Men, Women and Work: Class, Gender and Protest in the New England Shoe Industry, 1780-1910 
by Mary Blewett.
Illinois, 444 pp., $29.95, July 1988, 0 252 01484 7
Show More
Men’s Lives 
by Peter Matthiessen.
Collins Harvill, 335 pp., £15, August 1988, 0 00 272519 3
Show More
On Work: Historical, Comparative and Theoretical Approaches 
edited by R.E. Pahl.
Blackwell, 752 pp., £39.95, July 1988, 9780631157625
Show More
Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labour 
edited by Léonie Archer.
Routledge, 307 pp., £28, August 1988, 0 415 00203 6
Show More
The Historical Meanings of Work 
edited by Patrick Joyce.
Cambridge, 320 pp., £27.50, September 1987, 0 521 30897 6
Show More
Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century 1590-1710 
by David Stevenson.
Cambridge, 246 pp., £25, November 1988, 0 521 35326 2
Show More
Show More

The Book of Genesis explains that work is a punishment inflicted on humans for Adam’s Fall. In the Authorised Version, God tells Adam: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.’ The New English Bible translates as ‘labour’ what King James’s scholars called ‘sorrow’ – ‘Accursed shall be the ground on your account. With labour you shall win your food from it.’ A few pages later comes the very odd passage in which Noah’s son Ham sees him naked when drunk. Awakening from his stupor, Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan – ‘a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren’ – and this text was used by Early Modern Europeans to justify the translation of black Africans into the doleful state of chattel slavery.

I can’t remember anyone in the whole Shakespearean oeuvre who shows any zest for physical labour except the gravedigger in Hamlet. The Bard’s own works, however, have been regarded with almost the degree of awe traditionally accorded to the works of God, ‘the wondrous works of Him which is perfect in knowledge’ (Job 37:16). My invaluable old Cruden’s Concordance, with whatever theological authority behind it, explains that the phrase ‘works of God’ denotes 1. the Creation, 2. Providence and 3. Redemption, and goes on: ‘By good works are to be understood all manner of duties inward and outward, thoughts as well as words and actions, toward God or man.’

This is the usage in that favourite Victorian hymn, ‘Work for the night is coming’ (1868):

Fill brightest hours with labour;
Rest comes sure and soon.

The American author of the words, Anna Walker, is invoking the declaration of Christ himself (John 9:4): ‘I must work the works of Him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.’ Good works in this general sense could be performed by an invalid Evangelical lady, flat on her back but radiating piety. There has, however, been a strong tendency in the Evangelical tradition to conflate good works with labour. A famous instance is found in Isaac Watts’s Divine Songs of 1720, written prior to the Evangelical Movement proper, but popular with its adherents:

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour
And gather Honey all the Day
From ev’ry op’ning Flow’r!

In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For Idle hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play,
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.

Benjamin Franklin was soon working up his secularised version of the Puritan ethos. In Poor Richard’s Almanac (1758) he assured his readers that ‘sloth, by bringing on diseases, absolutely shortens life,’ regretted the human propensity to sleep too much, and insisted that ‘if we are industrious we shall never starve.’ By the mid-19th century, Christian exhortation to good works and the conviction of employers that they had a right to demand long hours of poorly remunerated labour were an almost omnipotent ideological mix. Carlyle announces in Past and Present (1843) that ‘all work, even cotton-spinning, is noble; work is alone noble ... The only happiness a brave man ever troubled himself with asking much about was, happiness enough to get his work done. Not “I can’t eat!”, but “I can’t work!” that was the burden of all wise complaining among men.’

One wonders what Carlyle might have had to say to Irena Knowlton, wife of a small shoe manufacturer in Hamilton, Massachusetts. Besides caring for three children, feeding boarders, doing the housework and garden work and keeping poultry, she stitched the uppers of ladies’ button boots, at home, for her husband. Mary Blewett in Men, Women and Work reports that ‘her diary (1870-86) is a litany of fatigue and illness’ and quotes this entry: ‘went berrying, done some shoes, scot to breakfast and dinner George went away today but O dear what a life to live God help me to do my duty baked 5 pies drove cow.’

