Years of Travail: The Birth of Labor and Radical Politics in the US 1870 - 1945
February 20, 2011 10:45 PM   Subscribe

Good Books about history and personages of the American Left from post Civil War to WW2?

I know some of the generalities, but I feel like my education on the growth of the labor movement or other radical groups during this period is woefully deficient.
posted by MasonDixon to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Are you looking for a survey, or the books written at the time that convey what was going on?

If the former, A People's History of the United States covers that territory and beyond.

If the latter, two books that were very formative for me were Emma Goldman's Living My Life and John Reed's Ten Days That Shook The World. The latter is Reed's coverage of the October Revolution in Russia, but it is very much from the perspective of an American communist.

You would also do well to read up on the Spanish Civil War. Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is a great jumping off point, though it's written by a Brit about his experiences embedded with Spanish anti-Stalinist communists.
posted by Sara C. at 11:20 PM on February 20, 2011

Best answer: Here's some solid histories to get you started, all available at Haymarket Books:

American Labor Struggles, 1877-1934 -- looks at 10 defining labor actions during the period, including major railroad strikes, the Haymarket and Ludlow tragedies, and key actions by steelworkers, dockworkers, and textile workers.

The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs -- more about the key labor actions of the late 19th and early 20th century, especially with information about the leaders (Debs, Gompers, Mother Jones, the Parsons, et al).

Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States -- great "secret" history of radicalism among U.S. workers.

Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America -- terrific book about why Haymarket mattered then and still matters now.

Teamster Rebellion -- indispensable radical reading.
posted by scody at 12:18 AM on February 21, 2011

Seconding Emma Goldman's autobiography.
posted by marsha56 at 1:02 AM on February 21, 2011

Best answer: In threads like this, I always suggest Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man, which is a collection of letters written to the Roosevelts and to government agents/agencies (both national and local) during the Great Depression. It includes letters from Left/Radical elements that give fantastic insights into the mindset of "average" people of that mindset, which is important because it provides a look beyond the thoughts of only the exceptional people (Goldman, Debs, Tucker, etc.). It's an absolutely astounding resource, and while only one portion of the book relates to your specific question, it sounds like you're generally interested in history and its impact to the human condition-- if I'm right on that you'll find the book very informative and valuable.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:49 AM on February 21, 2011

Response by poster: A serendipitous reading of The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day simultaneously with the actions in Wisconsin and these serious attempts by the GOP to further diminish labor made me realize how little I know.

Day mentions many very large strikes and protests with mass arrests and police violence as well as refers to many different stripes of radicals and reformers--Communitarians, Marxists, Anarcho-Syndicalists, Trade Unionists, Distributists, etc. It seems these people fought, suffered and sacrificed for every inch of ground. These movements made America a better place and that I was largely ignorant of them.

In short, both magisterial histories as well as books addressing specific people, movements or ideologies are welcome.
posted by MasonDixon at 8:32 AM on February 21, 2011

Well it's historical fiction but covers the Boston Police strike in 1919 Dennis Lehane's 'The Given Day'

It's an okay read, pretty interesting and well researched. Delves into the communist party of the time and is from the perspective of a Boston Police officer under terrible working conditions.
posted by WickedPissah at 8:49 AM on February 21, 2011

There are plenty of books about Victor Berger and Eugene Debs who were some of the leaders in the late 19th and early 20th century of the American left.
posted by JJ86 at 9:15 AM on February 21, 2011

Best answer: Years of Protest: A Collection of American Writings of the 1930's (Amazon, Google Books) and The Survival Years: A Collection of American Writings of the 1940's (Amazon, Google Books), both edited by Jack Salzman.

Opponents of War, 1917-1918
(Amazon, Google Books), by H.C. Peterson and Gilbert C. Fite.
posted by languagehat at 11:29 AM on February 21, 2011

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