U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Historian’s Craft: Moments in Motion

In this post (and, perhaps, in some follow-up posts) I want to examine some of the methodological choices of Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal (1990). This is not a review of the book, nor is it an assessment of the book’s argument.  This isn’t even a book summary.  Instead, this is a practical inquiry into how this Bancroft-winning monograph can shed some light on how historians grapple with the most prosaic aspects of that capacious term historiography; I want to use Cohen’s book as a way to discuss the craftsmanship of writing history.*

In the Preface to the Second Edition (2008), Cohen explains how she settled upon the scope of her inquiry, examining the labor activism of working-class Chicagoans in the 1920s and 1930s.  Cohen writes:

Having honed in on the question of how people’s social, political, and cultural experiences during the 1920s and 1930s may have influenced their new political actions during the New Deal era, I was then faced with figuring out how to set up the project.  Many of the classic works of social history had been community studies — of isolated New England towns and one-industry cities like Lynn and Lowell.  Having shifted to the twentieth-century United States, with its more national economy and culture, I at first assumed that the community study approach would not work.  Hence I embarked on a research design comparing workers’ experiences in five cities, each with a distinctive political economy.   While working up this plan, I attended the month-long quantitative history workshop offered annually by Chicago’s Newberry Library, thinking it would help me interpret data comparing cities and illuminating such things as workers’ standard of living, race and ethnicity, and employment patterns.  The big discovery for me, however, was not the virtues of quantitative history but rather the eye-popping possibilities of Chicago as a research site….In this city I had never before visited…I realized that not only would a focus on Chicago allowed me to capture a population and follow it over time and across various dimensions of lived experience, but a city as vast and complex as this one offered the possibility of making illuminating comparisons within its borders (xxiii-xxiv).

Now, before I go any farther, let me point out the obvious:  Making a New Deal is a social history, and Cohen is a social historian.  That means she conceives of her object of inquiry somewhat differently than intellectual historians do.  Pointing out how an intellectual historian would interrogate the sources available to Cohen is not my concern.  Rather, I am interested in how Cohen’s choice to delimit her inquiry addresses a basic structural conundrum that all historians face:   how do you manage the moving parts?

Let’s say, just for kicks and with a tip of the hat to Hayden White and friends, that history most often (always?) takes the shape of narrative — a work of history follows change (or continuity) over some duration of time chosen by the historian.  Time flies (or crawls), stuff happens, things change (or don’t).  Well, even in that most basic diachronic model, some parts move and some don’t.  Change is only visible in relation to something that, for the purposes of one’s argument, isn’t moving (or isn’t moving quite as much).  In Cohen’s narrative, the basically adversarial nature of the relationship between capital and labor is one such constant, but the ways in which capital and labor relate to each other and to the government change over the course of two decades. Cohen foregrounds the agency of the working class to account for this change. Clearly, this is a bare-bones simplification of the “plot” of Making a New Deal.

In the scheme I have outlined above, “the working class” is a homogenizing label that for convenience’s sake flattens much of the nuance and difference that Cohen illuminated in her masterful use of a broad array of sources.  Indeed, Cohen’s diachronic narrative is built around and upon a series of synchronic moments, freeze-frame snapshots of different people and institutions responding to the same phenomena.  What was the relationship of various ethnic groups to the multifarious manifestations of mass culture?  How about the religious authorities? Employers?  Organized labor? Retailers?  The ability to map out the postures and stances that various groups — and groups within groups — took towards a particular phenomenon (which was itself multivalent) is, I think, what Cohen meant when she said that the city of Chicago offered “the possibility of making illuminating comparisons within its borders.”  Location, of course, is another “constant” around which Cohen builds her narrative.  But, again, that location is not a monolithic object, but a complex and contested space that is capacious enough to allow for both a diachronic and a synchronic exploration of sameness and difference, conflict and congruence, over time and in time.

In short, even the constants are made of moving parts.

Now, if Cohen had followed her original idea and looked at how the labor movement emerged and took action in five different cities in the 1920s and 1930s, she would have had to approach her subject from a different distance, a different depth.  She would have had to smooth out the rich and variegated texture of her narrative, with its attentiveness to (for example) the different expectations of Irish and Polish immigrants concerning the place of the Catholic church in their communities and in the city at large.  Instead, she might have had to deploy “the Catholic church” as a homogenizing label, positing an underlying consistency in its role from city to city.  Or, she might have had to consider “Catholic immigrants” as a group, and focused on differences in that “Catholic immigrant” experience from city to city.  Such an approach might have strengthened her argument that the New Deal was a series of concessions to the demands of labor.  But such an approach would have submerged the particular in the general, the distinct in the categorical, personal agency in impersonal force.

