He was going forth to eat as the wanderer may eat, and sleep as the
--Stephen Crane, "An Experiment in Misery"
"Why not find out about the waitress?" the shopper mused as she browsed
in the fashionable department stores and glanced through the gleaming
restaurant windows of Chicago's Loop. On this Saturday morning in
1917, Frances Donovan--a sometime school teacher, office executive, and
housewife who was clearly conversant with the ideas and methods of Chicago
sociology--found herself fascinated by the crowds of women workers who
jammed her elevated railway coach, descended around her at the Madison
Street station, and fanned out to their various places of labor. Pondering
the place of women in the modern urban work force while passing one after
another of the Loop's four hundred restaurants, Donovan was struck by
another thought: "Why not be a waitress?" And so, after vainly searching
the libraries and soliciting the Bureau of Labor for evidence of previous
research, a waitress she became. Although Donovan represented this project
as originating spontaneously and rather idiosyncratically, the resultant
book contributed to a considerable tide of popular and social-scientific
[End Page 26]
writing that rose in the Gilded Age, crested during the Progressive
era, and remained much in evidence, if somewhat changed in form, during
the 1920s. The producers of that literature shared Donovan's eagerness
to explore what she called "a new world," one replete with "life new
and strange": a world of difference.
To pursue the origins and implications of the belief that workers
and the poor were somehow fundamentally different--a strange breed in
classless America--I will discuss the experiences of Progressive-era
journalists, writers, and social scientists like Frances Donovan who went
"down and out," to use the term later coined by George Orwell. That is,
they lived and worked in disguise among clerks and waitresses, factory
laborers, itinerant workers, beggars, and tramps, in order to observe
and to write about them. Jack London's People of the Abyss (1903)
is the best-remembered chronicle of such experiences, but I will mainly
address an array of lesser-known figures whose books and articles, both
in popular magazines and in scholarly journals, contributed importantly
to public and academic discussions of American working-class life and
These particular investigators mark the origin
of a longer-term tradition of down-and-outers who have explored the
underside of American life throughout the twentieth century. Such
explorers' preconceptions and goals have varied with the historical
moment, but their perspectives on the poor have consistently been
shaped by shifting scientific and cultural emphases on matters such
as heredity and environment, biology and culture, and free will and
determinism. In the Progressive era, as today, that bottommost rank of
society into which the working poor were always in peril of sinking--the
social layer currently styled the "underclass"--was often represented
primarily as the product of fixed behavioral and cultural traits, and
only secondarily as the spawn of socioeconomic factors. Then, as today,
journalistic descriptions emphasizing these apparently hereditary traits
were often absorbed into academic analyses of poverty.
Two sets of concerns especially engage me. First, why did people undertake
such expeditions and how did they record what they found? And second,
how did these experiences affect their own personal, professional,
and class identities? To address such questions is to explicate the
construction of certain kinds of difference in a particular historical
era, and also to cast light on efforts to conceptualize class, poverty,
and the poor in a nation that wanted to reject "European" models of
4[End Page 27]
The first cluster of concerns suggests a series of interrelated
questions. What motivated certain writers to breach the class line and
to pass as workers, and when they did so, how did they construct images
of the poor--both of the "respectable" working poor, and of the degraded
"dangerous classes?" On what intellectual resources did they draw to
conceptualize their experiences and to constitute for the poor a public
image or identity--often as beings of a radically different order, as
"others?" How did such essentialist representations comport with the new
emphasis on environmental causation that was supposedly on the ascendant
during the Progressive era? What was the role of gender in representations
and analyses of the poor, given that many down-and-outers were women,
usually investigating female workers' lot?
Further, what role
did these writers play in advancing a larger intellectual phenomenon,
a theoretical conflation of the categories of class, race, and culture
which can be identified in popular and academic discourse both during
and since the Progressive era?
I believe that this tradition
of conflating categories coexisted with, and even infiltrated, the
better-known counter-tradition originally associated with anthropologist
Franz Boas and his students, which stressed cultural and historical
over biological explanations of difference. Variants on the Boasian
"culture" concept that emerged in social psychology and sociology could
prove just as deterministic as biology had proven in older formulations
about human development.
This is hardly surprising in view of the persistent legacy of Lamarckian
biology, which linked environment with heredity through its emphasis on
the inheritance of acquired traits; observers of the poor often explicitly
rejected this legacy, but they seldom entirely eluded it.
In turn-of-the-century discussions of the "dangerous classes," then, we
find the quasi-hereditarian origins of later theorizing on the "culture
of poverty" and of today's discourse on "the underclass," a concept
attacked by various critics for similarly conflating race, class,
Although the term "underclass" is commonly
dated to Gunnar Myrdal's 1963 usage, its contemporary implications of
radical otherness were mirrored in an 1899 assertion, attributed to the
hereditarian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, that "the great
under-class of criminals" was mentally and morally scarred by "a bad
Such hereditarian thinking about class difference
clearly persists in our own moment: biologist Richard Lewontin declares
that "There is at present no aspect of social or individual life that
is not claimed for the
[End Page 28]
genes"; and to eugenics scholar Nicole Hahn
Rafter, an "ideology of natural hierarchy and heritability of social
traits remains healthy today."
My second cluster of questions derives from the query, how did these
intellectuals, caught between commitments to unstable and waning Victorian
cultural values and the subversive attractions of modernity, define and
redefine their own identities when they crossed social boundaries--which
some perceived as racial or even species boundaries--to merge with the
poor? Many clearly worried that this project might entail more than
temporarily adopting a new persona--a modernist performative strategy
typical of a "culture of personality" in which they had not necessarily
Indeed, going down-and-out might result in
going native, becoming addicted to tramping, or disappearing forever
into the teeming urban "underbrush."
When understandings of
social difference were inflected by evolutionary and racial connotations,
the border zone between class identities became a shadowy and liminal
realm, disconcerting to those still imbued with an orderly, Victorian
world-view that depended upon fixed categories and borders. Thus class
identity could become one of the many sites at which increasingly tenuous
Victorian cultural assumptions suffered the corrosive effects of ascendant
modernist consciousness during the Progressive era.
might become of the eager explorer cast adrift in that nether region
where middle shaded into lower, whiteness into color, and human into
subhuman? Middle-class "character," poorly adapted to dressing up in
alternate personality traits to suit the moment's needs, might not
bend--it might simply break.
What then were the consequences for class identity? In constituting
the otherness of the lower classes through directly and "authentically"
experiencing their lives, did these investigators establish more firmly
their own middle-class, gendered, professional, distinctively "modern"
identities? Most were old-stock Americans with reason to be uncertain
of their social and professional locations in a rapidly-shifting social
milieu: journalists with serious literary aspirations, sociologists who
sought the cachet of science for their professionalizing discipline,
and reformers seeking new modes of social reconciliation in a divided
In a peculiar dialectic of attraction and repulsion,
they often saw the poor both as more vital and alive than themselves,
and as a devolving, degenerating threat to civilized order. At a time
when poverty was commonly associated with immigrants, and immigration
[End Page 29]
restriction was a sharply-debated public issue, the positive side
of this dialectic could promote a tolerant, cosmopolitan stance, while
the negative side could eventuate in nativist and racist exclusionism. In
either case, to define another group's character was, in effect, to define
one's own. Thus did social investigators seek to understand both self
and other, to serve both public and private ends, when they descended
into the abyss of American poverty.
From Richard Henry Dana's ordeal before the mast, to actor Edmund
Forrest's claims of having passed as black to study African American
psychology, to various women's adventures as male soldiers in the Civil
War, Progressive-era down-and-out investigators had precedents aplenty
for their project of dwelling as natives in unknown worlds.
Mark Twain had portrayed such adventures in downward mobility in order to
shock aristocratic characters into realizing their submerged democratic
tendencies: after trading places with the pauper, the young prince would
become a more caring king; after traveling in peasant garb with the
Connecticut Yankee and enduring the horrors of slavery, King Arthur would
abolish the evil institution. But when Edward died young and Arthur's
plans for reform foundered on the rock of "training"--deeply-ingrained,
quasi-hereditary cultural values and assumptions--Twain's tales presaged
the confusions among Progressive-era social investigators, who also
grappled with environment and heredity, free will and determinism,
elitist pessimism and democratic hopefulness.
British and Continental students of poverty provided Americans with more
precise models for down-and-out social investigation. Peter Keating has
identified a British tradition of such explorations, generally intended to
stimulate reform through state action, that he dates from journalist James
Greenwood's 1866 account of "A Night in a Workhouse." Charles Booth's
monumental studies of London poverty (published 1887-1903) marked a
shift within the British tradition from Greenwood's brand of individual
journalistic impressionism to Booth's efforts, as a Comtean positivist
and self-styled sociologist, to achieve a more detached and scientific
standpoint. But here too, complexities arose. As Judith Walkowitz points
out, once Booth went to live among the impoverished, both his personal
identity and his scientific determination
[End Page 30]
to construct a taxonomy
of the urban poor continually wavered and decomposed in the face of his
The example of Booth's scientific
aspirations proved important to American investigators, even as they
faced similar issues of identity and conceptualization. Americans also
drew inspiration from Continental figures such as the Germans Dr. Minna
Wettstein-Adelt and theology student Paul Göhre, both of whom studied
Saxony workers in the 1890s. Even the King of Sweden was reported to
have done a stint shoveling coal on the docks "to learn the needs of
that class of his subjects."
American undercover investigations of the lower classes seem to have
begun as a means to investigate crime and labor activism (often seen
by the owning classes as roughly synonymous). As with Charles Booth,
issues of personal identity and social utility were both salient. John
Kasson found that Pinkerton detectives who entered the underworld in
disguise sometimes grew so inured to duplicity and so alienated both
from their own "true sel[ves]" and from the society they purported to
protect that they led lives "more radically fragmented, isolated," and
"theatrical" than did their quarry. Just such a fate would have threatened
the Springfield, Massachusetts police detectives who marched for a month
in the ranks of the New England tramp "army" during the 1877 national
railroad strike. Chief Detective Stephenson reported that his fellow
knights of the road stood "ready for pillage and destruction," and were
ripe candidates for incarceration in the workhouses for tramps that were
then in vogue among reformers. But like the general revolution feared by
that era's middle class, Stephenson's anticipated tramp uprising failed
Accounts of cross-class passing began to appear with increasing
frequency in the 1890s, and must be understood in light of two phenomena
then emergent from the longer-term processes of nineteenth-century
industrialization: an expanding discourse on class relations and poverty,
and mounting anxieties about the stability of class identity. Cities
served as foci for both developments as cities increasingly became the
locuses of concentrated wealth and poverty. A few notable down-and-outers
would also tramp through rural and small-town America, but nearly all
eventually explored "the hidden city of the poor"--the gloomier side of
what seemed a harshly-dichotomized urban realm.
Londoners had been taught for decades by the reform and sensational
presses to see their city as sharply divided
[End Page 31]
poverty-stricken East London and civilized, prosperous West London, so
also did Americans come to understand their cities in radically binary
By midcentury, a lurid genre of urban exposé
had evolved. Newspapers, magazines, and guidebooks conducted illustrated
"gaslight" tours through the "lights and shadows" of metropolitan
poverty, penetrating to realms rife with immanent dangers and forbidden
pleasures. More serious Gilded-Age readers could also peruse Charles
Loring Brace's analysis of The Dangerous Classes of New York
(1872), and, by the 1890s, the sympathetic but still touristic
explorations of Jacob Riis and others into the lives and lairs of the
"other half," now lavishly illustrated with photographs.
