Barrett, James R. 1950-

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BARRETT, James R. 1950-


Born June 14, 1950, in Chicago, IL; son of Thomas (a policeman) and Catherine (a factory worker) Barrett; married Jenny Wong, August 14, 1971; children: Sean Eugene. Ethnicity: "Irish." Education: University of Illinois at Chicago, B.A. (history; with honors), 1972; Warwick University, M.A. (comparative labor history), 1974; University of Pittsburgh, Ph.D. (history), 1981. Politics: "Socialist." Religion: Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Travel, blues and folk music, family.


Office—Department of History, 309 Gregory Hall, 810 South Wright St., Urbana, IL 61801. E-mail—[email protected]


North Carolina State University, Raleigh, assistant professor of history, 1981-84; University of Illinois, Urbana, 1984—, began as associate professor, became professor of history, associate chair, 1987-89, associate chair and director of graduate studies, 1991-93, chair 1997-2000. Visiting assistant professor of history, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1983-84. Member of executive board, Union of Professional Employees, University of Illinois, and Socialist Forum, Urbana-Champaign.


Labor and Working Class History Association (member of board of directors, 2000—).


Prokasy Award for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching, University of Illinois, 1990; University Scholar, University of Illinois, 1990-93; Graduate Mentoring Award, University of Illinois, 2000.


(With Rob Ruck) Steve Nelson, American Radical (biography), University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1981.

Work and Community in "The Jungle": Chicago's Packing House Workers, 1894-1922, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1987.

(Editor and author of introduction) Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1988.

William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism (biography), University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1999.

(Editor and author of introduction) Hutchins Hapgood, The Spirit of Labor, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2004.

Contributor to books, including People of a Different Mould?: Studies in Communist Biography, Lang, 2003; and African American Urban Studies: Historical, Contemporary, and Comparative Perspectives, edited by Joe Trotter, Earl Lewis, and Tera Hunter, Palgrave Publishing, 2003. Series editor, Working Class in American History, 2003—. Member of advisory board, Labor History.


Irish Everywhere: The Irish-Americanization of the New Immigrants, 1880-1930.


James R. Barrett is an author and educator whose interests center on the history of labor and the working class, primarily within the United States. He has written articles on a variety of related subjects, including the effects of ethnicity, race, immigration, and religion on the labor movement. As an educator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he teaches such courses as U.S. urban and social, and U.S. working-class history, as well as graduate-level seminars in U.S. immigration and comparative social history.

Raised Irish Catholic in Chicago, Illinois, Barrett has focused his writing on historical issues that set the precedents for many of the labor policies he witnessed growing up. His Work and Community in "The Jungle": Chicago's Packing House Workers, 1894-1922 covers a volatile period in early labor relations; William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalismrecounts the history of the aggressive labor organizer from his early role organizing unions through his transformation to supporter of the Communist party. Recalling Barrett's earlier work on the history of Chicago's meat-packing industry, Journal of American History reviewer Christopher Phelps commented, "That labor history background may explain why he is at his best when describing Foster's working-class origins and early union organizing. He ably depicts Foster's turn-of-the-[twentieth-]century Irish Catholic upbringing in Philadelphia." But more than simply describing Foster's background, Barrett explains the factors that altered his beliefs so radically, such as his early support of syndicalism and the Industrial Workers of the World. In a review for Labour/Le Travail Steven Cotterill noted that Barrett "states that the key to understanding Foster is to appreciate the balance between the two forces that shaped much of his life: directives from Moscow on one hand and uniquely American working-class circumstances on the other."

Barrett's biography on Foster also serves as a history of American radicalism during the early half of the twentieth century, particularly the difficulties faced by other American radicals and organizations in the wake of the Red scare, which necessitated a shift to more conservative behavior. Foster, in contrast, adhered strictly to Soviet policy, ultimately alienating many previous supporters as he became more of a party bureaucrat. Reviewer Stephen Goode, writing for Insight on the News, observed that, "for Barrett, it would have been better for Foster to have rooted his radicalism 'in the reality of everyday life' and 'in the political and cultural traditions of our own society,' rather than in loyalty to the U.S.S.R." Goode found this conclusion to be odd, pointing out that it was "America's 'political and cultural traditions' that caused Americans to reject Foster's brand of radicalism." However, Cotterill stated that Barrett's work "ultimately avoids being emphatically sympathetic or unsympathetic towards its main topics, Foster and American radicalism. Rather than provide the reader with a clear bias, the strength of Barrett's work lies in its nuanced approach to complex subjects."

Barrett maintains his focus on radicalism throughout the book, leading to some complaints. David De Leon, in a review for History: Review of New Books, found the biography "weak on fundamental alternative paradigms, such as Trotskyism … and even Social Democracy/democratic socialism," but admitted that the volume "does contribute to the enormous literature on U.S. radicalism." Stephen Burwood, assessing the book for the Michigan Historical Review, praised Barrett, stating that "he points out Foster's mistakes, but he also reminds us that the social injustices that drove Foster and people like him remain today."

Barrett told CA: "I hope that I continue to be influenced by the world around me and the problems we all face as human beings, but three teachers were especially important. Alfred Young, a scholar of common people in the era of the American revolution, gave me confidence to think about myself as an historian. Edward Thompson, the great British social historian, showed me the value of passion in one's work. David Montgomery, the most important historian of the American working class, conveyed a strong sense of honesty in one's approach and the importance of hard work. He also showed ways of combining scholarly and political commitment that allowed one to maintain the highest integrity in both areas. In different ways, each of these men helped me to believe in myself as a scholar and writer.

"My second book, a revised version of my doctoral dissertation on the lives of immigrant and black workers in Chicago's slaughtering and meat-packing industry, remains my favorite. With the nerve of a very young scholar, I took on an enormous issue—the impact of giant corporations and mass production work on the everyday lives of common people—and managed to really say something new by intensively exploring peoples' experiences within and well beyond the walls of the slaughterhouses. What I have learned as a writer is the importance of addressing issues of vital concern to people in their own lives—work, family life, community, identity, and social relations—and, second, the value of exhaustive empirical research for understanding complex social problems.

"All writers hope their work will stir people to think. I also hope that what I write also encourages people to leave the world a better place than they found it."



History: Review of New Books, summer, 2000, David De Leon, review of William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism, p. 151.

Insight on the News, August 7, 2000, Stephen Goode, review of William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism, p. 24.

Journal of American History, December, 2001, Christopher Phelps, review of William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism, p. 1123.

Labour/Le Travail, fall, 2001, Steven Cotterill, review of William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism, p. 296.

Michigan Historical Review, fall, 2000, Stephen Burwood, review of William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism, p. 161.


Humanities and Social Sciences Online, (July 18, 2003).

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Barrett, James R. 1950-

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