The American 1890s: A Cultural Reader

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America at the last fin de siècle was in a period of profound societal transition. Industrialization was well under way and with it a burgeoning sense of professionalism and a growing middle class that was becoming increasingly anxious about issues of race, gender, and class. The American 1890s: A Cultural Reader is a wide-ranging anthology of essays, criticism, and fiction first printed in periodicals during those last remarkable years of the nineteenth century, a decade commonly referred to as the “golden age” of periodical culture.
To depict the many changes taking place in the United States at this time, Susan Harris Smith and Melanie Dawson have drawn from an eclectic range of periodicals: elite monthlies such as Scribner’s, Harper’s, and the Atlantic Monthly; political magazines such as the North American Review and Forum; magazines for general readers such as Cosmopolitan and McClures; and specialized publications including the Chatauquan, Outing, and Colored American Magazine. Authors represented in the collection include Andrew Carnegie, Edith Wharton, Theodore Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington, Stephen Crane,
W. E. B. DuBois, Jacob Riis, and Frederick Jackson Turner. A general introduction to the period, a brief contextualizing essay for each selection, and a comprehensive bibliography of secondary sources are provided as well. In examining and debating the decade’s momentous political and social developments, the essays, editorials, and stories in this anthology reflect a constantly shifting culture at a time of internal turmoil, unprecedented political expansion, and a renaissance of modern ideas and new technologies.
Bringing together a carefully chosen selection of primary sources, The American 1890s presents a remarkable variety of views—nostalgic, protective, imperialist, progressive, egalitarian, and democratic—held by American citizens a century ago.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A splendid collection! This combination of fiction, editorials, and essays offers multiple themes and insights into the concerns of 1890s America that still hold sway over the public imagination today.”— Emory Elliott, University of California, Riverside

“This excellent sourcebook covers a range of topics, from education to mental health, from labor and the city to reading and culture. A thorough and well-conceived collection.”—Priscilla Wald, author of Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822324768
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/2000
  • Pages: 468
  • Lexile: 1300L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.08 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Harris Smith is Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of American Drama: The Bastard Art and Masks in Modern Drama.

Melanie Dawson is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Read an Excerpt



Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2476-8

Chapter One


During a decade filled with abundant advice on self-improvement, a major debate focused on the means by which an individual pursued his or her own cultural position. The articles grouped here range from definitions of culture to an examination of the processes by which cultural knowledge is claimed and demonstrated. Across the debates about kinds of culture, places and means for acquiring culture, levels of culture, and even the limits of culture, the overarching question was what counted as culture-what activities enhanced the status of those who participated in them. During a time when secondary education was not standardized and when the modern system of colleges and universities was still being established, many instructional and cultural functions were filled by university extensions, winter lyceum lectures and summer assemblies, expositions and fairs, and periodicals that circulated wide-ranging definitions of culture.

The Chautauquan, which promoted itself as "A Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Promotion of True Culture," also promised to initiate its readers into the processes of acculturation by directing them to listsof "required" reading. Periodicals such as Harper's, with longer and more prestigious histories, presented essays and literature by well-known or promising writers, but, assuming a certain level of cultural finesse on their readers' part, they rarely included lists or guidelines.

F.W. Gunsaulus's "The Ideal of Culture," from the Chautauquan, lays out a set of definitions about the pursuit of culture by questioning a type of education that he describes as merely intellectual and historical. Terming his audience "an army of idealists" and a "new band of the representatives of great forces in the past," he compares students of culture to Columbus on the brink of a new world, interjecting a need for the "Christian scholar" to find spiritual uplift in the humanities and to locate an ideal of culture that accords with Christian theology. In treating culture as a vehicle of ideology, in refusing to treat it as neutral and universal, Gunsaulus articulates one of the assumptions found throughout these essays-namely, that culture consists of arguments and contestations, not the "disinterested" study of art or philosophy.

Whereas Gunsaulus treats culture as an index of an individual's educational preparedness to function in a dynamic world, Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest American entrepreneurs at century's end, rationalizes personal wealth as the means to dispense culture to the masses. Thus, Carnegie naturalizes economic discrepancy and a system of inequality by suggesting that it is the philanthropic individual who creates public access to high culture through such institutions as the Carnegie public libraries and concert halls. In setting up a democratic ideal of culture, Carnegie positions the pursuit of culture as a vehicle for a larger set of ideas about public responsibility.

