AMOSKEAG is a book made possible by the tape recorder. Like so many contemporary studies, it consists of interviews, in this case with men and women, now mostly in their seventies or older, all of whom were once workers or officials of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. Or, as it was usually known, simply "the Amoskeag" -- an enormous complex of textile mills that wholly dominated the city of Manchester, New Hampshire, in the first third of this century. At peak operation its 30 interconnected factories employed 17,000 people, sucking them into its deafening, trembling workrooms each dawn and spewing them out 10 or 11 hours later. The company's uncontested sway over life was such that every loom or frame operator in the town's polyglot labor force (Yankee, Scottish, Italian, Polish, Greek or French Canadian) would probably have concurred with one of the interviewees who said: "Being an Amoskeag man was our life, our mode of living, our ultimate thing."

So it was, and that statement underscores the power of the calamity that befell them all. For "the Amoskeag" died, or rather was killed, over 40 years ago. Once, New England's textile industry had been the pacemaker and pioneer of the American factory system, the model of rationalizatio, profit, labor control and mass marketing. But by the 1920s its many corporations were struggling with competition from the South, obsolescent machinery and stultified leadership. The Amoskeag's absentee owners in Boston met the situation by stripping the company of its cash reserves and letting the factories run downhill. They sped up the machines, stretched out the hours and cut back the wages; then, finally, allowed the entire concern to go bankrupt. Eleven thousand people were suddenly flung into destitution in the midst of the Depression. "In 1936," one of them recalls, "the mills went out and the world stopped for everybody."

So the people whose stories are magnetically imprinted on Professor Hareven's plastic ribbons are survivors, witnesses of a world's end. Their testimony is not so much history as its mere raw material: faded, frayed, obviously warped in many particulars, but powerful in its central revelations.

Amoskeag throws new light on an old historical problem, namely the "failure" of American workers to develop class consciousness. For one thing, it demonstrates, they had other threads of connection, of possibly greater tensile strength. Ethnic cohesion, for example. Workers of various nationalities were clustered in particular shops and neighborhoods, and were bonded more to those who shared their tongue and community than to abstract "fellow workers." Then there was family. Entire clans worked in the mills, and the concerns and needs of parents, brothers and sisters were more perceptible than those of something called "labor." And there were also the mitigating moments of ease and peace, at least until the strife-torn days of the industry's decline -- lunch in the aisles at the noon shutdown, with songs, jokes and gossip passing among people who were known quantities to each other; or company-sponsored outings and picnics. These last were part of an explicit and effective paternalism which, in the early days, provided medical, recreational and educational programs for the work force. Finally, there were the minor advantages of a universally depressed price level that set sugar at a nickel a pound, stockings at five cents a pair, and other commodities within reach of weekly salaries usually under $15.

Yet all that must be balanced against the sodden, accusing weight of the remaining record. If Manchester was not Dickens' Coketown, neither was it an industrial Eden. Its large families survived because almost all members past puberty worked those grinding weeks, and filled the few leftover hours with odd jobs or unending cooking, the raising of food, mending, patching, nursing. They knew nothing of services for hire or of amenities; life wore them down long before a reasonable age. "Nobody wants their child to go back in the mill," says one interviewee, forgetfully compelled by emotion into the present tense. "Nobody . It's no life." But into the mills the children went, to emerge pensionless and wrung dry four or five decades later, dependent on their own children or on charity. Exploitation became integral to the system. Amoskeag is no socialist tract; still, it spotlights the human price paid for those cheap industrial goods which we boasted of as the fruit of our system. (Right now, faceless Koreans, Filipinos and Taiwanese are similarly subsidizing our bargain-counter ready-mades.)

So the costs and offsets were interwoven in a complex design. Randolph Langenbach's pictures fascinatingly complement the text. His current photos of the remaining mills (in addition to many oldtime shots from the archives) show great sweeps of brick wall, glistening regularities of canal, skies cut by chimneys, millyards neatly gate-framed, rows of houses standing at attention on street edges. Everything is in lines and planes, arrangements like the crisscrossed threads on the loom. Space is patterned as time is segmented on the clockface. Louder than words, the milltown architecture confirms that industry equals order.

Yet the workers themselves could not be wholly reduced to rule. Each interviewee (managers included) is the sum of a lifetime of memories; each shows, in word and portrait, evidence of being the end product of unnumbered different griefs and joys. A reader is smitten with a sense of how harsh the workers' lives were, and how deep the strength which led them to accept the inevitable."You didn't know things could be better," says one; "you thought that this was what life was all about." Was this mere submissiveness, brute adaptation to the cage? Or a dignity that our ego-tripping society has too casually sacrificed? There is no easy answer, but all the same these veterans of industrial armies come off with impressive dignity. One does not wish to sentimentalize them. God knows how disastrous it would have been to live among them as a "deviant" of any kind -- sexual, religious, intellectual, whatever. They could ill afford to give compassionate tolerance to any redefinition of life's possibilities; it might have shaken their own power to endure. Nonetheless, like the empty mill architecture around them, these men and women are attractive -- reminders of an industrial history that has had both official worship and bohemian rejection, but needs understanding most of all.

A step towards that comprehension is afforded by The Run of the Mill , which provides an overall context for Amoskeag . Its first half is a straight-forward and competent history of our textile-making past, nicely illustrated. The remainder consists of Dunwell's own photos of the contemporary remnants, made even more articulate by captions that also embody portions of reminiscence. It is engaging and worthwhile material. To some extent it lacks the power that Amoskeag's tighter focus provides, but it is far better than its format (which suggests the "picture book" of Christmas giving) promises. Someone needs to redeem works done with recorder and camera from the disrepute into which hucksterism has allowed them to fall. A step on the right path would be more serious and critical reviewing of such work, with an eye to setting standards. Under such scrutiny, The Run of the Mill could stand up unapologetic and unafraid.