Producers of this variegated literature offered consumers a peculiar mix
of stern Victorian moralism and furtive enticement. Readers' responses
might range from sympathy, to quasi-pornographic stimulation, to fear
of falling from their own positions of privilege. By the 1890s, such
positions were increasingly perceived by middle-class Americans as
precarious. The very meaning of "middle-class" was rendered uncertain
by chaotic industrial changes that incessantly eroded existing social
Recurrent assertions that the "embers of social
hatred" had for years been "smoldering in the vagrant class" (as one
student of tramps put it) fed those middle-class insecurities, even as
they fed the same constituency's curiosity about the unknown world of the
poor. Armchair explorers found that world graphically represented, in a
burgeoning variety of formats, for their private consumption.
By the late Gilded Age, reformers and social scientists were conducting
interviews, mapping neighborhoods, and gathering statistics about poverty
and the poor.
But these individuals generally did not
represent themselves as members of the class they were investigating; nor
did those whose sojourns among the poor were undertaken for therapeutic
purposes but included no element of deception, or were simply unintended
Progressive-era down-and-outers' most exact
predecessors were the sensational "stunt girl" newspaper journalists such
as Nellie Bly and her many imitators, who escaped the confines of the
women's page by writing about their brief experiences as flower vendors,
beggars, and ballerinas. Nellie Bly spent "Ten Days in a Madhouse" (1887)
for Joseph Pulitzer's World and spawned the fad, which subsided
in the early 1890s when such assignments came to be seen as overdone and
trivial, and also as demeaning exercises
[End Page 32]
imposed by male editors who
resisted female reporters' efforts to broaden their domain.
The stunt girls' moment was fleeting, but they may have provoked another
ambitious and hungry young reporter to try his hand at passing for poor.
It was Stephen Crane's urban sketches of the mid-1890s that marked the
beginning of purposeful efforts to transcend the academic, touristic, and
sensationalist investigative modes. Crane's flophouse nights provided the
raw materials for "An Experiment in Misery" (1894), in which the author
eschewed the stance of pitying omniscient observer and crossed the gulf of
class to "discover" the Bowery bum's "point of view." As Alan Trachtenberg
has pointed out, what distinguished Crane from writers such as William
Dean Howells, who had written about the poor with concern but also with
distance and a certain condescension, was Crane's determination to achieve
an "exchange of subjectivities" with the impoverished other. Unlike
most social investigators, Crane wrote not to spur reform or to serve
up slices of raw truth, but to render the city aesthetically from the
viewpoint of its most marginal inhabitants--and to make the reader
(initially, the daily newspaper reader) a temporary denizen of the
underworld, fully estranged from his or her typical perspective: "an
experimenter in mystified space."
social investigators would typically subordinate Crane's aesthetic
agenda to the primary task of properly presenting data, whether to
promote reform or to expand sociological knowledge.
Crane's 1894 experiment would serve as a bridge to contemporary and
later undercover social investigators, and not only because Crane
operated in the journalistic milieu established by Nellie Bly and
her acolytes. According to Crane biographer Christopher Benfey, Crane
also may have been inspired by the proletarian wanderings of political
economist Walter Wyckoff, whose then-unpublished two-volume chronicle
of his adventures as an itinerant worker would soon become a milestone
of down-and-out writing.
However, the connection between
the two men is at best hazy. Although the series of Scribner's
articles that became Wyckoff's book did not begin appearing until 1897,
he had embarked in 1891 on the nineteen-month cross-country odyssey which
served as their basis. Wyckoff began working on the articles sometime
after he commenced a graduate fellowship at Princeton in 1894--the same
year that Crane published his "Experiment in Misery."
two men were connected through Crane's roommate and illustrator, Corwin
Knapp Linson, who would eventually illustrate one
[End Page 33]
articles. It was to Linson's studio that Crane and the artist William
W. Carroll repaired for rest and sustenance after four days and three
nights of Bowery adventuring.
Crane may have known about
Wyckoff's wanderings when he descended into the Bowery. It is even
conceivable that Crane's story inspired Wyckoff to publish the record
of his earlier experiences--or, more plausibly, to echo Crane's title
in his own subtitle, An Experiment in Reality. Regardless of any
actual connection between the two, Crane and Wyckoff shared the desire
of an emergent generation of writers to experiment with their own lives,
and to draw readers into that endeavor. From the mid-1890s through the
Progressive era, many with similar ambitions would follow them down
dusty highways and along teeming urban sidewalks into the precincts of
A "Little Body of Adventurers"
Beginning with the likes of Crane and Wyckoff, then, who were these
progressive-minded social investigators, and with what motivations and
preconceptions did they approach the down-and-out experience? Faith in the
following generalizations must be tempered by the fact that information
on many of these individuals is scarce or unavailable; still, I believe
that a combination of solid information on several persons, fragmentary
evidence gleaned from others' writings, and familiarity with the broader
progressive reform milieu, do warrant certain claims. In background,
down-and-outers resembled the social welfare activists recently studied
by Linda Gordon. That is, they were predominantly of native-born, white,
northern European, Protestant stock. Most hailed from prosperous families
and were well educated. Several counted ministers among their forebears,
and most of that group also pursued theological studies before veering
off into social reform, social science, or both. While some adopted the
stance of the modern, secular, scientific investigator, many combined
commitments to science and religion or religiously-derived moralism. In
bending inherited religious and moral commitments to the cause of social
betterment, many corresponded roughly to Robert Crunden's description
of progressives as "ministers of reform."
A range--usually a mixture--of motives impelled these individuals
into the underground. As incipient or established professionals,
[End Page 34]
sought the authority of "authentic" experience
(more below on the issue of authenticity) to break the bonds of insular
middle-class life and justify their social generalizations. Hard-headed
empiricists who invoked the "laboratory method" believed themselves
embarked on a scientific expedition that would come to rest on the
rock of verifiable truth.
Some investigators also hoped to
transcend the divide between intellectuals and workers--an enterprise
that one argued would not likely be undertaken by university-based
social scientists, who were too often "worked to death under the present
university system" and therefore lacked "practical contact" with working
Some searched for an antidote to Jane Addams's plaint
about the dearth of outlets for educated women's energies.
Others intended to learn about the lowest ranks of a corporate hierarchy
in which they already occupied a privileged position, or to participate
in a popular, widely-discussed literary genre.
rising interest in psychology among American intellectuals, many wanted
not simply to document lower-class conditions of life, but to grasp the
worker's supposed psychological makeup: to learn, as one entitled his
book, "what's on the worker's mind."
Among the personal, political, and moral motivations that often blended
with professional concerns, many down-and-outers showed an idealistic
willingness to shoulder the same burdens as the poor, and even to take
serious physical risks in order to gather knowledge that would advance
the causes of social justice and societal reconstruction.
Others clearly feared the rebellious potential of the disinherited
and hoped that it might be defused through greater knowledge and
More prosaically, some simply
And for some there was the sheer pleasure
of the experience, as expressed by Cornelia Stratton Parker when she
resurrected the working-class identity that she had inhabited for an
earlier book: with familial and other obligations temporarily disposed
of, "I knew exactly what and who I wanted to be. I had been waiting
seven years for the chance."
But in the end, as diverse and mixed as their motives often were, nearly
all down-and-outers resonated at some level with the words declaimed by
. . . Take physick, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
[End Page 35]
That thou may'st shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
The spirit embodied in those lines--quoted by a reviewer of Jack
London's People of the Abyss, and later used by James Agee to
introduce the text of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)--in
some measure animated all of these individuals to renounce, however
momentarily, the comfortable and the familiar, and to join the sweated
and the powerless.
To thus alter one's identity could serve both public and private
functions. Besides understanding and transforming society,
some down-and-outers also sought to transform themselves. Many
Progressive-era intellectuals who feared the degenerative effects of
encroaching overcivilization became acolytes of the cult of strenuous,
authentic experience that was embraced by figures as diverse as Theodore
Roosevelt and William James.
That a raw, unmediated vitality
was both the gift and the curse of those excluded from respectable,
middle-class life became a truism often articulated by the students of
poverty who established the broader intellectual context for down-and-out
investigations. Thus Charles Loring Brace observed that poor boys lived in
thrall to a universal, atavistic desire to "gratify 'the savage in one's
blood,' and lead a wild life in the woods." Brace took this inclination
to be the norm among his imagined audience, save that most middle-class
readers could be assumed to benefit from a civilizing super-ego which
checked the "Indian-like propensity" that so dominated the lives of his
This muted but persistent longing to plunge into a simple, savage
existence also figured in the ideas of thinkers such as William
James, who was particularly attuned to the potentials and pitfalls of
modernity, and for whom "experience" became a central philosophical
category and a talismanic term. In James's view, it was the intellectual
"barbarians" (Whitman, Browning, himself) who stood "in the line of mental
as Frank Lentricchia has written, James sought "to
open philosophy to the barbarities of immediate experience."
Thus private needs pointed the way back to public concerns. Contemporaries
of James and of John Dewey who studied the lives of the poor used personal
experience as the epistemological bedrock for their truth claims about
the tangled social realities that they struggled to comprehend and
express. In this regard, their method comported with the empiricist bent
of the modernizing social sciences, and they were true
[End Page 36]
the progressive epistemological faith that from experience and data would
spring Truth. But down-and-outers would not always live up to James's
insistence that we regard all people unlike ourselves as fully human
(as James himself did not consistently do), nor would they always honor
his caution that no one could finally speak authoritatively about the
experience of another.
In the quest for truth, the perceived
power of experience often overrode such caveats.
According to many who did it, the best way to gather foundational
experiences was to explore America "From the Bottom Up," as Alexander
Irvine entitled his 1910 autobiography. In an era when Chicago sociology
students, muckraking journalists, followers of the painter Robert
Henri, and reform politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt all pursued
American "reality" in strenuous excursions through the lower social
depths, down-and-outers achieved a special status. Nation critic
Stuart Pratt Sherman dubbed them that "little body of adventurers who
have been in forbidden lands and have brought back something strange
at the cost of their lives."
But for what they gained,
most down-and-outers seemed not to consider the cost excessive. Like
Roosevelt among the cowboys, Paul Anderson became an apprentice tramp
both to heal a frail physique and to seek adventure. Cecil Fairfield
Lavell urged "students of social conditions" to undertake a down-and-out
experience not just to "learn the truth" about labor and poverty, but
also to feel "a curious mental and physical exhilaration, a purgation of
the soul. . . ." College students ought to enter the proletarian ranks,
according to one young woman who did, to achieve "a new adjustment of
values" and to pierce through the rampant "shams" of collegiate life to
a core of genuine experience.
The results could be edifying. For Walter Wyckoff, reducing life to
an elemental struggle for survival brought one "to marvelous intimacy
with vital processes." At the uttermost reaches of physical exhaustion,
renewal awaited: "It is as though you were a little child once more, and
your moods obedient to little things." Alvan Sanborn found that Boston's
abyss was not such a bad place, that having survived there would enable
him to approach his other life with greater daring and élan. Annie
Marion MacLean found herself uplifted by the rough democratic camaraderie
that prevailed among her fellow Oregon hop pickers--especially among
the women. And to Frederick C. Mills, if posing as a member of the
California Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was "playing with
fire all the time," it was nonetheless "a great
[End Page 37]
game to have a
Historian George Cotkin has linked the curse
of tedium vitae that afflicted late-Victorian intellectuals
to the motives that impelled down-and-outers into voyeuristic and
parasitical efforts to renew themselves at the well of working-class
vitality--efforts that Cotkin characterizes as "passive" and "pathetic
While there is certainly truth in this
sketch, I have argued above that these investigators' motives were far
more complex. Further, theirs was both an active endeavor (one might
even say strenuously so) and a constructive one, in the sense that they
"constructed" their subjects, for better or for worse, rather than
passively parasitizing them.
