Main A Companion to the Modern American Novel 1900 - 1950

A Companion to the Modern American Novel 1900 - 1950

This cutting-edge Companion is a comprehensive resource for the study of the modern American novel. Published at a time when literary modernism is being thoroughly reassessed, it reflects current investigations into the origins and character of the movement as a whole.
  • Brings together 28 original essays from leading scholars
  • Allows readers to orient individual works and authors in their principal cultural and social contexts
  • Contributes to efforts to recover minority voices, such as those of African American novelists, and popular subgenres, such as detective fiction
  • Directs students to major relevant scholarship for further inquiry
  • Suggests the many ways that “modern”, “American” and “fiction” carry new meanings in the twenty-first century
Year: 2009
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Language: english
Pages: 616 / 617
ISBN 10: 0631206876
ISBN 13: 9780631206873
Series: Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture
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A Companion to
the Modern American Novel 1900–1950

A Companion to the Modern American Novel 1900–1950 Edited by John T. Matthews
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. ISBN: 978-0-631-20687-3

Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture
This series offers comprehensive, newly written surveys of key periods and movements and certain major
authors, in English literary culture and history. Extensive volumes provide new perspectives and positions on
contexts and on canonical and post-canonical texts, orientating the beginning student in new fields of study
and providing the experienced undergraduate and new graduate with current and new directions, as pioneered
and developed by leading scholars in the field.
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59. A Companion to the Modern American Novel 1900–1950
Edited by John T. Matthews
For more information on the Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture series, please visit www.wiley.
com

A

CO M PA NION

TO

T HE M ODERN
A MERICAN N OVEL
1900–1950
EDITED BY
J O H N T. M A T T H E W S

A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Publication

This edition first published 2009
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A companion to the modern American novel 1900–1950 / edited by John T. Matthews.
p. cm. – (Blackwell companions to literature and culture)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-631-20687-3 (alk. paper)
1. American fiction–20th century–History and criticism–Handbooks, manuals, etc.
2. Modernism (Literature)–United States. I. Matthews, John T.
PS379.C63 2009
813'.5209–dc22
2008036226
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Set in 11 on 13 pt Garamond 3 by SNP Best-set Typesetter Ltd., Hong Kong
Printed in Singapore
1

2009

Contents

Notes on Contributors
List of Figures
Preface
Acknowledgments

viii
xiii
xiv
xxiii

1

An Economic History of the United States 1900–1950
Eric Rauchway

1

2

The Changing Status of Women 1900–1950
Nancy Woloch

13

3

The Status of African Americans 1900–1950
Matthew Pratt Guterl

31

4

Pragmatism, Power, and the Politics of Aesthetic Experience
Jeanne Follansbee Quinn

56

5

Class and Sex in American Fiction: From Casual Laborers to
Accidental Desires
Michael Trask

73

6

Jazz: From the Gutter to the Mainstream
Jeremy Yudkin

91

7

French Visual Humanisms and the American Style
Justus Nieland

116

8

Early Literary Modernism
Andrew Lawson

141

9

Naturalism: Turn-of-the-Century Modernism
Donna Campbell

160

vi

Contents

10 Money and Things: Capitalist Realism, Anxiety, and Social Critique
in Works by Hemingway, Wharton, and Fitzgerald
Richard Godden

181

11

Chronic Modernism
Leigh Anne Duck

202

12

New Regionalisms: Literature and Uneven Development
Hsuan L. Hsu

218

13

“The Possibilities of Hard-Won Land”: Midwestern Modernism
and the Novel
Edward P. Comentale

14

Writing the Modern South
Susan V. Donaldson

15

What Was High About Modernism? The American Novel
and Modernity
John T. Matthews

240
266

282

16

African-American Modernisms
Michelle Stephens

306

17

Ethnic Modernism
Rita Keresztesi

324

18

The Proletarian Novel
Barbara Foley

353

19 Revolutionary Sentiments: Modern American Domestic Fiction
and the Rise of the Welfare State
Susan Edmunds

367

20

Lesbian Fiction 1900–1950
Heather Love

392

21

The Gay Novel in the United States 1900–1950
Christopher Looby

414

22

The Popular Western
William R. Handley

437

23 Twentieth-Century American Crime and Detective Fiction
Charles J. Rzepka

454

24

What Price Hollywood? Modern American Writers and the Movies
Mark Eaton

466

25

The Belated Tradition of Asian-American Modernism
Delia Konzett

496

Contents

vii

26

Modernism and Protopostmodernism
Patrick O’Donnell

518

27

The Modern Novel in a New World Context
George B. Handley

535

28 Reheated Figures: Five Ways of Looking at Leftovers
Jani Scandura

554

Index

579

Notes on Contributors

Donna Campbell is Professor of English at Washington State University. She has
written Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1880–1915
(1997), and has published widely in scholarly journals on American literature. She
writes the annual “Fiction: 1900 to the 1930s” chapter for American Literary Scholarship. Her next book will be a study of women writers of naturalism.
Edward P. Comentale is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University. His
first book was Modernism, Cultural Production, and the British Avant-Garde, and he is
now at work on a monograph treating modernism, regionalism, and popular music
entitled The State I’m In: Modernism and American Popular Music. Recent articles deal
with the modernist Midwest, William Faulkner, country music, and the Coen
brothers.
Susan V. Donaldson is the National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of
English and American Studies at William and Mary College. She has written Competing Voices: The American Novel, 1865–1914 (1998), and coedited, with Anne Goodwyn
Jones, Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts (1997). Current projects include books
on the politics of storytelling in the US South and on William Faulkner, Eudora
Welty, Richard Wright, and the demise of Jim Crow.
Leigh Anne Duck teaches at the University of Memphis, where she is Associate
Professor of English and an affiliate of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social
Change and the Center for Research on Women. Her book, The Nation’s Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism, appeared in 2006, and she has begun
a new cross-cultural project on literature of the US South and South Africa.
Mark Eaton specializes in American literature, African-American literature,
American ethnic literature, postmodernism, and film studies at Azusa Pacific
University, where he Professor of English. He is coeditor, with Emily Griesinger,
of a volume of essays called The Gift of Story: Narrating Hope in a Postmodern World

Notes on Contributors

ix

(2006) and has published widely on American literature and culture in scholarly
journals.
Susan Edmunds is the author of Out of Line: History, Psychoanalysis and Montage
in H. D.’s Long Poems (1994) and Grotesque Relations: Modernist Domestic Fiction
and the U.S. Welfare State (2008). She is a professor of English at Syracuse University, where she specializes in twentieth-century American literature and culture,
African-American studies, modernism and the avant-garde, and experimental
fiction.
Barbara Foley is Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark, where she
teaches Marxist theory, US literary radicalism, and African-American literature. Her
books include Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of Documentary Fiction (1986),
Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (1993),
and Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro (2003). She is
currently working on a book about politics, history, and the making of Ralph Ellison’s
Invisible Man.
Richard Godden is Professor of English at the University of California at Irvine,
where he teaches courses in twentieth-century American literature, literature of the
American South, and the relation between economic and literary forms. He is the
author of Fictions of Capital: Essays on the American Novel from James to Mailer (1990),
Fictions of Labor: William Faulkner and the South’s Long Revolution (1997), and William
Faulkner: An Economy of Complex Words (2007).
Matthew Pratt Guterl is Associate Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, where he also directs the American Studies
Program. He has written American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of
Emancipation (2008) and The Color of Race in America, 1900–1940 (2001), and coedited,
with James T. Campbell and Robert Lee, Race, Nation, and Empire in American History
(2007).
George B. Handley is Professor of Humanities at Brigham Young University. His
books include New World Poetics: Nature and the Adamic Imagination of Walt Whitman,
Pablo Neruda, and Derek Walcott (2007), Postslavery Literatures in the Americas: Family
Portraits in Black and White (2000), Caribbean Literature and the Environment: Between
Culture and Nature (2005) (ed.), and America’s Worlds and the World’s Americas (2006)
(ed.).
William R. Handley is Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern
California. Past President of the Western Literature Association, he is the author of
Marriage, Violence, and the Nation in the American Literary West (2002), and coeditor,
with Nathaniel Lewis, of True West: Authenticity and the American West (2004). He has
also published essays on Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, LA freeways, and Mormonism, among other topics, and is the editor of a forthcoming book on the film Brokeback
Mountain.

x

Notes on Contributors

Hsuan L. Hsu has recently been appointed Assistant Professor of English at the
University of California at Davis. He is completing a manuscript entitled Scales of
Identification: Geography, Affect, and Nineteenth-Century U. S. Literature, and has published on contemporary literature, Asian-American literature, film, regionalism, and
the theory of space and cultural production.
Rita Keresztesi is Associate Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma,
where her research and teaching focus primarily on twentieth-century American literature and culture, with an emphasis on issues of ethnicity, race, and class. Her book,
Strangers at Home: American Ethnic Modernism between the World Wars, was published
in 2005. She is currently working on a new book that examines the cultural and
intellectual exchanges between African-American and Afro-Caribbean artists and
thinkers.
Delia Konzett is Assistant Professor of English and Cinema/American/Women’s
Studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of Ethnic Modernisms:
Anzia Yezierska, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Dislocation (2003)
and is currently working on a new project on war and Orientalism in Hollywood
WWII film. Her teaching interests include modernism, cinema, film theory, ethnic
writing, and the representation of race in film and literature.
Andrew Lawson teaches American literature of the nineteenth century through the
present in the School of Cultural Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is the
author of Walt Whitman and the Class Struggle (2006) and is completing a book to be
called Downwardly Mobile: American Realism and the Lower Middle Class. He has also
published on Mark Twain and Stephen Crane.
Christopher Looby teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he
is Professor of English, specializing in United States literature of the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, and Gay/Lesbian/Queer Studies. He is editor of The Complete
Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (2000) and author
of Voicing America: Language, Literary Form, and the Origins of the United States (1996).
Heather Love is the M. Mark and Esther K. Watkins Assistant Professor in the
Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. Her interests include gender studies
and queer theory, the literature and culture of modernity, affect studies, film and
visual culture, psychoanalysis, race and ethnicity, and critical theory. She is the author
of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007), and is working on a
project on Erving Goffman called The Stigma Archive.
John T. Matthews is Professor of English and American Studies at Boston University. He is the author of The Play of Faulkner’s Language (1982), ‘The Sound and the
Fury’: Faulkner and the Lost Cause (1990), and the forthcoming William Faulkner: Seeing
Through the South (2009). He is currently completing a book on the US South and
modern fiction called Look Away, Look Awry: The Problem of the South in the American
Imagination.

