Herbert G. Gutman (1928-1985)
Professor Herbert Gutman—"Herb" to all who knew him and this website's namesake—was one of the most influential U.S. historians of the postwar era. He taught a generation of historians to put working people at the center of the nation's historical narrative, and to ask wide-ranging questions about how workers lived their lives and shaped American society and culture. As his friend and colleague Ira Berlin wrote of Herb's pioneering approach, "his own interest was in understanding what people, particularly working people, did for themselves, not what was done to them or for them."
His commitment to changing how people thought about history, and whom they included in the stories of America's past, extended beyond his academic colleagues. Along with fellow labor historian Steve Brier, he founded the American Working Class History Project in 1981. (It was renamed the American Social History Project [ASHP] the following year.) ASHP grew out of a summer seminar on labor history for trade union leaders, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, that Herb and Steve taught in 1979 and 1980. The idea for the two-volume Who Built America? textbook soon followed, with plans for media supplements that became ASHP's ten-episode series of documentaries.
Born in New York City, Herb attended John Adams High School and graduated from Queens College. He received a master's degree in history from Columbia University and a doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin. His teaching career took him to Fairleigh Dickinson University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, Stanford University, the University of Rochester, and The City College of New York. In 1975, he joined the faculty at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
Three of his four book-length works were published between 1975 and 1976. Slavery and the Numbers Game, published in 1975, challenged the conclusions drawn by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman in Time on the Cross, their controversial cliometric study of antebellum slavery. Fogel and Engerman argued that southern slavery was an efficient and productive economic system, in part because slaves were willing participants in it. Herb dismantled that view by exposing their over-reliance on, and misreading of, purely quantitative evidence and disproving their assumptions about slave acculturation and experience.
Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in American Working-Class and Social History, published in 1976, epitomized Herb's approach to labor history, considering workers not merely as members of organized unions but taking up a much broader inquiry into "the beliefs and behavior of ordinary working Americans." The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750-1925 was also published in 1976. Ten years in the making, the book was Herb's response to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's controversial 1965 report "The Negro Family in America: the Case for National Action." Moynihan argued that slavery had destroyed the two-parent black family, resulting in a "tangle of pathology" in African-American communities that continued to the present day. Herb marshaled a wide range of documentary evidence to demonstrate that enslaved African Americans went to great lengths to create and sustain family bonds under dire conditions, efforts that continued after emancipation.
In the final decade of his life, Herb undertook a number of large research projects, including a major unfinished collaborative project with Ira Berlin on the demographics of working-class life and community. He also continued to work with younger historians, many of whom were his doctoral students; to pursue his pioneering efforts to reshape and reimagine historical writing and thinking; and to travel and lecture widely around the world, including in England, France, Italy, and China. Finally, he helped guide ASHP's early years, especially the conceptualization and framing of the WBA? textbook. He died at age 57 in the summer of 1985. Berlin edited a final collection of Herb's essays, published posthumously in 1987 as Power and Culture: Essays on the American Working Class. Like his previous essay collection, it reflected his wide-ranging inquiries into African-American and labor history.
Image above/right: Herb Gutman holding forth at a dinner party in his Nyack, New York, kitchen, circa 1982; Steve Brier is to his right.