American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Daniel E. Bender sets out to understand how evolution influenced American scholars, writers, and activists from the 1880s to the 1920s. . . . This book is less an intellectual history of what philosopher Daniel Dennett termed 'Darwin's dangerous idea' than an intellectual history of pseudo-science. Bender surveys the enthusiastic application and proliferation of Social Darwinist ideas. . . . Bender finds that efforts to contrast the past, present, and future of humanity generally confirmed their authors' biases, weaving into evolutionary language the rhetoric of civilization and savagery. . . . Bender does an excellent job in tracing the myriad applications of pseudo-evolutionary thought. It deeply influenced how radicals, reformers, and conservatives understood not only the industrial workplace but also the woman question as well as the role of immigration in American society and world history."—American Historical Review

"In American Abyss, Daniel E. Bender traces the ways in which the supposed mastery of racial knowledge helped to constitute and validate the idea that large industrial enterprises and empires could be successfully managed. Bender leavens his account with the cultural, political, and social, and especially with the history of gender. His book shows how similar scientific ideas could undergird paeans to capital and some strains of revolutionary socialism and give rise to immigrant baby contests as well as campaigns for sterilization."—David R. Roediger, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, author of Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past

"American Abyss is a brave, stimulating exploration of the intersections of evolution, industry, empire, race, and work in modern American culture and politics. With the raw energy of Jack London, Daniel E. Bender plunges into the abyss of fears about degeneration in industrial America and emerges with an astute mapping of Progressive-era thought."—Michael Edward McGerr, Indiana University, author of A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801478369
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 1/8/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 8.20 (w) x 10.80 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel E. Bender is Associate Professor of History and Canada Research Chair in Urban History, University of Toronto. He is the author of Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor and coeditor of Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Historical and Global Perspective.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Cavemen in the Progressive Era: From Savagery to Industry 15

2 Mapping Civilization: Race, Industry, and Climate in the American Empire 40

3 The Other Colonies: Immigration, Race Conquest, and the Survival of the Unfit 69

4 Cave Girls and Working Women: The White Man's World of Race Suicide 99

5 Exploring the Abyss and Segregating Savagery: Abroad at Home in the Immigrant Colony 132

6 Dredging the Abyss: Babies, Boys, and Civilization 161

7 Of Jukes and Immigrants: Eugenics and the Problem of Race Betterment 191

8 Following the Monkey: Blond Beasts and the Rising Tide of Color in War and Revolution 214

9 Failing of Art and Science: The Abyss in a New Era 247

Notes 257

Bibliographic Essay 313

Index 319

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