"The materials collected in the course of my travels will allow me to construct a well sourced, detailed narrative of Thompson’s life."

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Travel Report: Joseph Burton

Joseph Burton, a PhD student in the Department of History, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further his research in the United States.

December 09, 2019

My Fall 2019 research trip, made possible by the Graduate International Research Travel Award, consisted of visits to three different archives in the United States over a thirty-one day period: The Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University (Detroit); the Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor); and the Newberry Library (Chicago). My research project, tentatively entitled “Democracy and Revolution: Frederick Thompson and US Anarchism, 1930-1970,” attempts to assess the transmission of anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist ideas in the United States by exploring the life and ideas of IWW scholar and activist, Frederick W. Thompson (1900-1987). The materials collected and stored over the course of my travels each relate to Thompson’s life and works and address three interrelated paths of inquiry: (1) evidence pertaining to the immediate biographical details of Thompson’s intellectual development; (2) the papers, letters, and similarly biographical materials of Thompson’s contemporaries (especially those with whom he shared interests or with whom he corresponded and struggled); (3) and materials pertaining to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the organization to which Thompson belonged for most of his life.

The Wayne State archives in Detroit offered materials from all three paths of inquiry. The Frederick W. Thompson Collection (17.5 linear feet) held extensive records of Thompson’s correspondence and writing, draft chapters of several of his major works, as well as information — member culture, curriculum lists, teaching strategies — on such institutions as the Work People’s College, the IWW’s labour school from the 1920s to the early 1940s. The Industrial Workers of the World Records (102 linear feet), too, held much useful information on Thompson’s life, including records of the Cleveland IWW branch where he served as secretary-treasurer in the 1940s, as well as detailed financial records and branch activities (in the form of convention transcripts, for example) during virtually the union’s entire existence. All of this material has helped and will help me, first, to build a broader picture of the IWW’s activity during the 1930s (the period when studies of the organization traditionally end) and to explore the influence of anarchism during the revival of leftist politics during the late 1950s and 1960s. 

The Hatcher Library in Ann Arbor was particularly helpful in the case of anarchism in the 1960s. There, I explored the voluminous Franklin and Penelope Rosemont papers (48 linear feet), which detailed the life and works of the Rosemonts themselves — to whom Fred Thompson was a friend and mentor — as well as information on their extensive connections to radical communities in New York, California, and Wisconsin, among other locations in the US, and internationally, especially in Paris. This collection will assist me, first, in (re)mapping the scope and influence of anarchism in such organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society and, concomitantly, has offered me new and fruitful paths of inquiry going forward.

Finally, the Fred Thompson Papers held at the Newberry Library (2.2 linear feet) offered crucial retrospective testimony from Thompson himself, largely in the form of extensive letters, about his early life in North America and his intellectual maturation. These letters explored, for example, his developing response to Leninism and his struggle to reconcile political action and trade unionism, and has helped me to build a more complete picture of his life at the time of his joining the IWW. The collection, further, featured extensive correspondence between Thompson and his fellow workers — in addition to letters between his friends themselves — as well as crucial biographical materials (diaries, reading lists, personal notes) which detail the circumstances attending both his early life and his death.

Overall, the materials collected in the course of my travels will allow me to construct a well sourced, detailed narrative of Thompson’s life and to begin building a convincing argument about the relevance of anarchism — and of the Wobblies, as members of the IWW are affectionally called — during the 1960s and beyond.

Additional Photos

The Haymarket Memorial commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Affair, an event of great significance to the labour movement in the United States.