Reform Literature - Study Guides on General Topics

Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010

Reform Literature
Study Guides on General Topics

Reform literature of the period 1865-1914 shows the precedence of antebellum social reform writing about abolition, women’s rights, temperance, and other causes. This writing relied heavily on the literary mode of sentimentalism, which sought to touch readers’ hearts and move them to acknowledge their common humanity with oppressed groups. Although “the belief in the transcendental, usually religious moral order” of sentimentalism had lost its cultural dominance by the Realist period, William A. Morgan argues that sentimentalism influenced both the “questions about society that Realist literary texts ask” as well as “the resolutions they consider.”

Besides the legacy of antebellum reform literature, late-nineteenth-century reform writing was significantly fueled by the representational form, purpose, and possibilities of literary Realism. In its serious literary representation of concrete social problems and its commitment to depicting ordinary, common life as the writer saw it—even in all its ugliness—literary Realism became a powerful reformist tool for illuminating social problems and arousing the social conscience of readers.

The pervasive economic and social transformations of the second industrial era were a third major influence on reform literature, which took for its main, but not exclusive, target, the consolidation of wealth and power and the conflicts between labor and capital engendered by industrialization and the rise of consumer capitalism. The de-skilling and disempowering of workers through the increased mechanization of mass production, the unregulated boom and bust cycles of capitalism, and labor’s response—organizing unions, boycotting, and striking—sharpened the battle lines between labor and employers. In the 1890s, when corporate employers increasingly used force and governmental power to break strikes and punish strikers, this enhanced alliance between big business and the government further widened the gulf between classes. This economic and social strife and the need for socioeconomic changes it signaled became the focus of much reform literature.

Reform literature grappled with the major philosophical, sociological, and ethical controversies of the late nineteenth century: disputes over individualism, heredity/natural hierarchy of social classes, and conditions of the environment; disagreements about the historical inevitability of industrialization and the growth of the market; and questions about the possibility of social cohesion and ethical commitment to others in an increasingly fragmented, uncontrollable social world lacking agreed-upon ethical/spiritual principles. Much reform literature challenges the controversial cultural discourse of individualism espoused by Andrew Carnegie and other captains of industry; the philosophy of social Darwinism; and the laissez-faire economic and political ideology—all of which supported the belief that the “fit” thrive through their individual effort and innate superiority and deserve the success of their wealth. Many texts expose the role of economic and political power structures, greed, and corruption, and raise questions about responsibility, agency, and the need for systemic change.

Some reform literature targets exploitive factory work—low wages, long work hours, child labor—the impoverished conditions of workers’ lives, and the unjust distribution of wealth. Exhibiting traces of sentimentalism amidst their harsh, realistic descriptions, these novels seek to change their readers’ assumptions about the working class. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps used the Reports of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor to provide a factual base for her novel The Silent Partner (1871). Fusing women’s rights and temperance issues with the exploitive treatment of workers in textile mills, Phelps uses the awakening social conscience of her main character, the privileged Perley Kelso, to stir readers to reckon with their own “wide-spread ignorance . . . regarding the abuses of our factory system.” Another novel about a New England manufacturing town, William Dean Howells’s Annie Kilburn (1888), also explores class relations and the lives of factory workers through the character of the affluent Annie, who helps to create the Peck Social Union. Like Phelps, Howells sensitively wrestles with questions of social responsibility for the economic injustice of factory conditions and the gulf between classes.

Other novels show their reform impulse by complexly addressing the way corporate capitalism has contaminated business and challenged ethics and even the possibility of moral, humanitarian action. Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) realistically portrays characters deeply entangled with the forces of modernization: advertising and commercialism. Through his main character, Basil March, the middle-class editor of a New York magazine, Howells bravely confronts the diminishing possibility of social cohesion in late-nineteenth-century America and the complicity of even compassionate citizens in the social evils they wish they could change. In the character of Silas Lapham, a paint manufacturer who turns his small family business into a big venture in the novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Howells examines the way that capitalism, with its competition and speculation, warps personal ethics. Working with these same broad themes, Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) is based on his research into the Mussel Slough gunfight between San Joaquin wheat ranchers and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Controversially interweaving strands of Realism, Naturalism, and mystic Romanticism, Norris portrays the wheat farmers as profit seekers exploiting the fertility of their land and engaging in bribery in their desperate fight against the corruption and power of railroad monopolies to fix transportation rates and the price of land. The optimistic determinism of the novel suggests the need for reform of an economically, socially, and environmentally oppressive system.