Would that have been a better book?  Not for Cohen’s purposes.  She was looking at — indeed, looking for — the agency of her “working-class protagonists” (xxiii), an agenda which identifies her project as belonging to a particular historiographic moment.  In any case, the best way to accomplish her aims in writing this history was to take an approach that allowed for a close reading of local life over a fairly compressed period of time.

Now, amidst all these moving parts, what do we say about time?  Is time a moving part of history, or is time the field in which all other things move?  In synchronic comparison, time must stand still.  In diachronic narrative, time must move.  A work of history will oscillate between the two — between moment and movement, stasis and flow — according to the purposes of the historian.

Lizabeth Cohen was interested in exploring what changed in the lives of workers between 1919 and 1939 to make unionization attractive, possible, and effective.  So we can say that she told a story of change over time.  But, like most of us who read this blog, Lizabeth Cohen is an Americanist. For us, two decades might count as the longue duree.  My graduate dean, who is a Europeanist, has a completely different view.  “Oh, you Americanists,” he laughs, “with your thin little slices of baloney.”  Indeed, from that vantage point one could say that Cohen’s work describes “the moment” of organized labor’s greatest influence, that her whole account is synchronic, a snapshot instead of a story.  That really depends on one’s vantage point in relation to time, and on one’s aims — to stop the wheels within wheels or to set them a-spinning. Or both.

Indeed, of all the moving parts that the historian has to manage, how we choose to mark and mind the time might be the trickiest task of all.


*For more on historiography in all its many-splendored magnificence, watch for our forthcoming roundtable on Kerwin Lee Klein’s From History to Theory.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting discussion.

    Here are some items you may find helpful, though are likely aware of some or all of them already. I’m also looking forward to the Klein discussion.

    Berber Bevernage, “Time, Presence, and Historical Injustice,” History and Theory 2008.

    Goran Blix, “Charting the ‘Transitional Period’: Emergence of Modern Time in Nineteenth Century,” History and Theory 2006.

    Sarah Ehlers, “Making It Old: The Victorian/Modern Divide in Twentieth- Century American Poetry,” MLQ 73,1 (March 2012).

    Paul H. Fry, “How to Live with the Infinite Regress of Strong Misreading,” MLQ Dec 2008.

    Eric Hayot, “Against Periodization; or, On Institutional Time,” New Literary History Autumn 2011.

    Jan Ifversen, “About Key Concepts and How to Study Them,” Contributions 2011.

    Helge Jordheim, “Against Periodization: Koselleck’s Theory of Multiple Temporalities,” History and Theory 2012

    Joshua Kates, “Against the Period,” differences 23, 2, 2012.

    Charles S. Meyer, “Consigning the Twentieth Century to History: Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era,” AHR 2000.

    Sylvia Schaefer, “Still Turning: Language, ‘Theory,’ and History’s Fascination with the New,” differences 23, 2, 2012.

    Michael Werner and Benedicte Zimmermann, “Beyond Comparison: Histoire Croisee and Challenge of Reflexivity,” History and Theory 2006.

    AHR – Forum – Historiographic “Turns” in Critical Perspective – AHR June 2012.

  2. Bill Fine, you are now officially my Favorite Person on the USIH Blog. Until someone performs an even more marvelous deed of scholarly generosity to dislodge you from that spot, long may you reign!

    I guess should write this up as a separate bleg post next week, but here’s a spoiler alert…I am working on developing a bibliography of historiography (in its most capacious sense!) that engages with a cluster of concepts: time, memory and identity. I am plundering the footnotes of Klein, and Allan Megill (Historical Knowledge, Historical Error), but I have not yet started browsing through the back issues of History and Memory or History and Theory, where I expect I’ll have to spend a fair amount of time.

    In this bibliography-building enterprise, I have Koselleck’s Futures Past on my reading docket — it’s next up after de Certeau, who in The Writing of History contends with My Biggest Problem as a historian (and a person): death / mortality.

    So thank you *very much* for these suggestions, and I will look at ALL of them.

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