And could Carlyle have approved of the ocean-haul seine fishermen of Long Island whose way of life was being extinguished in the mid-1980s, just as Peter Matthiessen was at work on his account of it? ‘These doggedly independent men,’ he tells us, ‘do not speak of themselves as “working”, far less “taking a job”.’ He quotes one of the younger generation: ‘Fishin wasn’t a job, it was your station in life, so to speak. Though it was a lot of hard work, it was not a job, but somethin you were born with and brought up with. A job was somethin like drivin nails or rakin leaves.’

‘Duty’ for Mrs Knowlton, ‘station in life’ for the fisherman – my own sense of work relates readily to both conceptions. My father, a writer, came from a Scottish working-class culture closely related to that of Calvinist New England. He would often sit brooding in his study for hours, apparently idle. I have inherited this trait along with his physique, and now realise that if he wasn’t working inside his head, he was suffering from the horrors of ‘writer’s block’, in which a conviction that work is a paramount necessity somehow makes it impossible to get on with it. My station in life is much like his own and I learnt from him a sense of duty: some things must be written in good causes irrespective of convenience or payment, bread must be cast upon waters, the night is coming in which no writer can type. I suppose that I cannot really understand in any depth attitudes to work outside this Puritan-Evangelical tradition. But I have not until recently thought that any other view than my own might make sense. There has been no occasion to question it, when our society has been dominated by decayed versions of Victorian work ethics, sentimentalised in Labour Movement adulation of (male) manual workers, warped by Boyson and Tebbit, exploited by employers and enshrined in that extraordinary phrase ‘right to work’.

We have taken it for granted that in the life of almost any person, work (or the lack of it) will be the dominant shaping factor. We choose trades or careers, or remain in our station in life. We have been defined on our passports by ‘occupation’. Those of us who don’t have paid jobs will probably be committed to housework. For people who can pay others to do that, voluntary work is a means of self-definition, a route to status, to MBE or DBE.

One of several reasons why P.G. Wodehouse is rather a subversive writer is that much of his best work (he worked assiduously all his long life, and loved it) presents characters who don’t work and don’t mind – who devote themselves totally to golf, for instance, in a pastoral community of rentiers. Clubs and country houses provide enough society. Eccentricity and infantilism are the amusing outcomes: Wodehouse’s fantasies confirm our sense that you can’t be idle and properly grown-up. We leave the sphere of schoolwork to pursue occupations which provide us with most of our social contacts outside our families. Non-workers are deprived of gossip, the pleasures of feuding and ritual Friday potations. These delights are dignified by their association with work. People who inherit fortunes or win the pools may be passingly envied as Monday arrives again, yet I suspect that a somewhat contemptuous pity, implicit in the phrase ‘poor little rich girl’, very commonly supervenes.

When we try to descry what is work and what isn’t, we can see no obvious margins. To quote R.E. Pahl’s introduction to On Work, his hefty and most useful collection of recent writings by some two score scholars: ‘Someone arriving from another planet might be surprised and puzzled by the way we distinguish between work and employment and the differential rewards that are paid to employees based on the kind of work they do and the kind of person they are. Interesting, creative and varied employment is highly rewarded; dull, repetitive and routine work is poorly rewarded. Men receive more money than women, and this is related to social attitudes and conventions more than the actual amount or quality of work that the individual or gender category does.’ Our extra-terrestrial guest would be further taxed to understand why minding someone else’s child can be a job, looking after your own is duty, why potholers, rock-climbers and marathon runners wilfully engage in dangerous physical toil as a leisure activity, how a journalist chatting over a beer may be working while the election canvassers he quizzes are slacking.

Every active human pursuit is potentially ‘work’. Only when we are wholly passive – sleeping, sunbathing, watching sport on TV – is it perfectly clear that we cannot be working. The parent driving children to the safari park may well feel, like the mother cooking Christmas dinner, that however much fun others may get, this is ‘work’. The pride of either over the task accomplished – kids brought smiling home, the chestnut stuffing praised – surely differs in degree rather than kind from that of an artist selling a big picture or a shipyard worker seeing a vessel launched.