In contrast to such markedly idealistic, if self-serving, statements, selections from the Critic and the essay by George Clarke equate the relative sophistication of readers with particular class positions. Suggesting that there is an equation between a genre and the benefits to be gained from reading it, the Critic's selections on the reading habit show an interest in cultivating readers across a broad range of social positions. Depicting the lady as well as the servant, the well-informed individual and the cultural initiate, these articles trace the habits and preferences of various classes of readers, noting the correlation between class and cultural preference. In the home of the "lady," for example, there is a "common fund of intellectual enjoyment" to which the entire family contributes, resulting in an educated family devoid of pretension. In the other contributions, which trace a young lady trying to anticipate the interests of her affianced readers in Chicago, and the servant readers in one home, there is a common sense that reading preferences "type" the reader. For example, one writer observes that while servants are drawn to "all the best novels," their criticisms are good but also "childlike" in their directness. George Clarke speaks to a larger concern, namely, the reading of novels, echoing earlier anxieties about the immoral and sensational appeal of an "addictive" and lesser literary form.

While such selections describe the formation of taste, it is the superficial performance of culture that Edith Wharton's short story "The Pelican" satirizes. Here, Wharton is openly critical of a demonstration of cultural knowledge when that knowledge is expounded by an individual devoid of both authenticity and reliability. The story's central character has no ability to digest information or to recall her reading accurately; like a pelican, she merely regurgitates the ideas of others. By demonstrating the increasing commodification of culture, Wharton dramatizes the moment when self-improvement degenerates into a display of compulsive consumerism, or an undiscriminating impulse to collect-an impulse also denounced by the economist Thorstein Veblen. One of the pervasive anxieties of the late nineteenth century was that "the real thing" was being replaced by "inauthentic" imitations. "Conspicuous consumption," the term coined by Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), describes the trend that Wharton indicted. Veblen argues that the purchase of culture ultimately becomes more important than discernment in a society characterized by excess capital and that, as a consequence, Americans were slipping down the evolutionary scale. In "The Economic Theory of Women's Dress," Veblen links fashion to waste and leisure, pointing to what he terms an "unproductive consumption" of valuable goods, which are now valued for their mere appearance and associations rather than for their actual worth as garments. This essay was part of Veblen's larger argument about a changing value system that distorts real or intrinsic worth and locates cultural power in visible commodities.

* * *

FRANK WAKELEY GUNSAULUS, D.D. The Ideal of Culture Chautauquan 16 (October 1892): 59-64.

[A serious and didactic periodical, the Chautauquan was the foremost organ of the many adult education projects so important in this period. By the end of the century, 50,000 people had graduated from the Chautauquan's four-year course, and more than a quarter million people had taken classes. This essay calls attention to the emphasis placed on self-culture and character-building as essential to the Chautauquan project of producing an avowedly Christian and homogeneous American life.]

Mr. president, and Fellow Members of the Class of '92: I thank you for this most hearty greeting, which, I am sure, has less reference to myself than to the fact that to-day, with all joy and hope, this new section of the army of idealists, this new band of the representatives of great forces in the past, and of forces whose victories are still to come, go out into the world to do their work in God's name, and to carry before them the banner of the Chautauqua institute of culture. We have passed the arches; we have walked through the gate of gold; and we have learned, if anything at all has come to us, from these recent events that all culture results in the discovery of the fact that many lands lie still before us, and that really, every man and woman of scholarship is a veritable Columbus, standing upon the edge of some old east, and looking forward out into some larger west.

Mr. Emerson has told us that the great worth of a college course is to show to us its little avail; and in this suggestion he has intimated to all scholars what experience has taught to other minds long before, that the larger worlds still to conquer so greatly exceed the world which has already been conquered, that the little avail of what has done will grow distinct and clear, and the thought of it is only valuable as an inspiration for days to come. Surely, to-day, a class bearing the great name of "Columbians," a class which has written upon its heart "Seek and ye shall find," needs not to be told in an hour like this in our national, social, and literary history, that the immediate demand of the scholarship of the times is for that Columbian spirit which never rests, until, out of the seas, there do come to human sight vast continents of opportunity, new lands of privilege, great expanses upon which the higher forces of God and man shall work out the new products of the future. The discovery of America was the discovery of the future of mankind. Like all culture, it was brought about by a discovery of the past. The Renaissance was its birthplace; and that intellectual movement was a finding of the ancient world. Hope blossomed out of history. That is always the service of culture and it finds Americas.

