Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Fierce Discontent (An Overview)

The Progressive Era is best described, albeit in a fantastical manner, by Edward Bellamy's socialist utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887, in which protagonist Julian West is "mesmerized" one night in the present day (1887), only to wake up 117 years later. The United States he left, plagued by class conflict and other throes of industrialization, has been transformed into a grand and orderly nation where benevolent collectivism has taken the place of ruthless individualism. No longer do the poor languish in overcrowded tenements and dead-end factory jobs; nor the rich spend their days sunk in decadence and opulence. America is a middle-class paradise where universal cooperation ensures everyone the same standard of living and access to goods, leisure, and education.

Also conspicuously absent is any sense of cultural or racial diversity - the only African-American ever to appear is one of Julian's 1887 servants. Although Bellamy generally fails to give any sense of setting whatsoever (like The Da Vinci Code, Looking Backward is one of those books that are both explosively popular and head-bangingly awful), the overall impression given of the year 2000 is best described as "steamrolled." Bellamy's implication is that the main source of conflict is diversity - diversity of race, ethnicity, culture, income, and self-interest. In Bellamy's imagined future, all competing cooperations have since merged into one OmniCorp (my word), a business development with parallels in the evolution of his fictional society. Progressivism, the social movement rapidly taking form at the time of Bellamy's writing, was a wholly middle-class phenomenon that, witnessing the strife that seemed to be tearing the country apart, sought to remake farmers, the urban poor, immigrants, and the wealthy upper tenth in its own image of restraint and respectability. Describing Chautauqua, an adult education movement that combined intellectual pursuit with recreation in 1896, Henry James recalled it as "Utopia" and
[T]he realization - on a small, simple scale of course - of all the ideals for which our civilization has been striving: security, intelligence, humanity, and order. . . You have no zymotic diseases, no poverty, no drunkenness, no crime, no police. You have culture, you have kindness, you have cheapness, you have equality, you have the best fruits of what mankind has fought and bled and striven for under the name of civilization for centuries.
In short, he concluded, Chautauqua was a "middle-class paradise." In reality, James couldn't stand it and found that he preferred the grittiness of the real world, but to thousands of other middle-class Americans, squeezed as they were between the warring rich and poor, Chautauqua was the model for what they wanted all of America to be. Despite its broad program of reform and activism - from the control of big business to the amelioration of poverty, from a restructuring of gender relations and the disciplining of leisure and pleasure, from child labor to education - the progressives were nevertheless united by a post-millennial sense of cultural transformation. Michael McGerr's A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement, 1870-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) covers this tumultuous time in American history when "the middle class had enough influence to start its own revolution."

Though not the sole catalyst of the Progressive movement, class conflict certainly provided one of its primary motivations. McGerr opens his books with, appropriately, the scandalous event that was Cornelia Bradley-Martin's notorious costume ball held in the winter of 1897, during what would be known until the 1930s as the "Great Depression." Bradley-Martin had hoped to eclipse Alva Vanderbilt's famous ball of 1883. What she got instead, however, was publicity of the worst sort: the press vehemently attacked her for her ostentatiousness as thousands across the country were suffering. The resulting backlash forced Cornelia and her family into voluntary exile in Europe. The Bradley-Martin affair ultimately exemplified why the progressives feared and mistrusted the upper class. The elites' emphasis on extreme individualism stood in contrast to the progressive's new ideals of "association."

The working class, meanwhile, which was also composed heavily of recent immigrants, stressed mutualism. Drawing from the biography of Rahel Golub, a Russian Jew who arrived in New York City in 1892, McGerr describes how the other women at the factory where she worked resented her productivity on the grounds that it raised the standards too high for all of them. Her family relied on her wages, and the crowded tenement where she lived afforded no privacy. Reading a Hebrew translation of David Copperfield came as a shock: "I turned to the first page of the story and read the heading of the chapter: 'I am born.' Something in these three little words appealed to me more than anything I had yet read. I could not have told why, but perhaps it was the simplicity and the intimate tone of the first person. I had not yet read anything written in the first person." A third class, the rapidly dwindling rural farmers, valued individualism just as the "upper ten" did, but, in addition to the sheer labor that went into nineteenth-century agriculture, their self-assertion was tempered by a firm belief in self-restraint, particularly with regards to consumerism. But by the 1890s, a new generation raised on farms was increasingly drawn to the excitement and temptations of urban life, raising concerns about the survival of an entire way of life. And while the poor were split along ethnic and racial lines, farmers of different crops had difficulty sympathizing with one another's predicaments, while affluent agriculturalists frequently looked down on sharecroppers and subsistence farmers.