One can barely imagine a human activity which could not be the basis of personal pride in a goal achieved or ‘job’ done. A road-sweeper has recently told the nation that he loves his work so much that he won’t give it up, even though he also owns a business. I suspect that even chattel slaves employed on repulsive heavy labour often managed to find satisfaction in superior skill as cane-cutter or oarsman.

Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labour is a wide-ranging, very readable collection of papers first presented to a History Workshop in Oxford. In a stimulating contribution, ‘All Americans are part-African’, Mechal Sobel argues that in 18th-century Virginia, despite the tyranny of white over black, cultural interaction occurred constantly. ‘Work became essentially a black domain, and working whites worked in it.’ On ‘King’ Carter’s estates in the 1730s, 1000 black slaves toiled under eight white overseers; at his Great House there were 26 skilled workmen, 15 white and 11 black. There is no doubt that knowledge and skills which came from Africa affected the development of American culture. Sobel contends that the Evangelical ‘Great Awakening’ which transformed American Christianity from the 1730s on was, in the South, deeply influenced by African spirituality. ‘Overall, African perceptions and values permeated the white world view, reinforcing some old aspects and introducing some very new ones. Work was slowed in pace, time and place hallowed ... clan ties reinforced, and heaven seen as home.’

In this slave society, the work that was slowed in pace was not so intense that there was no time for good works in the Christian sense. No kind of labour, no working relationships, can be validly reduced to economic statistics and formulae. Work always entails more than its material end-products. However theorists define ‘labour’, work must mean much more. The energetic king, the improving landlord, the busy merchant could not have been gainsaid had they claimed to work as hard as any of the people they governed or exploited. All purposeful activity is work in the Christian-Carlylean sense. And all forms of work generate sub-cultures, in which rationality barely or rarely prevails. The loyal plantation slave was no more perverse than a university teacher today putting in overtime to get a bad student through an exam which the latter does not deserve to pass, or the industrial worker mourning the demise of an enterprise which has exploited his energy and destroyed his health.

The ‘right to be employed at a wage compatible with subsistence and comfort’ is an intelligible claim. ‘The right to participate fully in society as a citizen’ could be exercised, given sensible political arrangements, by anyone, whether employed, unemployed or retired in current parlance. But the ‘right to work’ cannot exist unless it means no more than the right to be human and to be active. Perhaps the slogan should be rephrased ‘right to rites’. For what the young unemployed in our increasingly atomised society miss out on is the rites of passage, the seasonal rituals, the means of self-definition provided by sub-cultures.

In The Historical Meanings of Work, Patrick Joyce and his contributors concern themselves with ‘work as a cultural activity, rather than simply an economic one’. Joyce argues that the idea of ‘work in general’ as a ‘discrete activity in a distinct “economic” realm’ derives merely from that recent moment in Western history marked by Adam Smith’s ‘separation-out of the “economic” ’. The labour market is in fact ‘ordered by institutions and values emerging in particular conjunctures, and must be understood in relation to factors such as ethnicity, community, gender and household’. Following E.P. Thompson’s seminal studies, work must be seen as a ‘site of active cultural agency rather than passive adaption’. The meanings of work have been ‘socially produced’.

In an essay called ‘Mythical Work’, one of Joyce’s collaborators, Michael Sonenscher, looks at the compagnonnages of 18th-century France. Journeymen in various trades practised a non-Christian ceremony of initiation into a devoir. The men concerned had overlapping skills concerned with building, furniture, leather. ‘The emergence of the compagnonnages – and their relative ubiquity ... was the product of three factors: the wide diffusion of a relatively limited range of skills in many urban trades; the very large number of towns in 18th-century France ... in which they were practised; and the gradual erosion of those legal provisions which distinguished the formal rights of journeymen in some urban centres from others ... Their ceremonial was a commentary upon a world in which the work that people did was often very similar. The point, however, was to make it appear different.’