It shall be my task for a brief while to invite your attention to the ideal of the culture which seems to me harmonious with this Chautauqua system of education to which we are all loyally devoted, and especially with this unique year. Never before, I think, in the history of humanity was there so deep a consciousness of the truth that no fact of life is safe, save as we use it for a starting point for the finding of new land, as a suggestion of pathways far out into the future, at the end of which there lie desirable goals. Nothing is more clearly recognized to-day in the policies of the intellectual world; nothing more certainly lifts itself out of sight in the seas of discussion, than this conviction that no truth which a man holds in his hand is safe to be held in any human hand; until we feel that all truth is lightning, and is safest as it passes from wire to wire, carrying the message of hope and love. By this idea are we protected from the perils which lie in every intellectual discovery, and saved from the larger distresses which come to man's mind by the faithless holding even of any noble idea. The atmosphere of our time is Columbian; the thought of our age has upon its forefront the words, "Seek and ye shall find." And a glorious fact about the things which men find is this, that every found thing is the suggestion of some larger unfound thing. Every range of mountains only serves to lift the mind higher that it may behold still loftier ranges, mingling with the clouds. Every star which is brought within man's ken is the bright suggestion in the sky of some farther constellation, some larger galaxy. The old scriptures open into new.

So, to-day, the culture of all time, wherever it is halting, wherever it is inefficient for practical service of the race, finds itself condemned by the Columbian spirit; and wherever culture, holding firmly to the duties of man, believes in the reality of the ideal, honestly trusts truth, has so firm faith in righteousness that it knows it will build its own bridges, bear its own weight, pay its own expenses, there culture marches on to victory, and every force of the present time is allied in its triumph. The culture to which you and I have been brought, my classmates, within the last four years of our reading, has certainly left our souls with some clear propositions that it is well to engraft into duty-loving work of our life, so that always, as we go out into the world here and there, we shall be carrying an idea of Christian culture. I think one of the first propositions is this: that man is the explanation of nature, its interpretation; and as he is the explanation and interpretation of nature, so he must always recognize himself to be its predestined king or its predestined slave. The revolutions of thought within the last fifty years have clothed man with an almost surpassing majesty. There were times when hesitant theologians stood and trembled and beheld nature becoming more and more beautiful, more and more nearly divine, as law after law swept up into those ever enlarging and ever more lofty ranges of activity, until at last the vision of man seemed destined to fade from human thought. But, to-day, even from our Darwins and Huxleys and Tyndalls-men who for so long were exiled from Christian pulpits-we are learning more surely the value and dignity of man. For, everywhere throughout nature, there is that distinct throb of aspiration toward man. Through all the ranges of life there seems to have been an effort for the creation of brain. Through all the brain there rises higher and higher aspiration toward the life of thought, and in all the transcendent world of thought there is a continuous leading on and tendency toward moral ideas. Man is crowned to-day by science, as almost never he was crowned by theology. He stands, prince in his world, listening to ten thousand voices of science telling him, with an eloquence almost equal to the eloquence of that old past: "This is your world, Adam, go out and subdue it." And the subjugation which man is giving to the world assures him that his own culture is going to be the larger and dearer. Everywhere throughout civilized life thought recognizes the greatness of humanity only as humanity is the crown and crowned thing in nature.

Ten thousand forces hitherto seemingly aimless have leaped into human service since you and I began to study nature through these books given to us in our Chautauqua course. New adaptations of power, new relationships of energies, fresh understandings of the value of the old powers-all these are part of that new vision of the greatness of nature and the grandeur of man which fills our minds to-day. Throughout the entire system of the universe with which we have dealt in these books we have found an ongoing movement, and words of which you and I were fearful four years ago have come to be necessary terms in our vocabulary. We feel that we are in a living universe. We know to-day, that, carrying forward into nature this new understanding of her processes and her hopes, we belong to that great evolution which at last smiled in the face of man, which at last gave us Shakespeare with his Hamlets, Pericles with his statesmanship, and Wagner with his music, which at last shall make man perfectly the son of God.

