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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism Social Realism – Activities

Overview Questions

  • What different ethnic groups inhabited America’s urban areas around the turn of the century?
  • How did their traditions and cultural values change American culture?
  • How do social realist texts represent gender?
  • What kinds of issues inform social realist writing by women?
  • How did Booker T. Washington and Henry Adams transform the genre of the autobiography?
  • How did their work change ideas about American identity?
  • How do social realist writings reflect the distinct cultures and political concerns of different ethnic groups?
  • What kinds of class structures divided American society at the turn of the century? Which classes of people are depicted in realist texts?
  • What political and social transformations in turn-of-the-century America led to the development of social realism? What kinds of political effects and reforms did social realist writers hope to produce?
  • How did industrialism change the demographics of urban and rural society in America?
  • How did immigrant culture shape life in lower-class cityscapes such as the Lower East Side of Manhattan?
  • How did social realist writers depict the contrasts between American and European customs and values? Why were so many social realists interested in this question?
  • How do realist writers describe the material conditions and physical surfaces of the world in which their fictional characters live? Why has their descriptive style sometimes been described as “documentary”?
  • What is “limited third-person narrative”? How did the “gospel of wealth” build on and transform ideas about opportunity in America? How did writers who represented immigrant experiences challenge and broaden the myth of the American Dream?
  • How did women activists and writers challenge ideas about the role of women in American society?

Video Activities

What is American literature? What are its distinctive voices and styles? How do social and political issues influence the American canon?
Video Comprehension Questions: What is social realism? How did this literary movement depart from earlier nineteenth-century literary conventions?
Context Questions: What kinds of social reform might Yezierska have been interested in promoting? How are her concerns different from Wharton’s?
Exploratory Questions: How do you think the immigrant experience has changed since Yezierska wrote about it?

What is an American? How does American literature create conceptions of the American experience and identity?
Video Comprehension Questions: What groups of immigrants came to America at the end of the nineteenth century? Why did they leave their homes? How did they change the face of America?
Context Questions: How do the characters Hannah Hayyeh and Lily Bart rebel against social and class conventions? How does their status as women affect their situations? How do their different social classes affect their situations?
Exploratory Questions: How has women’s status in America changed since Wharton and Yezierska wrote about it?

How are American myths created, challenged, and re-imagined through these works of literature?
Video Comprehension Questions: What expectations and hopes did many immigrants have when they came to America? How was the reality of their experience different from what they imagined?
Context Questions: How does Yezierska’s work broaden and expand the possibilities of the American Dream?
Exploratory Questions: Do you think American writers still view literature as an important instrument of social change? As an effective tool for reform?

Creative Response

  1. Journal: Using the autobiographies of Booker T. Washington and Henry Adams for inspiration, compose a journal entry in which you describe your own education. What are the most valuable skills and life lessons you have learned? What circumstances or incidents have most shaped your development?
  2. Poet’s Corner: Examine Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt’s “The Palace-Burner,” “A Pique at Parting,” or “Her Word of Reproach.” Pay attention to how Piatt uses dialogue and multiple voices to develop her ideas. Try rewriting one of these poems using a single lyric voice. How did your revision change the poem? What difficulties did you encounter in translating Piatt’s many voices into a single voice?
  3. Multimedia: Imagine that you have been asked to produce a documentary on turn-of-the-century New York. Using the American Passages archive and slide-show software, create a multimedia presentation in which you explore the different aspects of New York society at that time.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“”How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. Imagine that you and your peers sit on the town council of a small suburb of Pittsburgh in 1900. Andrew Carnegie, the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist, has offered to donate funds to build and operate a library in your town. Some citizens of the town do not want to accept the gift because they believe that Carnegie’s money is tainted by his unscrupulous business practices. Others believe that the benefits of a library outweigh any scruples they might have about accepting a robber baron’s money. Deliberate as a council, come up with a plan of action, and prepare a statement of support for your plan.
  2. You have been asked to create a museum dedicated to interpreting the immigrant experience in New York. Where will you house the museum? What kinds of information and activities will you provide?
  3. It is 1905 and the state of Mississippi has allocated funds to charter a new school for African American students. Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois are holding a meeting to discuss how the school should use its funds and what its educational mission should be. Imagine that you have been hired to help Washington and Du Bois prepare for the meeting at which they will debate this issue. Divide into two groups and prepare your arguments.

