Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Holdren’s First Post -- My book and my plans for future posts

I want to thank the editors of the Legal History Blog for having me as a guest blogger. It’s an honor and I’m delighted to have my words on here. As Professor Tani mentioned in her introduction, I recently published a book and I want to tell you about it.

My book is called Injury Impoverished: Workplace Accidents, Capitalism, and Law in the Progressive Era. It's my first book and is based on my dissertation. I think of the book as a study in the intellectual life of governance - how power relationships are conceptualized, mostly by powerful people, and what concepts are implied within power relationships, whether or not anyone actually thought them explicitly. In my view, inquiry is enriched by emphasis on both of these facets, the actual thoughts of people and the implicit logics enacted within institutional practices. I’m aware that this all sounds pretty abstract. In addition to talking about abstract matters, I also tried to foreground the real human beings who died, suffered, and lived despite all the harms to which working-class people are subjected. In my view, that dying and suffering was (and still is) largely organized by the kinds of abstractions I talk about in the book.

In the book I argue that compensation laws narrowed the meaning of employee injury within the law, from a matter of moral significance and, perhaps, political contestation, to a routine financial transaction. I call that transition ‘the moral thinning of injury’. The book’s title refers to this change: the meaning of injury within the law became impoverished. That said, compensation laws also improved the lives of injured people and their loved ones by providing more economic security. The title refers to this as well: employee injuries really did impoverish people. In effect, I argue, compensation laws were a trade off within the notions of justice implicit in the law and in the types of claims people could make. The treatment of injured people became less unjust, economically or distributively speaking, because the law set a kind of floor wherein injured people would get some money in most cases. At the same time, the ability to make justice claims about employee injury became attenuated, because the law came to focus on specifically pecuniary harms - above all, lost wages - due to injury. That new focus left out a lot of the human meaning of injury. That loss is part of what I call ‘moral thinning.’ After compensation laws went into effect, they also helped touch off a series of changes within businesses. These changes include pressures for companies to practice relatively new forms of discrimination in hiring against disabled people, negative effects on the field of industrial medicine (I say that the physicians who ran employers’ programs of pre-employment medical examinations became in effect technicians of discrimination), and some additional lawsuits over compensation liabilities for injuries to employees who were already disabled prior to their injuries.

From the very beginning I wanted my book to be affecting, emotionally. I wanted the book to make readers sad and angry, because I think employee injury and the law’s handling of it is worth being sad and angry about. My hope is that the book places readers on the horns of a dilemma, or rather, I want the book to take employee injury law as a window for examining the ways in which capitalist society itself is a kind of dilemma: there’s basically no good choices to be made, at least in the short term. In the words of critical theorist Theodor Adorno, “wrong life can not be lived rightly.”

I decided early on that there could be no two ways about it: this is a Marxist book that tries to depict capitalism as inherently violent and irredeemable - reforms may ameliorate but above all they redistribute injuries - and depicts law as part of that violence. In the process I told some hard to sit through stories about people getting their fingers torn and burnt off, people’s children dying, the shattering of human beings calculated as acceptable losses in the balance sheets of the powerful, if those losses appear at all. (I have been distressed to see resonances with these same general processes play out in the present during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many people are pushed by employers and the government to face dangers of illness, injury, and death. The economy’s health takes precedence over human health. Again. Still.)

All of this means that my book is not exactly a fun read. A dear old friend, someone who shares the same value system and understanding of capitalism that I have, got a copy and told me “I started it, but I stopped, it’s really well written but it’s depressing and the world is depressing enough right now.” I took that as a compliment. I wanted to write a book like that; I looked in part to Marcus Rediker’s book The Slave Ship for inspiration. Rediker says in the beginning of his book that he knows it will not be easy to read sometimes, and that it wasn’t easy to write. As I write this blog post I am a little concerned that I may be discouraging people from reading my book. I really do want people to read it, of course. (It feels arrogant of me to say this, but I think it’s a good book. My wife likes it, and she’s got a literature degree. Eileen Boris said it was a good read, and Jonathan Levy called it “gripping” and “haunting.” So if you want to be gripped and haunted, check out my book.) At the same time, I want it to be read by readers who will meet me part way, by which I mean reading the book in a spirit of thinking with me, thinking together within a common set of concerns. I was nervous about that the whole time I wrote and I still am a little: will anyone want to read it? Will readers meet me in the middle?

These worries informed some of the structure of the book in the first draft. Early in the writing I had a cluster of related fears about my book as a writer. One was that I would end up with a book that readers would hate. Another was that readers of drafts would hate the book and I would have to be alone in the writing, without sufficient intellectual community to sustain the effort of book writing in a livable way. A third fear was that I would flinch in the face of those first two fears and not write what I actually thought. I wanted to write what was for me a bold book, and I was scared I wouldn’t have the willpower to do so.

Knowing myself, I knew that if I left those fears to wait for me they would get stronger over time and would also echo in my mind the whole time I was writing, distracting me and tiring me out. What I did to face those fears was to get the scariest part over as soon as possible by starting by writing out some of the ideas I was most nervous to put into print. I also figured that if I put that stuff right up at the front then people who read the draft or the finished book would know what they’re getting into and could decide if they wanted to read more or not. (This was modeled in part on when I was young and briefly played in punk bands. We would often play our ugliest stuff first, on the theory that anyone who stuck around would probably like everything they stayed for.) So I tried to put the anger and moral outrage and the ugly stories and the Marxist theory right in the beginning of the draft of the book. Of course, I didn’t have to leave all that stuff at the front of the book. I did move things around a little as I revised but I decided to keep the book’s opening broadly in the spirit of what I’ve described here. That’s because in the end, informed by reassurances from readers, I decided I liked how the book started and how the different pieces of my book work together.

Well, that’s my book. If you want to know more, Professor Deborah Dinner has written up a thoughtful review of it at JOTWELL, and you can check out the page for my book itself at the Cambridge University Press web site.

I talked a little here about the emotional life of writing and how I navigated that emotional life. I’m going to get into that further in future posts. I’m also going to post about my writing process and how I’ve organized my writing life, how I went from dissertation to book, writing groups and intellectual community (I like Robert Boice’s term “sociality”). I wanted to share these thoughts with you because I was hungry to read this kind of thing when I was dissertating and when I was early in writing my book. I also plan to write in some future posts about what it was like to live through writing this book and to reflect on some related issues about being a writer and a first generation scholar. My posts are about what it was like being me while doing the work of writing. I’d be excited to hear about what’s like to be you while you’re doing the work, and about your writing process. I think we’re all better off as historians when we talk more about the real day to day elements of our writing lives.

Well, there you have it: an overview of the book, a little bit about some of what was on my mind as I wrote it, some sense of what I’m like as a writer, and some of what I’m thinking about for my future posts. Thanks for reading.

Edit and update:
My second post, the first half of a two-parter, is up now. In it I talk about getting writers' block in grad school. It's here.

- Nate Holdren