Some reform literature actually envisioned alternative societies: the roughly one hundred works of progressive, pastoral, and feminist utopian fiction, which Jean Pfaelzer calls a remarkable “literary expression of social anxiety and political hope, a cultural event closely corresponding to the militant struggles for industrial, agrarian and feminist reform.” Building on the tradition of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) about an imagined society that was a good place (the Greek word “eutopia”) and “nowhere,” the utopian fiction of the Progressive period sought to explain the problems of industrial capitalism—movement of people off the farms and into crowded cities, labor strife, and the disparity between the very rich and everyone else—and suggest a reform agenda.

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000—1887 (1888), the most popular novel of the post-Civil War years, is considered the period’s most significant work of utopian literature. It inspired a political movement, a magazine called The Nationalist, and Nationalist clubs throughout the country, in which many writers and social reformers participated. In this story, wealthy Bostonian Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in 2000 to discover that the country has evolved into a socialist paradise: the means of production are owned communally; wealth is equally distributed; technology has made life comfortable—all the socioeconomic problems of late-nineteenth-century America have been solved by egalitarian solidarity.

Another novel, Howells’s pastoral utopia A Traveler from Altruria (1894), presents a visitor from the imaginary Altruria, who comes to America, the great land of democracy and equality, and instead teaches his middle-class host that Altruria is a much more socially enlightened and egalitarian culture. The novel satirically attacks the discrepancy between America’s purported values and its social realities, and the greed and corruption of the Gilded Age.

Other examples of this genre focusing on women’s rights are the feminist utopian novels of the Progressive period such as Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future (1889) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (serialized, 1915). Some novels played out the problems of the day to their frightful conclusions, creating dystopian warnings: for example, Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), a vision of capitalism’s potential to become fascist oppression, and Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1890), depicting economic conflict that ends in an apocalyptic battle.

During the Progressive period a major vein of reform writing became documentary, pragmatic investigative writing, known as “muckraking” (a derisive term used by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to refer to one of the allegorical characters in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678). The muckrakers, journalists and authors, sought to bring social problems to the attention of ordinary citizens and the government with the goal of instituting tangible legislative, commercial, and social reforms. They targeted a wide range of problems: corruption in government; corporate monopolies; stock swindles; the persecution and disenfranchising of African Americans and Native Americans; the inequality of women; the conditions of the poor; the treatment of children; the sick and the mentally ill; medical quackery; life in the coal mines and factories; and the pursuit of profit at the expense of the health and well-being of the working class. Integrating interviews and firsthand experience with documentary research, they often brought a quality of eyewitness testimony to their arguments and made a significant contribution to the modern idea of investigative journalism.

Two key vehicles for the dissemination of muckraking writing were Collier’s and McClure’s. Often serialized articles in these magazines became major booklength works. Collier’s Once a Week was launched in 1888 by Irish immigrant P. F. Collier, ran until 1957, and published such significant muckrakers as Ida Tarbell, C. P. Connolly, and Ralph Stannard Baker. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was commissioned by the socialist journal The Appeal to Reason in 1905, researched on the scene, and published as a volume in 1906. Although Sinclair wrote The Jungle with the primary purpose of revealing the suffering of immigrant laborers who were working in the horrifically unsanitary conditions of Chicago’s meatpacking industry and were exploited by employers, real estate speculators, and the legal system, the public latched on to food safety issues, and the novel led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. McClure’s (1893-1929), along with Everybody’s and American Magazine, also published the work of muckrakers such as Tarbell, Baker, and Lincoln Steffens.

One of the most famous muckraking works was Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890), which was inspired by his exposure to tenement living, crime, and poverty in New York City. In this landmark photojournalistic expose of life in city tenements, Riis appealed to the public conscience by recounting the history of these tenements, the speculation and greed behind the business of owning them—including owners’ willful neglect of repairs and sanitation—and the disproportionately high rents paid by poor immigrants. Although Riis generalized about ethnic groups and created a touristic portrait of poverty that affirmed middle-class values, he also underscored the way living conditions contributed to disease, moral decay, and crime; nurtured the Social Gospel (“the gospel of justice” and care for the poor); and prodded the public to call for sanitation, better design, and just management of tenements.

Other popular and influential muckraking include the pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an African American suffragist, journalist, and newspaper editor, who exposed the atrocities against blacks; Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), revealing the corrupt workings of the powerful oil monopoly; and John Spargo’s The Bitter Cry of the Children (1906), protesting the grueling work of child laborers who were coal breakers in the mining industry.


