American Abyss

American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry

Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 344
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    American Abyss
    Book Description:

    At the beginning of the twentieth century, industrialization both dramatically altered everyday experiences and shaped debates about the effects of immigration, empire, and urbanization. In American Abyss, Daniel E. Bender examines an array of sources-eugenics theories, scientific studies of climate, socialist theory, and even popular novels about cavemen-to show how intellectuals and activists came to understand industrialization in racial and gendered terms as the product of evolution and as the highest expression of civilization.

    Their discussions, he notes, are echoed today by the use of such terms as the "developed" and "developing" worlds. American industry was contrasted with the supposed savagery and primitivism discovered in tropical colonies, but observers who made those claims worried that industrialization, by encouraging immigration, child and women's labor, and large families, was reversing natural selection. Factories appeared to favor the most unfit. There was a disturbing tendency for such expressions of fear to favor eugenicist "remedies."

    Bender delves deeply into the culture and politics of the age of industry. Linking urban slum tourism and imperial science with immigrant better-baby contests and hoboes, American Abyss uncovers the complex interactions of turn-of-the-century ideas about race, class, gender, and ethnicity. Moreover, at a time when immigration again lies at the center of American economy and society, this book offers an alarming and pointed historical perspective on contemporary fears of immigrant laborers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5837-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. 1-14)

    In 1912, the sociologist Edward A. Ross set out to explore the industrial urban landscape of the United States. In the mines of Duluth, as in the garment shops of New York City, Ross found workplaces filled with immigrants. These “foreign” workers, strangers and laborers from distant shores, as much as their communities, workplaces, schools, and places of worship, emerged as the objects of his study. What started as an industrial survey became industrial ethnography. Ross used every tool in the social scientists’ box. Anthropology, sociology, biology, economics, politics, and history merged as Ross meandered from metropolises to mill towns...

  5. 1 CAVEMEN IN THE PROGRESSIVE ERA: From Savagery to Industry
    (pp. 15-39)

    Old Long Beard took another bite of the bear carcass, smacking his lips. His grandchildren sat around the fire and, in between their grandfather’s animalistic gnawing on the bones of the bear, listened to his history of industrialization.

    This is the opening scene of Jack London’s short story, “Strength of the Strong,” the lead story in his 1912 collection of short stories that stretched from prehistoric bear feasts to modern general strikes to conflicts over immigration. The combination, eclectic to the modern scholar, made sense for the turn-of-the-century reader. For London and his contemporaries, through the bear-muffled voice of Old...

  6. 2 MAPPING CIVILIZATION: Race, Industry, and Climate in the American Empire
    (pp. 40-68)

    In 1913 the Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington began a project that he believed would be the climax of his career. He was going to construct a map of civilization.

    Born in 1876 in Galesburg, Illinois, Huntington followed a traditional route into the comfortable world of Ivy League social science. He took his master’s degree at Harvard in 1902 and completed his PhD in geography at Yale seven years later. In the break between his time at Harvard and Yale, he would accompany several expeditions to Central Asia, the accounts of which he related in accessible prose in his first two...

  7. 3 THE OTHER COLONIES: Immigration, Race Conquest, and the Survival of the Unfit
    (pp. 69-98)

    Northeastern Pennsylvania, the hard, or anthracite, coal region, produced the fuel that warmed the nation’s hearths and fueled its factory furnaces. At the dawn of the new century, it was also a war zone.

    Strikers, aligned with the United Mine Workers, squared off against soldiers and strikebreakers. Mine heads were wreathed in barbed wire. Railroad bridges collapsed in dynamite explosions. By October 1902 the entire Pennsylvania National Guard, the equivalent of one army division, had been ordered to the coalfields. The local sheriff requested that the governor declare martial law. As winter approached, even President Theodore Roosevelt joined a chorus...

  8. 4 CAVE GIRLS AND WORKING WOMEN: The White Man’s World of Race Suicide
    (pp. 99-131)

    When Nadara de la Valois, the daughter of French nobility, married Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones, a scion of one of Boston’s most aristocratic families, the ceremony took place in Honolulu onboard his parent’s yacht, the Priscilla. It was the most civilized of ceremonies for two former savages.

    Their marriage was the final scene in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s saga of prehistoric life, shipwreck, rape, and love in the South Pacific. The Cave Girl echoes themes from Tarzan, Burroughs’s most famous novel. The romance of Nadara and Waldo Emerson is a narrative about overcoming the feebleness that Burroughs associated with too much civilization....

  9. 5 EXPLORING THE ABYSS AND SEGREGATING SAVAGERY: Abroad at Home in the Immigrant Colony
    (pp. 132-160)

    Beginning in 1907, some of the leading social reform experts in the nation collaborated to produce a complex portrait of life in an American industrial city. In six magisterial volumes, collectively called the Pittsburgh Survey, they described and pictured grimy cellars, fearsome furnaces, exotic immigrants, and downtrodden workers. The project was the brainchild of Alice B. Montgomery, the chief probation officer of the Allegheny Juvenile Court. Paul U. Kellogg, the editor of Charities and the Commons, nurtured it into fruition. The work depended on academics, including John R. Commons; social reformers, such as Margaret Byington; numerous urban investigators; photographers; and...

  10. 6 DREDGING THE ABYSS: Babies, Boys, and Civilization
    (pp. 161-190)

    1913 was the year of the baby. In January, the Western Live Stock Exposition held a Baby Health Contest alongside its usual cattle and livestock judging shows. Anna Steese Richardson, the national chairman of the Department of Hygiene, Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teachers Association, set off to Denver to cover the show for the Women’s Home Companion. Richardson had turned to journalism out of necessity when her husband died and left her with three small children. She found a job first with a small Iowa newspaper and later with the Women’s Home Companion. She worked for the magazine for three...

  11. 7 OF JUKES AND IMMIGRANTS: Eugenics and the Problem of Race Betterment
    (pp. 191-213)

    In 1911, a young and dedicated eugenicist, Arthur Estabrook, began work that he and his supporters believed would transform American understandings of degeneration. He was going to strike at the very science supporting reform that, he worried, was only helping preserve degenerates to further propagate their dismal strain. He was going to rewrite one of the classic books in American social science and reform: Richard Dugdale’s 1877 The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity.

    As the subtitle of the book suggests, the social investigator Dugdale engaged the relationship between environment and heredity more than a decade before...

  12. 8 FOLLOWING THE MONKEY: Blond Beasts and the Rising Tide of Color in War and Revolution
    (pp. 214-246)

    Ben Reitman was just a child when he decided to follow the monkey, an organ grinder’s pet. It was the first of many times he wandered and ended up in a police station. Looking back on the monkey in his 1925 unpublished autobiography, Reitman saw this incident as “typical of my whole life.”¹ Reitman described his wandering after the monkey as the first incident in a career that would take him out of Midwestern immigrant slums and into the “hobohemia” of boxcars and the “jungles,” a term tramps used to label outdoor camps. He would claim the title of “king...

  13. 9 FAILING OF ART AND SCIENCE: The Abyss in a New Era
    (pp. 247-256)

    This book began with Edward Ross, but it ends with Lothrop Stoddard.

    There were many similarities between the two observers. They shared, above all, a distaste for immigration and worried about its racial effects. Ross forged his academic credentials as a sociologist, but he made his public name as an adventurer. He traveled globally and recorded the changes in China that accompanied European incursions and rising immigration to North America. He was also abroad at home. He stood at the vanguard of a host of urban explorers who produced vivid portraits of the foreign races and places at the heart...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 257-312)
    (pp. 313-318)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 319-330)