Themes and issues in American Literature: 1865-1900
620,000 people died in the Civil War (1860-65), and more than 400,000 were wounded. A gulf was opened between the North and South that would not heal for generations. Yet, ironically, the war which destroyed so much united the country. Never again was there a serious threat of dissolution; the United States was now truly united.
But united on what terms? In 1865, Abraham Lincoln faced the daunting task of negotiating a peace which would create a nation unified by choice rather than compulsion. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment had ended slavery, but after his assassination, the new president, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, threatened to undo all his work. Saying, "This is a country for white men, and as long as I am president, it shall remain a government for white men," Johnson vetoed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted citizenship to all people born in the United States, including former slaves. Congress overrode his veto, and passed numerous other laws granting civil rights to freed slaves; usually Johnson vetoed the legislation and they repeatedly overrode his vetoes.
Under the next president, U.S. Grant, the 15th Amendment was passed; it guaranteed voting rights to all adult males, regardless of race. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 guaranteed all Americans, regardless of race, access to public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels, trains, and hospitals (effectively outlawing segregation) and gave all adult males the right to serve on juries. Congress also decreed that federal troops be stationed in the South to restore order after the war and to enforce these new laws.
Certainly many in the South were hostile to these new developments. And it didn't help that their economy was destroyed, carpetbaggers overran the landscape to steal what was left, and federal troops often took advantage of their power to humiliate those whose towns they occupied. It's amazing that reunification worked; for more on why it succeeded despite the factors working against it, read April 1865: The Month That Saved America, by Jay Winik.
The Gilded Age: 1865-1900
The country that emerged from the Civil War was radically different than it had been. The Civil War saw the first military draft; the first income taxes were levied; the first standard paper currency was issued, backed by the United States government rather than by states and local banks. Mark Twain wrote, "The eight years in America from 1860-1868 uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the national character that the influence cannot be measured."
After the war, the industrial north became far more powerful than the agrarian south. The United States became the most heavily industrialized country in the world, a society based on mass labor and mass consumption. As machines replaced farm laborers, people migrated to the growing cities looking for work in factories. They often found a hostile environment: hand labor was being replaced by machines, and the machines became more important to the factory owners and managers than the human beings who ran them. People were abundant and easily replaced: hundreds of thousands of displaced farm workers and immigrants were arriving in the cities. The competition for jobs was fierce, and the salaries were low. Working conditions were not regulated and were often uncomfortable or outright dangerous; hours were long; relationships between employers and employees were impersonal.
The cities grew at an astonishing rate. From 1870-1890, the population of the United States doubled. From 1860-1890, the population of Philadelphia tripled; New York City's population quadrupled; Chicago's population increased 20 times, to 2 million. The growth of large cities altered the political landscape, enfranchising groups who had never before voted, and ushering in an era of laissez-faire politics to match the laissez-faire capitalism. This often translated to greed and corruption. One of the most notable cases was New York's "Boss" William Tweed: he and his political cronies stole over $200 million dollars in the space of 6 years during the 1860s and 70s (this equates to $2 billion in today's dollars). President Grant's administration was riddled with corruption as well, and Grant's refusal to do anything about it led to widespread disillusionment among the people, who came to believe that all government was corrupt. It was a novel written by Mark Twain, in fact, that gave this period its name. The novel was called The Gilded Age, and was written in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner. It was a satire about the corruption of the federal government.
Rapid economic growth was facilitated by improvements in transportation and communication, as well. Coast to coast mail service began in 1858. It took a letter about 4 weeks to get from St. Louis to San Francisco. In 1860, William H. Russell, William Bradford Waddell and Alexander Majors started the Pony Express, a mail service in which riders on horses took mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to San Francisco in 10 days. The Pony Express has become famous, but in reality the service lasted only 19 months, until the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861 made it obsolete. By 1866, a transatlantic cable line joined the United States and Europe. Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876; by 1900, the United States had 1,356,000 telephones.
The railroads, more than anything, shrank the country. The first railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, began in 1830, with 13 miles of track. By 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was finished. By 1889, a trip that had taken at least 5 grueling and life-threatening months by covered wagon now took 4 days, and could be completed in comfort with Pullman sleeping and dining cars.