Each of the three distinct rites associated with the compagnonnages claimed an ancestry reaching back to the construction of Solomon’s Temple, whence master craftsmen were said to have migrated to France. Journeymen moving from job to job used distinctive ribbons and greetings, ate and drank together exclusively in certain inns, imposed fines and ceremonial admonitions on each other. Their proceedings had an aura of clandestinity, yet were ‘highly visible and, on many occasions, extremely public.’ Pitched battles occurred between bands of devotees of rival rites, devoirants versus gavots. Each rite claimed superior craftmanship in the contest between journeymen for employment. Trials of proficiency were set up. ‘A rite would, through its champion, compete for exclusive control of employment in Mâcon or Marseilles. Victory would become part of the orally-transmitted annals of the rite.’ In this world many people did the same thing, but some did it better than others. There was a big pool of labour available for most trades, and the rites of the compagnonnages provided ‘a mechanism of selection and exclusion’.

Masons in Medieval England, also itinerants, had likewise mythologised the descent of their ‘mystery’ from the Ancient East. Its legendary history, summarised in the so-called ‘Old Charges’, identified Hermes Trismegistus, great-grandson of Noah, as the transmitter to future ages of the foundation of all science – geometry. The great ‘Clerke Euclide’ had taught Masons in ancient Egypt. The Old Charges themselves had been issued by King Edwin of England, who had loved geometry and had been ‘made a Masson’.

The process by which this tradition became the basis of the archetypal undercover society for men of all classes and nationalities has been rendered opaque for historians partly by the secretiveness and obfuscations of Freemasons themselves. The importance of Freemasonry in the Age of Enlightenment is easy to spot, its nature hard to construe. J.M. Roberts’s The Mythology of the Secret Societies (1972) illuminated much, but not the movement’s origins. Now David Stevenson can claim to have clarified these considerably, in a work of creative scholarship flavoured by exceptional candour and gusto. His subtitle gives his gist. In the 17th century, such characteristic features of Freemasonry as the local Lodge admitting members of other crafts and interested gentlemen, as degrees within the order, and (probably) the basic initiation rite, were developed, Stevenson argues, in Scotland.

His hero is William Schaw, master of works to James VI and the member of a feverishly intellectual court. In 1598 and 1599 Schaw issued two sets of statutes which established a system of Lodges for all Scotland. Stevenson contends that Schaw was influenced by Renaissance fascination with occult Hermetic wisdom and by Giordano Bruno’s development of the ancient ‘Art of Memory’. Another figure at James’s court, Alexander Dickson, was the foremost supporter of Bruno in Britain.

The attraction of Masonic ritual and sodality for Scots of the higher classes was enhanced by the exceptional prestige of architecture in the 17th century. ‘The concepts of the Vitruvian architect as master of all the arts and crafts and of artisans in general as important participants in the search for knowledge were at their height.’ The verse epitaph of John Mylne, master mason to the King of Scots, who died in 1667, hails him as ‘Great Artisan grave senator’:

Rare man he who could unite in one
Highest and lowest Occupation
To sit with statesmen, Counsellor to King’s
To work with Tradesmen in mechanick things ...

The mason, conflated with Geometrician and Architect, stood for a potent combination of wisdom, erudition and practical skill, which elevated him far above the degrading associations of manual labour. Though Stevenson does not make play with this, the fact that all substantial building in Scotland was in stone, whereas in Southern England brick was common, lends strong circumstantial support to his argument that the northern kingdom was the original home of Freemasonry as a cross-class institution. He does not deny that by 1717, when the Grand Lodge of England was founded, the initiative had passed south. After all, much else had tended there after the Union of 1707 – but when English Freemasons equipped themselves with an acceptable mythological history in the Constitutions of 1723 and 1738, the author of these was James Anderson, son of a former secretary of the Aberdeen Lodge.