Yet Cotkin is right to suggest that there were questions of identity
in play. For men, an explicitly rugged, masterful style of masculine
identity was sometimes at issue. Wyckoff, described as a person of
"limited physical strength and unusually sensitive tastes," announced
himself initially "unman[ned]" by poverty. The two thick volumes that
followed may be read in part as the forceful, physical rebuilding of that
emasculated male self--a self already made precarious by the softening
conditions of his privileged academic life, and then further reduced to
the ignoble states of ("unmanned") woman and "little child."
Wyckoff derived certain psychic benefits by immersing himself in a man's
world from which he still preserved a psychic separateness. Perhaps not
incidentally, Wyckoff's growing self-confidence over the course of his
two tomes coincided with a renewed faith in America's possibilities
as he moved westward across the continent, finally assimilating his
own hardening body to a "body politic" maturing both in "industrial
achievement" and in "personal character."
Women down-and-outers were less liable to describe or justify their
experiences in the language of a discourse of authenticity, which
typically posited a male subject struggling to reconstitute his
subjectivity as autonomous, rugged American actor. While some female
investigators did allude to issues of authenticity and personal identity,
usually entwining those themes with expressions of desire to be of use or
to improve the lot of their working-class sisters, others adopted the more
neutral idiom of a professionalizing social science that sought only to
cast light on a hitherto little-studied realm.
Donovan, a woman and an amateur, asserted her right to enter the domain
of academic sociology by offering only "a truthful, sober, and exact
statement" about the conditions of waitressing, with "no other purpose
than that of making a certain situation intelligible." Ironically,
[End Page 38]
to claim an objectivist rhetoric, identifiably both
"scientific" and "masculine," that itself signified a growing movement
to displace women from the academic social sciences by distinguishing
between sociology and social work, between (male) knowers and (female)
Issues of personal, gender, and professional
identity were thus inextricably intertwined.
For both female and male investigators, the quest for experience to
underwrite truth claims necessarily introduced tensions into what
is usually seen as the progressives' characteristic optimism and
environmentalism. They worked, as Miles Orvell writes of Stephen
Crane, "at the epistemological intersection of experience and
At that conflicted crossroads, attraction
to workers' perceived vitality and concern for their condition were
frequently cross-cut by disgust and repulsion stemming from actual
contact. Thus it was often those counting themselves as friends of
the poor who provided the raw materials for the idea that these were a
separate people, sometimes effectively a separate race or species. The
very poor seemed mentally, physically, and morally different from
middle-class Americans, and were becoming more so all the time under
the impact of a self-reinforcing combination of environment and heredity.
To explain and justify such perceptions, many down-and-out writers
deployed a Lamarckian view of human evolution, arguing (or simply
assuming) that traits willfully or necessarily acquired for survival in a
horrific environment would be inherited by later generations. Although
Lamarckism was until recently believed to have been vanquished in
scientific circles by the early twentieth century, there is considerable
evidence for its persistence both within and outside of formal scientific
thought, especially because its apparent emphases on will (what Lamarck
called the "sentiment intérieur") and adaptation fulfilled
philosophical needs for those who were disturbed by the apparent
determinism inherent to the emergent field of genetics.
Not surprisingly, reform-oriented social investigators who hoped to
preserve a role for human will in confronting oppressive conditions were
especially prone to this sort of thinking. While Lamarckism underwrote
much reform thought--it was assumed that acquired traits would normally be
progressive ones--and is usually remembered in that optimistic light, it
could also explain downward-spiraling degeneration among those trapped
in a degrading environment. It is no coincidence that the notion of a
"cycle" or "vicious circle" of poverty emerged in this period, when
[End Page 39]
an embattled Lamarckism was retaining its influence by receding
into vaguer, more attenuated forms. As reform journalist Helen Campbell
observed in 1891, the "human beasts" of the tenements had become so
through "reflex action": the "tenement pulls them down, but they also
pull down the tenement."
Such a perspective held grim
implications--both for the subjects under investigation, and for the
Down-and-out writers typically prefaced the accounts of their adventures
in the netherworld of poverty with an assertion that only by joining
the lower class could they fully understand its point of view. They
justified--sometimes at considerable length--their deceptive means as
necessary to attain the higher good of truth-telling, and few seemed
to doubt that they could become conduits for the unmediated truth,
for the "true picture" of conditions, in the words of sociologist and
department-store worker Annie Marion MacLean.
could comprehend "all that life meant to" the homeless worker seemed a
reasonable project to retired businessman and journalist Edwin Brown;
that they would then serve as a "mouthpiece" for the workers' viewpoint
was also a goal that many down-and-out writers shared with self-described
gentlewomen Bessie and Marie Van Vorst. It was of course a frightening
prospect to undertake such an endeavor, which entailed the willful erasure
of one's identity (or at least of its outward manifestations) and the
abandonment, if only temporarily, of one's "frictionless" privileged
existence, as Walter Wyckoff put it. However, it also promised to liberate
the overcivilized college graduate from the chains of mere book-learning,
to allow him or her access to the "vital knowledge" of life beyond the
library walls. Wyckoff concluded that he must supplement his "slender,
book-learned lore" on the labor question, and therefore launched his
"Experiment in Reality."
Down-and-outers typically underwent certain rituals of divestment and
disguise as they prepared to enter the social abyss, and describing
these became a convention of the genre. Clothing was the most obvious
emblem of class, and most accounts offered some description of the
clothes removed and those put on, sometimes to the extent of including
prices: from sealskin coat ($200) to gray serge ($3); from black cloth
dress ($150) to flannel shirt-waist ($1.95); total value of clothing
[End Page 40]
removed, $447; of clothing put on, $9.45 (all prices ca.
1901). Such sartorial cost-accounting struck one reviewer--not
unjustly--as emblematic of "a certain naïve snobbery" on the
part of author Marie Van Vorst.
Yet this was only one
element of a highly self-aware process by which down-and-outers tried
to analyze the signs and symbols of class and to divest themselves
of the stigmata of respectability. They attempted to suppress their
well-bred weakness for proper grammar and fortified themselves with
book-learned slang (though none admitted to competence with language
any saltier than a "mild but passable profanity").
professed sensitivity to class differences in bearing, and even in body
type. Lacking the short, stocky build and thick ankles of "the average
peasant type," as Rheta Childe Dorr put it, they compensated variously
by practicing "a hang-dog position of the head," cultivating a manner
"timidly reserved, unobtrusive and monosyllabic," and developing "a
sort of swinging drawl of a gait."
They gave themselves
names like "Louise Clark" and "Connie Park" which they thought rang
with "proletarian simplicity."
And they tried to adopt
working-class habits, as when Cornelia Stratton Parker stepped into the
New York City street, approached a newstand, and brazenly "demanded a
package of--chewing gum. And then and there got out a stick and chewed
it, and chewed it on the Subway and chewed it on the streets of New
York." Having been raised by intensely pious, small-town schoolteachers,
Parker found public gum-chewing sufficiently outré to make her
"feel [herself] someone else."
Down-and-outers' texts sometimes displayed before-and-after photographs
of the author, evoking the anthropologist snapped while squatting by
"his" tribe's campfire, who thereby established his authority to speak
about their culture.
Such contrasting images could make
questions of authorial identity and stance seem rather simple. Marie Van
Vorst reported that upon changing her clothes, "my former personality
slipped from me as absolutely as did the garments I had discarded. I was
Bell Ballard." On her account, she became the comfortable companion of
people from whose physical presence she would normally have shrunk. But
others reported a metamorphosis less smooth and comfortable. Jack London
was at first seized by a paralyzing fear of the crowd when he descended
into London's East End. The degenerating masses appeared to him a literal
force of nature, a "vast and malodorous sea" which threatened to engulf
and strangle him. Like the protagonist of London's Martin Eden
[End Page 41]
drowns himself, London slipped down voluntarily into
the "sea" of the lumpenproletariat. But unlike Martin, an alienated
individualist cut off from his working-class origins, London survived
his symbolic de-evolutionary descent into the primordial slums and
eventually embraced a socialist analysis that condemned capitalism for
causing the cruel differentiation of London society into two distinct
As London discovered, the process of descent into proletarian life
could prove disjunctive and frightening. Walter Wyckoff reported a
mixture of fear and excitement on beginning his tramp, but for others
the dominant initial sensation was fright. Alvan Sanborn evinced this by
initially affecting an ironic, detached tone which distanced him from his
newly-adopted identity, as when he announced the "genuine artistic pride"
he took in his carefully-assembled bum's outfit.
than an emblem of the lower class, his clothes became a work of art and
an artifact of his cultivated and playful sensibility, to be deployed
as a kind of alien armor against the very world into which he would wear
them. Postponing the impending descent, a sardonic Sanborn called himself
"underbred" for mixing in the social world of the poor. He paced endlessly
in front of a cheap lodging-house before frigid conditions overrode fear
and forced him to enter.
After his apprehension abated
and he came to feel himself part of the lodging-house world, his tone
modulated from irony and self-mocking to empathy, and even to respect.
Fear was of course a natural response to entering strange and sometimes
dangerous environments. Charles Rumford Walker forced himself to appear
calm but "walked with excessive firmness" in the "violent environment"
of the steel mill. A terrified Frances Donovan, trying to dress for her
first waitressing job in a dank basement locker room, felt as though she
were emerging from anesthesia; to the "dizzy" and "stunned" novice, the
musty room held "an air of evil and of horror indescribable" (this from
one of the less fastidious of down-and-out investigators). And fear
was often spiced with humiliation: Lillian Pettengill, an applicant
for domestic work, reported being inspected by a potential employer
"as if I were a prize cow up for sale," and eliciting the enthusiastic
judgement that "'You are a nice looking girl; yes, a very
nice looking girl.'" Indignantly reporting a similar encounter,
sociologist Frances Kellor insisted that "any American girl of poor but
good family" with the requisite training and sensibility to be a maid
would be equally ashamed and outraged. No doubt Kellor was right, but
[End Page 42]
whiff of class resentment emanated from Pettengill's
pages, which pointedly informed the reader of the author's status as
Most down-and-outers were so deeply stamped by feelings of class
difference that several were actually chagrined by their own success at
passing as workers. Wyckoff reported ruefully that he had been taken for a
drunkard and for a detective, but never for a gentleman down on his luck;
sometimes, he reflected, his disguise worked too well. Frances Donovan
was delighted to be mistaken for a customer upon arriving at a new job,
having been distressed by the ease with which merely donning an apron
had prompted others to see her as a waitress. From a different angle of
approach, Jack London's fears reflected the fact that he was plunging
into a class milieu from which he himself had emerged, and against which
he had constructed a new identity as self-educated, successful writer;
he dreaded the possibility of sinking back into the abyss of his own
Thus ambivalence wracked many down-and-outers as
they purposefully declassed themselves.
For all investigators, there was the possibility of coming to understand
working-class life and psychology, but also the more disturbing potential
of being drawn fully into it--of "going native" among a population
often thought of as primitive or as devolving toward savagery. Walter
Wyckoff developed such empathy for his fellow construction workers that he
began to write of them as "we": "We are unskilled laborers. We are grown
men, and are without a trade. . . . You tell us" that "our" interests
are identical with those of the boss, who assumes that "we" are lazy
thieves who will cheat him if possible; "You" tell us, in the end, "that
degradation as men is the measure of our bondage as workmen." Restaurant
worker Amy Tanner adopted not only the viewpoint but the habits of her
subjects, finding that thirteen-hour days and seven-day weeks dulled both
the body and the mind and made of her a "typical shiftless servant." She
stole food and hairpins when the occasion presented, ceased to bathe
regularly, lost most of her other inhibitions, and found that her
"ethical tone" had deteriorated. As her mind became increasingly fixed
on the immediate moment and incapable of focusing on the past or future
(a trait typically attributed to the poor, and later a prominent feature
of the "culture of poverty" literature), all thoughts of friends, family,
and books receded and "lost their tang." Befuddlement closed in, and she
"became a creature ruled chiefly by sensations."