The railroads led to rapid commercial development and opened up farm land, ranch land, and made more food and goods available. Richard Sears and Montgomery Ward opened national retail chains, using the railroads to ship goods to retail outlets they opened up across the country. The Walmarts of their time, they undersold local shopkeepers by selling cheaper, mass-produced goods made in factories, rather than handcrafted, expensive items. The Wards and Sears catalogs soon became a staple of American life. You could order almost anything from a Wards or Sears catalog--even a kit to build a house. It came with all the materials you needed (including screws and nails) for just $452-$3000, depending on the style you chose; all you needed were a piece of land and the tools to put it together.
In 1883, there were more than 56 times zones in the U.S.; the number was reduced to 4 that year, to make scheduling of railroad traffic safer and more efficient.
The Homestead Act of 1862 offered settlers title to 160 acres of public land for free, after they'd worked it for 5 years. In addition, many former Union soldiers were given land grants for their war service. They and large numbers of other Americans and immigrants moved west to the Great Plains and Mountain states, lured by the promise of greater opportunity. By 1890, the country was populated from coast to coast.
This was good for the white settlers, but for most minorities, the country was still pretty inhospitable. The American Indians especially suffered from westward expansion. The U.S. government deliberately killed huge numbers of them in attempts to eradicate their culture; in addition, the buffalo herds were slaughtered nearly to extinction as a way of starving out the Indians. By the 1890s, those who survived had been forced onto reservations.
Westward expansion was not good for Mexican-Americans, either. After the Mexican War ended in 1848, large portions of what had been Mexico, including land in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, were ceded to the U.S. As Anglos spread out across the country, they marginalized Mexican-American ranchers and farmers and often stole their land, causing bitter struggles and resentment that would last for generations.
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law prevented people from China from entering the country unless they were joining relatives here, and prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming American citizens. This seemed like a betrayal especially to the many Chinese laborers who had been imported specifically to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad. They had worked long hours under the poorest conditions for meager wages, had suffered and in many cases died doing the dangerous work of blasting and laying track; this seemed poor reward for the important task they'd performed.
In 1886, the Statue of Liberty was erected in New York Harbor. But the sentiments of the poem on her base ("Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!") weren't echoed in the crowded tenements of New York City. Irish immigrants arriving in the 1860s had found signs on apartment buildings, stores and restaurants saying "No Irish allowed." Now, 30 years later, they were putting up their own signs: "No Italians allowed" and "No Jews allowed."
Conditions were deteriorating for African-Americans in the South, too. After the Civil War, Congress passed stringent "Reconstruction Acts" to protect the rights and lives of freed slaves. The laws established voting rights for African-American men (women of all races were excluded from voting); gave African-Americans the right to own property, serve on juries, and hold public office, among other things. But in 1872, federal troops were withdrawn from the South and the laws were no longer enforced. By 1900, most of the rights of African-Americans had eroded: laws established poll taxes (a fee imposed on voters; those too poor to pay the fee were not allowed to vote), literacy tests, and grandfather clauses to prevent them from voting; schools and other public facilties were strictly segregated; juries went back to being all-white; and thousands of African Americans were lynched in the later years of the century. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in "Plessy vs. Ferguson," that "separate but equal" treatment and facilities were not unconstitutional. As you can imagine, the "separate" part of the law was enforced enthusiastically by whites; the "equal" part fell by the wayside. These inequalities did not begin to be addressed until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.
White women had been politicized in large numbers by the abolitionist movement, and kept pressing for full political rights. They began to work and go to college in small but increasing numbers. It was customary to pay women half of what white men would make (it was customary to pay an African-American one fourth of what a white man would make). Women did not gain the right to vote until 1922, when the 19th Amendment was ratified. The issue of equal pay for equal work is still unresolved.
The cause of education for women was helped, surprisingly, by immigration. By 1910, more than one third of the population of most large cities was foreign-born. This gave rise to a need for schools and colleges, and the federal government and many states set aside land and provided money to build them.
Literature from 1865-1900
With its focus on the Civil War, and then on commercial growth and its attendant materialism, American cultural development flagged for a time. Many of the new millionaires looked to Europe for inspiration and built ostentatious mansions using a pastiche of European designs, importing European craftsmen and laborers. They sent their sons to European universities, and married their daughters off to European noblemen. Some writers and artists found the United States to be emotionally, spiritually, and culturally barren, and chose to live in Europe, among them Henry James, James Whistler, and John Singer Sargent.
