The Social Response to Industrialization
The Social Response to Industrialization
Industrialization had far-reaching effects on American society. Social reform movements sprung up around the country to address the needs of the new industrial society, and American authors used literature to comment on the changes they saw occurring.
The Socioeconomic Divide
While poor urbanites lived in crowded tenements and worked at grueling and often unsafe jobs, a few men amassed wealth beyond these city-dwellers’ imaginations. Social theories were developed to justify the growing gap between rich and poor:
  • social Darwinism, discussed above. Yale professor William Graham Sumner’s 1883 book, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, argued that social programs to help the poor worked against nature and sapped the hardworking individual of his due reward. In an 1889 essay, “The Gospel of Wealth,” Andrew Carnegie applied Charles Darwin’s theories to human society, stating that free-market economics and governmental noninterference provided a forum where survival of the fittest could play out.
  • The Gospel of Success centered on the claim that any man could achieve wealth through hard work. Horatio Alger wrote fictional tales of hard-working young men going from “rags to riches” based solely on their ambition and determination.
Andrew Carnegie and Horatio Alger, among others, tried to justify the gap between rich and poor by arguing that hard work could make any man wealthy and that programs to help the poor went against the natural process of evolution as played out in human society.
These justifications for the growing gap between rich and poor did not go unchallenged. Henry George’s book Progress and Poverty (1879) urged that the government use tax income to fund social programs for the poor, while Lester Frank Ward’s Dynamic Sociology (1883) also argued that government power be harnessed for social aid. In 1890, Jacob Riis exposed the conditions of immigrants in New York City tenements in How the Other Half Lives, and in 1899, Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class attacked the “conspicuous consumption” of the affluent.
Many other works directly criticized the capitalist system. In an 1888 book entitled Looking Backward From 2000 to 1887, Edward Bellamy conceived of a socialist utopia in which the government controlled all means of production and distribution. Bellamy’s moderate socialism accompanied a rise in American interest in Marxism, which condemned the capitalists’ exploitation of the working class and foretold revolution. Marxism, however, never gained a significant following in the U.S., perhaps because other means, short of revolution, eventually emerged to address poverty and exploitation.
Addressing Poverty
In the late nineteenth century, most middle-class reformers believed that poverty arose from lax morals and lack of self-discipline. They therefore focused their relief efforts on improving morality rather than addressing the cripplingly low wages and unhealthy working and living conditions of the poor. Among their aims, reformers sought to “Americanize” poor immigrants and rid them of customs deemed offensive or impractical. Their programs mostly targeted children, whom they believed to be the most malleable. Organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association and later the Young Women’s Christian Association (YMCA, YWCA), provided housing and recreational activities for urban children. Imported from England in 1880, the Salvation Army provided food, shelter, and employment to the urban poor while preaching temperance and morality. The New York Charity Organization Society operated similarly, promoting morality and self-sufficiency.
In the 1880s, a new generation of social workers, led by Jane Addams, argued that providing education and opportunity was more important than preaching morality. In 1889, Addams and a friend established Hull House in Chicago, where they lived and worked among the poor immigrants they aimed to help. Addams set up a kindergarten, a day nursery, and an employment bureau for the poor.
Women in the Industrial Revolution
Middle-class women in the industrial age became involved in a wider sphere beyond the home. Women joined the labor force in record numbers and also became active in social reform movements. Women were especially prominent in the temperance movement, primarily through the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Other issues included prison reform, labor arbitration, and public health concerns. As social activism among women increased, so did their desire for the right to vote. Despite this fervor, women only slowly gained social and political power. Their most significant gains came in the area of education, as a number of higher learning institutions went coed or created separate schools for women. By 1900, more than 70 percent of colleges admitted women. Feminine empowerment was also seen in feminist literature such as The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, published in 1899.
Works of Fiction
Social commentary of a subtler sort emerged in the works of fiction produced by American authors during the period of industrialization. Realism replaced romanticism as the genre of choice for American authors. Henry James, an expatriate who left America for Europe in 1875, wrote about the psychological experience of being an American in Europe in books like Daisy Miller (1879) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Other authors hit much closer to home, commenting on the era of industrialization around them. No author was better known for this than Mark Twain, whose 1873 satirical novel, The Gilded Age (cowritten with Charles Dudley Warner), described the Industrial Revolution as a period that looked like gold on the outside but on the inside was hollow. Twain, like other authors, described an America full of urban poverty, political crookedness, and class tensions. These elements, especially class and racial tensions, are present in his most famous works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), in which he uses the perspective of two young boys to expose ignorance and hatred in American society.
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