Notes on Contributors

xi

Justus Nieland is an assistant professor of English at Michigan State University. He
works in modernism, the avant-garde, and film studies, and is the author of Feeling
Modern: The Eccentricities of Public Life (2008). He is writing a book on David Lynch
for the Contemporary Film Directors series at the University of Illinois Press, and
coauthoring a book, with Jennifer Fay, on film noir and the cultures of
globalization.
Patrick O’Donnell is Professor of English at Michigan State University, where he
specializes in modern and contemporary American literature, postmodern literature
and theory, and literature and film. He is the author of John Hawkes (1982), Passionate
Doubts: Designs of Interpretation in Contemporary American Fiction (1986), Echo Chambers:
Figuring Voice in Modern Narrative (1992), and Latent Destinies: Cultural Paranoia in
Contemporary U.S. Narrative (2000). He is writing The American Novel Now: Contemporary American Fiction Since 1980 for Wiley-Blackwell.
Jeanne Follansbee Quinn is Director of the Program in History and Literature at
Harvard University. She has coedited, with Ann Keniston, Literature after 9/11 (2008)
and is completing a book entitled Democratic Aesthetics: Popular Front Antifascism.
Eric Rauchway is Professor of History at the University of California at Davis. The
author of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America (2006), Murdering
McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (2003), and The Refuge of Affections:
Family and American Reform Politics, 1900–1920 (2001), he is currently working on a
book entitled The Gift Outright: The West, the South, and America, 1867–1937.
Charles J. Rzepka is Professor of English at Boston University. He is the author of
Detective Fiction (2005), Sacramental Commodities: Gift, Text, and the Sublime in De
Quincey (1995), The Self as Mind: Vision and Identity in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats
(1986), and numerous articles on British Romanticism and detective fiction. He is
coediting, with Lee Horsley, the Blackwell Companion to Crime Fiction.
Jani Scandura is Associate Professor of English at the University of Minnesota. She
is the author of Down in the Dumps: Place, Modernity, and American Depression (2008)
and coeditor, with Michael Thurston, of Modernism, Inc.: Body, Memory, Capital (2001).
She is working on a new book entitled Suitcase: Fragments on Memory, Matter, and
Motion.
Michelle Stephens published Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of
Caribbean Intellectuals in the U. S., 1914–1962 in 2005. She is at work on a second
project provisionally entitled “Black Acts: Race, Masculinity and Performance in the
New World.” Associate Professor of English at Colgate College, she specializes in
American, African-American, and Caribbean literatures.
Michael Trask writes on the intersections of queer theory and feminism, high and
low culture, and social theory and traditional literary criticism, and teaches in the
Department of English at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of Cruising

xii

Notes on Contributors

Modernism: Class and Sexuality in American Literature and Social Thought (2003) and is
currently working on a book called Camp Stories: Mass Culture, School Culture, and the
New Social Movements.
Nancy Woloch teaches history at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her publications include: Women and the American Experience (4th edn, 2006), The American
Century: A History of the United States Since the 1990s (6th edn, 2008), The Enduring
Vision: A History of the American People (6th edn, 2008), and Early American Women: A
Documentary History (2nd edn, 2002). She is working on a book on protective labor
laws, 1890s–1990s.
Jeremy Yudkin is a professor of Music at Boston University and Visiting professor
of music at Oxford. He is the author of eight books on various aspects of music,
including Music in Medieval Europe (1989) and Understanding Music (1996). He has
recently published two books on jazz, The Lenox School of Jazz: A Vital Chapter in the
History of American Music and Race Relations (2006) and Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and
the Invention of Post Bop (2007).

List of Figures

Figure 12.1
Figure 28.1
Figure 28.2
Figure 28.3
Figure 28.4
Figure 28.5

George Annand and Carl Van Doren, A Map of Sinclair
Lewis’ United States as it Appears in His Novels.
Community Kitchen at Japanese-Canadian internment camp,
ca. 1943, Greenwood, BC.
Documentary, Our Mess Hall by Henry Sugimoto, 1942.
United States Office of War Information, 1943. OWI
Poster No. 35.
Sculpture-morte by Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968).
Relocation: Packing up, Manzanar Relocation Center, by Ansel
Adams, 1943.

226
557
560
563
567
570

Preface

When I first agreed to edit this collection of essays on the modern American novel,
I thought immediately of the sorts of pieces I wished I’d been able to send my students
to through the years. A number of excellent resources for teaching modern literature
have appeared recently, almost all of them designed to provide concise but comprehensive coverage of standard literary topics and movements in the period and genre
of study. The best do an excellent job of locating and relating individual works and
authors, and helping readers understand where given literary elements fit in the
broader accounts of major developments. The series of Companions in which this
volume appears, however, in allowing a greater number of essays and more flexible
organization, invites attention to other pedagogical purposes. Over the past two
decades, modernist studies has enjoyed a burgeoning of exciting new historical, theoretical, and cultural scholarship. This innovative work has at least complicated, and
sometimes even called into question, almost every accepted assumption of our field.
One of the objectives of this Companion is to reflect the directions of such new
scholarship: not only do many of the essays propose fresh descriptions of familiar
novels of the period, or new descriptions of freshly (re)discovered ones, they also root
their reformulations in contemporary theoretical speculation and historical research
that ought to stimulate advanced students (and nonspecialist teachers) to their own
explorations of the field and its underlying conceptual questions. The bibliographic
sections that follow the essays include titles suggested for further reading. We can
imagine many ramifications, some beyond the bounds of what gets said here: the
continued reconfiguration of courses to allow comparison of texts from other national
traditions around the globe, from underrepresented literatures within hemispheric
America, and from minority traditions within the continental US; writing assignments that ask students to work historically with modernity while thinking analytically of modernism; the study of modernism as conceptually intertwined with the
experience of postmodernity and postmodernism. This collection brings together
established literary scholars who have set new agendas in the study of the modern

Preface

xv

American novel, and younger scholars who have begun to publish the next generation
of cutting-edge work. It also includes articles by a number of historians, who provide
invaluable accounts of the material and intellectual environments occupied by novelists and their readers during the first half of the twentieth century.
We hope to have met a standard of authoritative originality throughout the essays.
They have been conceived to furnish readers with a variety of tools: to provide concise
studies of relevant economic, social, and cultural contexts; to rethink traditional
accounts of familiar topics like realism, naturalism, and regionalism with respect to
modernism; to complicate the origins and purposes of modernism; in fact, to extend
an idea proposed by Peter Nicholls that we should be thinking more in terms of a
plurality of modernisms, including a range of ethnic and mass-cultural varieties; and
to question some of the received categories for study of the nation’s fiction during
this period, including those upon which the volume’s self-definition rests: the novel,
America, modernism, and modernity. The luxury of a book like this is that so many
of our essays aim to incite reconsideration, inquiry, and speculation, as well as provide
information.
The first set of essays recreates the habitat for literary activities between 1900 and
1950. Eric Rauchway’s essay on economic history addresses many central topics:
urbanization, immigration, speculation and consumption, labor and the New Deal,
and postwar recovery. Each of these sets backdrops for much of the period’s fiction,
particularly in the interwar years, when some kinds of modernism sought refuge in
aesthetic opposition to the economic and social transformations attendant to modernity, and subsequent tendencies toward political literature during the Depression
insisted on representing such conditions to national audiences. Rauchway’s chapter
enriches numerous essays that follow here, including those on realism and capitalism,
the proletarian movement, Southern literature, and regionalism. Nancy Woloch provides a concise, comprehensive account of major changes in women’s lives over the
period. Her essay furnishes much useful empirical data about the conditions affecting
women – data about employment and education, for example – that will help students
of literature read the novels of this era with a usable sense of what was happening,
and how different writers both reflect and intervene in these trends (or in some cases
ignore or oppose them). The essay keeps the distinct stories of various groups of
women in mind, and shows how differences in class and race affected opportunity and
the decisions women could make. Readers will be able to see how the artistic ventures
of women writers of the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, grew out of the broader
effects of migration to northern cities, and the distinctive employment pattern of
African-American women. In the next essay, Matthew Guterl recounts the broader
history of modern African-American life through the lens of literary perceptions of
it. His essay charts distinct phases of black experience and mentality, from the horrors
of Jim Crow segregation, through the “New Negro” Renaissance, the Great Depression, and on to the horizon of the civil rights movement, each phase put in dialogue
with influential cultural reflections like those of Thomas Dixon, Jr. or W. E. B. Du
Bois.