The Gospel of Wealth: Robber Barons and the Rise of Monopoly Capitalism

[2855] Lewis W. Hine, View of the Ewen Breaker of the Pennsylvania Coal Co. (1911), courtesy of the Still Picture Branch, National Archives and Records Administration.

John D. Rockefeller, the leader of the oil industry and the wealthiest man in the world in his day, once articulated his beliefs about money and power this way: “I believe the power to make money is a gift of God . . . to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.” In justifying his incredible fortune in this way, Rockefeller expressed the ideology of “the gospel of wealth,” a term coined by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. According to the gospel of wealth, unrestrained capitalism will reward the best and most virtuous people, who will then use their fortune to benefit all of society. The duty of the virtuous industrialist, then, is to seek as much profit as possible by whatever means necessary.

While not everyone agreed that big business unfettered by government regulations was a good idea, or that it benefited the right people, no one could deny that by the end of the nineteenth century a new class of financiers with unprecedented power and wealth had emerged in the United States. Industrialization had radically altered the character of the American economy by promoting the growth of giant corporations, monopolies, and trusts over the small businesses, shops, and farms that had formed the economic backbone of the prewar nation. These new corporations employed thousands of workers who were valued not for their artisanal skills but instead for their ability to perform menial tasks in factories and plants. Factory employment in the United States nearly doubled between 1850 and 1880. For many Americans, the growth of industrialism meant longer hours, unsatisfying working conditions, and a modest salary. But for a tiny minority, industrialism provided opportunities for extraordinary and unprecedented wealth.

In the economic climate of the late nineteenth century, some entrepreneurs were able to buy out or bankrupt all of their competitors to create monopolies. By 1900, a handful of men enjoyed virtually exclusive control over such important industries as steel, oil, banking, and railroads. Men like Carnegie, Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, Jay Gould, and Leland Stanford developed innovative financial and management practices, centralizing control of their far-flung business interests through the use of trusts and holding companies. The men who ran the trusts made enormous profits and came to be regarded as aristocrats–to admirers, they were “princes of industry,” while to critics, they were “robber barons.” Many of these tycoons came from lowly or impoverished backgrounds and liked to remind people that they were examples of the fulfillment of the American Dream, in which a poor boy achieves success through hard work and virtue.

In accordance with the tenets of the gospel of wealth, many of these men gave tremendous sums of money to charity. They funded everything from churches to art museums to public swimming pools. Carnegie–who liked to call himself a “distributor of wealth”–by some calculations donated over 90 percent of his vast fortune to projects like the 2,811 libraries he founded in towns across the United States and all over the world. John D. Rockefeller gave lavishly to religious mission work, hospitals, schools, and countless other philanthropic organizations. Many of the industrialists endowed scholarship funds and universities, although ironically most of them did not have university degrees.

While the robber barons’ philanthropic activities undoubtedly benefited countless people, some critics complained that their charitable works were motivated more by self-glorification and a desire for social acceptance than by a sincere desire to help the less fortunate. Other critics felt that no amount of charitable giving could outweigh the damage the robber barons caused with their unscrupulous business practices. They pointed out that these “captains of industry” were known for forcing their employees to labor in dangerous working conditions, paying poor wages, ruthlessly undermining fair competition, bribing politicians, and gouging consumers. Eventually, public outrage over monopolistic practices led to a call for the government to begin “trust-busting.” In response, in 1890 Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to punish corporations who engaged in “restraint of fair trade.” In its first decade, the act was more symbolic than effective. More lasting reforms came through the efforts of labor unions that organized workers and staged protests demanding fair treatment.


