This book leaves a smile on the face. Harold Livesay, professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of a well-received 1975 biography of Andrew Carnegie, has written a wry and penetrating analysis of Samuel Gompers, Dutch-Jewish cigarmaker turned pioneer labor leader. Livesay deftly evokes the color and violence of the American labor struggle, from Sockless Jerry Simpson (""the Prairie Socrates"") to the deadly confrontations between the Wobblies and their bosses. With an archness reminiscent of Gibbon, Livesay records the flawed greatness of Gompers, whose lasting achievements are darkened by his bigotry and opportunism, and the reflection of those traits in his brainchild, the American Federation of Labor. By dint of pragmatic compromise and personal ambition, Gompers steered the labor movement from 1886 to 1924, 40 years of turbulent and variegated political and economic activity. Progressives, populists, greenbackers, and Bull Moosers all flourished and failed. Technology, legal theory, and demography underwent radical transformation. Livesay has the happy faculty of elucidating this complex context without losing his central focus on Gompers, and so gives the reader a lively dual lesson in both the man and his times. Previous biographies of Gompers have been either bland or, like Bernard Mandell's 1963 work, doctrinaire; with breezy impartiality, Livesay brings fresh air to the discussion.