xvi

Preface

Guterl’s essay offers several points from which subsequent essays may be seen to
launch out. Reading through the example of Richard Wright’s short story “Long
Black Song,” from Uncle Tom’s Children, Jeanne Follansbee Quinn distinguishes an
aesthetics for fiction of the period that is drawn from pragmatist philosophy, such an
aesthetics defining and enjoining the problem of progressivist art rather than insisting
upon theoretical solutions. The essay maps the poles of modernist epiphany and proletarian conversion, then shows how pragmatism complicates, without expecting to
solve, the step from aesthetic vision to political action. Wright’s story becomes an
epitome of the incommensurability of aesthetics and politics that troubled much other
fiction of the 1930s. Woloch’s piece gives the reader a context for Michael Trask’s
contention that the modern novel embraced (with productive ambivalence) a revolution in sexual mores, with its possibilities for individual emotional and even economic
growth. His argument vivifies and expands the idea of the modern in the many novels
he treats. Sex and ethics are pried apart in a way that suggests just how profound the
shifts of modernity were; Trask restores some of that sense of newness, particularly
now that scholars have begun to accept views that emphasize the continuities of
modernism with earlier periods, or stress some of the conservative implications
of modernist treatments of modernity. Readers will want to note Trask’s analysis
of Gertrude Stein’s wayward style (or styling of waywardness) from the standpoint of
sexual vagrancy, as well as his fresh discussions of frequently taught works like Sister
Carrie, The House of Mirth, My Ántonia, Winesburg, Ohio, The Great Gatsby, and Grapes
of Wrath.
The two following pieces pursue the interplay between American fiction and two
distinctive modern art forms: jazz and cinema. Jeremy Yudkin offers a documentary
account of changing attitudes toward jazz from its inception to its canonization by
mid-century. The essay’s historical survey helps readers appreciate the flux of contemporary debates about this innovative kind of music, and invites them to explore the
record of controversy themselves. The cultural nexus of the “American arts” of jazz
and a jazz-inflected American literary style inspires Yudkin’s suggestive discussions
of Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison (who wrote extensively about jazz), and Norman
Mailer. Justus Nieland explores the international cultural and political circumstances
that led French intellectuals to appropriate American modernist literary style in order
to invent a “visual humanism” after the two World Wars. Nieland shows how the
1940s French cultural critic Claude-Edmonde Magny translates modernist experimental technique in the novel into a style of film, one devoted to the sort of ethics that
transcend individual subjectivity. The essay bends received delineations of textual and
cinematic fiction by using interdisciplinary methods across the media (in this case
prompted by Magny’s own insistence on the common purposes crossing modern film
and fiction). Nieland also opens up a transatlantic context for the cultural reception
and value of the modern American novel.
The next group of essays reconsiders familiar categories of modern American literature: late nineteenth-century realism, literary naturalism, and modern realism. Andrew
Lawson develops a line of inquiry into the realistic aesthetic of Henry James, William

Preface

xvii

Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and the early Edith
Wharton that concentrates on the opposition between mass culture and elite forms
of literary production. Lawson’s analysis illuminates the shifting material circumstances of writing fiction – the economics of producing imaginative goods for a rapidly
developing literary market – as it also provides the basis for a key family trait of early
realist modernism: its self-consciousness about representational practice. The divide
between high and low culture, now understood to have been more fluid and murky
than critics once believed, provoked the kinds of equivocation Lawson charts; it also
anticipates the assumptions grounding later essays in the Companion on subsequent
phases of modernism such as the fiction of high modernism or the Hollywood novel.
Donna Campbell thinks about what makes American naturalism a kind of protomodernism by employing a definition of modernism that emphasizes its addressing of
modernity. Campbell’s thesis disturbs a simple chronological sequence from naturalism to “classic modernism,” showing instead that the two may mostly be different
spaces of continuing engagements with modernity. The essay provides concise yet
thorough analyses of main exemplars of naturalism like Frank Norris, Stephen Crane,
Kate Chopin, the later Dreiser, Jack London, and Anzia Yezierska, while suggesting
broader affiliations with a range of other writers (such as Wharton and Paul Lawrence
Dunbar, for example). Richard Godden examines labor and production history in the
period of high capitalism during the American 1920s to excavate economic preoccupations in Ernest Hemingway, Wharton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Godden’s essay
demonstrates how imaginative work resisted assumptions being posited by modern
capitalism: the dominance of industrial production, the myth of liberal individualism,
the confidence in gratification through the consumption of commodities. Godden
suggests how forms of modernism emerged to counter these dominant features of
modernity – what Godden considers a (false) capitalist realism: in Hemingway producing a sensitivity to the way the consumption of commodities encouraged amnesia
toward labor; in Wharton leading to a sort of hyperrealistic attention to objects that
challenges the forgetfulness of reification; and in Fitzgerald exposing the fictionality
of self-made men like Gatsby as those who have forfeited their own material reality.
Several essays take up the idea that, as Campbell suggests, alternative modernisms
occupy simultaneous spaces during the early century. Leigh Anne Duck unfolds
modernism’s concern with negotiating the temporal changes of modernity by treating
them through spatial and demographic segregation. Drawing on Bakhtin’s analytical
category of chronotope (pertaining to time and space in a narrative), Duck shows how
progressive capitalist time contrasts in modern literature with personal eccentric forms
that resist it. Duck’s analysis allows for a more explicitly materialist explanation of
why modernist art gravitates toward the spatialization of experience, and she ranges
across a wide variety of examples: Sherwood Anderson, Nathanael West, Du Bois,
Gertrude Stein, the Native American writer John Joseph Mathews, Faulkner, and
Ellison. The essay also suggests how the urgencies and anxieties of modernism extend
into contemporary permutations of global modernity, anticipating a number of essays
in the volume that explore the intertwining of modernism and postmodernism. Hsuan

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Preface

Hsu also centers economic factors in his account of regionalism. Hsu distinguishes
separate moments and kinds of regionalism: a turn-of-the-century form of regionalism
associated with the local color movement and exemplified by Hamlin Garland, Charles
Chesnutt, and Sarah Orne Jewett, for example, as opposed to a newer regionalism of
the 1920s. That regionalism – instanced in Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Lee
Masters, and the Southern Agrarians – performed the cultural work of producing
regions for modern national-level capitalist development. Hsu’s closing section on
ethnic regionalism demonstrates how labor exploitation based on racial subjugation
was transmuted into the cultural differences of place, and how writers like Zitkala-Sa
(Gertrude Bonnin), Américo Paredes, Jean Toomer, and Carlos Bulosan questioned
such conventions of representation. Ed Comentale offers an original reformulation of
Midwestern modernism through Giorgio Agamben’s theory of potentiality. Comentale suggests that the Midwest is inevitably associated with national potential. But
potentiality necessarily swings between a condition of general sadness or disappointment that accompanies any specific materialization of an ideal (it’s never what’s
dreamt of) and a resource for more critical resistance to the specific kind of materialization embodied in urban industrial capitalism, with its emergent culture of consumption (life could always be better, in ways symbolized by regional habitation).
Comentale considers Midwestern writers like Ruth Suckow, Willa Cather, Sherwood
Anderson, and Dreiser, but also turns to the painters Grant Wood and Thomas Hart
Benton to amplify his thesis. Susan Donaldson picks up on Hsuan Hsu’s inclusion of
Southern authors in modern regionalist writing by seeking the origins of modernist
narrative self-consciousness in the violent abruption of modernity on the South by the
Civil War. Donaldson documents the upheavals brought to all Southern groups by
the collapse of the Confederacy, showing how African-American writers like Julia
Anna Cooper, Ida B. Wells, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper explored new ways of
telling stories in order to consolidate new social and political narratives. Donaldson
incorporates most of the prominent post-Reconstruction through early twentiethcentury Southern novelists into her innovative account of an indigenous Southern
modernism – from George Washington Cable through Charles Chesnutt, James
Weldon Johnson, Allen Tate, Faulkner, Frances Newman, Eudora Welty, Richard
Wright, and Ellison.
My essay on high modernism corresponds with Donaldson’s by arguing that the
confrontation with a Southern past was central to modernism’s engagement with the
realities of modernity. At the cusp of the new century, the nation’s uneasy denial of
its relation to the peculiar social and economic history of the South finally had to be
addressed when the federal government began to act toward new foreign colonial
territories as it had formerly acted toward its Southern region. Debates about racial
subjugation, neoplantation agricultural empire, and an increasingly strong federal
state all figured into modern literature’s anxious recognition that the South had always
been integral to the national project and prosperity, based as it was on hemispheric
plantation colonialism. Many principal American modern novelists were Southern in
essential ways, and this essay suggests how habits of denial might be traced through

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xix

a figure surprisingly common to many high modernist texts: the colonized black male
body. Michelle Stephens explores the ways African-American artists sought to realize
the opportunities for racial self-expression offered by modern social realities such as
migration to Northern cities and increased access to cultural organs like the stage and
magazines. She chronicles phases in the difficult attainment of a separate black modernism, beginning with an insistence on racial visibility in popular theatre and early
film. Stephens valuably links the later, more self-possessed modernist art of the
Harlem Renaissance to Caribbean anticolonialist culture of the 1920s, showing how
the African-American modern novel must include hemispheric Americans like Eric
Walrond and George Lamming. The essay’s final turn follows out the challenge to a
largely masculinist New Negro African-American modernism by other writers of
color: conspicuously Zora Neale Hurston, but also Jean Toomer (who writes sympathetically of women’s oppression in the plantation South).
More combatively, Rita Keresztesi challenges the hegemony of high modernism
as an aesthetic formation that guarded ethnic privilege. She contends that canonical
modernism reinforced social practices that policed ethnic populations during the
migratory movements characterizing modernity. The essay insists that there is a
politics involved in formulating modernism as essentially “high,” and that there is
a variety of “ethnic” writing that ought to be counted as modernist, not all of it
characterized by formal experimentalism or designed for consumption by educated
elites. The essay arcs from the emergent modernism of The Confidence-Man to a
residual form in Invisible Man. Writers like Nella Larsen and Hurston are positioned
as examples of one kind of modernism, while Native American writers like Mourning Dove, D’Arcy McNickle, and John Joseph Mathews appear as practitioners of
another, and Jewish-American ones like Anzia Yezierska and Henry Roth of still
another. Barbara Foley reprises a thematic taxonomy of proletarian fiction in her
essay, listing scores of titles treating each of the genre’s five principal subjects:
strikes, race and antiracism, nonclass-conscious workers, the development of class
consciousness, and everyday working-class life. Foley then moves to a consideration
of formal classification, and in particular two subgenres, that she finds more illuminating to proletarian purposes: the single-protagonist novel of development, and
the collective novel. In addition to remarks about a host of proletarian novelists
from these standpoints, Foley also suggests how Richard Wright and John Dos
Passos exemplify the appropriation of modernist formal techniques for proletarian
novelistic objectives. A contrasting kind of progressivist fiction appears in Susan
Edmunds’ account of the modern sentimental novel. Edmunds argues that the
modern sentimental tradition, far from functioning as a distraction from political
imagination, actually associated domestic life with the possibility of social revolution. Edmunds reads a remarkable array of writers – Edith Wharton, Nella Larsen,
Edna Ferber, Yezierska, Walter White, Meridel Le Sueur, Richard Wright, Faulkner,
Toomer, Djuna Barnes, Tillie Olsen, Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor – as
drawing terms from the discourse of home life to represent debates about the formation of the US welfare state.