72[End Page 43]
Wyckoff and Tanner escaped all this, thanks perhaps to the protective
armoring of postgraduate educations, and returned to civilization to
publish their stories and to teach at universities. But there was always
the danger that whatever virus infected those at the bottom of the pit
could be catching and permanently debilitating. Frederick C. Mills, who
passed as a hobo in 1914 while investigating rural labor conditions for
the California Commission of Immigration and Housing, noted cheerfully
in his diary that he had just lunched sumptuously on six stolen oranges:
"The virus of the life must be getting into my veins, as I felt absolutely
no compunctions [sic]." Young men who stayed on the road long enough,
Mills noted, inevitably succumbed permanently to its lure--an assertion
made by several other hobo and tramp autobiographers, all of whom
believed that tramping was literally addictive. This idea stemmed from
the German quasi-scientific concept of compulsive "Wanderlust,"
a notion widely discussed by scholars and popularized by premiere tramp
autobiographer Josiah Flynt, who believed he had inherited the affliction
from his mother. Unable to conquer the call of the road, he finally turned
it to the legitimate end of undercover investigation.
mendicancy was equally dangerous, noted magazine writer Theodore Waters,
who spent "Six Weeks in Beggardom" in 1904-1905. Although primly
incapable of begging at first, Waters eventually became adept at the
practice and found himself making a good living at it, admitting finally
that he did indeed feel the lure of the begging addiction. Waters was
among the journalists who repeated the twice-told tale of a prosperous
fruit-stand owner who one day inadvertently left home without carfare,
successfully solicited it from a passerby, and ended by selling his shop
to take up full-time begging.
Even as the down-and-outers came to identify with their fellow denizens
of the social pit, they found ways to innoculate themselves against the
danger of infection, and to remind themselves, after the clothes-changing
ritual, of who they "really" were. This was no small matter to Wyckoff,
who found that wealthy friends encountered by accident seemed to look
right through him "as through something transparent, [at] the familiar
objects on the roadside." Such disconcerting invisibility gave him "an
uncomfortable feeling of unacquaintance with myself"--a feeling shared
by Bessie Van Vorst, who worried that she had disguised herself so
successfully as to deceive "not only others but myself"; the erstwhile
"gentlewoman" now felt herself "with
[End Page 44]
desperate reality a factory
girl, alone, inexperienced, friendless." The anonymous author who spent
"four years in the underbrush" claimed that she never intended to stay
submerged for so long.
How was one to avoid becoming what
one appeared to be?
Whatever their professions to having become someone else, down-and-outers
necessarily lived with a tensely divided consciousness and drew upon the
resources of their middle-class origins to resist the threat of going
native. For some, salvation lay in the fact that a genteel education
had struck deep roots. A defiant Mills wrote in his diary that no
matter how taxing the work, "Lay on Macduff, and damned be he that
first cries 'hold, enough.'" For Mills, silently quoting Shakespeare
and other writers, thinking about poetry--shielding himself behind a
wall of Arnoldian high culture--became a way to preserve his identity
against erosion in the "hive" of toilers. Similarly, a beleagured Wyckoff
occasionally fell when tempted by a public library, where he indulged
in day-long orgies of reading when he should have been seeking work. On
being ejected by the janitor, he would emerge blinking in the twilight
to find that he was still "a proletaire out of a job," and would then
hurry to his boardinghouse to lose himself, as so many of his destitute
brethren did, in sleep--they having over-indulged in cheap liquor, and
he in free books.
Other useful preventatives against a permanent slide into the pit included
work itself: the "real" work of writing that the investigators carried
on surreptitiously. Thus Mills incessantly sought out secluded spots to
take notes, while Rheta Childe Dorr and Frances Donovan wrote up their
days' experiences in the evening before collapsing with exhaustion. But
perhaps their most powerful method for holding themselves apart from the
world they investigated was to attack its inhabitants. One down-and-out
slumdweller raised the demand for immigration restriction, declaring
the influx of "foreign riffraff," and especially of Irish "scum," a
national emergency. And most called for harsh penalties against tramps
and beggars, arguing that such parasites found it entirely too easy to
ply their trade and constituted a serious threat to the American social
and moral order.
Overall, these investigators retained and
reinforced the idea that the poor were indeed different from themselves.
This is not to say that down-and-outers remained unchanged by their
experiences. Certainly they gained new insights about class. Just as
Twain's King Arthur was nearly ridden down by a heedless knight, Jack
[End Page 45]
London learned that street traffic was now a threat: "my life
had cheapened in direct ratio with my clothes."
of harsh treatment by representatives of the established order or of
kindly support by other workers accompanied professions of new sympathy
for labor organizations, in an era when unions remained anathema to
many middle-class Americans.
There was an element of the
conversion narrative about these accounts; it became something of a
discursive convention to announce oneself a former disciple of classical
economics or a onetime believer in the inherent unfitness of working
people who had now converted to pro-reform views.
down-and-outers routinely acknowledged that they could not truly "become"
workers and fully enter the consciousness of those they studied, the
identity they established through encountering the working-class other
was more than a cardboard construction.
They protected their
"real" identity and sometimes referred to their working-class incarnations
in the third person rather than the first, but they inhabited that
identity to the point that, as Alvan Sanborn expressed it, "Living does
away with the necessity of playing at living."
Wyckoff resisted the temptation to return prematurely to the comforts of
civilization and resolved instead to "try it a little longer," he wrote
of his worker-self as a near suicide who had drawn back from the brink
of self-destruction. Like Cornelia Stratton Parker, who periodically
returned to her "Connie Park" identity, some seemed never quite to come
all the way back. Although Lillian Pettengill had ceased to "live out"
after a year as a servant, she still felt herself to be, in some sense, a
In the end, of course, to define and shore up their own identities was
a task only secondary to the one of constituting an image of the very
poor. To this end, writers worked in shoe factories, department stores,
textile mills, warehouses, logging camps, on farms, and at construction
sites. They stood on breadlines, begged for handouts, stole rides on
freight trains, and tramped. They slept in cheap lodginghouses, police
stations, doorways, parks, unlighted brick ovens, haystacks, and hobo
jungles. They took notes, they remembered, and they wrote.
Writing Class: "To Set the Stamp of Difference On It All"
In this endeavor, down-and-outers had power--the power to define
difference, and to specify who and what others were. In exercising
that power, they reaffirmed their own positions as representatives of a
[End Page 46]
higher civilization and a superior culture. In the pages they wrote,
laundry workers, road-builders, waitresses, and the drifting, homeless
unemployed became the objects of their discerning, discriminating,
middle-class gaze. They might, like Charles Rumford Walker in the steel
mills, represent themselves as the anthropologist by the campfire: "They
are natives, while I am more nearly a foreigner" who brought a fresh
perspective to their world, and whose power ultimately derived from his
ability to leave that world. Their authorial stance toward their subjects
might vary drastically with circumstances: to a desperate, homeless, and
hungry Wyckoff, Chicago's skyscrapers were "prison walls" behind which
teemed "hiving industry, as if to mock you in your bitter plight"; but
once steadily employed as a road-builder, he commented loftily on the
jobless riffraff as cowardly, weak-willed "victims of the gregarious
instinct" who embraced squalor and failure due to an "incapacity for
the struggle for existence."
If down-and-outers blurred
the border between "us" and "them" through the rituals of disguise
and descent, they largely re-established it when reconstituting their
experiences as texts. They wrote, as Cornelia Stratton Parker put it,
"to set the stamp of difference on it all."
The people they depicted for the popular and muckraking magazines and for
academic audiences were often marked by the stigmata of difference. The
very placement of Bessie and Marie Van Vorst's articles in Harper's
and Everybody's Magazine gave notice of exotic and bizarre
subjects. Everybody's featured sensational muckraking tales of
urban political malfeasance, of shocking conditions in mining towns, and
of the equally shocking lives of "The Unemployed Rich."
86Harper's offered a range of exotica leading up to Bessie Van
Vorst's article on women factory workers: a short story featured an
insane narrator who apparently willed her imaginary lover into existence;
"A Strange People of the North" displayed photographs of a Siberian
tribe hitherto unvisited by whites; a travel story set in mysterious
Constantinople offered the photograph of a turbaned, bearded and berobed
man over the caption, "The man by your side may be a spy." Van Vorst's own
spy story followed, beginning with the revelation that "Psychologically,
[female factory workers] are practically and morally unknown" to those
outside their sphere. The next article moved to another sphere entirely,
as it recounted the arcana of "Photographing the Nebulae with Reflecting
Could there have been a more appropriate setting
for the Van Vorsts' explorations into the
[End Page 47]
mysterious world of "this
unknown class" than these magazines, with their panoply of other peoples,
other worlds, and certified experts to guide the wide-eyed reader?
In an era of deepening urban segregation by class, ethnicity, and race,
the sense that readers were being introduced to strange beings and alien
worlds was enhanced by the common conceit that the American poor inhabited
a domestic "Dark Continent" whose denizens were effectively a primitive
and "unknown race," as social gospel leader Walter Rauschenbusch called
them. Perhaps such creatures were not even entirely human: Owen Kildare
found them impossible to place firmly, relative to apes and cannibals, on
the evolutionary scale.
These preconceptions were significant
for both readers and writers of down-and-out narratives. The tropes of
primitivism, argues Marianna Torgovnick, have often mediated concerns
about the fragility of identity; for down-and-outers to represent the
poor as an uncultured, primitive, devolving race was in part to insist
upon their own antithetical qualities. So to Bessie Van Vorst, who had
worried about deceiving even herself with her disguise, knitting-mill
workers exhibited a distinctively "primitive love of ornament"; and
Frances Donovan reflected the tendency to ascribe vitality as well as
degradation to primitives when she observed that waitresses shared the
"vulgarity and robustness of primitive life everywhere."
The strange world of the primitive poor could seem both remote
and unnervingly near. This was a world, Jack London noted, that the
estimable Cook's Tours did not even know how to find. Hence down-and-out
investigators undertook to read and interpret that realm. They would
decipher its signs and its languages, categorizing types of beggars and
producing lexicons of tramp lingo for their readers.
such separate, self-contained, and fundamentally racialized worlds was
doubly powerful given that they actually lay, as London wrote, "barely a
stone's throw distant" from familiar landmarks. James Clifford notes that
in the hybridized cultural context of the late twentieth century, "The
exotic is uncannily close" and self-other relations are perpetually in
If the geographical and psychical gaps were somewhat
wider in Progressive America, down-and-outers intended to close them
long enough to shake their own and their readers' complacency. "Oh,
you don't know anything about this life. . . and I can't tell you,"
protested a servant acquaintance of Lillian
[End Page 48]
Pettengill and her peers crossed into that other country to find out
The images they produced of that country's inhabitants tended to
reinforce an overwhelming sense of otherness. Unskilled laborers,
tramps, and street people looked, talked, thought, felt, and (it was
more than once remarked) smelled differently than "we" did. They were
frequently described as animal-like, sub-rational, and sometimes as
sliding more or less helplessly down the evolutionary scale toward utter
bestiality. Down-and-out taxonomists collated apparently-generic physical
traits--often thought to be expressed physiognomically--and reified them
in arrays of photographs or drawings as distinctive "types" of tramps,
steelworkers, lodging-house dwellers, and textile-mill laborers. To
Marie Van Vorst, commenting on a tableau of mill-workers' faces, "The
Southern mill-hand's face is unique--a fearful type, whose perusal is
not pleasant or cheerful to the character-reader. . . ."
