The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

2022 Conference Preview | Keynote Speaker Carol Quirke | What I'm Reading

Conference organizer Ravenel Richardson asks Carol Quirke, our keynote speaker, what's inspiring her. Professor Quirke's talk on Saturday at 5 p.m. will conclude the conference.

Q: As with many social issues in the past several years, labor has come to the forefront of many cultural and political conversations. Are there any particular books or news journalism articles that you think are particularly relevant or salient as we think about labor—not just at this moment—but within the context of the past century? 

Gabriel Winant’s The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America (Harvard UP, 2021) has caught many people’s attention. Following one line of labor history, Winant shows how dynamics established during the New Deal created interclass divisions between industrial workers (those iconic heroic male workers, typically white, laboring in steel or auto factories, who populate so many murals of the 1930s and 1940s) and the low-wage care workers, often brown and black women, who sustained the health-care industry that dominates in the second half of the twentieth century. My former colleague Sujani Reddy, in her Nursing and Empire: Gendered Labor and Migration from India to the U.S. (U of North Carolina P, 2015), tackles this question through the transnational flows of Indian nurses into the United States, a process with roots in colonial health-care initiatives in the early twentieth century. She tracks the flow of white missionaries and nurses to India to train nurses—often lower caste women—and the effect of the migration of these women to the United States on the gendering and racing of the profession.  

I always watch what Eileen Boris is doing because she investigates labor in such broad ways—culturally, legislatively, via the nation state, and globally, and always from a feminist lens. Her recent work on the International Labor Organization (ILO), Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Labor Standards, 1919-2019 (Oxford UP, 2019), examines the role of the ILO in categorizing labor in the home, as well as affective and care labor, in ways that excluded this work from labor standards; she traces this pattern from the rise of the garment industry, for example, to colonial relationships in the Global South where concern was with keeping men in the community to protect “native” homes. Throughout she considers how labor feminists from the early twentieth century shape such regulations globally. Jack Metzgar does not directly treat “the space between,” but I also pay attention to his work. His first book, Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered (Temple UP, 2000) won the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award in 2001, and I loved his interweaving of memoir and social history. Striking Steel examined how tough steelworkers’ lives were prior to the 1950s, and how mobilization enabled workers’ security in the 1960s and 1970s. His recent book Bridging the Divide: Working Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society (Cornell UP, 2021) analyzes aspects of workers’ culture and worldview that shape the politics of the second half of the twentieth century. His synthesis of history and sociology, mixed with memoir, provokes questions about workers’ consciousness and everyday life that are at the heart of today’s politics.

Q: Since the Space Between is focused on the period between 1914-1945, I'm interested in what new scholarship may have emerged discussing labor during this time, or, alternatively, what texts about this time period might get our conference participants thinking about labor between 1914-1945?

Toby Higbie’s Labor’s Mind: A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life (U of Illinois P, 2019) is really fascinating. He charts efforts to nurture working-class intellectual life from the beginning of the 20th century. Higbie explores the landscape of ethnic organizations, unions, women reformers, and the Communist Party (CP) that developed worker education. Their efforts encompassed informal peer study groups to CP publishing efforts and cultural activities, and even included formalized college programs, the most famous being Brockwood Labor College near New York City and Bryn Mawr’s Summer School for Women in Industry. As a visual culture scholar, I appreciated Higbie’s attentiveness to cartoons and drawings that appeared in labor education texts. He devotes a chapter to them and analyzes how such images are gendered, showing how the quest for education was often understood to be a genteel, feminine activity, and visual imagery navigated such associations for male industrial workers.

Q: We are all looking forward to your talk on photojournalism and labor. Have you read anything lately that also addresses labor from the point of view of visual culture?

My first book examined how institutions such as labor unions, news companies, and corporations sought to position labor via photography, but I largely left photographers out. This decision made sense as the photographers were mostly anonymous. But photographers are laborers too, and I am struck by how many are marginal laborers, struggling to make a living. There’s been some exciting biographies and analyses of photographers from the interwar period that help locate the photographer as a laborer. Christopher Bonanos’s book Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous (Picador, 2019) Julia Van Haaften’s Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography (Norton, 2018) and Svetlana Alpers’s Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch (Princeton UP, 2020) are great. I especially loved Alpers’s work, which dug into Evans’s work chronologically (Evans was not of course marginal, given his place in the Time-LIFE corporation and then at Yale).  Alpers sets Evans in a literary tradition of Flaubert and Baudelaire, noting his literary interests. I loved her meditation on Evans’s trajectory because she reminds us that his famous photographs of Hale County, Alabama, published in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, co-authored with James Agee, were commissioned as part of Fortune’s “Life and Circumstances” series on U.S. workers, even though they were never seen there. I found her meditation on Evans as a collector who in his own words “was and is interested in what any present time will look like as the past,” particularly evocative—his belief that “the eye is a collector,” that he himself collected post cards and road signage, that he imagined what he recorded in the present as already past. Evans pursued the “esthetically rejected object.” Though Evans was not per se interested in labor and actively rejected a specific activism, he took such powerful photographs of workers or the signs of work. When I look at the altarpieces in Hale County, Alabama, I see the work of a sharecropping woman, attempting to brighten her world with fragments of a consumer culture kept from her.

Cultural historian Carol Quirke explores the intersection of twentieth-century social movements, politics, and visual culture, particularly documentary and news photography. She is author of two books, Eyes on Labor: News Photography and America's Working Class (Oxford UP, 2012), and Dorothea Lange, Documentary Photography, and Twentieth-Century America: Remaking Self and Nation (Routledge, 2019). Her essays on labor and photography have been published in the Radical History Review and American Quarterly, and more recently she has moved to exploring the image of labor in the postwar era, where documentary photography is understood to be depoliticized.

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