  • 1. What relationship does the writer of the reform text establish with his/her reader, and through what literary devices or rhetorical strategies is this relationship constructed? For instance, is the narrator an interpreter of the problem for the middle-class readers? Does the writer convey a positive and persuasive ethos through the use of extensive documented research? Does the writer employ the popular reformist strategy of the investigative visit (used effectively by Riis’s explorations of tenement housing in New York City)?
  • 2. In terms of literary elements and modes—characterization, plot, irony, sentimentalism’s appeal to readers’ sympathy, or Realism’s fidelity to experience through graphic detail (scenes outside middle-class comfort and familiarity)—how does a particular work of reformist fiction confront readers with the need for reform? If a text has a strong socially activist thrust, how polemical and propagandist is it? How do Realism and social purpose, or fictional world and social purpose, work together in this text? For example, in utopian fiction, how much do plot action and character development contribute to the impact of the novel?
  • 3. From research about a specific reform text, determine what was controversial about the issue examined and about the text itself in its historical moment. How class-based and class-bound, how objectifying, how sensational, and how instrumental in its effects was this reform text? In literary and historical scholarship, what is controversial about a late-nineteenth-century reform text?



Ann Bausum, Muckrakers: How Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens Helped Expose Scandal, Inspire Reform, and Invent Investigative Journalism (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2007).

Provides a lively introduction to muckraking with visuals (political cartoons, photographs, book covers).

Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820—1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978).

Examines reform as a means of social control and explores charity movements, settlement houses, and other efforts to manage the urban masses.

Sharon M. Harris, Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

Offers a major early feminist study of Davis’s writing and place in literary history, exploring her complex attitude toward reform.

William M. Morgan, Questionable Charity: Gender, Humanitarianism, and Complicity in U.S. Literary Realism (Hanover: University of New Hampshire Press, 2004).

Offers an accessible, scholarly study, linking Realism to both antebellum literature and modernism and deepening the moral and aesthetic complexity of various Realist writers, especially Howells.

Jean Pfaelzer, The Utopian Novel in America 1886—1896: The Politics of Form (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984).

Offers a detailed, scholarly but readable analysis of utopian fiction of the period, looking at the aesthetic principles of the genre in relation to its political and social subject matter.

Mark Pittenger, “A World of Difference: Constructing the ‘Underclass’ in Progressive America,” American Quarterly, 49 (March 1997): 26-65.

Analyzes the complex mixed messages sent by middle-class writers who went “down and out” to investigate the lives of the poor and often ended up reinforcing hereditarian assumptions about the culture of poverty.

Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982).

Offers a social history of this period that enriches and challenges the meaning of reform efforts.

Arthur Weinberg and Lila Weinberg, The Muckrakers (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1961).

Offers a good sampling of muckrakers’ investigative journalism from the Progressive period, including writings by Steffens, Baker, Tarbell, David Graham Phillips, and William Hard, reprinted from McClure’s, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and other prominent Progressive magazines.


Edward Bellamy (1850-1898)

Came from a New England family of ministers. His early education and career include schooling in Germany, where he learned about socialism; training as a lawyer; and work as a journalist for reform newspapers. During this time, he also published twenty-three short stories in magazines, such as Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and Scribner’s, and wrote four novels, among them Six to One (1878) and Dr. Heidenhoff’s Process (1880). His hugely popular utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000—1887 (1888) remains his most notable work. Its sequel, Equity (1897), was less successful. Bellamy edited his weekly newspaper, the New Nation, and lectured widely on his nationalist vision.

Frank Norris (1870-1902)

Reported on the Boer War in South Africa, wrote for McClure’s from Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898, and wrote feature articles for the new California periodical The Wave. Influenced by the French school of Naturalism, late-nineteenth-century scientific and psychological theories, and the political movement Populism, Norris’s novels nevertheless defy clear categories. In 1892 his expose of agricultural corruption, “A Deal of Wheat,” appeared in Everybody’s Magazine.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911)

Wrote fiction for children and adults that reflects her roots in New England intellectualism and Christian culture; is known for her best-selling novel, The Gates Ajar (1868), which actually had more affinities with spiritualism than orthodox Christianity. Her social activism and use of interviews and research inform her novels Up Hill; or, Life in a Factory (1865) and The Silent Partner (1871) and her story “The Tenth of January” (1868). Women’s conflicts with gender roles and their need for independence are prominent in her fiction, notably in her novel The Story of Avis (1877), about a woman artist.

Jacob Riis (1849-1914)

Muckraking journalist, pioneer of photojournalism, and social reformer. As an immigrant from Denmark in 1870, he experienced the life of the poor in New York City and then became a newspaper reporter covering police news for the New York Tribune. With the use of primitive flash techniques, he photographed his visits to the poorest parts of New York City and recounted his findings in his startling book How the Other Half Lives (1890). He continued to produce photojournalistic exposes: The Children of the Poor (1892), Out of Mulberry Street (1898), The Battle with the Slum (1902), and Children of the Tenements (1903), among other works, and for years gave visual presentations on the urban living conditions of the poor.

—June Johnson Bube