Stevenson’s argument, confessedly speculative at many points, rests sturdily on the undoubted fact that there is no reliable evidence for Masonic Lodges of the later type in 17th-century England, yet a positive abundance for Scotland, where 16 Lodges are known to have admitted ‘non-operative’ (non-stonemason) members. He makes an important contribution to the movement among historians which is rescuing pre-Union Scotland from its reputation for near-savage backwardness, and showing how deep were the roots of Enlightenment in the country’s culture. He also suggests convincingly how a pre-eminently manual craft could be sublimated into the basis for a new arena of power.

The ‘Lady Stitchers’ of Essex County, Massachusetts described by Professor Blewett in Men, Women and Work were enabled, as the important New England shoe industry developed, to distinguish themselves more enduringly than those roving French craftsmen. The mystique which they clothed themselves in helped to give them remarkable power in the disputes which repeatedly flared up in an industry very vulnerable to economic fluctuations and to seasonal demand. They received ‘the highest wages paid to women industrial workers in the late 19th century’. They were better-off than teachers, more respectable than shop assistants. They wore fine clothes on their protest marches. ‘Hardy, opinionated New England women with strong ideas contended throughout the 19th century with each other and with working men over issues of work, family and protest.’ Blewett’s analysis ‘challenges the way that male gender has unconsciously been made the measure of human experience’. Her careful, stage-by-stage account is based on vast reading in newspapers and in archives: the wealth of material available derives from a feature of New England culture on which she does not directly comment, its exceptional level of literacy. Press debates in the 1860s and 1870s between stitchers arguing for and against women’s suffrage and over the potential of women in labour protest reveal polemical skills of a high order. A clear-cut split emerged between wives and daughters who supplemented the family income by stitching and gladly conceded all political rights, and the vanguard of industrial action, to men, and, on the other hand, self-supporting women who sought suffrage and separate women’s unions. Coalitions were made in the major strikes of 1860, 1871, 1895 and 1903, but divergent views soon reasserted themselves. ‘For working women, marital status and relationship to family could be potentially as divisive as ethnicity and race.’

Blewett’s very readable study subtly exposes irony upon irony. Why did women continue to monopolise stitching for more than half a century after factory work began in the shoe industry? Because of a division of labour established in the 18th century. The town of Lynn was a small producer of shoes for market by 1750. Demand rose with resistance to British trade regulations, encouraging New England ‘patriots’ to buy local products. Just after the War of Independence, in 1784, a protective tariff helped the young industry to flourish.

Prior to this expansion, male masters, journeymen and apprentices had performed all work on shoes in the master’s household. Now the work moved out to ‘ten footers’, separate artisans’ shops, and the men developed a non-household culture which combined labour with leisure, dirty conditions with beach parties enlivened by clam chowder, drinks and games. The woman’s role as stitcher, still at home, arose as merchant-capitalists took control of supply of raw materials and sale of finished shoes. The shoemaker, shorn of profit from these sources, drew ‘his’ women into production: ‘The lowered costs of labour involved in using women to sew shoes remained hidden within the family economy.’ Male capitalists and artisans jointly exploited female labour. Men concentrated on lasting and bottoming. A new tool, the shoe clamp, appeared in kitchens, on which women applied their tradition of needlework to shoe-binding, not at this time considered skilled work, combining it with other family chores.

As demand continued to rise, family labour became insufficient. Shoe-binding spread to the homes of women who were single or had husbands in other trades, and these women were now recruited, and paid in wages or goods, by the merchant-capitalists. The low prices offered per upper deterred men from seeking the work. Shoe-binding was confirmed as a women’s job. It was finicky, time-consuming: a woman might ‘work steadily all day to produce ten pairs of sewn uppers at three to five cents per pair’.

But this was, compared to Old England, a better-educated society. It had latterly been the heartland of a Revolution inspired by the ‘Rights of Man’. Its women were not easy to exploit. Hundreds of Massachusetts shoe-binders formed a society to raise wages in 1831. Two years later, over half the 150 shoe-binders in Lynn, faced by a wage cut, organised another Female Society. One thousand women crowded into the Friends’ Meeting House.