Besides feeling caught between clashing classes, the middle class was facing issues of its own. The introduction of labor-saving devices and services (i.e. bakeries and laundries) left women with more leisure time. When combined with better educational opportunities, such as college, women found themselves with literally too much time on their hands, which led, inevitably, to reflections on their limited lot as homemakers. Husbands, meanwhile, found themselves alienated from their own families, as both long work hours and contradictory demands on their character (ruthless in the business world, gentle and kind at home) demanded a need for escape, like Julian West fleeing to his cellar in shame because he couldn't afford to build a home for his fiancée. (I'm not 100% sure, but I believe there is a similar situation in Japan today.) By the end of the 1880s, however, a "peace treaty" between the middle-class genders had been tacitly established, and which included a single standard of sexual behavior for both men and women (restraint), the rise of home economics, and a new demand for simplicity in design and consumption. The infamous Pullman Strike of 1894 finally drove home the new feelings and ideas the middle class had developed as Victorianism waned: that a formerly homogeneous nation was being pulled apart by class and culture. Traditional ideals such as individualism and limited government were now obsolete. Although Jane Addams's accomplishments were exceptional, the sentiments she articulated in her 1892 essay "The Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements" were not:
We have in America a fast-growing number of cultivated young people who have no recognized outlet for their active faculties. They hear constantly of the great social maladjustment, but no way is provided for them to change it, and their uselessness hangs about them heavily. Huxley declares that the sense of usefulness is the severest shock which the human system can sustain, and that if persistently sustained, it results in atrophy of function. These young people have had advantages of college, of European travel, and of economic study, but they are sustaining this shock of inaction. They have pet phrases, and they tell you that the things that make us all alike are stronger than the things that make us different. They say that all men are united by needs and sympathies far more permanent and radical than anything that temporarily divides them and sets them in opposition to each other. If they affect art, they say that the decay in artistic expression is due to the decay in ethics, that art when shut away from the human interests and from the great mass of humanity is self-destructive. They tell their elders with all the bitterness of youth that if they expect success from them in business or politics or in whatever lines their ambition for them has run, they must let them consult all of humanity; that they must let them find out what the people want and how they want it. It is only the stronger young people, however, who formulate this. Many of them dissipate their energies in so-called enjoyment. Others not content with that, go on studying and go back to college for their second degrees; not that they are especially fond of study, but because they want something definite to do, and their powers have been trained in the direction of mental accumulation. Many are buried beneath this mental accumulation which lowered vitality and discontent. Walter Besant says they have had the vision that Peter had when he saw he great sheet let down from heaven, wherein was neither clean nor unclean. He calls it the sense of humanity. It is not philanthropy nor benevolence, but a thing fuller and wider than either of these.
Though acting out of genuine concern and empathy, the "radicalized center" increasingly saw itself as the model for other Americans to emulate. If environment had the single biggest impact on character, then perhaps the focus should be on changing people's settings. Despite their broad agenda, the progressives remained united in their overall goal to make other Americans more like them. To erode ethnic and lifestyle differences, they set up settlement houses in immigrant neighborhoods that included "Americanization" classes. They even attempted to weaken farmers' individualistic values through the Country Life program, which ranged from fact-finding and agricultural research to forming "people's clubs" in an effort to ease rural isolation. But for all Progressives' talk of association supplanting individualism, the vast majority of them did not embrace socialism, even as they strongly favored the reigning-in of "big business" as part of their strategy to reform the upper class. As regulation became popular, so did working class radicalism, leading to the rise of organizations such as International Workers of the World (the "Wobblies") and the Women's Trade Union League, as well as increasing the visibility of socialism and anarchism (though the latter was more pronounced in Europe).

There was actually a whole chapter on working class radicalism and the regulation of big corporations, but it was boring and I just skimmed through it. I'm more interested in social and intellectual history.