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Preface

The next set of essays recuperates a number of former “minority” traditions of the
American novel from the first half of the century now being reconceptualized as fully
central to modernism. Heather Love complicates the category of lesbian fiction by
noting the ambivalence generated by the emergence of lesbianism under social and
medical disciplinary impulses: the formation of lesbian identity cannot be separated
from its pathologization. Love’s readings begin with Henry James’s The Bostonians,
then take up Sarah Orne Jewett, Gertrude Stein, Hilda Doolittle (H. D.), Nella Larsen,
Gale Wilhelm, Djuna Barnes, Jane Bowles, and Patricia Highsmith; they describe a
trajectory toward more explicit affirmation of same-sex affection between women. The
analytical subtlety of the essay foregrounds aspects of textual unrepresentability –
kinds of opacity, strains of searches for the language of inchoate new social relations
and forms of affectional attachment. Christopher Looby detects a similar concern with
matters of formal representation in observing the inseparability of reflection on storytelling itself and the question of homosexual desire. Looby traces a preoccupation in
gay fiction with the question of whether the queer novel might be possible at all given
the snug ideological fit between traditional novelistic plots of self-realization and
narratives of heterosexual romance and marriage. Looby’s essay focuses on early
instances like Charles Warren Stoddard’s For the Pleasure of His Company (1903) and
Edward Prime-Stevenson’s Imre: A Memorandum (1906) to explicate the historical,
theoretical, and artistic quandaries constraining gay writers at the turn of the century.
The essay goes on to survey a range of gay fiction during subsequent decades, lingering particularly over neglected works by “Blair Niles,” Dawn Powell, and Charles
Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, and ending with a reflection on Carson McCullers’ A
Member of the Wedding.
William Handley’s essay is one of three to address modern popular subgenres, in
his case the Western. Handley raises numerous provocative questions about the historical significance of the Western, as well as its current timeliness: the essay looks
at issues of high versus popular culture, gender and genre, market demands versus
resistance to commodification, and the Western’s typical engagement with myths
justifying the domestication of the land. The essay focuses on that ur-Western, The
Virginian (1906), and the best-selling author of them all, Zane Grey, but also gives
ample space to lesser-known artists and, very valuably, to women writers of Westerns.
Handley also detects the pressure of the Western on more canonical works by Cather
and Fitzgerald. Charles Rzepka maps the chronological development of detective
fiction during the first half of the century, covering all the usual suspects: Dashiell
Hammett and Raymond Chandler during the interwar years of the hard-boiled form;
Horace McCoy and James M. Cain from the postwar noir period; Mickey Spillane and
Chester Himes principally as Cold War instances; and, growing out of earlier traditions of “alternative” detective fiction, more contemporary feminist and gay/lesbian,
postmodernist, and high cultural parodic versions (the last in Vladimir Nabokov and
Thomas Pynchon, for example). Mark Eaton pursues the relation of hard-boiled detective fiction to the Hollywood novel, not only establishing in helpful detail the familiar
hostility of “serious” writers to their reliance on periodic indenture to the film studios,

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xxi

but more surprisingly showing that Hollywood was actually indispensable in other
ways. For one thing, studio contracts subsidized authors who wouldn’t have been able
to get any writing of their own done otherwise; Eaton looks at the exemplary career
of Faulkner in this regard. But as an object of fascination for modern America,
Hollywood also provoked a huge number of novelistic treatments of itself as phenomenon, and Eaton’s essay goes on to survey those Hollywood-themed novels – many by
lesser writers, along with notable ones by Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Horace McCoy, and
Nathanael West.
The closing cluster of essays probes the limits of the definitions enabling our collection. Delia Konzett challenges the usual positioning of Asian-American fiction
within postmodernism, making a compelling case that what drives Asian-American
writing is a “belated modernist project”; Konzett identifies the roots of post-World
War II Asian-American writing in the experience of migration and displacement –
principal features of modernity. The essay joins a number of earlier ones here that
spell out the plurality of modernisms the field has come to recognize, expanding the
set of literary responses to modernity far beyond what Konzett sees as the experimental
techniques tending to distinguish “high” modernism. Patrick O’Donnell isolates
strains in modernism that come forward in the light of postmodernism. The essay
steers clear of the period-model of evolution and rupture for the succession of modernism by postmodernism, undercutting the whole notion of temporal contiguity, and
showing the challenge to linear temporality as a central modernist/postmodernist
problematic to begin with. Readers will appreciate O’Donnell’s account of key debates,
with its summaries of principal schools of interpretation and theories of postmodernism. Readings that focus on Stein, Barnes, and Faulkner illustrate key purposes of
modernism (the destabilization of knowledge and identity through their spatialization
into the language of process in Stein; the destabilization of gender/identity binarism
in Barnes; and the textualization of genealogy, history, and consciousness in Faulkner).
George Handley begins his essay by positioning American modernism – especially of
the regional and racial minority varieties – within the hemispheric movements of
anticolonialism, under which common efforts were made to affirm the value of indigenous rural cultures against the incursions of imperialist modernity. Handley mounts
a trenchant argument against treating US literature as exceptional, maintaining that
it shares with other New World nations three fundamental conditions: the effects of
widespread diaspora, often violently forced; the genocide of indigenous populations;
and the degradation of the environment. Against the forgetfulness of imperialist
powers toward such history, across the hemisphere, the modern novel offers the work
of countermemory.
Jani Scandura concludes our book with a rumination on the afterlife of modernism.
Scandura makes something of a deconstructive turn against modernism’s desire for
and exaltation of the thing itself – its apparent longing for an end to (as transcendence
of ) figurative language. This desire she reads as fetishistic, harboring an equivocation
that ends up revealing the figural within the literal, and making the remnant/
the leftover/Derrida’s le reste internal to the thing. Scandura manages to weave this

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Preface

theoretical meditation on the status of things in modernism with a very particular
social history: the implications of modern technological food preservation. The longing
to preserve leftovers immediately becomes a Freudian dream in Scandura’s hands, one
that’s related to the remnant figure of a relocated Japanese-Canadian woman in Joy
Kogawa’s novel Obasan (1981). Taking up a dream that one of Freud’s patients has,
in which the dreamer confuses an oven with a refrigerator, Scandura translates the
functions of these modern kitchen appliances to correspond to the psychological processes of introjection and melancholy by which individuals either succeed or fail to
overcome trauma. Introjection involves incorporating and eventually working through
threatful experiences; melancholy is the consequence of refusing to process grief: you
get stuck with unusable leftovers. I can say only that Scandura fuses the psychoanalytic, ideological, and historical here, insisting that readers think hard about what’s
been left out of traditional ways of preserving both modernity and modernism – internal ethnic populations, to begin with. The insistence on these theoretical and historical phenomena contextualizes the modern American novel in a new conceptual way;
the focus on Kogawa’s novel – even as it breaks the frame of the 1900–50 boundaries
– presses the idea of the incomplete, perhaps incompletable, project of modernism,
its haunting of postmodernism as itself leftover modernism; and it hints at a certain
absence discovered and installed at the heart of modernism that persists into postmodernism, though perhaps with increasingly explicit attention to the ethics or
acceptance of absence.

Acknowledgments

For over three decades now I have taught a course in the modern American novel at
Boston University. I’ve been remarkably fortunate in the intelligence, sense of adventure, and industry that students have brought to these classes. I want to dedicate this
book to the undergraduate and graduate students who have made my course in the
modern American novel a lifetime joy, and who have managed to make it a distinct
intellectual challenge and achievement each semester. Many of you remain vividly
memorable to me; I thank you for the countless observations and questions that have
contributed to the evolution of my thinking about modern fiction, about contemporary American culture, and about why literature matters in the first place. I also wish
to thank Melanie Benson for serving as a graduate research assistant during the preliminary phase of this book; as ever, her work for it was insightful and meticulous.
My embarrassment at how long it’s taken finally to complete this project is tempered
a little by the pleasing fact that her own book will beat it to publication. I also wish
to thank Boston University, particularly College of Arts and Sciences Deans Jeffrey
Henderson and Virginia Sapiro, for research funds these past two years that helped in
the preparation of the book for press. I want to thank as well the contributors to this
Companion. I knew many of them professionally before this project began, but more
of them were – and quite a few remain – only written voices on the other side of the
screen. I’ve been gratefully astounded at their generosity toward this project, the
originality of their conceptions for these essays, as well as the exactitude of their
scholarship, and their seemingly inexhaustible capacity to indulge the ravings of an
editor on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It took a long time for the nearly 30 of
us finally to sprint, jog, tumble, inch backwards, or get dragged across the finish
line, and so I want to thank our editors at Wiley-Blackwell, particularly Andrew
McNeillie, who urged me to undertake this project, Emma Bennett, Rosemary Bird,
and Hannah Morrell, for the confidence and patience that sustained me through the
years we worked on this book. I do wish I’d done this sooner, but I suppose that’s
true for almost everything else in life too.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (detail), 1942, oil on canvas, 84.1 × 152.4 cm. Friends of
American Art Collection, 1942.51, The Art Institute of Chicago. Photograph by Robert
Hashimoto. Reproduction © The Art Institute of Chicago.