  1. Comprehension: What is a monopoly? What is a trust?
  2. Comprehension: What is the “gospel of wealth”?
  3. Context: Listen to the archive soundfile of John D. Rockefeller’s speech encouraging Americans to donate money to the war effort during World War I. What values and beliefs inform his lecture? How does he attempt to appeal to Americans?
  4. Context: How does Henry Adams characterize industrialism in The Education of Henry Adams? Why is the Dynamo such an important symbol to him?
  5. Context: Many of the authors featured in Unit 9 did not support unrestrained capitalism. W. E. B. Du Bois, Theodore Dreiser, Abraham Cahan, and Anzia Yezierska were all interested in socialist theories at some point in their careers. Why do you think socialism was so attractive to these social realists?
  6. Exploration: What kinds of regulations has the government instituted to control large corporations since the days of the robber barons? Have “trustbusting” efforts succeeded? What effects has government regulation had on the U.S. economy?
  7. Exploration: What responsibilities do wealthy people have to the rest of society?
  8. Exploration: In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald portrayed Jay Gatsby as an extremely wealthy but lonely and dissatisfied man. Do you think Fitzgerald might have modeled Gatsby after the robber barons? How is Gatsby influenced by the gospel of wealth?

[2855] Lewis W. Hine, View of the Ewen Breaker of the Pennsylvania Coal Co. (1911),
courtesy of the Still Picture Branch, National Archives and Records Administration.
The thickness of the dust is visible in this photograph of children working for the Pennsylvania Coal Company. These children were often kicked or beaten by overseers.

[5749] John D. Rockefeller, Address by J. D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1920),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Rockefeller used his oil monopoly to become the richest man in the world during the first decade of the twentieth century. What he espoused as the “Gospel of Wealth” was criticized by others as the cruel and unfettered capitalism of “Robber Barons.” Though Rockefeller donated huge sums to charity, many felt this inadequately redressed the damage done during his acquisition of wealth.

[7136] Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Boss Waving His Fist at Female Employee in a Sweatshop(1888),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-79589].
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw some gain great wealth at the expense of multitudes, like this mistreated worker. Eventually, inhumane working conditions became a cause for social reformers.

[7255] Alfred R. Waud, Bessemer Steel Manufacture (1876),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ6-1721].
One of six illustrations that appeared in Harper’s Weekly showing the operations in a steel mill. Steel was big business at the end of the nineteenth century, and, in the days before the income tax, so-called “robber barons” amassed extravagant wealth.

Making Amendments: The Woman Suffrage Movement

[5605] L. Prang & Co., Representative Women (1870), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-5535].

When American women go to the polls to cast their ballots in local and federal elections, most of them do not realize that it took dedicated generations of women almost seventy-five years of activism to ensure their right to vote. Most of the women who first began working for suffrage in 1848 did not live to see the Nineteenth Amendment ratified in 1920. The struggle for female enfranchisement was long and difficult, and the “suffragettes,” as suffrage activists were called, adopted many different strategies and tactics before reaching their goal.

The woman suffrage movement began at a convention in Seneca Falls, New York, when a group led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton adopted a resolution calling for the right to vote. At the time, the idea of woman suffrage was so radical that many delegates at the convention refused to sign Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” with its call for the enfranchisement of women, even though they supported her other goals of ensuring higher education and property rights for women. However radical the goal of enfranchisement had once seemed, after the Civil War it emerged as one of the most important women’s issues when activists realized that the right to vote was necessary both to effect social and political change and to symbolize women’s full status as equal citizens. Because the woman suffrage movement had begun in the same reform milieu as abolitionism, many activists were tremendously disappointed when the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments extended suffrage to African American men but not to black or white women. The issue was so volatile that in 1869 the women’s rights movement split over whether or not to support the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed suffrage to black men.

One group of activists, led by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, but called for a Sixteenth Amendment that would give women the right to vote. Their organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), viewed suffrage as only one of many important feminist causes on their agenda, and they were unafraid to adopt radical policies and rhetoric to forward their goals. For example, in 1872 Susan B. Anthony went to the polls and tried to vote, hoping to get arrested and thus attract attention for the movement. She was indeed arrested, found guilty of “knowingly, wrongfully, and unlawfully voting,” and issued a fine. In contrast, NWSA’s rival association, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, was more moderate in its tone, promoted “partial suffrage” legislation, and worked to make feminist reforms appealing to mainstream Americans. AWSA supported the Fifteenth Amendment but vowed to continue working for woman suffrage.

