An Autobiography: Seventy Years of Life and Labor

by Samuel Gompers. New York E. P. Dutton and Company. 1925. 2 vols. Large 8vo. xxxv+556, xxix+557 pp. Illustrated. $10.00.
SAMUEL GOMPERS was born in London in 1850, and died in San Antonio, Texas, in 1924. His family, of Dutch-English Hebrew stock, emigrated to America when he was thirteen. His autobiography is therefore essentially a document of American life through the momentous period in which he lived.
In the great majority of important biographical works relating to this period certain familiar names appear and reappear with such frequency that each new book adds something to the reader’s knowledge of one or another group of persons already known to him in connection with this or that department of American existence — political, intellectual, social, economic. Of course there are many books dealing with the American Labor movement of the past half-century, but few of them are biographical, and none is so conspicuous as this autobiography for bringing into the light of direct illumination an array of persons and conditions hardly to be encountered elsewhere on any such terms of intimacy.
This is most true of the portions of the work which naturally fall into the first volume. The picture of Sam Gompers learning the cigar-maker’s trade in one New York shop after another, and learning besides innumerable things about human nature and social theories from his singing, arguing companions, from his reading of the New York Sun and other journals, from the employment of his active mind in serious study, is a picture of memorable outline. In the background stood a few figures, like Lincoln’s, for admiration, and, like that of Karl Marx, for antagonism, the theories of Socialism being repugnant to Gompers from first to last. ‘Socialists the world over,’ his encounter with one of them in Edinburgh during the war led him to write, ‘are of the same mental calibre. There is only one way to deal with them — don’t argue, just tell them.’ In the foreground of these early years stood a large group of pioneers in the Labor movement whose names — to whatever extent their collective deeds may have affected the course of industrial relations — are almost wholly without meaning to the reader of to-day.
In contrast with all these elements of the unfamiliar, something more than half of the autobiography brings the reader into contact with events and persons that figure in multitudes of other books. Their significance as determining figures in world affairs culminates in the years beginning with the war, when Gompers, once the obscurest of little cigar-makers, was hobnobbing with presidents, premiers, admirals, and kings, and bringing a vital contribution to the conduct and settlement of the war through his influence on the forces of Labor both in America and in Europe. The possibility of ascent from impotence to power has rarely been more dramatically illustrated than in this narrative.
It needs no searching eye of the moralist to discover the secret of the power exercised in steadily increasing degree and scope by Samuel Gompers. The intensity of his loyalties — to family, friends, and cause — accounts for much. A burning passion for justice to the under dog explains much more. On top of that came an unquenchable energy. ‘Frequently,’ he writes, ‘there comes over me a feeling like liquid fire — it just courses through my veins — a yearning to work.’
The application of these qualities to the cause of Labor and trades-unionism was bound to produce results. The very fact that some of them were distasteful to the more conservative representatives of Capital, and others equally obnoxious to the more radical representatives of Labor, is a fair indication that their general value was substantial. The record of them is accordingly to be prized.
But why will not antobiographers — and biographers — learn that, unless their art be superhuman, an unbroken narrative of nearly 1200 large pages is more likely to obscure than to clarify a single life? The reader placed between a book that is too long and a review too short to do it justice may indeed be said to resemble the fabled donkey standing between two bales of excelsior.