Historical and Social Context - Overview

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

Historical and Social Context

This volume is concerned with the years 1865-1914. In other words, the age of Regionalism, Realism, and Naturalism begins with the end of the Civil War and concludes with the beginning of World War I. The era has been described in many ways—as an “era of good feelings”; an age in “ferment”; an age of “progress,” of “reform,” of “energy.” The extravagant displays of wealth and abuses of power from 1865 until 1890 are aptly captured by the title of an 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner—“The Gilded Age.” The efforts to curb these abuses after the economic depression of 1893 until 1920 characterize what is known as the “Progressive Era.” The 1890s are sometimes regarded as a time of decadence, the “mauve decade”; the opening decade of the twentieth century, on the other hand, has been called an “end of American innocence.” There is some truth in all of these labels, but together they underscore the social and cultural confusion of the times. Realist and naturalist writing sought to depict the age and often to offer in imaginative terms answers and remedies to current dilemmas. In so brief a space, one can only be suggestive of the historical period, and, broadly speaking, the most vital aspects of that history have to do with the aftermath of the Civil War, the political and social unrest of the day, patterns of migration and immigration (and with them the growth of the cities), the dramatic increase in wealth and poverty that created an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor, and the increasing authority of science and technology in everyday life.

By any reckoning, the death toll of the Civil War is appalling—well over 600,000 men died in combat or from disease. The figure is difficult to grasp, but Mathew Brady’s troop of daguerreotypists made the carnage vivid for the nation. Widows and fatherless children, empty sleeves, run-down homes and farms would serve as bitter reminders of the conflict for decades to come. Insofar as the Civil War affected literary production in the country, there were several important consequences that prepared the ground for Regionalist and Realist writing. First, the war broadened the perspective of men and women alike. Men who might have otherwise lived out their lives without traveling more than twenty miles from their birthplace had been mustered out and had become acquainted with people who had different customs, different speech patterns, different habits. Those who stayed behind anxiously searched the newspapers for word of where their loved ones were or whether they were still alive and as a result acquired a better understanding of the geography of the nation and the significance of national, as opposed to local, politics. At the same time that Americans broadened their perspectives, they acquired a greater appreciation for place, and Regionalist writing became popular. Moreover, the newspapers increased significantly both in number and readership, and the number of magazines published in the country jumped from a few hundred before 1865 to more than three thousand by 1885. Clearly, local-color writing had a ready outlet in both these venues.

It was difficult to glorify or sentimentalize the war after the sad knowledge of so many lives lost, but there were many who did so nonetheless. Pastors, politicians, and others saw the triumph of the North in the Civil War as a great moral victory and cultivated the notion that the nation’s ills could merely be reformed out of existence. Such reformist impulses included the populist and temperance movements. Others took away different lessons from the experience of the war. It was quickly perceived that the expenditure of large amounts of capital and the mobilization of great numbers of individuals, whose energies were directed at a single object, could yield surprisingly effective results. These lessons could be applied to manufacturing, and thus the industrialization of the country became a transformative event. Hank Morgan, in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), learned the blacksmith trade from his father but soon became a superintendent of an arms factory in charge of some two thousand workers. More and more, American men, women, and children were getting a living in factories. By 1900, 20 percent of all manufacturing workers were women, and 13 percent were children under the age of sixteen. Working conditions were often deplorable, and dangerous; industrial accidents accounted for some twenty-five thousand deaths a year. Rebecca Harding Davis presciently described the devastating effects of factory life upon the soul in “Life in the Iron Mills” in 1861; Upton Sinclair dramatized similar conditions in the meatpacking industry in his popular novel The Jungle. Sinclair’s socialist ambitions and his sympathies for American laborers were largely ignored; instead, sickened by the descriptions of meat preparation, Americans demanded changes and the Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted the same year. At all events, writers counted themselves among those who might help to reform a nation that appeared badly in need of repair.