Although they were no longer a united force, the suffrage organizations had made significant strides by the turn of the century. In the West, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho had all adopted woman suffrage by 1896. The suffrage movement also made gains through its alliance with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). A more mainstream and conservative organization than either NWSA or AWSA, the WCTU encouraged its large membership to support suffrage as a way of protecting traditional family and domestic values. In particular, they hoped that women voters would be able to pass legislation mandating the prohibition of alcohol. The association of woman suffrage with the temperance movement was both a boon and a hindrance to the effort to achieve enfranchisement. On one hand, the Christian temperance platform attracted a broader base of support and made suffrage seem less radical to mainstream women. But on the other hand, the WCTU endorsement of suffrage fueled big business’s fears that women voters would threaten their interests by tilting the nation toward reform. The brewing and liquor industry, especially, came to perceive woman suffrage as a significant threat and threw its considerable political clout behind stifling the movement.

In 1890, the NWSA and the AWSA finally put their differences behind them and joined forces to make a concerted push for enfranchisement. The new, unified movement, known as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), focused its efforts almost exclusively on winning the vote rather than on other feminist issues. Their strategy involved building support within individual states and winning suffrage referendums on a state-by-state basis. They hoped that when enough states had adopted suffrage amendments, the federal government would at last agree to approve an amendment to the Constitution. In pursuit of this strategy, NAWSA opted to disassociate the suffrage movement from its traditional affiliation with the cause of African American civil rights. Many suffrage activists either shared the racist sentiments so prevalent in turn-of-the-century America or believed that they had to comply with racist views in order to make their cause appealing to a wide constituency. In any case, whether motivated by racism or a misguided sense of expediency, by the late nineteenth century the suffrage movement excluded black women from meaningful participation and refused to take a strong position in support of black women’s equal right to enfranchisement.

In its final push for the vote, the suffragists adopted other new–and sometimes radical–strategies. They borrowed newly developed advertising techniques, circulating catchy jingles with pro-suffrage lyrics and distributing stationery and buttons emblazoned with pro-suffrage designs. To attract public attention, they held open-air meetings and rallies in busy urban areas. Suffragists sponsored elaborate parades featuring decorated floats, horses, music, and hundreds of marchers wearing colorful banners. A more militant wing of the suffrage movement, led by Alice Paul, developed more radical tactics, including picketing the White House, getting arrested, and going on hunger strikes. Perhaps the suffrage activists’ most successful strategy involved aggressive lobbying among politicians. By targeting and converting individual politicians–including President Woodrow Wilson–suffragists eventually convinced Congress to adopt the Nineteenth Amendment by a narrow margin. The fight for ratification demanded unabated effort and political maneuverings, but finally, on August 21, 1920, the Tennessee legislature completed the ratification process. Their victory came by a very slim margin and after years of struggle, but the suffragists had finally won for American women the right to vote.

The suffrage movement both contributed to and reflected the growing independence of American women by the turn of the century. Women were acquiring education, working in the business world, and achieving economic and social self-sufficiency in greater numbers than ever before. Some women began wearing trousers, smoking, and asserting their sexual freedom. These “new women,” as such emancipated women were called, resisted the ideals of domesticity and “true womanhood” that had dominated women’s lives in the first part of the nineteenth century. Instead, they demanded new freedoms and transformed the position of women in the United States. Their legacy lives on in contemporary women’s movements in support of such causes as economic equality and reproductive freedom.


  1. Comprehension: Why did the suffrage movement split into two separate groups in 1869? How did the NWSA differ from the AWSA?
  2. Comprehension: What was the relationship between the suffrage movement and the movement for African American rights? How did it change over time?
  3. Comprehension: What was a “new woman”?
  4. Context: Examine the anti-suffrage cartoon featured in the archive. How are women voters portrayed in this cartoon? What anxieties about woman suffrage underlie the humor of this cartoon?
  5. Context: In Henry James’s “Daisy Miller,” Winterbourne describes Daisy Miller as an “American girl” of a “pronounced type.” What characteristics does Winterbourne attribute to the “American girl”? Why is he so eager to label her as an example of a “type”? Does his vision of the “American girl” have anything in common with the concept of the “new woman”? Would Daisy see herself as a “new woman”?
  6. Context: How do the debates and rifts within the woman suffrage movement compare to the debates and rifts that emerged within the movement for African American rights at the end of the nineteenth century? How do the strategies and philosophies employed by the NWSA, AWSA, and NAWSA compare to the strategies and philosophies developed by black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois?
  7. Exploration: What kinds of women’s issues continue to be a focus for reform movements? What strategies do contemporary women’s groups adopt to generate support for their causes?
  8. Exploration: How have minority women writers like Toni Morrison and Gloria Anzaldúa broadened and revised nineteenth-century ideas about women’s rights?

