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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman
Associate Professor of English, Carnegie Mellon University

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed (2001). Americans love undercover reportage, so it isn’t surprising that Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 exposé of the lives of the nation’s working poor was on the New York Times best seller list for more than two years and adapted into a successful play. To write the book, Ehrenreich took a waitressing job, a cleaning job, and then a job at Walmart. The lesson was clear: the working poor do back-breaking and also mentally strenuous jobs, for meager pay, with restrictive protocols and tyrants for bosses, all the while facing health and transportation nightmares. Let’s raise the minimum wage, and support unions, was one message. But there were also lessons for the more affluent, including: clean your own house. Unless you are willing to pay a house cleaner a true living wage, benefits and employment taxes, it is immoral to hire her—and it is almost always a her—to do your dirty work.

Jacob Lawrence, The Great Migration (1995). “Around the time I was born,” writes the artist Jacob Lawrence in this book of his 60-painting migration series, “many African Americans from the South left home and traveled to cities in the North in search of a better life. My family was part of this great migration.” With primary colors darkly mixed, anguished figures and a biblical tone, Lawrence represents the crush of crowds at train stations, crops ruined by boll weevils, a mother rationing food in front of her starving child and the strong body of a man weilding a sledge hammer. The most hopeful painting is one of three girls at a school chalkboard, each one reaching higher than the one to her left. My children loved the shapes, colors and human figures long before they could fully understand the message. It is a book that grows, changes and evolves in unexpected ways as you read it, like the great migration itself.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). Every time I teach The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella about a turn-of-the-last-century woman trapped in a house by her husband or by her crazed imagination (the reader must decide), I always go a little bit insane myself. My students see this as an ancient tome, a morality play about silly people a long time ago who refused to let an intelligent woman who had just given birth to her first child use her excellent imagination for the purpose of being a writer or an artist. But, as I write this, it’s 9:46 pm, and I’m sitting in my bathrobe. My hair is unwashed, my coffee cold. My husband and children are all sleeping, resting up from a nasty bout of this year’s vomity virus, which has thrust me into the position of chief nurse, cook, cleaner, and, yes, bottle washer. I recently bought and read a memoir about a modern day working mother who has a nervous breakdown, and only just barely recovers. And, so, I fear The Yellow Wallpaper is more relevant than I want it to be, 120 years hence.

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (1959). “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” asks Langston Hughes, in his 1951 poem Harlem. Lorraine Hansberry, one of the great literary voices of the civil rights era, answers with her 1959 Tony-nominated play A Raisin in the Sun, which is about a family trying to move from the Chicago projects to the more prosperous suburbs, unsuccessfully. The play was based in part on the Hansberry family’s own trials, including the lawsuit they filed in 1940 to be permitted to buy a house in a neighborhood of their choosing. Hansberry was tragically dead of cancer by age 34, but her play is a monument to her genius and the intertwined problems of work, labor, neighborhood, housing policy and ambition. For how many others has the American dream turned into the American nightmare?

George Chauncey, Gay New York (1994). George Chauncey turned the history profession on its ear with his stunning social and cultural history of gay life in early 20th century New York City. No one had ever written a social history quite like it—and certainly not one about gay life. Chauncey used the term “working class” 88 times, bringing unusual sensitivity to the ways in which gay life was marginalized, classed and stratified, but also more likely to be tolerated in working-class parts of town. Chauncey showed that gay life itself was wrought with class conflict between “fairies,” who were more likely to be working class, and “queers,” who were on the whole better educated and better paid. He also argued that for some of these men, prostitution, the oldest profession, was a way to make a living.

Kathy M. Newman is an Associate Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, where she writes and teaches about literature, labor and culture. She is also the author of Radio Active: Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947 and a regular contributor to Working-Class Perspectives.


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