THIS ENGAGING STUDY traces in life and in literature the curious but persistent belief among genteel Americans from the mid-19th to mid-20th century that descending to a lower-class existence would strengthen one’s character and spirit. Living among the poor and working for their betterment promised “vital contact,” an invigorating and restorative experience that would benefit the middle-class individual as well as the poor laborer.
Patrick Chura scrutinizes this inversion of the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches myth among American writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to John Steinbeck and Eugene O’Neill. He finds that downward mobility was frequently an illusory, often futile, experience but also a social phenomenon that provided writers with rich and dramatic material.
What led privileged Americans to give up at least temporarily a comfortable and respectable existence for the hardships of life among the poor?
Perhaps it was a discontent with the “unmanly ease” of the middle class and a romanticization of the virtues of the poor, often sustained by a genuine desire to help one’s fellow man. Men were drawn to the masculine challenge of proving themselves by roughing it, but many women also went to live among the poor.
Chura locates the literary roots of American downclassing in mid-nineteenth century communal moments like Brook Farm, the back-to-nature sentiments of Thoreau’s Walden, and the submission to the hard life of the common seaman by Herman Melville and his literary characters. Teddy Roosevelt provides a later example of escaping “overly domesticated male selfhood” though strenuous physical life in the American West.
The ascetic traditions of Christianity obviously influence a belief in the redeeming quality of living among the poor, but Vital Contact probes the psychology and the politics of downclassing rather than any religious sentiment. Indeed, as Chura makes clear in his reference to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), downclassing was a kind of religious experience without religious doctrine, a moral reaction to the excesses of American capitalism. As James put it, “We have grown literally afraid to be poor . . .. We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments . . ..”
Journalists like Nellie Bly in the late nineteenth century exploited the sensationalism inherent in the genre by, in effect, adopting disguises, working briefly in sweatshops and factories and then publishing exposés. Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903), though it detailed British rather than American urban squalor, has some of the same underground quality.
But Vital Contact is dominated by the figure of John Reed, the Harvard graduate who rallied striking workers in Paterson, New Jersey, by teaching them college fight songs and staging a worker’s pageant in Madison Square Garden before going off to fight and die in the Russian Revolution. Less dramatic but perhaps more effective were the women who became social workers among the urban poor in the tradition of Jane Addams and the Hull House movement.
These real-life characters inspired novels that probed their motives and questioned their success. Chura draws attention to the first novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, Ernest Poole’s now-unknown The Harbor (1915) as well as Max Eastman’s Venture (1927), both of which mirror (and question) Reed’s heroic involvement in the Paterson strike. These two novels, as Chura shows, act as “a corrective to the myth of seamless cross-class association.” The better-known USA trilogy by John Dos Passos details the sad failure of American socialism and labor movements in this period. Mary French, the devoted social worker who leaves Vassar to better the plight of the workers, is not revitalized by her contact with the poor. To the contrary, at the end of the trilogy, she is in ill health, burnt-out, exhausted, and disillusioned by the “laborfakers,” middle-class individuals whose dedication to the poor is a fantasy or a sham.
One of the values of Vital Contact is that it clearly relates the naïve and hopeful beginnings of downclassing in nineteenth-century American culture to the psychological complexities and political failures of such actions in the first half of the twentieth century. The best literature about downclassing focuses more on the dark ironies of this human impulse. From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s exposure of communal idealism in The Blithedale Romance to Richard Wright’s Native Son, in which a wealthy and well-meaning white woman is savagely murdered by a black worker, the “vital contact” promised by downclassing is shown to be anything but therapeutic. Yet it provided great literary material for writers from Melville to Steinbeck. In its own way, Chura’s study helps illuminate the axiom in American literature that “Nothing succeeds like failure.”
I wonder how literary treatment of downclassing in England, a society which was even more haunted by class rigidity and class guilt, compare with such activity in America? (George Orwell’s 1933 classic in the genre, Down and Out in Paris and London, owed a good deal to the American Jack London’s The People of the Abyss.) Although it is not within the realm of Chura’s study, British literature of downclassing must surely have influenced American writing, and vice versa.
A second question: How might the concept of “vital contact” apply to one’s Peace Corps experience? It is easy to imagine how Chura’s own service as a Peace Corps Volunteer could have influenced his interest in the topic of Vital Contact. More than once while I was reading the book, I thought of Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor, still the best Peace Corps memoir I’ve seen. Former Peace Corps Volunteers may recognize in their own experience some of the issues Chura discusses in his book with the difference that we were traveling to a foreign culture outside of the U.S. rather than within it.
David Espey teaches in the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a Fulbright Lecturer in Morocco, Turkey, and Japan. He recently published an anthology of travel literature Writing the Journey (Longmans, 2004) (reviewed in Peace Corps Writers, March 2005). His essay/memoir on Paul Bowles is in Peace Corps Writers, January, 2002.