54: Paul Johnson’s Sam Patch

Paul Johnson’s Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper uses a microhistory of a gentleman named Sam Patch to trace larger processes of proletarianization, growing income disparities, and evangelical reform movements in the Jacksonian era.  Although the book does not have an expository thesis per se, it shows how industrialization in the early 1900s turned once-proud independent farmers and artisans into deskilled, unlanded factory workers tied to an urbanizing market economy.

Sam Patch, the man, was a mule spinner who lived in Paterson, NJ, the descendant of an English family that arrived in Salem in 1636; the family became poorer with each successive generation, in large part because the trades they worked were made obsolete by the new mills.  Patch was moody and a drinker; he was one of many working-class men in Paterson who jumped from nearby Passaic Falls as a kind of bodily escape from the regimentation of their jobs and a protest against the harnessing of nature.  He was daring, and after his first professional jump in September 1827 (to protest privatization of the working-class space of the falls), he progressed to more and more dangerous leaps – to the delight of the local, then national press.  He died in a November 1829 leap from Genesee Falls, drunk, morose, and sloppy.

Patch left no diary, will, property, marriage certificates or even next of kin, so Johnson reconstructs his life from a motley collection of vital statistics, tax lists, church rolls, wills, deeds, court records, and newspaper clippings and handbills that chronicle his brief stint as an early celebrity.  But in doing so, he also reconstructs an emerging working-class culture that resisted alienation even as it was constructed by it.  Although the fine-grained detail required by the microhistory approach sometimes leads Johnson to speculate (about Patch’s death wish, for instance) and often leads to privileging personal details over other historical elements (like tensions between Irish and native workers in New England), it makes history so readable that I could easily see assigning this book to undergrads, and then spinning off of it into labor history, urbanization, the environment, and the process of proletarianization.

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