The constitution which they adopted accused their employers of a ‘manifest error, a want of justice ... which calls imperiously for redress’. They appealed to the labour theory of value, demanding not only an increase of wages but an extension to ‘the weaker sex’ of the ‘equal rights’ already claimed by male artisans. Wages should cover the price of the household services that a wife performed as seamstress, washerwoman, nurse and maid to her menfolk, or the board and personal upkeep of a daughter residing at home, or the subsistence of a widow with dependents. But within a year the Society folded, and before long the creation of a new rural outwork system, in which shoe-binders were isolated and powerless, enabled capitalists to ignore protests from Lynn women.

The arrival of the factory system, which brought stitchers together to work on uppers in large shops, was therefore good news for women. The success of Essex County manufacturers at busy times encouraged them to pay high wages to draw in more New England women and others from further afield – notably the Canadian Maritimes. Some of the stitching work-force were now geographically mobile, boarding with strangers rather than at home, and had control of their own wages. Male involvement in stitching remained almost negligible – 1 to 3 per cent. It was not till 1910 that men – largely immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean area – constituted even one in five of the labour force.

The transition to factory work was met in 1860 by the most important strike in US history up to that date, a final great spasm of protest in defence of artisan values. In Lynn, its early stages involved violence. The intervention of women workers was welcome in so far as it raised the moral tone, troublesome in that home workers who identified with male artisan interests were at odds with the new breed of factory girls, who struck on their own. Divisions were hidden in the Great Procession through Lynn on 7 March, when 800 women marched through mud in sleet, rain and snow, with a banner which declared: ‘American ladies will not be slaves.’

A positive image of the ‘lady’ stitcher was thereafter created by a combination of women’s sense of their dignity, the concern of the whole town of Lynn for its reputation, and the wish of the shoe factory owners to draw young people from the countryside to work for them. The local newspaper presented the stitchers as ‘well-mannered and high-minded’, and dwelt on their stylish attire and their intellectual and artistic tastes. ‘Work in the stitching rooms and shops was characterised as effortless and well-remunerated. Operators ran “magic” machines, driven by steam power in groups of thirty to fifty per room. Experienced stitchers disdained to work by foot power.’

Such cheerful stuff contradicted the experience of many of the women, who saw that they had to struggle to maintain decent wages and identified with the unionised Knights of St Crispin – though an activist from Boston who attended the first National Convention of the Daughters of St Crispin at Lynn in 1869 was in fact deeply impressed by the musical accomplishments displayed by the dignified delegates. In 1876 the Crispins struck against an employer who had cut wages sharply. Ladylike picketing did not prevent him from finding replacements among their underemployed sisters.

Depression thus undermined the DOSC. But when prosperity revived in the 1880s and the Knights of Labour swept through Essex County, stitchers again emphasised their gentility. The Lynn ‘Lady Stitchers Union’ had organised almost 3000 women by 1886. A feature in the Boston Sunday Herald two years later extolled the ‘Shoe Girls of Lynn’: their style, their vivacity, their physical well-being. Thirteen of the ‘girls’ felt compelled to go to Boston to set the editor straight. The average wage was closer to seven dollars than to the 18 claimed in the articles. Even experienced women suffered from the seasonality of work, and always feared a slip into poverty.

A crisis in labour relations came in 1895 to the Essex County town of Haverhill – 30,000 inhabitants, 150 shoe factories, 8200 shoe-workers, 2500 of these female. The biggest employers cut wages by a third and tried to bring in cheap immigrant labour under ‘ironclad’ contracts. An English Temperance leader, Lady Henry Somerset, was pleasantly surprised by the elegance of the female strikers. The alliance between these Haverhill women and upper-class female reformers in Boston was crucial for the success of the mainly male strikers. Respectable voices chorused in their favour as ‘ironclad’ contracts were killed off and union strength was proved. The ‘Lady Stitchers Assembly’ was revived in Lynn in 1903, when the women mobilised against the Boot and Shoe Workers Union, a business union committed to the closed shop, no argument, deals with employers. Again, their action was essential to the success of the strike as a whole. But by now the contradiction between gentility and reality was blatant. ‘Lady’ strikers hurled rotten eggs at blacklegs and BSWU women sprayed asafetida and ink on their clothes. The stitchers and their male allies – cutters and turn workmen – routed the BSWU. ‘The 1903 strike was a valedictory expression of the cultural and regional solidarity of the most skilled workers in the New England shoe industry’: native-born Americans, many of them indigenous Yankees, invoking artisan traditions of ‘equal rights’. As immigrant workers pushed in, and mechanisation went still further, a remarkable culture of work would fall.