On the surface, it would seem that there should have been political stability during this period; with the exception of the elections of Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, Republicans occupied the White House for five successive decades. Nonetheless, during the same period, the country was fraught with continuing political dissatisfaction and social unrest, and in fact three of those Republican presidents were assassinated. Financial panics contributed to the discontent. The economic depression of 1873 lasted six years and put three million out of work; the panic of 1893 was of briefer duration, but its consequences were even more severe. Economic uncertainty and rapid industrialization gave birth to labor organizations, most important, the National Labor Union, the Knights of Labor, and the American Federation of Labor. The Populist Party was organized in 1892 to defend the rights of western farmers against falling prices and farm foreclosures. Edwin Markham’s extremely popular poem “The Man with a Hoe” (1899) and Hamlin Garland’s stories about farm life on the middle border dramatized the backbreaking and often futile struggles to get a decent life from the land. In urban areas, strikes, work stoppages, and other forms of protest publicized the workers’ plight, but, by and large, unions were ineffective in their opposition to their treatment by management and industry, as were the populists in trying to reform monetary policy unfriendly to their interests. The relation between management and organized labor was a source of violent conflict, most notably with the Haymarket riot in 1886 and the Pullman strike in 1894.

The efforts of Reconstruction to heal the divisions between North and South were an utter failure. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the institution of Jim Crow laws throughout the South contributed to bitter tensions and sometimes to race riots. Charles Chesnutt dramatized the Wilmington, North Carolina race riot of 1898 in his novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901). Theodore Dreiser and Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote short stories about lynch mobs, and James Weldon Johnson described the burning alive of a black man in the South in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). Twain wrote a satirical essay titled “The United States of Lyncherdom.” Race riots and lynchings were not exclusively directed toward African Americans (there were anti-Chinese, antiGreek, and anti-Italian riots as well), nor were they an exclusively Southern phenomenon. The problems of migration and immigration added volatile elements to the brew. Great numbers of African Americans, motivated by fear, repression, or simple poverty, moved north, mostly into the swelling cities. Until World War I, the United States had a more or less unrestricted immigration policy, except with regard to Orientals. Successive waves of immigration also increased the urban population, but immigration complicated problems of labor and industry, as well, and cultivated certain racial and ethnic fears in those Americans who had definite ideas about what an American was. They sometimes described themselves as “hundred per-centers,” and the feeling that those of Anglo-Saxon descent were a superior race destined to dominate civilization here and abroad was a general one. Prior to 1870, most of the immigrants to the United States were, with the exception of the Irish, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. After that date, immigrants from Russia and southern and eastern Europe introduced a Jewish or Catholic element into American society that made the so-called real Americans nervous and suspicious. The anti-Catholic American Protective Association was established in 1887 and the Immigration Restriction League in 1896. Those who had immigrated to the United States to find religious tolerance and economic opportunity were discovering that these commodities were hard to come by.

Racial and ethnic tensions were particularly acute in the cities. Between 1880 and 1900, American cities grew by fifteen million people. At a time when “urban planning” was nonexistent, the consequences were dire. Pollution, open sewers, and overcrowding in poorly ventilated tenement buildings contributed to an alarming increase in death by disease. In How the Other Half Lives (1890) Jacob Riis sensationally documented with photographs the squalor of New York tenements. The population did not divide neatly into halves, of course. Ward McAllister coined the phrase “the four hundred” to designate the only people who really matter in New York City; in answer, O. Henry published a volume of short stories about ordinary people in the city and called it The Four Million (1906). Before the introduction of electric streetcars, workers had to live within walking distance of the workplace. Eventually, however, commuting became a real possibility, and as a result many people began to live in “suburbs.” In turn, as a rapidly increasing middle class emerged, the social strata started to segment in territorial ways. Some parts of the city were particularly dangerous or unwholesome. Stephen Crane depicted life along the Bowery in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and the African American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar rendered both the harsh life in the rural South and the debilitating conditions in New York’s Tenderloin district in his novel The Sport of the Gods (1902).