1

An Economic History of the
United States 1900–1950
Eric Rauchway

In 1900 Americans still counted as a country people, and for most of them the
rhythms of rural life shaped their ideas about past, present, and future. They shared
memories of cultivation and scheduled their work in anticipation of the seasons and
obedience to the weather. But before the twentieth century had half passed, the
American city grew to overshadow the farm. Business cycles displaced seasons at the
center of Americans’ forecasts, and while weather still played its capricious part in
determining how fully an investment might come to fruition, a host of other factors,
epiphenomena of the industrial world, joined storm, drought, and flood as the unpredictable masters of fate. Americans who lived through this shift from rural to urban
life often complained that the regimentation and complexity of the industrial world
robbed them of their independence. At the same time, the shift to modern modes of
production turned the United States into the most nearly independent national actor
on the world’s stage, at the center of an international economy Americans had little
experience managing or even imagining. Only through the wrenching of war and
depression did they come even to a tentative reckoning with the way the world worked
now, and their place in it.

The Move to the Cities, 1900–1920
The shift from farm to city occupies a central place in the developmental theories of
economists and the developmental histories of those nations fortunate enough to make
it. By shifting resources out of agriculture and into industry, a people make possible
greater specialization in production and begin to learn how to manufacture goods for
which they can earn higher profit margins than they can for agricultural commodities.
The shift to cities requires more elaborate networks of connections extending not only
from farm to mill to market, but from steel town to rubber town to manufacturing
center.

A Companion to the Modern American Novel 1900–1950 Edited by John T. Matthews
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. ISBN: 978-0-631-20687-3

2

An Economic History of the United States

The movement of the American people from farm to city thus entailed the extension of American influence throughout the continent, as railroads and telegraphs made
the riches of the interior available to the manufacturing centers on the coasts. While
the balance of the population shifted to cities and went to work on the assembly lines
of factories, a smaller but still significant share of the populace moved into the remoter
parts of the nation’s territory. As the population concentrated itself in cities, its frontier outposts grew more numerous and farther-flung.
The mobility of the American people thus meant not only a shift to cities, but also
the extension west and south of the urban economy. Movement west meant wars with
the indigenous peoples of the continent, and it meant the reshaping of American
politics to admit the peculiar interests of those underpopulated western states. Extension of the modern American economy to the South also meant the end of the South’s
traditional isolation from urban life and culture. All these shifts and changes provoked
profound political and cultural changes in the American people. As they became a
more urban nation, they began to think of themselves in new ways.
In the summer of 1893 the historian Frederick Jackson Turner seized on a landmark
pronouncement by the US Census to mark an epoch in US history:
In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant
words: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at
present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that
there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward
movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.”
This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historical movement. Up to
our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization
of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and
the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development. (Turner
1920: 1)

In 1910 Turner elaborated on this theme: “A new national development is before
us, without the former safety valve of abundant resources open to him who would
take. Classes are becoming alarmingly distinct . . .” (Turner 1920: 280). His pronouncements captured the imaginations of many Americans seeking for an explanation of why their country plunged repeatedly into depression, why so many Americans
found themselves out of work through no evident fault of their own, why the ladder
upward from wage-work to self-employment seemed to have gone, and why working
Americans now joined unions and struck against the national welfare. They had used
up all the free land, and with it went the outlet for discontented labor radicals, who
had no choice but to congregate in cities and clamor for expropriation of the comfortable classes’ wealth. By 1920, Turner’s story seemed to have reached a logical peak,
as a year of strikes and police raids culminated in the Census’s dry confirmation that
half the American population now lived in officially urban areas (Haines 2006).
These two census bookends, 1890 and 1920, offer a useful cartoon sketch of
American urbanization at the start of the twentieth century, and Turner’s gloss on

Eric Rauchway

3

these occurrences gives us an excellent starting point for what such changes might
have meant for the United States. But they provide only a starting point, and stopping with them often occasions erroneous conclusions constituting what we might
call the nationalist fallacy, which has two components. First, it incorrectly creates the
picture of a uniform country. Not only was the United States a large and diverse
republic at the turn of the century, and unevenly economically developed, but it had
then as it has now a highly federalized system of government, with a considerable
degree of local control over policy. Second, it omits mention of the international
influence on American affairs, which was particularly significant in the decades before
World War I.
The end of the frontier and the move to cities did not mean the end of Americans’
mobility, but it meant that the pattern of their movement followed a different course
than the one Turner outlined, and became discernibly part of an international movement of peoples.1 Turner thought the move to cities would mean an end of the United
States’s peculiar character as a frontier nation, believing that as Americans crowded
into cities they would become more and more like the European peoples from whom
they had seceded, miserable in their proximity and riven by class. But as the social
scientist Charles Beard wrote in 1912, a close observer might have reason to believe
that even as Americans became a city people they would become a city people quite
unlike any other: “In addition to the unhappy working and living conditions which
characterize modern urban centers generally, the American city has special problems
of its own on account of the large percentage of foreigners embraced in its population . . . Our larger cities are in fact foreign colonies” (Beard 1912: 22–4).
In the first decade of the twentieth century, annual net immigration to the United
States increased dramatically from about 288,000 in 1901 to about 818,000 in 1910
(Carter, Gartner, Haines, Olmstead, Sutch, and Wright 2006: series Aa13). Foreign
immigration accounted for as much as half the population growth in the US during
this period (Barde, Carter, and Sutch, 2006).
While it is certainly possible to overstate the importance of immigration to US
history, it is not possible to overstate it by much, especially for the early twentieth
century. On the one hand, the US was only one among a set of New World nations
that received immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when
tens of millions of Europeans sought work and residence overseas. If the US was a
nation of immigrants, so were Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, and others. And
because those nations had smaller populations than the US did, foreign-born people
accounted for a much larger share of their population. For example, in 1911 immigrant arrivals in Canada amounted to about 5 percent of the total population, while
in the US at about the same time, they accounted for only 1 percent of the total population, so we might want to say that immigrants had five times the impact in the
further north of North America than they did in the United States (Mitchell 2003:
series A8 and A1). And if both countries had completely integrated national labor
markets, then this might be true strictly as an assessment of the economic impact of
additional labor.

4

An Economic History of the United States

But to suggest as much entails two errors. The first is another application of the
nationalist fallacy to the United States. Immigrants did not arrive in America evenly
dispersed over the landscape; if they had, they might indeed have assimilated, little
noticed, into the population. Rather, they landed in a few select locations and often
stayed there. The federal character of American politics then translated this uneven
local impact of immigration into national conflicts over policy. The second is a sin
specific to social science: the idea that an immigrant is only one unit of a quantifiable
mass – which might be so if all foreign migrants came from some single source country
named, perhaps, Foreignia. But immigrants came potentially from a wide variety of
places, spoke a wide variety of languages, and worshiped a wide variety of gods – if,
that is, we are speaking of immigrants to the United States: the US received not only
more, but more kinds of immigrants than other New World nations in the age of
mass migration. Immigrants from Britain and Ireland accounted for the largest share
of the sojourners streaming to Canada and Australia, immigrants from Spain dominated the migration to Argentina and those from Portugal the newcomers to Brazil,
but immigrants to the United States came from all over, and no single country of
origin dominated.
Immigrants to the United States made up a diverse population before they even
began to mix with the already resident Americans. In the playwright Israel Zangwill’s
rather unflattering language, they constituted “a hodge-podge of simultaneous hordes”
(cited in Rauchway 2006: 67). The numerous nationalities encouraged some enthusiastic observers to invent American multiculturalism: as Randolph Bourne wrote,
“We have needed the new peoples – the order of the German and the Scandinavian,
the turbulence of the Slav and Hun – to save us from our own stagnation” (cited in
Rauchway 2006: 67). But to more Americans, the many kinds of immigrants mattered
for their economic impact (see Rauchway 2006: 65–9 for further discussion).
Inasmuch as immigration increased the labor supply, it threatened workers with
competition, and so one would expect employers to favor immigration more than
employees would. The added element of cultural difference gave employers an increased
incentive to employ immigrants: a shop foreman could prevent unionization by deliberately hiring a workforce drawn from not only different but traditionally antagonistic
populations: Catholics and Protestants, Japanese and Chinese, Germans and Poles,
Irish and English, and so forth; the world’s bitter history presented many possibilities.
Members of a multicultural workforce looked less likely to talk to one another, let
alone organize and unite behind common interests. At the time and ever since, many
observers have essentially agreed with Karl Marx’s coauthor Friedrich Engels, who
wrote that American laborers divided into “the native-born and the foreigners, and
the latter into (1) the Irish, (2) the Germans, (3) the many small groups, each of which
understands only itself; the Czechs, Poles, Italians, Scandinavians, etc. And then the
Negroes . . . The dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart” (cited in
Rauchway 2006: 66).
Labor activists opposed immigration for just these reasons. As the sometime political candidate and theorist Henry George wrote, the new immigrants, “believed to be