Such efforts to describe and define the poor were sometimes filtered
through racist and nativist assumptions: considerable concern was
expressed about the "stagnant scum of other countries" that "floats
here to be purified." The Irish and Italians were seen as especially
unpromising stock, and there was much counterposing of Italian and
Greek immigrant workers to "white [American] men."
such characterizations, ideas of nationality, race, and class flowed
together and were melded, through the Lamarckian hereditary transmission
of environmentally-acquired traits, into a suffocating devolutionary
Although many dwellers in the abyss were native-born
white Americans who had been dislodged from their proper station by a bout
of unemployment, they were no less susceptible than the foreign-born to
declining into permanent degradation. To thus racialize and naturalize
social class and ethnicity was to reinforce powerfully the perception of
unbridgeable difference. It was also to reiterate the distinctiveness,
superiority, and stability of the investigator's own middle-class
identity, and to militate against the likelihood of going native.
Down-and-outers often found that only the most extreme metaphors of
Dark-Continent savagery and animality sufficed to describe what they
found in the urban "underbrush." Thus New York City's tenements were
"a jungle abounding in treacherous quicksand and infested by the most
venomous and noisome creatures of the animal kingdom--a swamp in which
any misstep may plunge you into the choking depths
[End Page 49]
of a quagmire or
the coils of a slimy reptile." Such language reminds us of why Charles
Loring Brace, like Karl Marx, wrote nervously of a "dangerous" class. The
threat of the very poor might take the form of communicable diseases
that spread like a stain from filthy shops to consumers,
or of roiling masses "in whom discontent has bred the disease of riot,
the abnormality, the abortion known as Anarchy, Socialism."
And such danger grew ever more acute: in the "jungles of civilization
the evolution is always downward--from man to beast, to reptile, and
to that most noisome of living creatures, the human worm." By contrast,
in the city's wealthy districts, the favored individual might "grow to
perfection--the superman." Enfolding the reader within this language
of evolutionary bifurcation, the Van Vorsts observed that "our bodies
grow accustomed to luxury" while "theirs grow hardened to deprivation
and filth," that "our souls" expand toward the ideal while "their souls
diminish under the oppression" of the struggle to survive.
Such descriptions were usually framed by a progressive reformer's focus on
the social origins of this socio-biological disaster: it was "human greed"
that produced the tenements which incubated the "forced decivilization"
of their inhabitants; it was economic defeat that reduced men on a
breadline to "'dumb, driven cattle'" and left paupers happy in their
squalid conditions and wishing for nothing better.
socially-conditioned moral decline had lasting biological implications:
if a single day in a mine could drive down one investigator to "a level
with the grossest," damaging or perhaps eradicating his "finer instincts,"
then what fate awaited the just-hired textile worker fresh from the South
Carolina hills? Surely she would soon lose her "womanly sentiment" and
"coarsen to the animal like to those whose companion she is forced to
be," no longer "fit to propagate the species"--embodying the spectre
of race suicide evoked by Theodore Roosevelt in his preface to the Van
Among the many striking features of this literature is the common
assertion that no basic biological or pyschological differences
distinguished poor people from their social superiors. Indeed, these texts
abound with positive assessments of laborers' courage and solidarity,
tramps' and beggars' native wisdom and ingenuity, and the social utility
of saloons and unions. Yet the authors' actual descriptions of the poor
often absolutely contradicted their stated egalitarianism. Jack London
gloried in the change from "sir" to "mate," yet was quick to label
his mates a "new race" of degraded human beasts. Female investigators
[End Page 50]
such as waitresses Maud Younger and Frances Donovan tended to
stress their co-workers' positive, cooperative, and relational traits--a
cheerful, unsentimental determination to survive and get ahead, a ready
sympathy toward the novice worker, and a sisterly solidarity against
abusive customers and bosses.
Yet Younger was also capable
of describing the lower-caste scrubwoman as "always squirming, squirming
backwards, her tentacles swaying from side to side, like the horrible
slugs that come out in California after a heavy dew." Similarly, Donovan
showed great affection for the other waitresses but detested the "scum"
(mainly homeless men and lodging-house dwellers) who worked in the
These judgments in part reflected common intraclass distinctions
between the "respectable," regularly-employed wage worker and
the casual laborer who could find only the dirtiest, least-skilled
jobs. But Cornelia Stratton Parker cast a wider net. Parker concluded
her book on working women with the insistence that workers and bosses
shared common desires and were in most ways basically similar. Yet in
the fourteen pages previous to that, she had characterized "the great
body" of American workers as "unfit physically, mentally, nervously,"
their normal endowments of intelligence and industriousness having
atrophied in brain-numbing jobs and in the "discouraging environment"
outside the workplace. Parker, like others, posited a "vicious
circle" of reciprocally-reinforcing home and workplace influences
that accelerated the workers' degeneration; she stopped just short of
declaring that acquired degeneracy might be passed on through biological
Josiah Flynt took that further step. Flynt began his landmark volume
Tramping With Tramps (1901) with a long and fervent refutation
of the hereditarian school of criminal anthropology associated with
Cesare Lombroso, and an insistence that criminals and tramps were no
different from members of other social classes. Then followed a series
of chapters in which Flynt divided tramps into "classes," "species," and
"subspecies" like an entomologist poring over his specimens. He began
with a long chapter on the "Children of the Road," who were represented
as mentally, physically, and morally stunted by their vagabond and amoral
life. Flynt waxed explicitly hereditarian when he described the "gipsy
[sic] character" these children had acquired, and which would require
generations to breed out of their progeny. Thus did culture phase subtly
into nature, as acquired traits became permanent ones. For Flynt, as
for the eugenicist George R. Stetson, whose 1909
[End Page 51]Arena
article drew on the Van Vorsts' and Wyckoff's work, "environment [was]
the architect of heredity."
Walter Wyckoff also recorded contradictory perceptions. On the western
leg of his two-thousand-mile trek, recorded in Volume II of The
Workers, he praised the "intelligent, industrious, God-fearing people"
who did America's work. Flushed with incipient Boasian antiracialism, he
noted with approval that the Iowa-born children of immigrants were said to
"lose certain physical characteristics" of their "alien ancestry" and to
gain features of "recognized American types."
journey ended in California with a jubilant evocation of boundless
American opportunity. But he had opened this volume with a sequence of
scenes set in teeming and claustrophobic Chicago that graphically depicted
the hideousness of the vagrant other: men sleeping on the police station
floor, men "widely severed from all things human," whose physiognomies
were "unreclaimed by marks of inner strength and force" and revealed "in
plainest characters the paralysis of the will." The writer's eye then
fell with relief upon a respectable worker who was only temporarily on
the bum, whose face evinced "the open frankness which comes of earning
a living by honest work." And finally, Wyckoff silently reasserted
his own private, privileged identity, completing this excursion up the
evolutionary scale from subhuman vagrant to temporarily displaced man
of leisure: "I lie thinking of another world I know, a world of men and
women whose plane of life is removed from this by all the distance of
the infinite. . . . What living link," he wondered, could join these
sundered worlds and vivify the Apostle's words: "We, being many, are
one body in Christ, and everyone members of one another?"
Wyckoff himself might logically have provided that link. Instead, he
reasserted his difference and maintained an essential separateness
from his noisome, snoring comrades, even as they shared the same
jailhouse floor. Down-and-outers such as Wyckoff and the Van Vorsts
tended to be more sympathetically environmentalist when describing the
regularly-employed, respectable working class, and more prone to lurid
essentialism when describing the lowest social strata. And since so
many workers were poised more or less constantly on the border between
uncertain employment and vagrancy, they were always susceptible to the
downward evolutionary pull of the abyss. Wyckoff's optimism about the
children of immigrants in the west was based on their inheritance of
new traits acquired in an open and promising
[End Page 52]
environment. Such a
Lamarckian assumption could, of course, cut two ways; inhabitants of a
sordid environment such as the Chicago slums could only be expected to
devolve over succeeding generations.
That these texts so regularly subverted themselves on questions of human
unity and difference suggests that their authors harbored a contradictory
consciousness typical of an era in which environmental explanations of
poverty were supplanting, but had not vanquished, moral and hereditarian
ones. Through the mechanism of a usually-implicit Lamarckism, it could
be argued that negative traits acquired in a debased environment would
be passed on to one's progeny. Degeneration, therefore, was initiated
by environmental forces but fixed in place by heredity. Thus Robert
Hunter, settlement house worker and socialist, argued in his influential
book Poverty (1904) that the evils of poverty were "not barren,
but procreative," and that the dregs of society produced "a litter of
miserables whose degeneracy is so stubborn and fixed that reclamation
is almost impossible."
Here we find a characteristic image of the impoverished as sliding
helplessly down the evolutionary scale--a degenerating "litter"--together
with a characteristic ambivalence about the finality of their fate--their
downward trajectory was "fixed," yet only "almost impossible" to
arrest. The social origin of their plight was simply unemployment,
but sinking into pauperism, which Hunter compared to biological
parasitism, brought on a "disease of character" that also led to
physical degeneration. Transmitted across generations, that disease
produced children who were congenitally unable to work. Predestined to
become aimless, drunken drifters, they would happily subsist on charity
and garbage, spawning more generations of children who would be born
"debilitated, alcoholic, idiots, and imbeciles, as a result of their
heritage." Like the notorious Jukes family of R. L. Dugdale's study
(1877), these degraded hereditary products of a hellish environment
would never even enter the struggle for existence, in which they were
foredoomed to failure.
Had the down-and-out writers set out
to verify Hunter's thesis and to carry forward nineteenth-century ideas
about hereditary degeneration and criminality, they could hardly have
done a more effective job--all the while, both denying such deep-lying
difference and graphically representing it.
Historian Dorothy Ross articulates a characteristic problematic
for Progressive-era thinkers when she argues that progressive social
scientists operated "at the intersection of history and nature, seeking
[End Page 53]
capture both the concrete particularities of experience and
universal natural forms, both the changing shape of modern society
and an unchanging dynamic at its core."
literature suggests that from a street-level perspective, although culture
gradually supplanted biology in twentieth-century social explanation,
essentialism need not disappear. In these investigators' eyes, nature
often contained or outstripped the contingencies of experience and
history. During the later years of the Progressive era, images of
degeneration and otherness did appear less frequently in down-and-out
writings. But while the early-twentieth-century social sciences were
gradually rejecting Lamarckism and embracing culture as a determinative
category, Lamarckian-derived essentialism, with its inner histories
of conflating environment with heredity and of variously conflating
class, race, ethnicity, and nationality, could simply migrate from
biology to culture.
Eventually, culture and values would
be used to explain poverty much as congenital immorality and lassitude
had previously done; and for those who drew upon the emergent concept
of "social heredity" during and after the 1890s, culture itself could
loosely be seen as heritable.
Such reasoning laid the basis
for a tradition of hereditarian and essentialist explanation that would
persist in the face of the assault by Franz Boas and his followers on
biological determinism and racial formalism--an assault that triumphed
in academic circles by the early 1920s, gained popular notice in the
1930s through the works of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, and reached
fruition in the 1940s with the Boasian underpinnings of Gunnar Myrdal's
An American Dilemma (1944).
But despite the apparent apotheosis of the Boasian tradition, it was the
essentialist, culture-based hereditarian countertradition that would
re-emerge in the "culture of poverty" thesis of the 1960s and in its
latter-day offspring, the contemporary concept of the "underclass." We
must revise our understanding of the Boasian paradigm shift, whose
whig-historical triumphalism cannot obscure the obvious fact that
varieties of class and racial essentialism are very much alive in
popular journalistic and academic discourse today.
crucial--and still operant--conflation of evolution with class, culture
and race had its roots partly in late-Victorian excursions into the world
of that day's "underclass." To trace this genealogy forward through the
twentieth century will cast light on present-day popular, journalistic,
and academic discussions and images of poverty and the poor, as they
[End Page 54]
our own public discourse and policy debates, and as we,
who also live in a world of difference, continue both to confront and
to evade "this unknown class."
University of Colorado
Mark Pittenger is an associate professor of history at the
University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of American
Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920 (1993).