Despite the undeniable facts of hard living, whether on the farms or in the cities, the prevailing belief in the rags-to-riches myth persisted. Virtue, talent, and hard work were the tools for success, this myth maintained. Twain satirized this belief with antic glee; William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton treated the subject more seriously but with equal disdain. Still, there were well-known examples of those who rose from obscure and difficult circumstances to become rich and powerful. Andrew Carnegie began working at the age of thirteen and rose through the strata of American society to become one of the richest men in the nation. But he is only one example. Before the Civil War, there were perhaps one hundred millionaires in this country; by the 1890s, there were over four thousand. Much of that wealth was gotten or sustained by graft, bribes, monopolies, and other sorts of abuses. The Credit Mobilier scandal, which involved fraudulent manipulation of more than $20 million worth of construction contracts for building the Union Pacific Railroad, was exposed in 1872, during the Ulysses S. Grant administration. The president was not implicated in the influence peddling, but the vice president was, and thereafter this sort of political corruption was known as “Grantism.” Backroom dealing was perversely combined with exuberant displays of opulence and excess; the phrase “conspicuous consumption” was coined during this era, and the so-called robber barons were guilty of it. The well-to-do sat down to ten-course dinners at the famous New York restaurants of the day, Waldorf or Delmonico’s; in one instance, a dog dinner was staged in Newport, Rhode Island, and one dog collapsed from overeating. Gambling was another indulgence—John W. “Bet-You-a-Million” Gates, who had made his money in barbed wire, is said to have lost $250,000 in a single poker game. Immense wealth combined with simple bad taste gave rise to an examination of the conflict between “old money,” founded on tradition and a genteel sensibility, and “new money,” accompanied by a certain extravagance and coarseness that were deemed vulgar. This was a theme Howells, James, and Wharton treated with accomplished literary results.

With the depression of 1893, these lavish displays appeared all the more unseemly, and, by the turn of the century, “muckraking” journalists began to publish articles on a variety of scandals and abuses involving industrialists and politicians. Before that, political progressives had argued for more government intervention in the affairs of business and commerce. Among those reforms were, notably, the Interstate Commerce Act (1887) and the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890). These measures were not strictly enforced, however, until the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the early years of the twentieth century. Not so coincidentally, perhaps, during this same period there was a surge of philanthropy by rich benefactors. Andrew Carnegie published a famous essay, “The Gospel of Wealth,” in the North American Review in 1899 arguing that the wealthy were stewards and had social obligations to contribute to the public good. From 1893 to 1903 over $600 million in the form of gifts and bequests were donated to one institution or another. Large sums were contributed to public libraries, concert halls, museums, universities, or to foundations dedicated to helping the poor. Despite the coarse behavior of some of the well-to-do, these same people enriched the cultural life of the nation in various and important ways.

Finally, one has to note the tremendous impact of science and technology during this era. Running alongside all the tumult and confusions of the social life, and strangely somehow apart from it, was the advance of science. If social progress was made at all, it was made by fits and starts. Not so with scientific innovation. It seemed to purr right along, unhindered or undisturbed by the chaos. A partial list of innovations or inventions is suggestive: dynamite (1867), the telephone (1876), the phonograph (1879), the internal combustion engine (1885), electric streetcars (1887), the electric motor (1888), the box camera (1888), radio telegraphy (1895), the X-ray (1895), the first flight (1903), and Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity (1905). But the list does not indicate more-efficient methods of industrial production and distribution, improved methods of railroad and bridge construction, faster and generally safer modes of transportation, and many other changes. Some proposed that science, particularly Darwinian evolution, had declared war on religion. However, orators such as John Fiske and Reverend Henry Ward Beecher reassured the public that the two realms were entirely compatible. Whatever else Darwinism meant to the popular mind, it surely meant progress, that the best days lay ahead. It was also clear that the advances in science and technology touched the lives of everyone in one way or another.

To the extent that the United States participated and contributed to the revolutionary developments in scientific discovery and technological innovation, progress also seemed to fortify notions of American exceptionalism. It was a great question, at any rate, whether the U.S. military adventures in Cuba and the Philippines were wars of liberation or examples of imperialism. As it entered the early twentieth century, the United States was a very different country from the one that emerged after the Civil War. It was larger, wealthier, and more powerful. Its populace was more diverse, and the lives of its people were more complicated, even if its citizens were not necessarily more sophisticated. Gertrude Stein once remarked that America was actually older than other nations because it had entered the twentieth century in the 1880s. For good or ill, the United States had joined the community of nations on a more-or-less equal footing. With World War I looming on the horizon in 1914, it would have its chance, and its obligation, to prove its membership.

—Tom Quirk