It had taken barely a century to ripen. Compare the Rhondda Valley, where frontier coalmining communities came to seem deeply rooted within a similar time-scale. And compare Sonenscher’s neat point about the concept of ‘custom’ in cultures of work. ‘Hatters in late 19th-century France fought bitterly to maintain a system of payment by the piece for the work of finishing and dressing hats. The system was, they claimed, best adapted to their custom and independence. A hundred years earlier journeymen in the same trade had fought equally bitterly to prevent the introduction of the same system.’

Nostalgia can endow very recent phenomena with an aura of immemoriality. It is one of the many virtues of Men’s Lives that Peter Matthiessen openly builds personal nostalgia into his account of the vanishing work-culture of the fishermen of eastern Long Island. He worked briefly as an ocean-haul seine-netter in this area in the early Fifties and thirty years later was able to explore the memories of men he had fished with from a position at once close and objective.

Commercial ocean-haul seining with a dory launched into the surf from a truck is not exactly an ancient craft and has latterly depended on the internal combustion engine. But the courage and skill required to get a boat out and back through dangerous breakers have a primeval quality. They had developed in Long Island through a history of winter cod-fishing and shore whaling. The Algonkian Indians had long supplemented their food crops by harvesting the sea when they first confronted white settlers in the 17th century, and may well have invented shore whaling: they certainly taught Englishmen from Kent and Dorset (tricks of speech of those counties still linger in Long Island) how to manage the surf and use harpoons. The early white skippers employed Indian crews, until whaling thrived so well that the young settlers were drawn in. In the 18th century, the whalers deserted the shoreline and began to roam the oceans, but the Long Island farmers continued to hunt fish for human consumption and for use as a fertiliser. Cod fishing was a general winter occupation.

The recent invasion of the coast by holiday-makers and sport fishermen has threatened and all but destroyed a farmer-fisher tradition of real antiquity. One ‘bayman’ tells Matthiessen: ‘The fisherman and farmer were No 1 and No 2 on this end of the Island, and now they’re at the bottom of the heap, and your carpenters are gettin twenty-five dollars an hour, some of ’em, and your plumbers and masons. Everythin is bypassin us, and we’re still doing the same thing ...’

Men’s Lives centres on the work-culture of a few families, long-rooted and much interrelated, who have specialised in the crafts of fishing – not just seining, but also dredging for scallops, probing for eels, setting fykes for flounders, trapping lobsters. They fish ‘commercially’ yet their chief purpose is not to make money, but to maintain a culture. Born fishermen, you have to fish. Fishermen who try other jobs typically return to fishing. One who opened a store says: ‘Was makin some good money, too. But I said to my wife, “What are we ever goin to do with all that money? Get to be old, y’know, ain’t nothing much you want to do anyway.” She didn’t want to sell but she agreed to it, just to go along with me.’ Men invest up to a third of their year’s income in fishing equipment.

‘No one has ever come across a rich fisherman’ is a favourite saying of the baymen. They tell their sons there is no future in fishing, exactly as their own fathers told them. They prize self-employed independence, even though it means that they miss out on social benefits such as unemployment insurance and sickness compensation, and can rarely get bank loans or mortgages because their income is irregular. Cap’n Bill says: ‘We have eels, we have fish, we have clams, we have scallops; probably one eighth of what we eat comes out of the water. Eat a mess of fish, mess of scallops, save five-ten dollars. Them poor people in the city on Social Security ain’t got nothing to eat; they can’t go out on the water and get clams or eel, so I feel very sorry for them.’ A younger man muses: ‘Out on the water all day long and nobody to bother you – you can’t beat that ... I bet you ain’t never seen a better place than this one here.’

