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
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.
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.