As we look through the history of chemic forces, powers in that world disclosed to us in our study of physics, energies which came to us as we looked far beyond the stars, we see that it is scientific truth, that "the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now." And since that "now" has come; and humanity has stood in Jesus of Nazareth, in perfect mastery of the world, "the creation waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God." No power that has come to us in the discoveries of nature but has indicated more and more the fact that man's destiny is sonship; that he is more than a manufactured product; infinitely more than even a created thing. He holds in his brain the very scepters of divine command; his crown is upon the forehead of his thought the instant he realizes in himself how surely there have been breathed into him divine destinies.

This is part of our message. We are to go forth in this great world of rocks and trees, of suns and stars, with the energies of earth mingling their power with the energies of heaven, to demonstrate continually the essential kingship of humanity. It is ours to take hold of every unknown force and bid it tell us its name. It is ours to touch every energy hitherto aimless and harness it to some divine ideal. The whole world of nature is an enigma without man; the life of nature is the darkest of problems without the supremacy of humanity. The power of humanity over nature is alone the explanation of its existence; and it is ours to tread the earth with some intimation of this regent power vouchsafed to us by Almighty God.

But we have been studying something else besides nature. We have found that just as the history of nature crowns itself in the history of humanity, just as to-day the forces of nature wait for their Bacons, Newtons, and Franklins in order that they may be eloquent or musical; so we find that the history of humanity holds within itself certain regent ideas without which man shall lose that kinship suggested in the life of nature. Hither we come, with this Christian culture as our birthright and gift, to tell our own hearts once again, to tell the world wherever we are to live and act, that the divine powers of the world are all ours; that the energies of omnipotence with all the powers and processes of history are vouchsafed to us-that the whole past belongs to him who holds worthy ideas as to ages past, sentiment as comprehensive as the centuries that have gone. That is the Christian scholar. He is the one human being who comes to the past with ideas large enough to throw about him a horizon everlasting. He is the one idealist who throws about the world of thought such a ring of hope and of sentiment as to make it all his. He is the one harvester of ten thousand years. He is the one gatherer of all victories. He is the one master of all triumphs.


Excerpted from THE AMERICAN 1890s Copyright © 2000 by Duke University . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures
A Timeline of America at Century's End
Introduction 1
1 Becoming Cultured and Culture as Commodity 15
The Ideal of Culture 17
Wealth 25
The Reading Habit 35
Courses of Reading 36
What Chicago People Read 38
A Note on Servants' Libraries 42
The Novel-Reading Habit 43
The Pelican 51
The Economic Theory of Women's Dress 66
2 The Idea of Types 75
The Modern American Mood 77
The Provincials, from a series, Sketches of American Types 86
The Conduct of Life, from a series, The Art of Living 93
Talma Gordon 105
The College Graduate and Public Life 117
The Awakening of the Negro 125
The Status of Woman, Past, Present, and Future 134
3 Labor 143
The Workers - The West: Among the Revolutionaries 146
In the Depths of a Coal Mine 156
A Paying Concern: A True Story of American Factory Life 163
The Night Run of the 'Overland': A Story of Domestic Life Among the Railroad People 171
Women and Girls in Sweat-Shops 181
Working-Girl's Clubs 185
4 Social, Ethnic, and Racial Strife 195
Club Life Among Outcasts 199
The Future of the Red Man 210
Lynch Law in the South 220
A Ghetto Wedding 226
The Genesis of the Gang 238
Step-Brothers to Dives 249
5 Mental Health & Physical Training 259
The Gospel of Relaxation 261
Fashion's Slaves 273
Woman and the Bicycle 288
A Fin de Cycle Incident 291
Physical Education vs. Degeneracy 302
On Being Civilized Too Much 306
6 The Promises of Formal Education 319
A Negro Schoolmaster in the New South 321
Modern College Education 329
The Greatest Need of College Girls 339
The School Days of an Indian Girl 349
The March of Progress 361
The Ingrate 370
The Genius of Bowlder Bluff 376
7 The Future & Cultural Change 387
What a Great City Might Be - A Lesson from the White City 389
The Problem of the West 396
The Divorce of Man from Nature 407
Susan's Escort 412
Twenty-Four: Four 425
Within an Ace of the End of the World 447
Bibliography 459
Index 465
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