The research and writing of this article were supported in part by a
Summer Stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and
by a Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. I
also appreciate the helpful suggestions and support offered by Lee
Chambers-Schiller, participants in the University of Colorado History
Department colloquium series, readers for the American Quarterly,
and Lucy Maddox.
Frances Donovan, The Woman Who Waits (Boston, 1920),
11-12. It seems likely that Donovan at least partly constructed
this introductory fable and represented herself as a naïve observer
for literary purposes. If she did indeed search the libraries, surely
she would have found Amy Tanner's and Maud Younger's accounts of
investigative undercover waitressing; and the very title of her book
could have been modelled on one of the first such efforts to receive
wide public notice: Mrs. John and Marie Van Vorst, The Woman Who
Toils (New York, 1903). See also, Amy Tanner, "Glimpses at the
Mind of a Waitress," American Journal of Sociology 13 (July
1907): 48-55; and Maud Younger, "The Diary of an Amateur Waitress,"
McClure's Magazine 28 (Mar. 1907): 543-52; Maud Younger, "The
Diary of an Amateur Waitress," McClure's Magazine 28 (Apr. 1907):
665-77. On Donovan, see Heather Paul Kurent, "Frances R. Donovan
and the Chicago School of Sociology: A Case Study in Marginality,"
(Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 1982).
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933; New
York, 1961). This is a fictionalized version (though barely so) of
Orwell's explorations of poverty between 1927 and 1932. Jack London,
The People of the Abyss (New York, 1903).
I will be discussing succeeding generations of down-and-outers in
the larger project of which this article forms a part. The emphases on
behavior and culture are addressed in Adolph Reed, Jr., "The Underclass
as Myth and Symbol: The Poverty of Discourse about Poverty," Radical
America 24 (Jan.-Mar. 1990): 22, 27; and in Michael Katz,
"The Urban 'Underclass' as a Metaphor of Social Transformation," in
The "Underclass" Debate: Views from History, ed. Michael Katz
(Princeton, 1993), 4, 12. The most obvious contemporary example of the
impact of journalistic descriptions is Ken Auletta, The Underclass
(New York, 1982).
On the construction of difference, see Joan W. Scott, "The Evidence
of Experience," Critical Inquiry 17 (summer 1991): 773-97.
Of forty-nine such investigators whom I identified for this study,
nineteen were women.
Katz alludes to such a conflation in "Urban 'Underclass,'" 11.
On continuities between earlier British and American conceptions
of poverty and the later culture of poverty and underclass ideas,
see Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early
Industrial Age (New York, 1985), 369-70; James T. Patterson,
America's Struggle Against Poverty 1900-1985, enlarged
ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1986), 12-14; and Katz, "The Urban
Underclass," 10-14. Recent critiques of the underclass idea include
Stephen Steinberg, "The Underclass: A Case of Color and Blindness,"
New Politics 7 (summer 1989), 42-60; Adolph Reed, Jr.,
"The Underclass as Myth and Symbol," 21-40; and Jacqueline Jones,
The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses from the Civil War to the
Present (New York, 1992). Two compendia that sum up the arguments,
mainly from a critical perspective, are Bill E. Lawson, ed. and introd.,
The Underclass Question (Philadelphia, 1992), and Katz, The
For example, Katz so dates the term in "The Urban Underclass,"
17. Herbert J. Gans provides a convenient genealogy of the term in
his War Against the Poor: The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy
(New York, 1995), 27-57. Sociologist Frances Kellor used the word
"under-class" in an unattributed quotation amidst her highly critical
discussion of the Lombrosian school of criminal anthropology. The
preceding footnote was to Lombroso's Female Offender (New York,
1895; first published in Italian, 1893). Thus Kellor may have drawn the
term from Lombroso, or from the English-language edition's editor and
apparent translator W. Douglas Morrison, though even this is ambiguous
as Kellor cites only author and title, and does so for both English and
R. C. Lewontin, "Women Versus the Biologists," New York Review
of Books, (7 Apr. 1994): 31; Nicole Hahn Rafter, "Introduction,"
White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies 1877-1919, ed. Rafter
(Boston, 1988), 5. The controversy stirred by Richard J. Herrnstein's and
Charles Murray's The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in
American Life (New York, 1994) underscores both the persistence of
this debate and its capacity to arouse public passions. See for example
Tom Morganthau, "IQ: Is It Destiny?" Newsweek 124 (24 Oct. 1994):
53-60; and Adolph Reed, Jr., "Looking Backward": rev. of The
Bell Curve, Nation 259 (28 Nov. 1994): 654-62.
Warren Susman, "'Personality' and the Making of Twentieth-Century
Culture," in Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation
of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1984),
271-85; T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism
and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (Chicago,
Donovan, Woman Who Waits, 10; Josiah Flynt, My Life
(New York, 1908), 11; anonymous, Four Years in the Underbrush
(New York, 1921).
"Modernism" is here construed as a "culture," in the manner of
Daniel Joseph Singal, "Towards a Definition of American Modernism," in
Modernist Culture in America, ed. Daniel Joseph Singal (Belmont,
Calif., 1991), 1-27. A comparable but more familiar concern about the
erosion of such boundaries of class, culture, and race was middle-class
nervousness over the likely effects of jazz music, dancing, and other
popular amusements, on white middle-class youth. See for example John
F. Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the
Century (New York, 1978); Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin' Out: New York
Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930
(Chicago, 1981); and Neil Leonard, Jazz and the White Americans
The perceived need for revitalization among such social types has
often been noted in recent scholarship: see George Cotkin, William
James, Public Philosopher (Baltimore, Md., 1990), 108-11; and
Lears, No Place of Grace.
Dana recounts that he had first thought to pass as a common seaman,
but was immediately found out; but scholar Thomas Philbrick notes that
in later years, when travelling on business, Dana sometimes donned
sailor's garb to explore such rough urban terrain as New York City's
notorious Five Points. See Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before
the Mast, ed. and introd. Thomas Philbrick (1840; New York, 1981),
40-41; Thomas Philbrick, "Introduction" to Dana, Two Years,
15. Forrest's investigations are noted in Lewis Perry, Intellectual
Life in America (Chicago, 1989), 242. On women who served as Civil
War soldiers in male disguise, see Richard Hall, Patriots in Disguise:
Women Warriors of the Civil War (New York, 1993).
Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper (Boston, 1882); A
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (New York, 1889).
Peter Keating, "Introduction" to Keating, ed., Into Unknown England
1866-1913: Selections from the Social Explorers (Manchester,
England, 1976), 16-27; Judith R. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful
Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London
(Chicago, 1992), 36-38. On British perceptions of the poor and
studies of poverty generally, see also Deborah Epstein Nord, "The Social
Explorer as Anthropologist: Victorian Travellers Among the Urban Poor," in
Visions of the Modern City, ed. William Sharpe and Leonard Wallock
(New York, 1983), 118-30; Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London:
A Study of the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society
(Oxford, 1971); Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty; and
Himmelfarb, Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late
Victorians (New York, 1991).
Frau Dr. Minna Wettstein-Adelt, 3 1/2 Monate Fabrik-Arbeiterin
(Berlin, 1893); Paul Göhre, Three Months in a Workshop: A
Practical Study, trans. A. B. Carr, pref. note by Richard T. Ely
(London, 1895). American sociologist Annie Marion MacLean notes her
indebtedness to these two exemplars in "The Sweat-Shop in Summer,"
American Journal of Sociology 9 (Nov. 1903): 289. The King of
Sweden is discussed by Edwin A. Brown, "Living with the Homeless,"
World Today 20 (June 1911): 663.
John Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century
Urban America (New York, 1990), 110-11; Stephenson's adventures
are described in "Tramps and Work-Houses," Harper's Weekly (4
Feb. 1878): 106. On middle-class fears of revolutionary upheaval, see
Robert V. Bruce, 1877: Year of Violence (Indianapolis, 1959).
The term is from Kasson, Rudeness and Civility, 78.
Stuart Blumin, "Explaining the New Metropolis: Perception, Depiction
and Analysis in Mid-Nineteenth Century New York City," Journal of
Urban History 11 (Nov. 1984), 18-19, 28. An example whose
title suggests the binary consciousness common to portrayals of the
city is Helen Campbell, Darkness and Daylight: Lights and Shadows of
New York Life. A Woman's Narrative (1891; Detroit, 1969). Social
investigators on both sides of the Atlantic increasingly recognized
that such binary perceptions were inaccurate: see Walkowitz City of
Dreadful Delight, 31-32; and Stuart Blumin, Emergence of the
Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760-1900
(Cambridge, England, 1989), 287.
I am indebted to David Papke for calling this "lights and shadows"
literature to my attention. It is discussed in Kasson, Rudeness and
Civility, 77-80, and Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation
of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York, 1982),
125-27. Charles Loring Brace, The Dangerous Classes of New
York and Twenty Years' Work Among Them, 3d ed. (1880; Montclair,
N.J., 1967); Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the
Tenements of New York, ed. Sam Bass Warner, Jr. (1890; Cambridge,
Kasson, Rudeness and Civility, 25; Blumin, Emergence of
the Middle Class, 258.
Reverend Frank Charles Laubach, Why There Are Tramps: A Study
Based Upon an Examination of One Hundred Men (New York, 1916). On
the Gilded-Age background to this fear of the unruly poor, see Eugene
Leach, "The Literature of Riot Duty: Managing Class Conflict in the
Streets, 1877-1927, Radical History Review 56 (spring
1993), 23-50; and Leach, "Chaining the Tiger: The Mob Stigma and
the Working Class, 1863-1894," Labor History 35 (spring
1994), 187-215. On the intellectual underpinnings of such fears,
see Leach, "Mastering the Crowd: Collective Behavior and Mass Society
in American Social Thought, 1917-1939," American Studies 27
(spring 1986), 99-114.
This assiduous pursuit of data was most famously exemplified by
Hull House Maps and Papers (New York, 1895); see also Robert
A. Woods, ed., The City Wilderness: A Settlement Study (Boston,
1898). For an influential urban research protocol, see Robert E. Park,
"The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the
City Environment," American Journal of Sociology 20 (Mar. 1915),
577-612. And for a contemporary summing-up of theories of poverty
and unemployment, see Frederick C. Mills's published Columbia University
dissertation, Contemporary Theories of Unemployment and of Unemployment
Relief (1917; New York, 1968).
After Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, an example of the
therapeutic mode was Frank A. Crampton, Deep Enough: A Working
Stiff in the Western Mine Camps (1956; Norman, Okla., 1982); and
among the involuntary experimenters with downward mobility, the many
examples include Theodore Dreiser, An Amateur Laborer, ed. and
introd. Richard W. Dowell (Philadelphia, 1983); Mariner J. Kent, "The
Making of a Tramp," Independent 55 (19 Mar. 1903): 667-70;
Cecil Fairfield Lavell, "Man Who Lost Himself: An Enforced Experiment in
Labor," Atlantic Monthly 120 (Nov. 1917): 589-98; Lavell,
"From the Diary of a Laborer," Atlantic Monthly 123 (May 1919):
644-54; "Letters of a Down-and-Out," Atlantic Monthly 111
(Feb. 1913): 190-97; and "Letters of a Down-and-Out," Atlantic
Monthly 111 (Mar. 1913): 368-77.
Some readers will be surprised by the absence from the following pages
of Dorothy Richardson, author of The Long Day: The Story of a New
York Working Girl (New York, 1905). I omit Richardson because her
book presents itself as the product of an anonymous worker. She never
names herself to the reader as a middle-class person venturing into a
different world to study it; as will become clear below, this was to
omit a crucial feature of the down-and-out writer's establishment of
identity, authority, and power.
