Book Reviews

Exit ZeroChristine J. Walley, Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2013)

By Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

Very few academic books bring tears to the eye (except, perhaps, in frustration with turgid prose), but Christine J. Walley had me crying at the end of her lovely “autoethnography,” Exit Zero, as she described her father’s death.  Throughout the book, Walley tells stories of her family’s experiences in Southeast Chicago, from the immigration of one grandfather from Sweden and the migration of another from Appalachia, through memories of how the shutdown of local steel mills changed both her family and the local community, from her own uncomfortable journey to an elite boarding school and on through graduate school to tenure at MIT. She describes how steelmaking remained in her body through pollution that was generated during the “good times” and how it continues to poison the air and water of her hometown, and she explores the challenges deindustrialized communities face in trying, and mostly failing, to redefine themselves.

While much of the ground Walley treads has been complexly and extensively mapped by historians and sociologists studying immigration and deindustrialization and by working-class academics reflecting on the conflicted experience of going to college and becoming professionals, Walley offers some important new insights and an elegant model of Working-Class Studies scholarship.  Scholars of working-class culture will not be surprised to read that working-class people feel ambivalence about telling their own stories, but they will appreciate Walley’s explanation of how writing provided her with both a “refuge” and sense of power (109).  By connecting her experience with the ways her family tried to tell their stories, including a discussion of a memoir written by one of her grandfathers but left hidden in the attic, “The Strugle for Existence from the Cradle to the Grave” [sic], Walley reminds us that ambivalence has not entirely silenced working-class voices.  We may, however, have to listen with special care.

Walley uses personal and family stories to illustrate how deindustrialization did not merely leave individuals without work but also eliminated a “central rung of the ladder of the American dream” (158).  A changing economic structure, she argues, requires that we develop a more capacious, flexible definition of class, one that can serve as “both a critical analytical tool for understanding the world and a frame of action necessary for changing it” (168).  To root the development of such a theoretical perspective in the history of industrial work, deindustrialization, and the experience of a working-class academic is an important, productive strategy.

In the early years of Working-Class Studies, I worried that we sometimes valorized the personal without demanding that it generate political and scholarly analysis. With Walley’s book, we see that this field has developed a signature genre: the hybrid of autobiography and scholarly analysis previously illustrated most effectively by Jack Metzgar in Striking Steel and Barbara Jensen in Reading Classes.  Such books go beyond telling working-class stories to demonstrate the critical practice of constructing theories of class through the analysis of experience.  Exit Zero offers us both an engaging story and insightful analysis.

 

 

The Pattern Maker’s DaughterSandee Gertz Umbach,  The Pattern Maker’s Daughter  (Bottom Dog Press, 2012)

By Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, Oklahoma City University

 The Pattern Maker’s Daughter is Sandee Gertz Umbach’s first collection of poetry, yet it already shows signs of facility with metaphor—extended metaphor, in particular—, a good sense of line breaks, and a sensibility capable of working within received forms while making the form serve the content.

In The Patter  Maker’s Daughter, a series of poems about the Johnstown Flood of 1977 seem to be the emotional and metaphorical center of this collection. The Flood poems are of two types, one narrative and the other a narrative-lyric hybrid that sometimes lingers in the surreal, a combination that is very popular in today’s poetics, but is not always as well-executed as it is in The Pattern Maker’s Daughter. The poem “Stationary Front” (25) is a good example of Umbach’s use of the narrative-lyric poem. The poem begins with a mostly narrative account of the Flood, then turns to a meditative consideration of the people of Johnstown and how the topography of the area has affected its human inhabitants and the town’s propensity for inundation, both of the emotional and meteorological kind. Moreover, the sixth stanza’s opening lines reveal one of this collection’s most significant themes, and they also reference Umbach’s most remarkable recurring metaphor:

Folded into the crevice of those mountains, we are remote and hidden,

yet the storms keep finding us, our city’s history a collective memory

Our city’s history a collective memory. More than anything else, The Pattern Maker’s Daughter is an unveiling of the patterns of collective memory, of History and of history, personal, family, community. To figure collective memory, History, and history, Umbach taps a formidable metaphor not utilized for this purpose, so far as I know, since Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead: she uses geological terms and concepts as recurrent, extended metaphors for the working-class culture and history and poet-speaker’s place within them. What might be surprising from an early-career poet is that Umbach wields her geological metaphors and references with great skill, in large part because she is obviously knowledgeable (enough) about the geological structures and materials of Western Pennsylvania to use them.