[2495] Anonymous, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Seated, and Susan B. Anthony, Standing, Three-Quarter-Length Portrait (1880),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ61-791].
Stanton and Anthony were two of the foremost activists for women’s suffrage; their struggle touched on the enfranchisement of black Americans after the Civil War, but both opposed the Fifteenth Amendment because it extended voting rights to black men only.

[2498] Currier & Ives, The Age of Brass, or the Triumphs of Women’s Rights (1869),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1921].
This anti-suffrage cartoon depicts women suffragists voting. One woman scolds a cowed man holding a baby; another woman, in pantaloons, holds a sign reading, “Vote for the Celebrated Man Tamer.” Such cartoons played to predominantly male fears about the reversal of men’s and women’s public and private roles and were designed to reinforce the Cult of True Womanhood and notions about the dangers of suffragism.

[2503] Anonymous, The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives Receiving a Deputation of Female Suffragists (1871),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62- 2023].
This print, originally in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, shows Victoria Woodhull, backed by a group of woman suffragists, reading a speech to a skeptical judiciary committee. The speech, about the legality of women’s suffrage, was based on the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

[2506Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Woman Suffrage in Wyoming Territory. Scene at the Polls in Cheyenne (1888),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-2235].
Woman suffrage was established in Wyoming in 1869. When Wyoming entered the union in 1890, it was the first state that allowed women the right to vote. Esther Morris is credited with convincing the territorial legislature to grant suffrage to women.

[5605] L. Prang & Co., Representative Women (1870),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-5535].
Seven individual portraits of leaders in the woman suffrage movement: Lucretia Mott, Grace Greenwood, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna E. Dickinson, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, Lydia Maria Francis Child, and Susan B. Anthony.

Coming to America: Immigrants at Ellis Island

[5005] Anonymous, Immigrant Family Looking at Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island (c. 1930), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-50904].

Between 1892 and 1954, over twelve million immigrants first touched American soil at Ellis Island. A small island located just south of New York City and within view of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island was the site of the nation’s largest immigrant reception center. On one day alone at the height of immigration, Ellis Island processed 11,750 individuals seeking entry into the United States. Despite its title of “reception center,” Ellis Island was neither hospitable nor pleasant: immigrants lined up in an enormous hall and underwent intrusive inspections designed to weed out people with infectious diseases or political ideas that were considered dangerous or subversive. But despite the discomfort and bureaucracy, many newcomers were overjoyed to set foot on Ellis Island. In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, they took to heart the promise chiseled into the base of the statue:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Many immigrants arrived in America believing that marvelous opportunities awaited them behind the “golden door.” In the last half of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of immigrants came from Eastern and Southern Europe–Eastern European Jews made up an especially high percentage of immigrants. They left their homelands to escape persecution, oppression, famine, and poverty. These immigrants brought only the possessions they could carry with them and traveled in “steerage berths” in cramped compartments below the deck of the ship. Some immigrants who could not afford to pay for their passage were brought over as “contract labor.” Under this system, businesses that wanted to hire cheap labor could pay the passage of immigrants willing to work for low wages in America. The cost of the workers’ fares would then be deducted from their wages once they began working. Contract labor was effectively a form of indentured servitude, but the U.S. government did not make it illegal until 1885 and even then rarely prosecuted companies who engaged in this exploitative practice.

For many immigrants, America was not the Promised Land they had dreamed of. Low wages, long hours, and unhealthy and even dangerous working environments made earning an adequate living almost impossible. Overcrowded tenements and high rents made domestic arrangements difficult and caused problems within families and between neighbors. Many immigrants also had trouble assimilating to the customs and manners of America, or felt resentful about being forced to give up or modify their traditions. When Anzia Yezierska landed at Ellis Island, officials could not pronounce her name. They decided to rename her “Hattie Mayer,” which they felt sounded more Anglicized. Yezierska resented this assault on her identity, and when she began to publish, she insisted on using her original, Eastern European name.

