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Joseph Kaminski

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November 23, 2017

Book Review: Making a New Deal by Lizabeth Cohen


History in general is stained with tales of greatness…tales that that play off the harsh climate of sociopolitical and economic turmoil and celebrate the ingenuity or ‘progress’ made in a world that lacked connections to modern society. It is within Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago 1919-1939 that Cohen tackles the myth of working class celebration during an age that has been washed over with F. Scott Fitzgeraldisms and the iconic “Jazz Hand” successes within the Roaring Twenties. The history of unionism and working class peoples within the decades leading up to the Great Depression and the New Deal is stained in more than just Americanized tall-tales of relativity; it is stained with the blood, sweat, and tears of transformative icons – individuals who by themselves and together pushed for what would have been seen as radical, unheard of concepts. The kicker – these concepts are the foundation of rights that workers have today: the eight-hour work day, the paid sick and medical days, the unions that upheld the rights of generations of workers.

Your first reaction to Cohen’s work is most likely going consist of the word, or any word closely related to, “dense”. It is a long-winded, research-based piece that is hard to take in unless it is “chunked” into different segments. The first time I read Making a New Deal, I found myself procrastinating to finish it. I found it to be a dissertation with a quantity of in-depth, page-long paragraphs that progress on into what I refer to as “flower-thought”. By the time I finished it, I knew I hadn’t given it justice as an actual piece, and decided to swing back and reread my copy.

Making a New Deal

Making a New Deal by Lizabeth Cohen.

The second time I read Making a New Deal, I ingested it at the rate a child would breeze through a YA fiction by some fast-talking generator of best-sellers. This book isn’t a “crash course” in New Dealism, but the ideas flow solidly from one to the next in a way that, when the daunting nature of how dense the information at hand can be is finally overcome. When the topic at hand is one of the most in-depth, confusing, long-winded concepts in economic history, one must give a pass to any author that dare attempt to shove it all within less than four hundred pages.

Any social historian – or, in the very least, any person with an interest in the ‘individuals’ who make up the institutionalized society we live in – would and will enjoy Making a New Deal by Lizabeth Cohen. Her overall focus is discussing the divisions amongst the working class – from the racial division amongst blacks and whites to the ethnic hatred that existed amongst the Irish, Italian, Polish, et al. in Chicago’s sectioned streets. The divisions driven deep into these communities don’t stop short at race and ethnicity, either. Making a New Deal does an excellent job at mapping out these problematic splits in the rail of daily life between one “person” and the next.

Making a New Deal is perhaps the most in-depth and research-based work that I’ve read this year. Although it focuses specifically on Chicago, it is important to note Chicago’s importance during the timeframe of 1919-1939. The city of Chicago held industrial powerhouses, a large and diverse population, and a system that showed complications between the workers and their authoritative corporation-based employers. Once reading her research, one could easily identify the importance of Chicago, and how Chicago (although a sliver of American land) could easily represent a way of living in America at the time.

I recommend the book; but I do caution any potential reader to overcome the mental blockage of “depth” that it holds close to its foundational structure. I plan on reading Cohen’s other book, A Consumer Republic, very soon. You can click here for a direct link to purchase Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago 1919-1939. There are two distinct covers – one greenish-blue with a wrench (the second edition), and the other showcasing a painting of protesters (the first edition). I have read both copies, and to my knowledge they contain the same content – just different prefaces and perhaps some touch-up editing.

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