Thursday, July 7, 2011

July 7, 2011 [Scholarly Review 1]: A Good Deal

[I mentioned a while back that I was planning to dedicate an occasional, somewhat briefer but hopefully still interesting and informative post to highlight a particularly exemplary scholarly work; this is the first such post.]
Given both my general interest in crossing disciplinary boundaries and my specific focus on that topic in the Abraham Cahan post from a couple days ago, it’s only fitting that the first work of scholarship I’ll highlight in this new type of post be a similarly boundary-busting text. Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (1990) doesn’t just use a wide variety of media and sources—from memoirs and letters to popular and material culture, music and movies, government documents and journalism, and others—to trace and analyze her themes; she also pushes beyond one of the most accepted but false dichotomies of our national narratives: the division between “the average person” and “the government.” That dichotomy is often particularly present in discussions of the Great Depression, which can tend to focus either on government policies and programs (like those comprised in the New Deal) or communal experiences (of poverty, unemployment, hunger, etc). Yet as the time frame of Cohen’s book highlights, she argues instead that many of the New Deal’s programs and changes were foreshadowed and influenced by earlier and ongoing communal perspectives and shifts, by changes happening at the ground level across a range of ethnic, racial, class, and other communities.
This distinct emphasis and argument make Cohen’s book important, but it’s her writing style—accessible yet analytical, engaging yet sophisticated—that makes the book one I’m willing to highlight in this, not-just-academic, space. Cohen is a serious historian but not (just) an academic one; she recognizes that her topic is one to which all Americans connect, both in terms of the lasting effects of her time period and topics and in terms of how much they parallel many ongoing issues and crises (a context that’s even more relevant in our own 21st century Great Recession). I know that many subsequent historians have taken issue with one or another of Cohen’s claims or ideas, and that’s as it should be; none of the books I recommend in this space are perfect, and my goal for all reading, with these other works as with my own, would be that you read them in a dialogic way, analyzing and responding and adding your own voice to the mix as you go. But for anybody who’s interested in work, the city, the Depression, community life and organization, or even just some of the defining moments and issues of the 20th century, Cohen’s book is a great one to add to your list.
More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Excellent review/analysis of Cohen’s book:
3)      OPEN: Any exemplary works of scholarship you’d highlight? And/or ones you’d like me to include in future posts?

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