Immigrants also endured growing animosity and hostility from native-born Americans, who perceived these “foreigners” as threatening to the cultural and economic status quo. Immigrants’ willingness to work for low wages angered native-born Americans who resented competing with them for jobs, and the infusion of new religious and cultural practices caused some native-born people to fear that the “purity” of American culture was being assaulted. “Nativism,” or the belief that native-born Americans were superior to and needed to be protected from immigrants, created deep divisions between immigrants and other Americans. Anti-Catholic and Anti-Semitic sentiments began to color public discourse.

Nativists frequently scapegoated immigrants, blaming them for the spread of crime and disease. Nativist hostility finally culminated in the passage of congressional bills restricting immigration. The Chinese, in particular, were the target of a specific law designed to forbid their entry into the United States: the Chinese Exclusion Act was adopted in 1882. As a result, the immigrant reception center on Angel Island off the coast of California was even less welcoming than Ellis Island. Many hopeful Chinese immigrants were denied entry and then held in detention centers for months. Poetry written in Chinese covers the walls of the detention centers, parsing out the aspirations, dreams, and despair of the inmates.

Given the difficulties faced by immigrants, it is perhaps not surprising that, according to some estimates, nearly a third of those who arrived in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries eventually returned to their homes in Europe or Asia. But millions of immigrants stayed, and their contributions to American society and culture enriched and transformed the nation.


  1. Comprehension: How were Ellis Island and Angel Island different from one another?
  2. Comprehension: What was “contract labor”?
  3. Comprehension: What is “nativism”?
  4. Context: In the story “Mrs. Spring Fragrance,” Sui Sin Far mentions a peripheral character who is being detained at Angel Island. How does this character function in the story? Why does Sui Sin Far include this information about Angel Island in a story about Chinese immigrants who have been living in America for many years?
  5. Context: What kinds of assimilation pressures do the Eastern European immigrant characters in Abraham Cahan’s and Anzia Yezierska’s stories encounter?
  6. Context: Read the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus” featured in the archive. How does this poem describe America and its relationship to immigrants? What comparison is Lazarus drawing between ancient Greece and nineteenth-century America? What is the significance of personifying America as a woman?
  7. Exploration: Should immigrants be expected to assimilate to American culture? If so, to what extent?

[5004] Underwood & Underwood, Immigrants Just Arrived from Foreign Countries– Immigrant Building, Ellis Island. New York Harbor (c. 1904),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 15539].
People from Eastern and Southern Europe poured into the United States around the turn of the twentieth century. This reception center off New York City processed arriving immigrants and attempted to keep out people with infectious diseases or political ideologies perceived as threatening.

[5005] Anonymous, Immigrant Family Looking at Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island (c. 1930),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-50904].

[5006] Anonymous, Italian Immigrant Family at Ellis Island (c. 1910),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 67910].
Between 1880 and 1930, more people immigrated to America from Italy than from any other country. Many of these immigrants settled on New York’s Lower East Side. Their lives were the basis for much of the literature of the social realists.

[5092] Lewis Hine, Young Russian Jewess at Ellis Island (1905),
courtesy of George Eastman House.
Millions of immigrants passed through Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century. Just off the coast of New York City, immigrants were greeted by the Statue of Liberty, but were also introduced to harsh and often callous immigration policies, which reflected the ambivalence with which the United States welcomed its newest residents.

[8183] Anonymous, The Voyage, No. 8 (c. 1920), reprinted in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940,
courtesy of the University of Washington Press.
“How has anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison?” asks this poem, one of many written on the walls of the Angel Island detention center by Chinese immigrants held there by U.S. authorities. Other examples of these poems can be found in the archive, [8184] through [8191].

[9092] Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus (1883),
courtesy of the U.S. Department of State Web site.
Lazarus’s famous poem, which reads in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” appears on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, an impressive sight that greeted immigrants as they began the difficult and sometimes degrading task of passing through the Ellis Island immigration facility.