The progressives sought to remake childhood by setting up clubs and organized sports and pushing for legislation to make school attendance mandatory and child labor illegal. They also pushed for the creation of separate juvenile courts to try young offenders. Adult behavior was another cause for concern, particularly drinking (a favorite activity among the working class), divorce, and prostitution.

For all their good intentions, however, there was a darker side to the progressives' driving need for reform and regulation (I mean, beyond the obvious "control issues"). Segregation, or "Jim Crow," was in many respects a natural development in a society that was becoming more accepting of regulation, and yet was still mired in age-old racial strife even as it grew more diverse with each passing day. The progressive buzzword "association" meant bringing together different groups of people, but certain limitations remained. Some differences simply could not be erased. While not as vehemently racist as large segments of white America were at the time, the progressives still feared social conflict. When dealing with white immigrants, farmers, and laborers, this could be averted by working to change urban and rural environments and thereby changing individuals; in the case of African-Americans, on the other hand, this meant "protecting" them from the fury of reactionary whites. The progressives openly abhorred lynching and lawless mob violence, and felt that African-Americans could best improve themselves behind a sort of "legal shield" that would also placate conservative whites. But ultimately, "[s]egregation was a failure of imagination and nerve," McGerr concludes, ". . .Willing to believe that a kind of 'paradise' might really be attainable some day, progressives showed little fear in dealing with problems of gender, class, and economy - but not of race." In Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, corruption has been eliminated by both restricting the vote to society's "honorary members" and also through simple good breeding: by the year 2000, only the "better sorts" of humanity have reproduced. This may seem contradictory coming from a man so concerned with the struggles of the poor, but in reality, much of the progressive platform was strikingly undemocratic. Although McGerr only touches on it briefly, many of the Eastern and Southern European immigrants were also believed to be "racially inferior." Matthew Fry Jacobson's book Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999) discusses in detail the rise of the pseudo-science of "eugenics" which would one day deeply influence Nazi ideology.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, progressivism had become mainstream enough for former President Theodore Roosevelt to form his own National Progressive party and run for a third term. McGerr actually sees World War I as the progressives' flash of glory before collapsing forever in the social malaise that followed the War to End All Wars. Even before Americans' disillusionment with the progressives' overreaching attempts to enforce patriotism and drastically enlarge the federal government, the new forces of what McGerr calls "liberation" were undermining the progressives' optimistic faith in humanity's ability to improve. Freud, for example, helped advance new notions of the primal subconscious that defied all attempts at civilization. New pasttimes and forms of entertainment - cars, films, dancing, Coney Island - encouraged personal release and individual self-expression (particularly in the new Modernist art), both of which ran counter to the progressive program. (Ironically, McGerr notes, the progressives themselves had contributed to this new sexual openness with their public attacks on prostitution and other "vice.") Although the horrors of World War I had sounded the definite death knell for the Progressive Era, the new forces of the modernism in art, music, literature, and society would doubtlessly have defeated sooner or later even without that singular calamity.

I enjoyed reading A Fierce Discontent. Although McGerr's book is aimed at an academic audience, it is well-written, highly readable, and graced by the occasional touch of humor. It has appeal for both casual readers and scholars, and I strongly recommend it as a classroom text for undergraduates. I do, however, dispute his claim that progressivism was a purely domestic movement that had no international aims. While I'm no expert on the subject, I believe the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I was very much a progressive document. And since the modernism that threatened progressivism had its origins in Europe (and plays a major role in Thomas and Dorothy Hoobler's The Crimes of Paris, which I plan on reviewing next), I would have liked to have seen more discussion of the Progressive Movement abroad, if there was one. If it was uniquely American, then what made it so? But what I liked most was how McGerr explored the contradictions inherent to the Progressive Movement, such as segregation and the need for control, and how that contrasted with individualism so ingrained in both American culture and the recognizeably modern world that emerged with the dawn of the twentieth century. Again, this was a movement enamored with control and utopianism, and there is simply no way to sustain that kind of momentum. It certainly sheds light on popular liberalism today (the "audacity of hope"), which illustrates precisely why the study of history is so important to understanding the present.

In short: a great companion book for The Crimes of Paris, as reading the two together dramatically reveals the disparity between progressivism and modernism.


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