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The American 1890s: A Cultural Reader Review

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The 1890s was a decade, like most in American history, of tremendous divergent ideas and cultural patterns. This is I feel, the greatest advantage of The American 1890s: A Cultural Reader, a compilation of periodical articles and writings from a wide variety of authors, ranging from W.E.B Du Bois to the Indian writer Zitkala-Sa, Susan B. Anthony, Turner, Theodore Roosevelt, and a whole other range of figures devoted to cultural, scientific, political, and fictional discussion. They had dramatically differing visions on the priorities, dangers, focuses, and their own perspectives of American society. The editors of the book, Sam Harris Smith and Melanie Dawson have found a range of works which do an excellent job in illustrating this period, showing how American society diverged along different lines and principles.

There is very little from the writers themselves about the works they have included: just a brief introduction and an even briefer forward for each of its individual stories. What is most striking is how some of the ideals expressed vary dramatically between each other: the beginning chapters, focusing on immigration and the dangers of immigrants as well as minorities within the country: works such as the very first one in the book, Robert Grant's The Conduct of Life are cold, at least faux-scientific, and deeply unsympathetic to the plight of many of these poor people. By contrast, it is striking to read the warmth of many of the other chapters: Stephen Crane, the writer of the Red Badge of Courage, has a brutally pitiable work about miners in the coal mines of Scranton, Pennsylvania, with young children in the filthy coal dust sorting the impurities from the black rock, and down below the surface the miners trapped in their hope-extinguishing environment, where mules were kept in their stables forever exiled from the sunlight, going mad with joy when brought up to the surface. Or there is the Indian writer Zitkala-Sa, who describes her experience at the Carlisle Indian School, and her attempt to keep her dignity, her pride, her self-worth, down to even small battles like the fight against noxious turnips, and the white man’s curious, cloying stares that make her feel so self-conscious. And her return home, and the feeling of not belonging either to the white man’s world or to the Indian world: it’s a tragic story, and compared to the cold and harsh writings preceding it such as The Greatest Need of College Girls (a rather dreary and unoriginal piece just talking about the need for more exercise) or On Being Civilized Too Much, a wonderfully done one.

Perhaps it is only a limited sample size, and often due to the rich and their allies writing more serious, non-literary, and “scientific” stories, but it is also just as hard to repress a feeling of the infinitely greater humanity associated with stories like those the Jewish couple and their desperate battle to get enough money together to start their marriage, and their last-ditch ploy to throw enough money assembled for a wedding to get gifts to furnish their accommodations. There are stories that focus on controlling and restraining the ambitions of the poor, like Abbe Carter Goodloe's The Genius of Bowlder Bluff, and these feel cold, chilly, and depressing by contrast. I’m sure there are plenty of comparisons to this today, but in the 1890s, during a time of intense social pressure, almost social war, and a rear-guard action by the culturally dominant elites to rein in and control the newcomers to American, and without the tempering of a culture today that insists more strongly on at least the external signs of democracy and tolerance, this harsh and cruel attitude reveals itself far more brutally.

Other stories are less brilliantly social commentaries, but nevertheless are engaging and well written. Twenty-Four: Four from Elizabeth Stuart Phelps seems like an excellent predecessor of plot devices such as The Twilight Zone, with a mysterious voice calling from the dead, a charming and heart-warming story, and also gives a look into social life in a quaint, small New England village and although small, has a charming cast of characters that feel human and sympathetic, like Mrs Fillebrown with her splitting head pains at time, or her husband with his weaknesses to drink. W.E.B Du Bois’ story about the choice between a white schoolteacher and a new black one in a poor Southern black school is both an excellent metaphor and manages to reconcile the battle in a way that leaves none of the parties slighted.

There are some that are by contrast, dry and terribly written, in the perfect style of late 19th century scholarly writing which seems to try to surpass even the present in its incomprehensibility, most notably On the Social Value of Female Dress, which has the basic conception seemingly of female dress being purposefully designed to be impractical and uncomfortable, but which is written in sch an obtuse and complicated way that it is very difficult to understand. This isn’t to say that all of the non-fiction entries are similarly marred: while I might disagree with the theme of Carnegie’s writing which insists that human inequality is a wonderful thing for cultural achievement and that he knows far better how to spend money than the common people, who will simply waste it, it is a fascinating perspective on the way his mind worked and how he justified his own massive wealth through his almost equally massive philanthropy work.

The well-selected and balanced collection of different stories helps to show an America in a time of rapid change, showing pictures of daily life, the reform minded, the philanthropists, stories from the lives of the oppressed and also the voices of the powerful: it is light on the historical description which would often provide the frame in other books, but it more than makes up for it with its pleasant and engaging selection of stories. It’s a great piece to get a feel for the debates and issues that dominated American society in the 1890s, for its life, and the intellectual origins of much of our contemporary society.

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