How the Other Half Lived: The Lower East Side

[6352] Anonymous, Hester Street, NY (c. 1903), courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Touring the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early years of the twentieth century, author Henry James was shocked by the “intensity of the material picture in the dense Yiddish quarter.” An area populated almost entirely by impoverished immigrants, the Lower East Side must have astonished James, who had spent most of his life surrounded by wealth and privilege. The neighborhood was indeed “intense” and “dense”; in fact, by the turn of the century the area had a population density of 330,000 people per square mile. Photographs of the Lower East Side from the period show narrow streets, towering run-down tenements, crowds of adults and children, throngs of pushcarts and peddlers, and laundry hanging out of windows. It was a densely inhabited area that afforded little distinction between the sidewalk and the street, or between private homes and public spaces. Home to literally millions of immigrants, the Lower East Side could seem like a confusing, crowded maze because it contained countless mini-communities composed of different ethnic groups. Irish, German, Italian, Greek, Chinese, African, African American, and Arab families lived in different sections of the neighborhood. But by far the largest ethnic community consisted of Jews who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. While these groups all maintained separate and diverse traditions–and sometimes found that their differences created rivalries and hostility–they were united by their poverty, their status as outsiders, and their desire to find material success in America.

Most individuals living on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century lived in tenement apartments or slept in cheap lodging houses. Typical tenement flats consisted of two or three very small rooms into which a family of between four and eight would live with a boarder or two. Workspaces were no less congested–the “sweat-shops” were crowded with underpaid laborers who worked between thirteen and eighteen hours a day, six and sometimes seven days a week. In these conditions, crime, disease, fires, and accidents were common occurrences. The appalling poverty of the Lower East Side became a popular topic for reformers and sensation-seeking journalists alike. Many books and articles offered titillating glimpses into this “vicious underworld” and hysterically warned that the Lower East Side was breeding a “criminal element” that would soon menace the rest of the city. Others proposed social and economic reforms to address the inequities that compelled immigrants to live and work in such squalid conditions. Most notably, Jacob A. Riis’s newspaper articles, graphic photographs, and illustrated book-length exposé, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890), shocked Americans and led to some civic reforms designed to protect poor tenement-dwellers.

As crowded, exploitative, and oppressive as the Lower East Side may have been, however, it was not simply the pit of unmitigated misery and evil that many nineteenth-century journalists portrayed. Rather, in spite of the rampant poverty and harsh working conditions, the neighborhood was a dynamic community infused with a vibrant and diverse cultural life. Ethnic restaurants and saloons offered an enticing variety of food and drink; halls hosted dances, weddings, union meetings, and scholarly lectures; theatres and music halls mounted plays and concerts; and synagogues, churches, temples, and schools served as important social centers. The inhabitants of the Lower East Side formed a thriving community in their crowded section of Manhattan, melding their old traditions with new ones to form a diverse culture that had a lasting impact on New York and on America.



  1. Comprehension: What is a tenement? What is a sweatshop?
  2. Context: How does Abraham Cahan describe the realities of labor in a sweatshop in his story “A Sweat-Shop Romance”? How does his description of life, work, and leisure among Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side compare to the photographs and illustrations of Lower East Side life featured in the archive?
  3. Exploration: How do contemporary journalists, writers, and film-makers portray the slums and housing projects that still exist in many of America’s urban areas? Do you think sensationalism still plays a role in depictions of urban poverty?

[5023] Detroit Publishing Company, Mulberry Street, New York City (c. 1900),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-1584].
New York City received huge numbers of immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. In the bustling streets of the Lower East Side, Old World met New in a population that ranged from Eastern European and Russian Jews to Irish Catholics.

[5124] T. De Thulstrup, Home of the Poor (1883),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-75197].
This illustration shows an interior view of a crowded New York City tenement. The living conditions of the city’s poor at the turn of the twentieth century eventually sparked a wave of social reform.

[5125Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, New York City–The Recent “Heated Term” and Its Effect upon the Population of the Tenement District (1882),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-75193].
The tenements that were home to many of New York City’s immigrants were often dismal and usually lacked proper sanitary facilities. These harsh conditions challenged immigrants and contributed to a perception that immigrants were somehow “damaging” the country.

[5126] Lewis Wickes Hines, Rear View of Tenement, 134 1/2 Thompson ST., New York City (1912),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Photograph of the back of a tenement housing-complex in New York City.
Like writer Theodore Dreiser, photographer Lewis Wickes Hines documented social conditions in America at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[6352] Anonymous, Hester Street, NY (c.1903),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Hester Street is one of many places on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that Anzia Yezierska described in her writing.