Eric Rauchway

5

imported, or at least induced to come, for the express purpose of reducing wages and
making employers independent of their men . . . have naturally been regarded with
dislike and dread” (cited in Rauchway 2006: 69).
Amid this dislike and dread, some Americans simply moved. One study finds that
for every 10 immigrants that arrived in an American city, four residents left to find
a home somewhere else in the country (Hatton and Williamson 1998: 168; see also
Eldridge and Thomas 1964: 71–5 and Goodrich et al. 1936: 679–85.) But this migration worked differently from Turner’s safety valve: where his idea of the western
movement had discontented American factory workers moving west to settle on the
free land and find release from modern conditions, the migration of the early twentieth
century saw discontented American factory workers moving from eastern industrial
employment to western industrial employment, finding perhaps higher wages, but
no relief from industrial conditions or indeed from foreign competition for their jobs:
some western factory towns had proportions of immigrant labor as high as or higher
than eastern cities (Overton 1946).
Other Americans, and increasingly union leaders, began to oppose immigration.
A member of the Machinists’ Union said in 1902, “every thinking man in the ranks
of organized labor is wondering how long the United States can supply work to the
illiterate hordes of Eastern Europe if they continue to come in unchecked.” The President of the United Mine Workers supported immigration restriction in 1909 by
arguing, “the first duty of a community is to give its own members the opportunity
of being employed at decent wages.” Samuel Gompers, President of the American
Federation of Labor, wrote in 1911 that immigration should slow because it was “to
a very large extent induced, stimulated artificial immigration . . . for the exploitation
of the ignorant classes” (Lane 1984: 7, 10).
While an influx of immigrants competing for workingmen’s wages generally
increased support for restriction of immigration, it had other effects too. On average,
and allowing for the influence of other factors, American cities with rising numbers
of immigrants began spending more of their tax dollars on public health. Explanations
for this increase abounded at the time. Some observers, like Jane Addams, attributed
a general increase of interest in social problems to the concerns of immigrant communities who themselves had to endure such problems. Others attributed it to the
xenophobia of native-born Americans convinced that swarthier populations must carry
disease. Irrespective of the cause, the development of even a modest, local program of
social spending gave taxpaying Americans an increased worry that immigrants might
come to the United States to drain the public purse.
With middle-class Americans worried that immigrants might cost them tax dollars,
and working-class Americans worried that foreign competition might do them out
of a job, or at least lower their wages, and with all Americans’ susceptibility to xenophobic appeals accentuated in 1917 by the imminence of war, Congress passed – over
President Woodrow Wilson’s veto – an immigration restriction bill that forbade
immigrants who could not pass a literacy test, along with those previously blocked
(as most Chinese and Japanese immigrants were) and migrants coming from a newly

6

An Economic History of the United States

defined Asiatic barred zone. In 1921, amid a postwar depression, Congress followed
with an Emergency Immigration Act establishing quotas for immigrants of various
nationalities, and in 1924 with the National Origins, or Johnson–Reed, Act. These
laws dramatically reduced immigration to the United States, and other New World
nations followed suit, breaking up what had been something like a global market for
labor and insulating American workers from some foreign competition.
If, rather than staying in cities and opposing immigration, American workers had
wanted to move to the countryside, they would have found it increasingly difficult
up to World War I. Over the decade after 1900 the price of farmland rose 6 percent
a year on average, its speediest rise in American history to date (Lindert 1988: 54).
Rates of farm tenancy increased, as it became more difficult to buy a farm outright
(Wright 1988). Only after the war did the price of farmland begin to fall, as the
introduction of tractors reshaped American agriculture and increased the flow of
Americans to cities.
With the introduction of tractors, American farming changed dramatically. The
amount of farmland devoted to the feeding of horses and mules, the draft animals
who provided the principal, nonhuman, premechanical source of horsepower in the
fields, peaked in 1915. Tractors put animals out of jobs, and men too, as machines
replaced hands in the harvesting of crops. As farmers needed fewer draft animals, they
needed fewer acres devoted to feeding their livestock, and so more land became available for feeding people. Farms grew fewer, while those that remained grew larger
(Olmstead and Rhode 2001).
The American shift to urban life entailed a shift not only in the way Americans
lived and worked but in the way many Americans envisioned themselves. It became
less possible, as Turner worried, for Americans to imagine themselves as a hardy
people dependent only on their own resources. As they took jobs in factories and
worked at the whim of managers, as they lived in rented apartments, as they bought
food that once they would have prepared for themselves, they depended more on one
another. The American cities, affected as they were by global migrations of people,
also gave evidence that the US depended on other nations.
Americans continued to move to their cities, even as they resisted the implications
of their new lives. Through their Congressmen, they opposed immigration, and eventually succeeded in restricting it. As the cities continued to grow, the US Congress
dragged its feet in letting this economic and cultural shift affect American politics:
after the 1920 Census showed more Americans in cities than not, the legislators failed
in their constitutional duty to reapportion the House of Representatives. As one
scholarly observer noted:
The House is still organized according to the census of 1910, so that the recent great
shifts of population, notably to California and the centers of the automobile industry,
remain disregarded in Congress, and in the Electoral College as well. In many states the
situation resulting from neglect or unfair discrimination in the demarcation of legislative districts is perhaps even worse. (Chafee 1929: 1015–16)

Eric Rauchway

7

The popular press gave such concerns blunter expression, as when the American Mercury
ran an article complaining of “Government by Yokel” (Chafee 1929: 1016, n. 3).
Modernizing countries generally retain nostalgia for their lost rural past. But the
United States had structural institutions like the Senate (which apportions two Senators to each state, however underpopulated) and incidents like the failure to reapportion after 1920 that ensured a more profound lag in letting the shift toward city life
affect national economic policy.

The Prosperity Decade
Over the course of the 1920s American motor vehicle bureaus showed an increase of
automobile registrations from an average of one for every three households to one per
household. By 1929 the 123 million Americans owned 23 million cars, which meant
that, at a tight fit, the whole country could go on the road at once.
The growth of the automobile industry signified an increase of factory production,
which meant an increasingly urban laboring class; it drew on glass, iron, steel, rubber,
timber, and other industries. It drove the construction of roads and roadside attractions.
It also indicated the increasing importance of consumer debt. Henry Ford’s motor
company made it possible for more Americans to own cars, by building the standard
Model T and reducing its price constantly, and were Ford’s the whole story of the car
industry, credit would scarcely enter it. But General Motors (GM) changed the car
market by introducing planned obsolescence, with regular new models, and began
extending credit through its General Motors Assurance Corporation (GMAC).
With new car models and with other durable goods, like radios, boilers, and domestic
appliances, advertising helped Americans learn how much they needed color and color
style: “every free-born American has a right to name his own necessities,” the industry
journal Advertising and Selling proclaimed (Marchand 1985: 160). Consumer debt
doubled over the course of the decade (Carter et al. 2006: series Cj889 and Ca10).
Global credit, too, had extended as a result of the war, and the United States was
at the center of the world network of debt. Belligerent nations borrowed money from
the US to wage war. Unlike the money Americans had borrowed from Europe in the
nineteenth century, wartime borrowing went to destructive purposes. Through the
1920s the crippled countries struggled to recover from the damage they had inflicted
on each other, and to pay back their debts. Continued American lending kept them
afloat for much of the decade.
Both at home and abroad, the smooth continuation of economic affairs depended
on this new tendency to borrow. If money significantly slowed its flow overseas before
other countries had recovered from their injuries, an international crisis might ensue,
as nations failed to repay debts. If American consumers significantly slowed their
borrowing, a domestic crisis might ensue, as manufacturing firms depending on consumer credit to fuel their output slowed or even stopped. In the event, both crises
occurred in relatively quick succession.

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An Economic History of the United States

Not until the end of the decade did Americans begin to worry much about such
possibilities. For much of the 1920s, policy affecting economic affairs looked like
nineteenth-century law. Republican administrations raised tariffs in 1921, 1922, and
1930, helping to reduce international trade. They restricted immigration in 1921 and
1924, introducing quotas that cut immigration to the United States in half. Both
laws inspired other countries to restrict trade and immigration in turn. The world
economy gradually slowed, and as the barriers to the movement of goods and labor
went up, economies lost their ability to adjust to crises.
Meanwhile, the New York stock market went up and up, driven evidently by still
more borrowing. Americans of the era distinguished between investment and speculation, believing that investment reflected careful study and a long-term commitment
to business prospects, while speculation reflected judgment about other people’s
investment decisions. And speculation looked like it was on the increase. Not only
were Americans speculating more in the stock market, they were taking increasing
risks by borrowing money from their brokers to do it. At last the Federal Reserve
System decided it could countenance such frivolous use of its credit no longer. Noting
in 1928 “an unprecedented volume of transactions on the exchange and a continued
rise in security prices,” while “brokers’ loans reached a record figure . . . and continued
to increase,” the Federal Reserve began “withdrawing funds from the money market”
and making it more expensive to borrow money (Federal Reserve Bulletin, cited in
Rauchway 2008: 17).
With higher interest rates in the United States, New York’s foreign capital issues
halved after 1928. And countries that depended on money from America slid into
default: Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and Poland all began to falter
(Eichengreen 1992: 223). In 1929, the New York stock market crashed. American
consumers, uncertain about what might happen next, paused in their buying and their
borrowing to buy. Within a few months of the crash, new car registrations fell by a
quarter of their precrash number. In the next year, spending on consumer durables
fell by a fifth. Banks failed, factories closed, and unemployment began a sickening
climb to its peak, in 1932, at slightly under 25 percent of the American workforce.
Americans had a folk tradition of returning to the countryside when the cities
entered a slump, and in 1932 and 1933, the share of Americans living on farms rose
– the only time in the first half of the twentieth century it would do so (Carter et al.
2006: series Da2). Even so, the American economy had become an urban economy,
and with the coalition of voters behind Franklin D. Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, its
politics would become more urban too.

