Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
This dissertation argues that between 1860 and 1945, a period that I call the Long Progressive Era, American fiction about poverty dramatizes a crisis of agency besetting the middle and upper classes. A pervasive unease about human volition arose among the affluent as the growing anonymity of urban life, the rationalization of many forms of labor, and the articulation of a thoroughly Darwinian worldview challenged liberal doctrines of autonomous selfhood. The activity of reading poverty fiction focused these bourgeois doubts because, first, it confronted the affluent with the disturbing spectacle of a stereotypically disempowered underclass and, second, it registered the increasing professionalization of both poverty relief and literary reading, two fields of labor to which the affluent citizen's access was newly mediated by a class of proprietary specialists. Thus, the reading of poverty fiction became an exemplary negotiation of broadly philosophical and historically specific challenges to bourgeois agency. Unlike the post-World War II period, when similar anxieties about impersonal political and social institutions habitually devolved into paranoia, the interwar period I study retained a measure of balance in its agency crisis. Contrary to narratives of decline that characterize the Long Progressive Era in terms of a linear diminution of the individual's capacities, I argue that this period produced staunch defenders (and practitioners) of agency as well as thinkers who, in the face of advancing modernity, abdicated once-assumed powers of human volition. In studies of poverty fiction by Rebecca Harding Davis, William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton, and John Steinbeck, I examine the figure of the reader as one whose activist or quietist responses to fictional and real-life poverty model the diverse responses of bourgeois Americans to the philosophical specter of determinism. I conclude by reflecting on the continuing legacy, in the similar but more paranoid contemporary American landscape, of reading imagined as a site of agency's erasure or assertion.