Elevating an Elite: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Talented Tenth

[7102] J. E. Purdy, W. E. B. Du Bois (1904), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-28485].

At the turn of the twentieth century, black people in the American South had yet to enjoy many of the rights and opportunities promised them by the Emancipation Proclamation, the Fifteenth Amendment, and the federal Civil Rights Act. Instead, many African Americans were denied the right to vote by expensive poll taxes, property requirements, or bogus “literacy tests.” At the same time, “Jim Crow” laws enforced segregation in virtually all public spaces in the South, from railroad cars to schools. Violence against African Americans–including lynching–was on the rise.

Faced with this overwhelming, systematized oppression, African American leaders like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois concluded that education was their best strategy for achieving social advancement and civil rights. While they agreed on the need for education, however, they held extremely different ideas about what kind of curriculum would best suit their goal of asserting African American equality. Washington held that blacks should be trained only in practical, vocational skills such as farming, carpentry, mechanical trades, sewing, and cooking. The Tuskegee Institute, where Washington served as the director, dedicated itself to providing black students with these kinds of practical skills. Du Bois, on the other hand, insisted that broader educational opportunities should be available to at least some African Americans. His ideas centered on his theory of a Talented Tenth, an elite group of gifted and polished individuals who could benefit from a rigorous classical education and then lead their entire race forward.

In his 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” Du Bois claimed that “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.” According to Du Bois, a small, uniquely endowed elite could alone make artistic and scholarly contributions to world development on behalf of the entire race. He perceived the relationship between this talented elite and the rest of the group as a symbiotic one: the larger group would support the talented elite, who would in turn raise the level of the entire group. The Talented Tenth would combat the degrading tendencies of what Du Bois called “The Submerged Tenth,” a group he characterized as “criminals, prostitutes, and loafers.” In Du Bois’s scheme, the Talented Tenth would work not simply within the group but would also direct their efforts against the forces of racism.

While Du Bois intended his plan to benefit all African Americans, the theory of the Talented Tenth has obvious problematic implications. The elevation of an elite segment of African American society with special access to opportunities and resources would create sharp distinctions and classes within the community as a whole, and the belief that only a small group has the potential to make important contributions is profoundly anti-democratic. But despite the exclusivity of the notion of the Talented Tenth, Du Bois’s ideas advocated broad educational opportunities for at least some African Americans and inspired many with hope.


  1. Comprehension: According to Du Bois, what kinds of responsibilities do the Talented Tenth have to the rest of the group? In Du Bois’s formulation, how would the Talented Tenth benefit the larger African American community?
  2. Context: Early in his career, Du Bois was offered a position teaching at Tuskegee Institute, the vocational school that Booker T. Washington directed. Why do you think Du Bois decided not to accept the position? How are his ideas about black education at odds with Washington’s mission for Tuskegee?
  3. Exploration: In Charles W. Chesnutt’s story “The Wife of His Youth,” the main character is a member of an elite African American club that seems to consider itself akin to a “Talented Tenth.” How does the story critique the elitism of this organization?
  4. Exploration: What kinds of issues inform contemporary debates about educational opportunities for minority groups? Why is affirmative action such a controversial policy in contemporary America?

[3079] Richmond Barth, Bust of Booker T. Washington (c. 1920),
courtesy of NARA [NWDNS-H-HN-BAR-38].
Washington was the most prominent African American at the turn of the twentieth century; he worked for most of his life to expand and support Tuskegee College in Alabama; his best-known literary work is Up from Slavery.

[3355] Jack Delano, At the Bus Station in Durham, North Carolina (1940),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF33-020522-M2].
African American man in a segregated waiting room at a bus station. Jim Crow laws severely divided the experiences of whites and African Americans in the South.

[4801] Arthur Rothstein, Sharecropper’s Children (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-025464-D].
Photograph of three African American children on a porch. Landowners rarely kept sharecroppers’ homes in good condition. Du Bois hoped that an educated “Talented Tenth” of African Americans would help lift such children out of poverty.

[7102] J. E. Purdy, W. E. B. Du Bois (1904),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-28485].
Taken a year after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, this portrait shows Du Bois as a refined and serious intellectual. In his lifetime Du Bois led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and championed the cause of African American advancement through education.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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