The New Deal
When Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination for President in the summer
of 1932, he pledged himself to “a new deal for the American people.” In that speech
he promised public works, working-hours legislation, reforestation, agricultural price

Eric Rauchway

9

supports, mortgage support for home-buyers, publicity in corporate accounting and
securities issuing, and the restoration of international trade. All these measures
responded to the current crisis, but all had also long been demands of various constituencies styling themselves populist or progressive, and all derived from the recognition that Americans had become at last a people who could not do without their
cities, and must begin to think of themselves accordingly. As Roosevelt put it, “this
nation is not merely a nation of independence, but it is if we are to survive, bound
to be a nation of interdependence, town and city, and North and South, East and
West” (New York Times, July 3, 1932: 8). Drawing on this understanding, Congress
implemented all these requests and more, adding in Roosevelt’s first term alone
watershed management, legalization of labor unions, federal deposit insurance, and a
strengthened Federal Reserve System.
At Roosevelt’s election, unemployment stood at near 25 percent, and real GDP at
under three-quarters of its 1929 level. Over the course of the New Deal, GDP grew
between 8 and 11 percent a year, and unemployment fell to around 10 percent.
Roosevelt’s first two terms in office thus present the picture of an economy recovering
from the disaster of 1929–32, without fully returning to normal. On balance, the
New Deal did not prevent this process of recovery, and some of Roosevelt’s policies
– particularly, perhaps, reflation of the currency, and relief programs like the Works
Progress Administration (WPA) – provided some employment and dignity to American citizens as well as stimulus to the economy. At the same time, some New Deal
programs may have slowed the recovery – particularly, perhaps, the National Recovery
Administration (NRA), which allowed industry cartels to fix prices. But NRA ran
for less than two years before the Supreme Court invalidated it early in 1935, while
the meliorative effects of relief and currency devaluation operated into the start of
World War II.
The most important and lasting changes the New Deal wrought in the US economy
had little to do with resolving the immediate crisis, instead seeking to change the
way the American marketplace worked. By giving groups, regions, or individual
persons within the American economy more autonomy in negotiating, the New Deal
sought to create what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1952) called “countervailing power,” on the assumption that through the nineteenth and into the twentieth
century, the federal government had used laws such as tariffs to increase the power of
corporations. As Senator Lewis Schwellenbach (Democrat of Washington) explained,
Turner’s independent frontiersman was a myth:
Don’t let anyone tell you that government bounties were not being given in those
days. . . . The railroads got their sections of land in each township. . . . Vast tracts of
timber lands were available for . . . the timber operators. . . . A protective tariff system
was maintained by which hidden taxes were removed from the pockets of everyone who
labored in industry and agriculture. . . . There were [government] bounties galore. But
the people who worked, and who bought and consumed our products never got in on
them. (cited in Smith 2006: 120–1)

10

An Economic History of the United States

For example, the Wagner Act, or National Labor Relations Act of 1935, offered
legal protections to labor unions so they could bargain more effectively with corporate
managers on behalf of workers. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Public
Works Administration (PWA) began to modernize the economies of the South and
West to afford them more independence from the Northeast. The Social Security Act
of 1935 established basic protections of unemployment, old-age, and disability insurance to American workers (though it did not provide healthcare), thus rendering them
somewhat less dependent on their employers. All these laws operated on the principle
of countervailing power rather than direct state intervention to redistribute wealth,
which served the purpose of keeping the federal government relatively small. As
Senator Robert Wagner (Democrat of New York) explained, such measures provided
“the only key to economic stability if we intend to rely upon democratic self-help by
industry and labor instead of courting the pitfalls of an arbitrary or totalitarian state”
(cited in Jacobs 2005: 145). The concept of countervailing power allowed New
Dealers and scholars afterward credibly to claim they had preserved American capitalism. For all that the New Deal did, it left the essential marketplace functions of
commerce largely intact.

The War and After
Mobilization for World War II brought the end of the New Deal but a massive
increase of government spending. In 1943, unemployment fell below its 1929 level.
By the end of the year, Congress had ended WPA and many other New Deal agencies.
At the same time, it increased federal spending from 8 percent of GDP in 1938 to
40 percent in 1943. The remaining unemployment from the Great Depression vanished in the war.
Mobilization of industrial resources brought Americans flooding back into factory
cities, to plants like Henry Ford’s Willow Run in Michigan, a mile-long assembly
line that at its peak could produce a B-24 bomber in just over an hour from start to
finish, or Henry Kaiser’s Richmond, California shipyards. Such facilities vacuumed
up workers from the regions where they languished, and put them to work on the
materiel of war. The munitions-makers included women as well as men; 40 percent
of the welders at the Richmond Kaiser plant were women (Kennedy 1999:
647–55).
The rush of Americans to manufacturing plants during the war appeared to complete a process begun with the transformation of the countryside. Farming became
ever more a government-assisted minority pursuit, rather than the ordinary way of
life for most Americans. The war also allowed the federal government to attack racial
segregation more directly than the New Deal ever had. Roosevelt’s Executive Order
8802, banning discrimination in federal employment, helped bring African Americans in large numbers out of the South to work in port and manufacturing cities for
the war effort. At the same time defense contracting and manufacturing brought rapid

Eric Rauchway

11

industrialization and modernization to the South and West, creating new industrial
areas and new manufacturing specialties in the once backward or frontier regions
(Schulman 1994).

The Postwar Settlements
The end of mobilization brought the fear that depression might return. Policymakers
created postwar global institutions to manage international trade and finance at the
1944 Bretton Woods conference, spawning the International Monetary Fund (IMF)
and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (better known as the
World Bank). Both operated on the philosophy that an interdependent world economy,
managed cooperatively through international institutions, would more easily create
prosperity and peace (Borgwardt 2005).
The newly reindustrialized nation reached new accommodations between labor and
management after the war. Strikes and postwar inflation created political opportunities for Republicans, who won a congressional majority in 1946 and passed the Taft–
Hartley Act in 1947, allowing states to prohibit closed shops, among other limits on
labor organization (Lichtenstein 1989).
With the labor movement curbed, the New Deal’s countervailing powers largely
intact, a limited form of social insurance in place, and the war’s mobilization efforts
over, the shape of America’s urban economy briefly settled – but not before the generous veterans’ benefits for home ownership as passed in the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (better known as the GI Bill) began to create a suburban America
and a set of policies and attitudes meant to promote a consumers’ economy (Cohen
2003).

Note
1

Historians continue to debate whether Turner’s safety valve ever actually existed. See, e.g.,

Ferrie (1995), Goodrich and Davidson (1935,
1936).

References and Further Reading
Barde, Robert, Susan B. Carter, and Richard Sutch.
(2006). International migration. In Susan B.
Carter et al. (eds), Historical Statistics of the United
States (vol. I, pp. 523–652). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Beard, Charles A. (1912). American City Government: A Survey of Newer Tendencies. New York:
The Century Co.

Borgwardt, Elizabeth. (2005). A New Deal for the
World: America’s Vision for Human Rights. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Carter, Susan B., Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael
R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch,
and Gavin Wright (eds). (2006). Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the

12

An Economic History of the United States

Present, Millennial Edition, 5 vols. New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Chafee, Zechariah, Jr. (1929). Congressional reapportionment. Harvard Law Review 42, 8:
1015–47.
Cohen, Lizabeth. (2003). A Consumers’ Republic: The
Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Eichengreen, Barry. (1992). The origins and nature
of the great slump revisited. The Economic History
Review 45, 2: 213–39.
Eldridge, Hope T. and Dorothy Swaine Thomas.
(1964). Demographic Analyses and Interrelations,
ed. Simon Kuznets, 3 vols. Vol. 3, Population
Redistribution and Economic Growth. Philadelphia:
American Philosophical Society.
Ferrie, Joseph P. (1995). Up and out or down and
out? Immigrant mobility in the antebellum
United States. Journal of Interdisciplinary History
26, 1: 33–55.
Galbraith, John Kenneth. (1952). American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Goodrich, Carter and Sol Davidson. (1935). The
wage-earner in the westward movement I. Political Science Quarterly 50, 2: 161–85.
Goodrich, Carter and Sol Davidson (1936). The
wage-earner in the westward movement II.
Political Science Quarterly 51, 1: 61–116.
Goodrich, Carter et al. (1936). Migration and Economic Opportunity. Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press.
Haines, Michael R. (2006). Population characteristics. In Susan B. Carter et al. (eds), Historical
Statistics of the United States. Available online at
<http://hsus.cambridge.org>.
Hatton, Timothy J. and Jeffrey G. Williamson.
(1998). The Age of Mass Migration: Causes and
Economic Impact. New York: Oxford University
Press.
Jacobs, Meg. (2005). Pocketbook Politics: Economic
Citizenship in Twentieth Century America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kennedy, David M. (1999). Freedom from Fear: The
American People in Depression and War, 19291945. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lane, A. T. (1984). American trade unions, mass
immigration and the literacy test. Labor History
25, 1: 5–25.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. (1989). From corporatism to
collective bargaining: Organized labor and the
eclipse of social democracy in the postwar era.
In Steven Fraser and Gary Gerstle (eds), The Rise
and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980 (pp.
122–52). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press.
Lindert, Peter H. (1988). Long-run trends in
American farmland values. Agricultural History
62, 3: 45–85.
Marchand, Roland. (1985). Advertising the American
Dream: Making Way for Modernity. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Mitchell, B. R. (2003). International Historical Statistics: The Americas, 1750-2000, 5th edn, 3 vols.
Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Olmstead, Alan L. and Paul W. Rhode. (2001).
Reshaping the landscape: The impact and diffusion of the tractor in American agriculture,
1910-1960. The Journal of Economic History 61,
3: 663–98.
Overton, Richard C. (1946). Westward expansion since the Homestead Act. In Harold F.
Williamson (ed.), The Growth of the American
Economy: An Introduction to the Economic History of
the United States (pp. 338–65). New York:
Prentice-Hall.
Rauchway, Eric. (2006). Blessed Among Nations:
How the World Made America. New York: Hill
and Wang.
Rauchway, Eric. (2008). The Great Depression and
the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Schulman, Bruce J. (1994). From Cotton Belt to
Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and
the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Smith, Jason Scott. (2006). Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works,
1933-1956. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Turner, Frederick Jackson. (1920). The Frontier in
American History. New York: Henry Holt and
Company.
Wright, Gavin. (1988). American agriculture and
the labor market: What happened to proletarianization? Agricultural History 62, 3: 182–
209.

2

The Changing Status of
Women 1900–1950
Nancy Woloch

“They are all social workers, or magazine writers in a small way,” an observer wrote
of young women at a Greenwich Village gathering in 1913. “They are all decidedly
emancipated and advanced, and so thoroughly healthy and zestful. . . . They shock
you constantly. . . . They are of course all self-supporting, and independent, and they
enjoy the adventure of life.” The engaging young women praised by journalist
Randolph Bourne, a Columbia College graduate of 1912, represented the “new
woman” of the early 1900s, who he thought would be “a very splendid sort of person”
(Cott 1987: 34–5). Few achieved the cutting-edge status of the Greenwich Villagers
Bourne described, but many types of “new women” met the challenges of the new
century. Vital themes of women’s history from 1900 to 1950 include: the continual
movement of women into the workforce, the expansion of women’s rights, the salience
of race, and the dynamic growth of the middle class.

