david r . roediger
My first vivid memories of Jim Barrett, and of his wife Jenny, go back to
the early 1970s and to a sadly underpopulated picket line in the parking lot
of a small liquor store in the farm and university town of DeKalb, Illinois.
The United Farm Workers had called for a boycott of Gallo wines and we
gave what support we could—in this case a picket line of four people. There
was plenty of time for our small group to talk, and a lot for me to like about
Jim and Jenny. They were gradu ate students in history at Northern Illinois
University, a department whose excellence resulted largely from a rec ord of
being willing to hire left scholars when other colleges hewed to Cold War
exclusion based on politics. I was an undergraduate trying to balance sports
with making the New Left last a little longer. Jim and Jenny, just slightly
older, seemed to have access to the combination of ideas and action I sought.
We were all lapsed, or lapsing, Catholics and, coming from working- class
communities, we all gravitated toward labor causes, especially if racial justice
were also involved.
Not too long after that picket line, the Barretts moved on to Warwick Uni-
versity in Coventry, England, where E. P. Thompson was a professor, and
to the University of Pittsburgh, where Jim studied with David Montgom-
ery. His recollections of those formative experiences, leavened by research
on Thompson’s enduring impact in working- class history, help to close this
book. My decision to go to gradu ate school surely owed much to knowing
radicals like the Barretts, who seemed in some general way to be like me.
The idea of doing history from the bottom up, so brilliantly actualized in
Al Young’s seminars at Northern Illinois, continued to animate large parts
of what we endeavored to study. I set out to write about “slavery from the
slave’s point of view” under Sterling Stuckey’s mentorship at Northwestern.
Jim shared Montgomery’s emphasis on the daily realities of the shopfloor,
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