘Work, Culture, and Society.’ ” As a scholar of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Stacey Smith long rejected the periodization of an essay that seemed so to downplay state and politically centered landmarks. Now, however, she joins Gutman in seeing the Civil War era as “the continuation of a battle over the legitimacy of liberal capitalism's cornerstone concepts that started long before the war and lasted long afterward.” Finally, Matt Garcia finds in Gutman's work a desirable blend of “bottom-up” treatment of everyday acts of worker resistance with a “top-down” emphasis on dominant political and religious ideologies that so often weigh in the balance of social struggles.
When it comes to strike talk, pro-union sentiment, or even exploration of the hidden injuries of class, the place to go these days may be not a LAWCHA conference, suggests Kathleen Newman, but the TV screen. Assessing more than a dozen recent offerings on the networks as well as streaming services—perhaps best symbolized by Margaret Qualley's lead role in Maid on Netflix—Newman finds a decided turn toward both working-class economic grievance and cultural affirmation. “We can make the argument that these television programs represent working class and/or minority audiences because advertisers and streaming platforms want these audiences to buy their wares/services,” she summarizes. “But we can also argue that these shows are about work because the people who write, perform and produce these shows are workers. They are not merely representing labor. They are labor.”
As usual, the Reviews section introduces a variety of works, compelling in their topical and geographical reach. The current cluster, however, encompasses five books on African American history from slavery through the late twentieth century that are worthy of special note. Among them, Jennifer Morgan's Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic suggests, among other findings, that fertility and fertility control “must be understood as a fundamental conduit for the production of an oppositional consciousness among the enslaved.” Focusing on the same era, Justene Hill Edwards's Unfree Markets promises to rewrite understandings of the slave-based economy with its deep dive into Black business activity even under the lash in South Carolina. In A Matter of Moral Justice, Jenny Carson documents the struggles of New York City power laundry workers since the 1920s, while Jane Berger's A New Working Class explores both the triumphs and limits of public sector unionism in reshaping Baltimore public policy in the civil rights era. Finally, Jeffrey Perry presents the second of his definitive two-volume study of influential Black socialist Hubert Harrison.