Brooke Kroeger, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist
(New York, 1994), 85-89, 101-5, 206-7; Penelope Harper,
"'She Waited in Bloomers': Women Reporters Go Undercover in New York
City, 1887-1910," paper preseanted at meeting of the Organization
of American Historians, Washington, D.C., March 1995.
Crane's words come from an introductory section that appeared in the
newspaper version, but which Crane dropped when he republished the story
in book form. In this fugitive section, the story's protagonist watches a
tramp and discusses with a companion the idea of going down-and-out, thus
alerting the reader to the nature of the "experiment": Stephen Crane,
"An Experiment in Misery," in Stephen Crane: Stories and Tales,
ed. Robert Wooster Stallman (New York, 1955), 27. Alan Trachtenberg,
"Experiments in Another Country: Stephen Crane's City Sketches," in
American Realism: New Essays, ed. Eric J. Sundquist (Baltimore,
Md., 1982), 144, 149.
Christopher Benfey, The Double Life of Stephen Crane (New
York, 1992), 147-48.
Wyckoff was identified as "Assistant Professor" when The
Workers was published in 1897, and, regrettably, remained so until
his death in 1908 (Walter Wyckoff, The Workers: An Experiment in
Reality, 2 vols., volume I: The East [New York, 1897], :title
page); "Wyckoff, Walter Augustus," Dictionary of American Biography
20 (New York, 1936), 574-75.
Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino, The Crane Log: A
Documentary Life of Stephen Crane 1871-1900 (New York, 1994),
97-101. Benfey states incorrectly that Wyckoff's articles appeared in
Harper's (rather than in Scribner's), and that Linson "had
drawn" the illustrations, as if before Crane's story appeared. Actually,
Wyckoff's articles appeared three years later, and Linson illustrated
only the first installment (Walter A. Wyckoff, "The Workers: An Experiment
in Reality," Scribner's 22 [Aug. 1897]: 196).
Linda Gordon, "Welfare Reform Leaders," appendix to Pitied But Not
Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare 1850-1935
(New York, 1994), 307-13; Robert M. Crunden, Ministers of Reform:
The Progressives' Achievment in American Civilization 1889-1920
(New York, 1982). Of the forty-nine down-and-out investigators operating
between 1877 and 1929 whom I identified, thirty were male and nineteen
female. Of the twenty-eight for whom information was available, religion
played a significant role in the background and/or adult lives of twenty;
that is, they had ministerial antecedents, undertook some clerical
training, or as adults gave evidence of commitment to religion or to a
religiously-derived moral or ethical stance. Those who were identifiably
descended from ministers, themselves studied for the ministry, or entered
missionary work included Stephen Crane, Paul Göhre, Alexander Irvine,
Annie Marion MacLean, Benjamin Marsh, Alvan F. Sanborn, Charles Rumford
Walker, Josiah Flynt Willard, and Walter Wyckoff. Of course, not all of
those with clerical antecedents inherited religious commitments; Crane and
Willard certainly did not. While as a group the down-and-outers tended
toward a broadly Christian, Social-Gospel-inflected moralism, they were
often sharply critical of established churches and ministers: see for
example Wyckoff, The Workers, 1:32; C. W. Miles, "Christ on Fifth
Avenue," Harper's Weekly 60 (1915): 269-70, 297-98,
327-28, 353-54, 375-76.
Alvan Franklin Sanborn, "A Study of Beggars and Their Lodgings,"
Forum 19 (Apr. 1895): 200. For an example of the difficulty of
establishing scientific credibility in a down-and-out study, see Frances
Kellor, Out of Work: A Study of Employment Agencies, Their Treatment
of the Unemployed, and Their Influence Upon Home and Business (New
York, 1904), v-vii, 2-5.
Cornelia Stratton Parker, "The Human Element in the Machine Process,"
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 90
(July 1920): 86-88; presumably the passage quoted (87) was a veiled
reference to Parker's recently-deceased husband, Carleton Parker, a
well-known professor who had specialized in labor economics.
Lillian Pettengill, Toilers of the Home: The Record of a
College Woman's Experience as a Domestic Servant (New York, 1903),
viii; Cornelia Stratton Parker, Wanderer's Circle (Boston,
1934), 89-90; Jane Addams, "The Subjective Necessity for Social
Settlements," in Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (New York,
Whiting Williams, What's on the Worker's Mind: By One Who Put
on Overalls to Find Out (New York, 1920), 3-4. Down-and-out
accounts appeared or were reviewed widely in academic, reform, opinion,
and popular magazines such as the American Journal of Sociology,
the Survey, the Nation, and Scribner's, as well as
in a range of newspapers including the New York Times.
Charles Rumford Walker, Steel: The Diary of a Furnace Worker
(Boston, 1922), vii; Cornelia Stratton Parker, Working with the
Working Woman (New York, 1922), ix; Williams, What's on the
Van Vorst and Van Vorst, Woman Who Toils, 4; Annie Marion
MacLean, "The Sweat-Shop in Summer," 289-90; Walker, Steel,
"Tramps and Work-Houses," 106; Josiah Flynt, "The Tramp's Politics,"
Harper's Weekly 43 (4 Nov. 1899): 1124.
"London's Inferno," rev. of People of the Abyss by Jack London,
Independent 55 (24 Dec. 1903): 3063-64; James Agee and Walker
Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941; Boston, 1988), i.
A central text of this phenomenon was Theodore Roosevelt, "The
Strenuous Life," in Roosevelt, The Strenuous Life (New York,
1902), 1-21. See generally Lears, No Place of Grace, and
Miles Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American
Culture, 1880-1940 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989).
William James, "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," in James,
Essays on Faith and Morals (New York, 1962), 279-80;
"barbarians" quoted in Frank Lentricchia, "Philosophers of Modernism at
Harvard, Circa 1900," South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (fall 1990): 800.
Lentricchia, "Philosophers of Modernism," 804. On "experience"
in fin-de-siécle philosophy, see George Cotkin, Reluctant
Modernism: American Thought and Culture, 1880-1900 (New York,
1992), 33-35; and Robert Westbrook, John Dewey and American
Democracy (Ithaca, N.Y., 1991), 68, 77, 321-27. Orvell discusses
Stephen Crane's negotiation of the nexus between preconception and
experience in "An Experiment in Misery" in The Real Thing,
133-34. On some of the problems inherent to grounding authority
in experience, see James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture:
Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, Mass.,
1988), 35-37; and Scott, "The Evidence of Experience."
James, "On a Certain Blindness," 259, 284. Down-and-outers sometimes
cited the influence of Dewey or of James: see for example Benjamin Clarke
Marsh, Lobbyist for the People (Washington, D.C., 1953), 5-6;
Frederick C. Mills, quoted in Gregory R. Woirol, In the Floating Army:
F. C. Mills on Itinerant Life in California, 1914 (Urbana, Ill.,
1992), 15; and Whiting Williams, Mainsprings of Men (New York,
1925), 212n., 270, 297n., 300. Furthermore, many were educated at the
University of Chicago, where the influence of Dewey and James on Robert
Park and W. I. Thomas is well-documented: see the many references in
Martin Bulmer, The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization,
Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research (Chicago, 1984).
Alexander Irvine, From the Bottom Up (New York, 1910); Marianne
Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America (New Haven, Conn.,
1992), 123-37; Arnaldo Testi, "The Gender of Reform Politics:
Theodore Roosevelt and the Culture of Masculinity," Journal of
American History 81 (Mar. 1995), 1527-29; Stuart Pratt Sherman,
"The Autobiography of Josiah Flynt," rev. of My Life, by Josiah
Flynt, Nation 88 (25 Feb. 1909): 188. On the broader context of
intellectuals' strenuous pursuit of "reality," see Christopher P. Wilson,
The Labor of Words: Literary Professionalism in the Progressive Era
(Athens, Ga., 1985), 113-14; and David Shi, Facing Facts: Realism
in American Thought and Culture, 1850-1920 (New York, 1995).
Paul Ernest Anderson, "Tramping with Yeggs," Atlantic Monthly
136 (Dec. 1925): 747; Cecil Fairfield Lavell, "From the Diary of a
Laborer," 654; Fern Babcock, "Higher Education: A College Student Studies
Labor Problems at First Hand," Survey 57 (15 Dec. 1926): 384.
Walter Wyckoff, The Workers: An Experiment in Reality, 2
vols. volume II: The West (New York, 1898), 40; Alvan Francis
Sanborn, Moody's Lodging House and Other Tenement Sketches (Boston,
1895), 4; Annie Marion MacLean, Wage-Earning Women (New York,
1910), 103; Mills quoted in Woirol, In the Floating Army, 128.
"Wyckoff," Dictionary of American Biography, 574; Wyckoff,
The Workers, 1:5, 2:40. The model of maleness discussed here was
not, of course, the only one available at the century's turn; but it was
the one to which Wyckoff and other down-and-outers seemed most drawn. For
one model of how to historicize masculine identity that maintains but
modifies the emphasis on virility and strenuosity, see Clyde Griffen,
"Reconstructing Masculinity from the Evangelical Revival to the Waning
of Progressivism: A Speculative Synthesis," in Meanings for Manhood:
Constructions of Masculinity in Victorian America, ed. Mark C. Carnes
and Clyde Griffen (Chicago, 1990), 183-204.
On maleness and the discourse of authenticity, see T. J. Jackson
Lears, "Sherwood Anderson: Looking for the White Spot," in The
Power of Culture, ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears
(Chicago, 1993), 13-15; Parker, Wanderer's Circle, 89-90;
Donovan, Woman Who Waits, 16; Rosalind Rosenberg, Beyond
Separate Spheres (New Haven, Conn., 1982), 28-53; Dorothy Ross,
The Origins of American Social Science (Cambridge, England, 1991),
158; Ellen Fitzpatrick, Endless Crusade: Women Social Scientists and
Progressive Reform (New York, 1990), 71-91.
Patterson, America's Struggle Against Poverty, 22-23;
Orvell, The Real Thing, 132-33.
On the persistence of Lamarckism, see George W. Stocking, Race,
Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology
(New York, 1968), 234-69; and Peter Bowler, The Eclipse of
Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades Around
1900 (Baltimore, Md., 1983), 98-106. Stocking (253, 267) shows
that Lamarckism, although waning in the social sciences after about 1900,
still implicitly underpinned much social-scientific argumentation during
the Progressive era. Bowler (139-40) shows that natural scientists
had largely rejected Lamarckism by the 1920s. Robert C. Bannister argues
that while attributing to Lamarck a belief in "willful" adaptation was
probably a misreading, it was nonetheless a widespread and a popular one:
see Bannister's Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American
Social Thought (Philadelphia, 1979), 22.
On the "vicious circle" or "cycle" of poverty, see Patterson,
America's Struggle Against Poverty, 22; Campbell, Darkness
and Daylight, 99.
Kellor, Out of Work, 2-5: Kellor and her associates used
down-and-out investigative techniques to gather data for this book, but
it is not in its entirety a conventional down-and-out narrative; MacLean,
Wage-Earning Women, 100.
Annie Marion MacLean, "Two Weeks in Department Stores," American
Journal of Sociology 4 (May 1899), 721; Edwin A. Brown, Broke:
The Man Without the Dime (Chicago, 1913), 3; Van Vorst and Van Vorst,
Woman Who Toils, 5, 168 (in the two separately-authored sections
of their book, both Van Vorsts used the term "mouthpiece"). Not all
down-and-outers were quite this naïve, or were not consistently
so. Some did note that they could not fully enter into the worker's
psychology, either because they had economic resources upon which to
fall back (for example, Brown, Broke, 6), or because the poor
were indeed "different" (Wyckoff, The Workers, 2:148). Wyckoff's
references to "vital knowledge and "book-learned lore" appear in his
The Workers, 1:vii, 1:3.
Van Vorst and Van Vorst, Woman Who Toils, 173; Emily Fogg Mead,
rev. of The Woman Who Toils, by Mrs. John and Marie Van Vorst,
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 22
(July 1903), 239.