But many others stayed in the U.S., creating work out of the new materials they found around them. The question of what proper "American" art and literature would be was a subject of great and constant debate throughout the years between 1865 and 1900, and of course there was no single answer. The optimistic romanticism of the pre-Civil War era could not, in the face of the war's carnage and the ruthless postwar commercialism, be sustained. In response, new trends arose.
As the population became more literate, a huge number of periodicals were started to satisfy the demand for news, essays, fiction, and poetry. The total number of periodicals rose from 700 in 1865 to more than 6,000 by 1905. "Ladies' journalism" began to flourish: Ladies Home Journal, founded in 1883, had a circulation of 1 million by 1905; many women authors published there and in other weekly magazines: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Louisa May Alcott.
People still read Hawthorne, Poe, Emerson, and earlier writers, but a new generation appeared. The earlier writers had often come from the moneyed classes, and their backgrounds were academic. These new writers were more often middle class and came from journalism backgrounds. They were influenced by the European realists such as Zola and Dostoevsky, and they wanted to portray American life as they saw it, arguing that the ordinary and local were just as suitable for literature as the grand and magnificent. They rejected idealized portraits of characters and events and described a wider range of American experience, creating characters who were rich and poor, grand and squalid, not all bad and not all good. They emphasized the character of the individual confronted with hardship or moral dilemmas. They challenged the belief in the inherent goodness of human nature, faith in progress, and the idealization of nature so prevalent in earlier writers such as Emerson and Thoreau.
One of these writers was Bret Harte, who wrote what are termed "local color" stories about western mining towns. His characters were outlaws, gamblers and women of questionable character, and his stories were widely popular. "Local color" stories are set in specific limited regions (California, New England, New Orleans, etc.) and make use of local characters, customs, and dialects. Local color stories were enormously popular in the postwar years. For more information on local color and a list of local color writers from various regions, see Regionalism and Local Color Fiction, 1865-1895.
Another writer who began writing local color stories was Mark Twain. Eventually his work widened beyond local color; more on him next week.
The greatest of the realist writers was William Dean Howells. He defined realism as "nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material," and led a generation of writers whose work was found in the middle class experience:
Let fiction cease to lie about life; let it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know...Let it not put on fine literary airs; let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know--the language of unaffected people everywhere..."
Realists such as Hanry James and Mark Twain probed beneath the surface of life, examining the psychology of their characters and the political and social issues of their times.
Howells saw America as a land of hope and opportunity, and was mostly an optimist. But the next generation of writers, who began working near the end of the century, were more pessimistic. They called themselves "naturalists" and often wrote of the poorer social classes. Writers such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Jack London were influenced by the ideas of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. Darwin argued that survival was dependent on being the "fittest" for one's environment. Herbert Spencer carried that into the social realm. His idea, "Social Darwinism," was that only the socially and economically fittest should survive, a theory which suited a world ruled by laissez-faire capitalism. Crane and other naturalists argued that the world was amoral; men and women had no free will, but were instead controlled by heredity, environment, and conditioning. In novels such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (Stephen Crane, 1893), Sister Carrie (Theodore Dreiser, 1900), and McTeague (Frank Norris, 1899), they protrayed people overwhelmed by forces beyond their control.
In popular fiction, Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick series and his other novels countered the view of the realists, portraying the world in a way that made the industrialists happy. The heroes in Alger's books are boys who rescue a rich man's child or return a valuable he has lost. In return, the rich man gives the hero a chance to succeed. Due to his goodness, hard work, and determination, he achieves middle class success and stability. The novels spoke to an audience who wanted to believe that God gives you a chance because you have done something to deserve it, and you achieve because you're morally and spiritually sound and a hard worker.
The gulf between the realists and naturalists and Alger's fiction was indicative of the growing split between "literary" fiction and "popular" fiction. "Literary" fiction came to be thought of as fiction that presents a view of the world as it really is, while "popular" fiction came to be thought of as "escapist"--i.e., presenting a view of the world, not as it is, but as we would like it to be. This is a division that persisted throughout the 20th century, and is only now beginning to be deliberately broken down by some contemporary writers.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature. 11th ed., Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
2. Eds. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008.
3. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., Vol. 2. New Jersey: Pearson, 2007.