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Class Unknown

Class Unknown: Undercover Investigations of American Work and Poverty from the Progressive Era to the Present

Mark Pittenger
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Class Unknown
    Book Description:

    Since the Gilded Age, social scientists, middle-class reformers, and writers have left the comforts of their offices to "pass" as steel workers, coal miners, assembly-line laborers, waitresses, hoboes, and other working and poor people in an attempt to gain a fuller and more authentic understanding of the lives of the working class and the poor. In this first, sweeping study of undercover investigations of work and poverty in America, award-winning historian Mark Pittenger examines how intellectuals were shaped by their experiences with the poor, and how despite their sympathy toward working-class people, they unintentionally helped to develop the contemporary concept of a degraded and "other" American underclass. While contributing to our understanding of the history of American social thought,Class Unknownoffers a new perspective on contemporary debates over how we understand and represent our own society and its class divisions.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2429-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-6)

    In 1902, Bessie and Marie Van Vorst—sisters-in-law, writers, and avowed “gentlewomen”—changed their clothes and took up factory work, promising to reveal to readers the world of the “unknown class,” for whom they intended to serve as a “mouthpiece” in the struggle to inaugurate a more just and egalitarian society. In undertaking this project, they joined an American tradition of undercover investigation that had begun to take shape in the late Gilded Age, flourished from the Progressive Era through the 1930s, shifted in focus and method during the postwar decades, and persists to the present, constituting a distinctive ongoing...


    • 1 Writing Class in a World of Difference
      (pp. 9-42)

      From the early stirrings of social and political reform in the 1890s through the progressive heyday of the 1910s, journalists, social scientists, novelists, and the occasional unemployed college graduate chose to live and work in disguise among factory laborers, clerks, waitresses, beggars, and tramps, in order to observe and to write about them. Most produced texts that embodied the contradictions of Progressive Era American thought, which was riven by tensions between democracy and egalitarianism on one hand, and elitism, racism, nativism, patriarchy, and a drive for social control on the other. Most also offered a characteristically progressive mix of science...

  6. PART II. BETWEEN THE WARS, 1920–1941

    • 2 Vagabondage and Efficiency: The 1920s
      (pp. 45-77)

      In March of 1925,Collier’sweekly magazine featured a two-page tableau of photographs under the title “They Know Real Toil.” While some of the pictures illustrated the familiar American upward-mobility narrative—James J. Davis’s trek from an iron puddler’s assistant to Secretary of Labor, and the aptly named Robert Dollar’s rise from lumberjack to shipping magnate—the article’s reference to living “in two worlds” applied quite differently to Fannie Hurst and Whiting Williams, whose temporary trajectories had been downward, rather than up. Hurst had sought material for short stories by waitressing and sales clerking, while Williams had built his résumé...

    • 3 Finding Facts: The Great Depression, from the Bottom Up
      (pp. 78-114)

      When the sociologist Robert S. Lynd reviewed an undercover study of hobo youths in 1934, he found that however horrifying the subject matter, it was nonetheless “a hopeful sign when academic folk ‘take to the road’ ” and get their hands dirty addressing the current crisis.¹ The Depression lent down-and-out texts a worrisome immediacy as the focus of undercover writing shifted from work to unemployment. Journalists’ undercover accounts of transiency and breadlines became a recognizable subgenre of the downward-mobility narratives that filled popular magazines with familiar images of physical, mental, and moral degeneration. Sociologists hopped freight cars and choked down...


    • 4 War and Peace, Class and Culture
      (pp. 117-139)

      “Good-bye, white collar,” jauntily proclaimed the former car salesman Alan McCone in a 1942American Magazinearticle that described his metamorphosis into a boilermaker’s helper at a Sun Oil refinery.¹ World War II provoked a new variation on the 1930s downward-mobility narrative, now refigured as an invigorating, patriotic plunge into a realm of hardening muscles, honest sweat, and national service. A few curious adventurers took that plunge for undercover investigative purposes. But with the return of peace and rising postwar prosperity in the later 1940s and 1950s, the number of classic undercover investigations declined. The worlds of skid row, hobohemia,...

    • 5 Crossing New Lines: From Gentleman’s Agreement to Black Like Me
      (pp. 140-174)

      As concerns about class lost legitimacy, both in the social sciences and in American social thought generally, and as the United States approached the era of accelerating civil rights activism, a number of texts explored new kinds of boundary crossing. Two such texts will be of central import in this chapter. First, Laura Z. Hobson’s best-selling novelGentleman’s Agreementand the movie based on it (both 1947), in which the WASP protagonist and former class passer masquerades as a Jew, served in this transitional period as a mediating text through its interweaving narratives of class, ethnicity, religion, and race, and...


    • 6 Finding the Line in Postmodern America, 1960–2010
      (pp. 177-188)

      In 1967 Whiting Williams published his final book,America’s Mainspring and the Great Society: A Pick-and-Shovel Outlook. Largely a restatement of his long-familiar ideas about the forging of identity through work and the dangers of a welfare state, the book’s only fresh undercover material hearkened back to Williams’s experiences in the early 1930s. There were few reviews, and the critical response was dismissive.Choicedid not recommend the book for college libraries, seeing Williams as a relic and criticizing the index for displaying “social science jargon” that Williams had not used in the text. It was telling that this index...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 189-264)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 265-276)
    (pp. 277-277)