Though Matthiessen never mentions a TV set – old-timers, it would appear, prefer to stare all day at the ocean – these men do not inhabit a remote, cut-off community. Turning backwards, turning inwards, these ‘Bonackers’ – Lesters and Bennets and Havens – remind one of Medieval Icelanders who would travel to Byzantium yet come home to their windy, treeless island. In Matthiessen’s recounting, their memories and his own cluster round a man who would have been at home in the world of the Sagas: Cap’n Ted, one of the ‘Posey Lesters’ who are famous for their ability to smell a shoal of fish from the beach, ‘a quick stocky man with a stiff brush of hair that stood straight up from his forehead’.

Theodore Roosevelt Lester (born in a rock-ribbed Republican county in 1908) was always in a rush and often shouting, for want of a better way to let off steam. I met him first on a wet May morning in the 4 a.m. darkness of his yard as he hurried to set up his ancient silver truck, a former weapons carrier of World War Two. The truck’s hood had rusted out and fallen by the wayside, and because it had rained hard all night the wiring was sodden. Ted Lester swore as he dumped gasoline on his engine and set it on fire. The big silver truck, once the blaze was smothered, gave a shudder and exploded into life. Seeing my thunderstruck expression, Ted winked and said, ‘There’s a lot of shit built into them things, bub, and the more you kick out of them, the less is left there to kick you back.’

Cap’n Ted sets off one day, without telling his crew what he has in mind, to fish for the body of a drowned bather. His son is ‘spooked’, and outraged, when it appears in the net, stiff with rigor mortis, covered with snails, and refuses to take it out. Ted hauls it in himself. ‘There was no other way them people were ever goin to get their son back. Why, hell, I’d do the same things for a nigger.’ Ted could be generous-spirited, was famous for using a patched boat with rotten gear, yet was sharp and sly, and prospered unduly, opening Montauk Seafood to freeze fish, then a retail seafood shop and a liquor store. Crewmen sometimes suspected him of cheating them. He was of the community, yet larger than it. Every year, he was the only captain to go to Albany and lobby for the baymen’s interests at the State Legislature. ‘Once Ted got to talk, he’d never sit down: you’d have to knock him down.’ He was, in local parlance, a ‘piss cutter’. ‘Most men quit Ted because he was such a relentless driver, not because he was dishonest.’ When he died relatively young, in his sixties, people believed that his own energy had worn him out.

One of Ted’s tricks on the beach was to gather herring to slip down the throats of big bass, add to their weight, and cheat the creating New York dealers. The ‘striped bass’ was the money-making fish which latterly sustained ocean-haul seining. The Bonackers didn’t regard it as worth eating, but customers in expensive restaurants did. Morone saxatilis, like the salmon, ascends to fresh water to spawn. It may aspire to thirty years and 125 pounds and is a favourite target for sporting anglers.

As Matthiessen tells the story, the votes of sportsmen have been mischievously exploited by so-called representatives of their interests who mask their own commercial involvement in line-fishing, so driving the ocean-haul seiners out of business in the sacred name of conservation. Matthiessen believes that pollution of rivers where bass spawn, and not fishing, is responsible for any drop in numbers. Meanwhile, the actual habits of morone saxatilis remain mysterious. Nevertheless, in 1985 it was enacted by New York State that no bass of less than 24 pound should be brought to sale. Men’s Lives ends movingly with the despair of the baymen as the ban came in at the end of what looked likely to be their last season of seining.

Perhaps Matthiessen gets the bass law out of proportion. When old Milt Miller told him, ‘All of it is going to go,’ he was thinking of more than the bass. Dozens of osprey could once be seen in the air over Fort Pond Bay – by the Sixties they had almost disappeared. The oldest farm in the USA continuously inhabited by the same family was sold off to speculators. Farming as well as fishing succumbed to the resort economy. And in many other parts of the world, too, agri-business and monster fishing ships, pollution and tourism, have threatened work-cultures based on hard living close to nature.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences