CLOSING: The Life and Death of an American Factory.

CLOSING: The Life and Death of an American Factory.

Edward Tenner

By Bill Bamberger and Cathy N. Davidson. Center for Documentary Studies/Norton. 224 pp. $27.50

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CLOSING: The Life and Death of an American Factory.

By Bill Bamberger and Cathy N. Davidson. Center for Documentary Studies/Norton. 224 pp. $27.50

A Library of Congress subject heading on the copyright page places this book in a sadly familiar genre: "Downsizing—United States—Case Studies." In 1993, a hundredyear-old plant, the White Furniture Company of Mebane, North Carolina, went out of business, leaving many of more than 200 employees jobless. For five years the photographer Bill Bamberger had been documenting the life of the factory, and he continued to follow the lives of the former workers. A text by the writer and literary scholar Cathy N. Davidson rounds out a moving, unsettling view of a region in transition.

In 1985, a slim majority of the familydominated shareholders approved the sale of the company to Hickory Manufacturing Corporation, a larger firm that was in turn controlled by a holding company under a Chicago venture capitalist named Clyde Engle. Steve White, the CEO who had fought the deal, had to resign under its terms. With no access to the books of these closely held companies, it is hard to prove either the employees’ conviction that an absentee speculator gutted a viable if not vibrant enterprise, or the managers’ avowals that years of underinvestment by the patriarchal, conservative Whites had made the plant’s position untenable.

Whatever the case, White Furniture was a middle-sized organization in a middle-sized industry at a time when technological trends favor the big (with the resources for evercostlier electronic enhancements) and the small (with the flexibility to find niches that complement the big). It hurts to be located in between, whether making furniture, practicing law, publishing books, or selling software.

It was this very size that gave White Furniture, especially before its merger with Hickory, a human scale. If the alienated cubicle-dwellers of Scott Adams’s Dilbert form a dysfunctional clan, Bamberger and Davidson offer a counterimage of workplace as family. The production line at White’s was closer to artisanal teamwork than to regimented machine tending. Workers and supervisors came from similar rural backgrounds, black as well as white. Steve White hunted ducks with men from the plant. And the mirror frames and bedsteads and dressers photographed by Bamberger reflect not only craftsmanship but teamwork. For the employees interviewed, the industrial family had made it possible to raise their real families with dignity and modest comfort. The plant’s closing appears as a chapter in the destruction of an industrial yeomanry.

Reading interview-based history critically is like working from a kit of semifinished parts, not all of which fit neatly together. Was HickoryWhite’s an honest experiment in bringing long-needed managerial controls and capital investment into a declining paternalist enterprise? Workers acknowledge that wages and equipment initially improved under the new regime, even if ancient perquisites were reduced. But the merger might have been doomed from the outset by the folly of cost cutting (practices such as using plastic bands in lieu of veneer for concealed buffet shelves) in a demanding luxury market in which a dining room set had to sell for the price of a midsized automobile. And how could the last president agree to keep the plant’s final liquidation a secret for three months, knowing that line workers were counting on continued employment?

Davidson’s prose, like Bamberger’s photography, is forthright and lucid. The book insistently directs our attention to the human costs of the new economy, yet it never conceals the problems of the old ways. The gentle natural light of the factory interior captures workers, products, and machinery in an elegiac yet unsentimental memorial. This is documentary work of a high order, a corrective to triumphalist cybercratic boosterism, and above all a reminder of the ambiguities and ironies of family values.

—Edward Tenner