Not only does Umbach put the geological metaphors to work, she is capable of creating the  prophetic tone found in Rukeyser’s Book and the great, communal “I am” of Whitman’s work—both of which depend on concrete imagery as a launching point, and which are difficult things to do without sounding ridiculous. Witness this section from “Part of this Earth” (31-32):

I am shale, common and conglomerate,

(the dirty inside of a purse, caked over lipstick

torn receipts and dried gum) skeletons

of organisms drifting. I am rapidly moving streams.

Carbon rich, organic, coal, compressed.

In addition to their use in the more philosophical poems in the collection, I found it delightful that Umbach’s geological metaphors and language appear in unexpected places in the poems, and in doing so, solidify the metaphorical relationship between the working-class people of Johnstown and the geology around and beneath them—the analogy runs all the way through, like a vein of ore.

There are many more delights to be found in The Pattern Maker’s Daughter, among them a series of work poems (using Jim Daniel’s categories of “work” poems and “working-class” poems), several coming-of-age poems, and a scattering of poems in form. Sandee Gertz Umbach has created an extraordinary set of patterns in this collection, and we are fortunate that she has shared them, so we, too, can be tied to this earth and its people.

 

 

Eyes on LaborCarol Quirke,  Eyes on Labor: News Photography and America’s Working Class (Oxford University Press, 2012)

By Tim Strangleman, University of Kent, UK

Through its six substantive chapters Eyes on Labor: News Photography and America’s Working Class tells the story of the representation of labor and labor issues in the mainstream media, as well as in union and corporate publications. Quirke highlights the way different parts of the media developed their understanding of how images could be used in an increasingly visual age. The chapters here operate as essays which build our understanding of this visual literacy and the sheer power of photographs to provoke response and shape popular ideas of the working class.

Through its various chapters Eyes on Labor meticulously records the way images were doctored, edited and framed in the mass media – often but not always – to portray organized labor in a negative light. There is a tendency to want to believe that ideological manipulation is overstated, or that conspiracy is overblown, but Quirke’s book illustrates the ways in which those hostile to workplace organization constructed a powerful narrative of union violence and intimidation.  Quirke organizes her book broadly chronologically through the first half of the twentieth century.  In turn she reflects on the place of labor photography before mass photojournalism emerged, the role of photo-driven magazines such as LIFE, the role of photography in the Hershey corporation, and the news reels of the Memorial Day Massacre.  Later chapters show the way the union movement sought its own visual narrative. Chapter five explores Steel Labor, the newspaper of the United Steel Workers of America, while the next chapter deals with Local 65 Wholesale and Warehouse Employees Union’s New Voices. It is worth pausing to reflect on the scale and reach of these types of journals.  As Quirke notes, “By 1950 some thirty million Americans received a labor paper in their home” (14).  Noteworthy is the largely unexamined legacy of these papers, with Local 65 having left some 30,000 images in its archive. Eyes on Labor represents an important contribution both to our understanding of this period visually as well as in part legitimizing the study of work and labor through contemporary images.

One of the visual tropes that flows through the volume is the everyday use of photography to illustrate the domestic, work-a-day world of ordinary people. One of the criticisms one could make of the literature on the visualisation of labor is the way in which writers and commentators are drawn to images of the ‘industrial sublime.. The result is that arguably disproportionate attention has been paid to the ‘beautiful images‘ of labor and work in the portfolios of documentary photographers such as Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange. While iconic images such as these have powerfully framed an era, Quirke reminds us that we should not neglect the mass of image making of the era that, while not aesthetically rich, was equally powerful and important in its own terms.

If I had a criticism of Eyes on Labor it is that this reader was frustrated that the cumulative argument built up through the chapters of the book is not fully explored in the conclusion.  The result is that the chapters act more as standalone case studies rather than developing a stronger thesis. This reader wishes that the author had had greater confidence in her ideas and arguments. That criticism aside, Carole Quirke has produced a fine book that will be a real asset for anyone interested in the portrayal of labor.  In recent years there has been a growth in the number of publications that draw on visual material in understanding and interpreting working class life. Eyes on Labor is an important new addition to this field.  At the same time, it’s possible to see the book as both building on and contributing to the field of working class studies.

 

 

Comments are closed.

Blogs

Climate Change and Income Inequality
Source: WC Perspectives | 2014-04-14

WANTED: Hospitals That Fully Serve Their Communities
Source: Classism Exposed | 2014-04-08

Working-Class Voices Silenced
Source: WC Perspectives | 2014-04-07

Which Side Is Culture On?
Source: WC Perspectives | 2014-03-31

The Working-Class Studies Association aims to develop and promote multiple forms of scholarship, teaching, and activism related to working-class life and cultures.