Contexts for American Literature (89-112)
Poor vs Wealthy
Measured by what was euphemistically called “
industrial unrest,” that is, high numbers of
strikes, lockouts, riots, and outbreaks of violence, many of which resulted in martial law
declarations, those years were in fact, arguably, the most threatening to national order of any
since the Civil War.
(caused by high unemployment) Woodrow Wilson used empirical data
Industrial relations (employers control employees) 2. Hazardous conditions 3. Infant
mortality 4. Underfed children 5. School dropouts
(rags to riches)
Significant numbers of Americans believed, and would continue to believe, that
poverty was self-created, that the poor were lazy, immoral, unfit, alcohol-dependent, and
resistant to work. That is, according to this way of thinking, the poor were to blame for their
poverty; they were victims of their own bad behavior. However, using empirical data, the
Industrial Relations Commission reported that
in reality the poor were people who worked long
hours under sometimes brutal conditions but were not paid enough to make ends meet.
Theme: Neglected children
In the fiction by James that has become standard, such as his novella
Daisy Miller: A Study
(1879), the failure of a young girl’s family to properly nurture her and her resulting misbehavior
are the main issues.
the young, beautiful Daisy, accompanied by her mother and younger
brother, is on a European tour and staying in places occupied for the most part by Europeanized
expatriate Americans who maintain a strict code of conduct. Daisy’s family is presented as
horrifyingly vulgar. Her father, Ezra B. Miller, is a rich businessman in the small factory city of
Her mother does not sleep much, suffers from a liver ailment and from
dyspepsia (that is, indigestion caused by an unhealthy diet), and is “dreadfully nervous.” The
father and brother Randolph also suffer from dyspepsia.
Randolph, a child of nine or ten, speaks
in almost pure slang and has already absorbed the very American opinion that America is “the
best” at everything. He is allowed to wander around, day and night. He has already lost all but
seven of his teeth as a result of gum disease or his addiction to sugar. He is described as an
“urchin” by the narrator, an odd word to use to describe an upper-class child because it denotes a
child of the streets who has no family.
But it is appropriate because, in fact, Randolph is a
neglected child, a de facto urchin. His mother does no effective parenting, no nurturing.
Daisy is also a neglected child. Her mother has not taught her how to speak, how to dress,
how to behave with restraint, or how to avoid giving pain to others.
Somewhere, of course, she
has learned to believe that her opinions matter, that she is the equal of more experienced and