Workers, Migrants, and Immigrants
By the start of the twentieth century, industrialization had changed the nature of
work and women had surged into the labor force. In 1900, one out of every five
women worked and women made up nearly 20 percent of all employees. Of five
million women wage-earners, one fourth worked in manufacturing, where they
constituted 17 percent of employees; five times as many women worked in industry
as they had three decades earlier. South or North, women made up much of the
textile workforce; they crowded the labor pool in clothing and food production; they
formed the bulk of employees in canning plants and commercial laundries; they
took jobs in print shops, bookbinderies, and cigar and tobacco factories. Whitecollar work beckoned, too. Introduction of the telephone and typewriter transformed
the office world. By World War I, women stenographers, typists, and telephone
operators dominated clerical work. Women also moved into retail sales and into

A Companion to the Modern American Novel 1900–1950 Edited by John T. Matthews
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. ISBN: 978-0-631-20687-3

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The Changing Status of Women

teaching; by 1900, three out of four teachers were women, and even more in
cities.
For women workers, domestic service remained a major job category, as it had
always been. Among the million women in domestic service in 1900 – maids, laundresses, cooks, companions, waitresses, and nurses, whom the Census classified as
domestic workers – 26 percent were native-born, 19 percent daughters of immigrants,
28 percent foreign-born, and 27 percent African-American. Women who had a choice
spurned domestic service because of the lack of free time, drudgery, boredom, and
especially the low status associated with it. A Massachusetts report of 1902 claimed
that women preferred jobs in factories, stores, or restaurants to domestic work, even
if they earned less; an employer responded to a survey published a few years earlier
that the native-born woman who took such work “loses caste at once.” Immigrants,
such as young Scandinavian women in the Midwest, became domestic workers, as did,
in the Far West, Mexican-American women, who also worked as canners and farm
laborers.
African-American women played a prominent role among women wage earners. In
1890, almost a million black women were employed – 37.8 percent in agriculture,
30.83 percent in domestic service, 15.5 percent in laundry work, and a tiny 2.76
percent in manufacturing. In 1900, when about one out of five white women worked
for pay, two out of five African-American women did; over one-quarter of black
working women were married, compared to 3.26 percent of white women workers.
Like white counterparts, however, black women in the labor force were likely to live
in or move to cities. Most black migrants who left rural areas moved to southern
cities, where a surfeit of black labor filled domestic jobs for low pay. Even before the
massive African-American migrations of the World War I era, the lure of jobs drew
black women to northern cities in greater numbers than black men. Black women
migrants, unlike men, could always find jobs, as cooks, laundresses, scrubwomen,
maids; in New York in 1910, four out of five employed black women held domestic
jobs. In southern cities, domestic work was often the only option. As New York social
worker Mary White Ovington observed in 1911, the African-American woman took
“the job that the white girl doesn’t want.”
Many young working women were immigrants, most likely “new” immigrants
from Southern or Eastern Europe. In immigrant families, married women rarely held
jobs outside the home, though they might take in piecework or boarders. Daughters
of immigrants, in contrast, became wage-earners; they took whatever type of work
was near their homes – factory work, mill work, domestic work. In Chicago in 1900,
half of Italian women aged 15 to 19 worked for pay outside the home. The garment
industry in eastern cities relied on the low-paid labor of young, single daughters of
immigrants. Twenty thousand young working women participated in New York’s
great shirtwaist strike of 1909–10. In March of 1911 a fire broke out on the top lofts
of the Triangle shirtwaist factory, a building with locked doors between floors and
no fire escapes. Spreading from floor to floor, the fire trapped many of Triangle’s 500
workers and 146 women burned in the flames or leaped out of windows to their deaths.

Nancy Woloch

15

“We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting,” labor
leader Rose Schneiderman told a public meeting after the fire. New York’s Factory
Investigating Committee, organized in response to the Triangle disaster, ultimately
recommended safety laws for factories and other protective measures.
Young women in the Progressive-era workforce often served as bridges between
American culture and immigrant families. They also developed their own culture, one
that involved fashion, film, and fiction as well as dance halls, amusement parks, and
the custom of “treating,” or dating. Consumer culture among young women workers,
historians contend, represented independence, fostered assimilation, defied authority,
and shaped identity.

Middle-Class Women: Education, Career, and Social Reform
“No longer is a college course considered so unusual an experience for a woman as it
was ten, or even five years ago,” wrote Barnard senior Virginia C. Gildersleeve in an
essay of 1899. “No longer does ambition alone bring girls to academic life. They come
now more as the majority of men enter – drifting direct from school, largely as a
matter of course, because it seems a natural thing to do, because their families wish
it, or because they themselves have a notion that four years at college is an amusing
experience” (Woloch 1992: 467). Gildersleeve, by 1911 Dean of Barnard, identified
one source of the rising number of women college students at the turn of the century:
well-off entrants were joining the middle-class scholarly types. The numbers of both
surged through the 1920s.
Higher education for women had made strides in the late nineteenth century. The
founding of eastern women’s colleges and coordinate colleges, the admission of women
to several private universities, and women’s acceptance at large state universities in
the Midwest and West all transformed campus life. The college experience still
reached only a small proportion of college-age women (or men) but the number of
women enrolled grew rapidly after 1870, as did their share of college populations. By
1900, the 85,000 women who attended college constituted 37 percent of all college
students; by 1920, when 283,000 women went to college, they constituted 47.3
percent. “While the education of men has outgrown the old college system, . . . ” a
president of Vassar explained, “that for women has but just grown up to it”
(Woloch 2006: 275). Still, rapid feminization of student populations evoked ire. Some
Progressive-Era colleges took steps to curtail the trend: by ending the admission of
women, as at Wesleyan; limiting women’s enrollment, as at the University of Chicago;
or segregating women in sex-typed programs such as home economics, as at many
state universities.
Women students in 1900 justifiably voiced concern with the question: “After
college – what?” Many entered professions dominated by women, such as teaching,
social work, or librarianship. Those who chose law or medicine often worked
for women’s organizations or as public employees, rather than as self-employed

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The Changing Status of Women

entrepreneurs. Women college graduates also filled the ranks of women’s pressure
groups and reform associations. By 1900, middle-class women had long-established
footholds in voluntarism and civic affairs. They had joined temperance societies and
women’s clubs; national alliances such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union
(1873) and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (1892) boasted huge memberships. African-American women’s clubs united in the National Association of Colored
Women’s Clubs (1896). Turn-of-the-century women with progressive inclinations
formed groups with overtly political purposes, such as the National Consumers’
League (1899), to promote protective laws for women workers; the National Women’s
Trade Union League (1903), to forge alliances with and promote unionization among
working women (the New York branch was prominent in New York’s shirtwaist
strike of 1909–10); the National Child Labor Committee (1904), to attain laws to
end the employment of children; or the women-dominated National Association of
Settlements (1911).
Women’s activism in Progressive-Era public life often had roots in settlement work.
As at Hull House, founded in Chicago by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889,
women typically constituted the majority of residents. Social settlements, Jane Addams
explained, provided opportunity for the educated woman to do something worthwhile
with her training. They also enabled women with advanced degrees in the social sciences to assume prominent roles in scholarship and social reform. Cornell graduate
Florence Kelley, first a Hull House resident, became Illinois’s first factory commissioner and subsequently general secretary of the National Consumers’ League (NCL),
from which base she promoted protective laws for women workers relating to maximum
hours, minimum wage, and night work; the Supreme Court endorsed maximum hours
laws in Muller v. Oregon (1908). Mount Holyoke graduate Frances Perkins, first a settlement worker, became an NCL activist, labor commissioner of New York State and
later, during the New Deal, the nation’s Secretary of Labor.
Women also achieved notice on the radical edge of the women’s movement. Feminist voices on the left included Charlotte Perkins Gilman, feminist author and theorist; Crystal Eastman, pacifist, suffragist, and activist; Emma Goldman, anarchist and
inspirational lecturer; and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, who declared in her
short-lived publication of 1914, the Woman Rebel, that “women cannot be on an equal
footing with men until they have full and complete control over their reproductive
function” (Woloch 2006: 369). Gilman and Eastman belonged to the exceptional
feminist association Heterodoxy, which began in Greenwich Village in 1912; by 1920
the group had 60 members – artists, writers, socialists, anarchists. Lively meetings,
run by founder Marie Jenney Howe, often heard guest lecturers including Goldman
and Sanger. Heterodoxy was “the easiest of clubs,” wrote member Inez Haynes Irwin.
“It entailed no dues or obligations. . . . Everything we said was off the record” (Schwarz
1982: 13). Heterodoxy members – no doubt the subject of the observation by
Randolph Bourne that began this essay – included anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons,
progressive educator Elisabeth Irwin, psychologist Leta Hollingworth, author Fannie
Hurst, radical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Mary Ware Dennett, advocate of sex

Nancy Woloch

17

education and free speech. Exuding confidence, Heterodoxy members embraced a
range of causes from reproductive freedom to sexual emancipation to woman suffrage.
Left or center, organized women provided an arena where the suffrage movement could
claim or recruit a constituency.

Winning the Vote
“A city is in many respects a great business corporation, but in other respects it is
enlarged housekeeping,” Jane Addams declared in 1907. “May we not say that city
housekeeping has failed partly because women, the traditional housekeepers, have not
been consulted as to its . . . activities?” New industrial and urban conditions, Addams
contended, necessitated the enfranchisement of women. The very complexity of city
government, she argued, “demands the help of minds accustomed to detail and va