MacLean, "Sweat-Shop in Summer," 294; Pettengill, Toilers of the
Home, 7; Williams, What's on the Worker's Mind, 4.
Rheta Child Dorr was "Louise Clark"; Cornelia Stratton Parker was
"Connie Park"; Rheta Child Dorr, A Woman of Fifty (New York,
Parker, Working with the Working Woman, 4. Annie Marion
MacLean also found gum-chewing to be an emblematic working-class practice
(MacLean, Wage-Earning Women, 102). Kathy Peiss notes that the more
"respectable," uplift-oriented working-women's clubs campaigned against
both slang and gum-chewing: Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women
and Leisure in Turn-of-the Century New York (Philadelphia, 1986), 174.
Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, 28; Clifford refers
here to Bronislaw Malinowski.
Van Vorst and Van Vorst, Woman Who Toils, 174; London,
People of the Abyss, 8, 140-44; Jack London, Martin
Eden (New York, 1906).
Wyckoff, The Workers, 1:3; Sanborn, Moody's Lodging
House, 1. Sanborn's account recalls Stephen Crane's narrator in "An
Experiment in Misery," who (in the later-excised segment of the story)
literally enlists the help of an "artist friend" to assemble a proper
set of ragged clothing (Crane, "Experiment in Misery," 27).
Walker, Steel, 16; Donovan, Woman Who Waits, 20;
Pettengill, Toilers of the Home, 4; Kellor, Out of Work,
11. Pettengill's book was subtitled The Record of a College Woman's
Experience as a Domestic Servant.
Wyckoff, The Workers, 1:124; Donovan, Woman Who Waits,
173; see also Williams, What's on the Worker's Mind, 69. Jack
London, "What Life Means to Me," Cosmopolitan Magazine 40
(Mar. 1906): 527; Joan Hedrick, Solitary Comrade: Jack London and
His Work (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982), chap. 8.
Wyckoff, The Workers, 1:61, 1:66-67. One scholarly
reviewer scored Wyckoff for thus falsely identifying with workers
when he was always free to return to his privileged life--a fact of
which Wyckoff was acutely aware (A. M. Day, rev. of The Workers: An
Experiment in Reality, 2 vols. [New York, 1897, 1898], in Political
Science Quarterly 14 [Dec. 1899]: 700); Wyckoff, The Workers,
2:82-83. Rheta Child Dorr pondered the same issue in A Woman of
Fifty, 164. Tanner, "Glimpses at the Mind of a Waitress," 50-51.
Mills quoted in Woirol, In the Floating Army, 86; Josiah Flynt,
"How Men Become Tramps," Century 50 (Oct. 1895): 944-45;
Flynt, Tramping with Tramps (New York, 1901), 54; Flynt, My
Life, 11. On the addictive qualities of tramping, see also A-No. 1
[pseud. Leon Ray Livingston], The Curse of Tramp Life, 4th
ed. (Cambridge Springs, Pa., 1912), 2. "Wanderlust" is discussed in
Orlando Lewis, Vagrancy in the United States (New York, 1907),
3; Peter A. Speek, "The Psychology of Floating Workers," Annals of
the American Academy of Political and Social Science 69 (Jan. 1917):
72-78; Charles B. Davenport, The Feebly Inhibited. Nomadism, or
the Wandering Impulse, with Special Reference to Heredity. Inheritance
of Temperament (Washington, D.C., 1915), 7, 9-12; J. Harold
Williams, "Hereditary Nomadism and Delinquency," Journal of
Delinquency 1 (Sept. 1916): 209-30; and Nels Anderson, The
Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (1923; Chicago, 1961),
Theodore Waters, "Six Weeks in Beggardom," Part 2, Everybody's
Magazine 12 (Jan. 1905): 70-71, 76-77. The tale of the
fruit-stand owner is also recounted in S. H. B., "Street Begging in New
York," Charities 4 (Jan. 1900): 3; and a parallel story appears
in Sanborn, Moody's Lodging House, 66.
Wyckoff, Workers, 1:5, 1:11, 1:23, 1:50; Van Vorst and Van
Vorst, Woman Who Toils, 22; Four Years in the Underbrush, 6.
Mills quoted in Woirol, In the Floating Army, 45; Wyckoff,
Four Years in the Underbrush, 256, 259. For demands that
tramps and beggars be punished, see Josiah Flynt, "The American Tramp,"
Contemporary Review 60 (Aug. 1891): 259-61; and Waters,
"Six Weeks in Beggardom," 76.
London, People of the Abyss, 15; Keating notes this as a
general trend among British investigators in Into Unknown England,
For example, see Younger, "Diary of an Amateur Waitress," 666-67.
Van Vorst and Van Vorst, Woman Who Toils, 158; Four Years
in the Underbrush, 3.
Wyckoff, The Workers, 2:148; Dorr, A Woman of Fifty,
Sanborn, Moody's Lodging House, 3; Wyckoff, The
Workers, 2:84; Pettengill, Toilers of the Home, 359. Jack
London meditated on the mutability of class identity and related
evolutionary considerations in his short story "South of the Slot," in
which a down-and-out sociologist crosses over and permanently joins the
working class (Jack London, The Strength of the Strong [New York,
1914], 34-70); and see the analysis of the story in Mark Pittenger,
American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870-1920
(Madison, Wisc., 1993), 208-11.
Walker, Steel, 144; Wyckoff, The Workers, 2:77,
Mrs. John Van Vorst, "The Woman of the People," Harper's Monthly
Magazine 106 (May 1903): 871-85. Articles by the Van Vorsts
that later became part of The Woman Who Toils first appeared in
Everybody's Magazine 7 (Sept. 1902): 211-25, Everybody's
Magazine 7 (Oct. 1902):361-77, Everybody's Magazine 7
(Nov. 1902): 413-25, Everybody's Magazine 7 (Dec. 1902):
540-52, and Everybody's Magazine 8 (Jan. 1903): 3-17.
The following all appeared in Harper's Monthly Magazine 106
(May 1903): Justus Miles Foreman, "The King O' Dreams," 837-45;
Waldemar Bogoras, "A Strange People of the North," 846-51; Octave
Thanet, "The Brothers," 853-62; Arthur Symons, "Constantinople,"
863-70 (Symons was a friend of Josiah Flynt's and wrote the
introduction to Flynt's autobiography; see Flynt, My Life,
xi-xxi); G. W. Ritchie, "Photographing the Nebulae with Reflecting
For example, see Marsh, Lobbyist for the People, 13; Walter
Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York,
1907), 251-52; Kildare, From the Bottom Up, 86.
Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern
Lives (Chicago, 1990), 18; Van Vorst and Van Vorst, Woman Who
Toils, 75; Donovan, Woman Who Waits, 224.
London, People of the Abyss, 3; Waters, "Six Weeks in
Beggardom," part 1, 729; Flynt, Tramping with Tramps, 381-98.
London, People of the Abyss, 3; Clifford, Predicament of
Pettengill, Toilers of the Home, vi. Deborah Paul Nord has
pointed out that British social investigators of the middle and late
nineteenth century commonly used a similar "anthropological" language
of Dark Continents and strange, perhaps subhuman life forms or separate
races to describe the British poor. Nord argues that such language
should not be taken literally, that the ethnological pose provided a
way for scientifically-oriented reformers to write about the distinctive
qualities of the poor from a stance of dispassion and objectivity that
was foreclosed within other current languages of derision, uplift, or
moralism. But in the American context discussed here, I believe that the
language of exoticism and otherness should be taken seriously. Certainly
these investigators wished to appear scientific--that is, objective and
empiricist in ways that might be considered somewhat naïve today. But
the majority of down-and-out texts, along with the vast bulk of related
writings about poverty that formed their broader context (see for example
the discussion of Robert Hunter's Poverty below), so regularly and
pervasively used the language of separate race or species, of devolution
and degeneration both within and between generations, with suitable
references to current scientific ideas and thinkers, that I think it
cannot be dismissed as a useful pose for a new breed of reformer. This
language did not simply adorn these texts; it lay at the very heart
of their arguments, even as it sharpened their emotional thrust. See
Deborah Paul Nord, "The Social Explorer as Anthropologist," 132-33.
Van Vorst and Van Vorst, Woman Who Toils, facing 240,
301. The hereditarian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso argued that
particular combinations of atavistic features added up to a "type," and
such thinking informed efforts to construct generic criminal physiognomies
from composite photographs. See Cesare Lombroso, "Criminal Anthropology:
Its Origins and Applications," Forum 20 (Sept. 1895): 36-37;
and David Papke, Framing the Criminal: Crime, Cultural Work, and the
Loss of Critical Perspective, 1830-1900 (Hamden, Conn., 1987),
163. In this context, even though down-and-outers did not always specify
any debt to hereditarian formalism and sometimes explicitly disavowed
it (as in Flynt, Tramping with Tramps, 8-9, 26), their
propensity for picturing what they called "types," which often entailed
displaying several supposedly-characteristic visages on a single page,
still powerfully conveyed the message that these images were to be viewed
through Lombrosian lenses. Other examples of down-and-outers' typologies
include Williams, What's on the Worker's Mind, facing 62; and the
illustrations scattered throughout Flynt, Tramping with Tramps. As
noted below, Flynt flagrantly contradicted his own attacks on Lombroso.
On Irish and Italians, see Four Years in the Underbrush, 259,
264; on "stagnant scum," Van Vorst and Van Vorst, Woman Who Toils,
12; and on "white" Americans, Mills quoted in Woirol, In the Floating
On the conceptual confluence of race and class, see Richard Slotkin,
The Fatal Environment (Middletown, Conn., 1985), 74-76,
301-24, 480-89. George S. Stocking, Jr., discusses the
melding of race and nationality in Race, Culture, and Evolution,
245, and in Stocking, Victorian Anthropology (New York, 1987),
235-36. Also instructive is Audrey Smedley's account of the roots of
English racialism in the Anglo-Irish conflict, wherein racialized Irish
"savages" were represented as possessing a list of characteristics that
would immediately qualify them for admission to today's "underclass":
see Smedley's Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a
Worldview (Boulder, Colo., 1993), 52-61.
Hunter, Poverty, 131, 69, 7, 65, 92, 318. Besides Dugdale,
Hunter also relied on the authority of E. Ray Lankester's Degeneration:
A Chapter in Darwinism (London, 1880) (Hunter, Poverty, 128).
Ross, Origins of American Social Science, 387.
Stocking details the process by which the term "culture" could be
substituted for "race" in social-scientific discourse (Stocking, Race,
Culture, and Evolution, 263-66).
Stocking, Race, Culture, and Evolution, 263-64. For
example, for the impact on economist Richard T. Ely of social psychologist
James Mark Baldwin's idea of social heredity, see Ely, Studies in
the Evolution of Industrial Society (New York, 1903), 453-58;
and Pittenger, American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought,
41. Baldwin believed that he was offering an alternative to Lamarckism,
but his construct produced many of the same outcomes and operated just
as deterministically as a Lamarckian mechanism would have. See Baldwin,
Social and Ethical Interpretations in Mental Development, 547,
and Robert J. Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary
Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago, 1987), 473-75. According
to Richards, Henry Fairfield Osborn believed that Baldwin's concept of
"organic selection," which would select useful traits preserved by social
heredity, had reconciled Lamarckism with Darwinism (Richards, Darwin
and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories, 493). This would be
another way to explain the progressive deterioration of survivors in
a degrading and dangerous environment. The ultimate product would be a
Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American
Democracy (New York, 1944).
The classic account of this shift is Stocking, Race, Culture and
Evolution; Carl Degler draws upon this and other works by Stocking
to tell a similar story in his In Search of Human Nature: The Decline
and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (New York, 1991),
esp. chap. 3.