Author Q&A

Open book with Maynard Seider


When asked, Maynard Seider has a hard time pinpointing when he started working on his latest book, "The Gritty Berkshires: A People's History from the Hoosac Tunnel to Mass MoCA."

"It's been a process," he said. "I began teaching at MCLA in 1978 and retired in 2010. I forget what year I began teaching the course, 'The Social History of North Adams.' It was in the 1980s, when the college still had winter study courses. At the time, I decided I wanted to do a course on the Great Depression and North Adams. It was the 50th anniversary of the New Deal."

Seider, who first arrived in the Berkshires in 1977 to interview for a position in the sociology department at North Adams State College, now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, has always had a strong interest in blue collar workers and labor activism. (North Adams and the greater Northern Berkshires were "a perfect fit" with those interests, he writes in the opening of "The Gritty Berkshires.") So, sending his students out to collect oral histories from mill workers from the 1930s seemed like a good idea.

"We found Rene Ouellette, a leader of a strike at the Greylock Mill during that time period. When we met him, he was living at St. Joseph's Court," Seider said. "He had a lot to tell us about living in the mills and living in mill housing. I love doing that type of history. I had a lot of students over the years, many who were local, who took that course. A lot of the material I use in the book is from students' papers [written for his course] and thesis papers written by Williams College students. A lot of it is built on the shoulders of the people who came before me."

Over the last four decades, the research began to come together in different forms. Seider published his first book, "A Year in the Life of A Factory" in 1993 and wrote the play, "The Sprague Years" in 1995. With the advent of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, he found the focus of his research shifting from North Berkshires' industrial history to the region's transition from old mill towns to one supported by the creative economy. In addition to making a documentary, "Farewell to Factory Towns?" in 2012, he has authored numerous newspaper columns and scholarly works. "The Gritty Berkshires," released Saturday, April 13, is the result of all of those individual pieces coming together, he said.

Seider, during a recent telephone interview, agreed to answer a few questions about the local history and social/labor books that have impacted his research and writing over the last few years.

Q What are some of your favorite books on local history?

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A Joe Manning's books ["Steeples: Sketches of North Adams" and "Disappearing into North Adams"] have been very important to me. He's a tireless writer and interviewer. Besides Manning's books, there was Anthony Lee's "A Shoemaker's Story: Being chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprise Photographers, Rascal Yankees and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Town," which is a book about the Chinese workers at the Sampson Shoe Factory. Lee is an art historian who does a lot with photographs. There's a famous photograph of all the Chinese workers outside the shoe factory. It's hard to distinguish between the men, who are all dressed the same. But, what Anthony Lee found was that the men would go downtown to studio photographers, in their own clothing, and individuate themselves. [His research] also shows [the Chinese workers] went on strike, as well. At one point, they even stormed the jail to get a fellow worker out of jail. I don't know if they even knew that a strike [of the factory's French Canadian employees] was going on. Lee's work bookends with the work that Joe Manning has done.

Q What are some of your favorite books on social/labor issues?

A In the 1960s, there was a really big change in the way we began writing about U.S. history. Young historians began writing history "from below." Instead of telling history through the stories of the elite, they began telling it from the point of view of the laborers, women and minorities. David Montgomery [author of "The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925"], who taught at the University of Pittsburgh and later Yale, was one of those authors. I met him a number of years ago and when I mentioned I was from North Adams, he immediately started talking to me about how he hoped someone would write a book about the workers who actually built the Hoosac Tunnel. Chuck Cahoon, president of the North Adams Historical Society, has been doing the work to find the names of all of the workers who died building the tunnel. It's hard work, because the newspapers at the time would write about a worker's death or an accident, but wouldn't use the person's name. It might just say, "an Irishman" was hurt. Cahoon believes the names of these workers are important. We know much more about the technology that built the tunnel, the politics at the time and the cost of building it than we do about the workers who built it.

Q What books did you find most helpful when writing this book?

A In the 1980s, the "Shifting Gears" project, funded by the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities and Public Policy and the state's Heritage State Park System, hired professional historians to interview people, who had worked in the mills, about the changing workplace. A lot of former Sprague Electric Co. employees were interviewed. Transcripts of those interviews are available online at the University of Massachusetts - Lowell website. There's so much primary source material there. On the national level, Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." It looks at the nation's history from the viewpoint of the slave; from the viewpoint of the Native American; from the viewpoint of the workers in the coal mines. I would go to Zinn to remember what was happening on the national level, for the time period I was writing about. In the 1920s, Robert and Helen Lynd moved to Muncie, Ind., for 18 months to study daily life in a small community. They published, "Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture." They went back in the 1930s and wrote, "Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts." There are similarities between Muncie and North Adams during that time. I would often go back to their books to see what was happening in Muncie at that time, when I was writing about the Great Depression in North Adams.

Q What books are currently on your nightstand?

A (Seider said he doesn't read in bed anymore. He reads in a straight-backed chair with good lighting. He did share what books he is currently reading.) Most recently, I've been reading "Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and the Remaking of an American City" by Steve Early. It's about Richmond, Calif., which used to be a Chevron town. There's been a big progressive movement happening out there. The town elected a Green [Party] mayor, who challenged Chevron and won. Steve Early is a labor journalist I've been following for a long time. Before he moved out to California, he used to live and work in Massachusetts. I'm also reading "Banded Together: Economic Democratization in the Brass Valley." It's about the former brass industry in the Naugatuck Valley of Connecticut. There used to be a lot of brass plants in the valley. I see a connection between [with the deindustrialization of the region] in Connecticut and the Northern Berkshires. It rings a bit of a bell for me.


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