The Secret History of the Literature of Reform


When Laura R. Fisher began the research that would become her recently released book, Reading for Reform: The Social Work of Literature in the Progressive Era, she thought she was looking for something precious and illuminating: an overlooked manuscript, an instance of brilliance almost lost and now found.

“I had this hero narrative in my mind,” she explained to me when we spoke over the phone from her office at Ryerson University in Toronto, where she is an associate professor of English literature. At the time, she was a graduate student working in the archives of the Educational Alliance, a social service organization in New York’s Lower East Side. Some new materials had recently been opened up in the collection, many of which had not yet been fully processed by the staff. “I thought I was going to stumble across a memoir written by a factory worker, or short stories written by some completely forgotten woman genius.” Instead, Laura found what she describes as some of the most boring documents: meeting minutes from various committees, annual reports, letters between philanthropists about how much money to give and how that money was being used.

Archives, with their rituals and their rules, carry a charge: The possibilities are not endless. The possibilities are catalogued. With the white gloves given to hold paper so thin it is translucent and systems that categorize each item within an inch of every margin, the collections start to seem delicate and finite. They demand to be handled carefully and to be read like conclusions. What exists on the page speaks for itself. But the best historians and researchers know these materials are tougher than they look.

Published by the University of Minnesota Press, Reading for Reform looks at the relationship between social reform institutions and American literature at the turn of the 20th century. At the time, there were a number of organizations purporting to educate and support underprivileged populations; literature, as a concept, became a tool of such social projects. Each chapter looks at one distinct arena of the theory that literature should be used-in settlement houses, the working girls’ clubs, African-American colleges and the Harlem Renaissance, and the journalistic genre of “undercover literature.” Laura’s writing looks at how these beliefs existed between women of different classes and races, and focuses on the ways that black, working-class, and immigrant women contested these projects, producing their own answers to the implied question of what they should be reading or whether they should write at all. Laura pairs the works of now-celebrated authors such as Edith Wharton and Nella Larsen with periodicals produced by mill workers and literary journals traded between working-class women, the speeches given by wealthy benefactors. Hidden in plain sight, the ordinary materials and everyday correspondence first provide context, and then open to reveal a world of subtext.

Laura and I became friends several years ago, and reading her first book has given me the chance to see her both as I know her and in an entirely new dimension: as a friend, Laura is inquisitive and irreverent, always ready with the right question when she hears a story, or the best suggestion for how to spend a Saturday afternoon. As an author, Laura’s thinking on the limits of language and the social function of literature is sharp and lucid: her scope expands with every sentence, her arguments subtly persuasive while still giving her readers the room they need to determine their own story.

In the following interview, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, Laura and I talked about research, reporting, and other forms of eavesdropping and the way we crop the narratives of our lives.

JEZEBEL: In the book, you have a sentence I keep thinking about: “The archive offers few easy answers.” Even without a revelatory discovery, so much of the material you cite-the meeting minutes, the letters-tell a story behind the official story. They don’t have the same social construction of literary importance, but they explain what people were saying to each other in the moment. How did you find the balance between the archive as it existed and the canon as it’s currently understood?

LAURA FISHER: A lot of the writing in the book comes from periodicals-some really, really, really little magazines. Institutional periodicals of activists and social service organizations. This ended up being a really rich and illuminating place to find writing by, let’s say, black students attending Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, or mill and factory workers living in Pittsburgh. At the same time, those periodicals were edited by their teachers, by philanthropists. Those people selected what was published, they edited and otherwise encouraged certain kinds of revisions, and of course, they would have censored what was actually printed.

So on the one hand, I’m reading these works thinking wow, this is a really fascinating account of how stenography is kind of like playing piano! What an interesting way this young Jewish writer has figured or found a language for the value of her work, and used an artistic lexicon to express that! But then, whose interest does that argument serve, when I think about the teacher who perhaps invited that particular writer to publish that essay? Whose interest does it serve to write about the nobility of labor, the innate value of it? I think a lot about not just how these editorial infrastructures might have actively censored the work of these writers, but also how writers definitely censored themselves. Even the certain norms of propriety around English language usage and grammar. And the archives operate in a similar way. These are not transparent sites where everything is collected. They’re shaped by the people who saved them and donated them to particular libraries and collections.

A lot of what I studied in graduate school, and what I teach now, are in print and on syllabuses because of the work of scholars that began mostly in the 1970s and 1980s-scholars of African American studies, black feminist studies, and women’s studies in particular, all of whom were engaged in what you could call “recovery projects.” Much of what I read and give to my students is in circulation because of those scholars who advocated for their return to the canon. Historically, the writings of so many populations and so many brilliant people have been suppressed, ignored, or undervalued; so many of the novels we consider important today languished out of print for decades before those scholars reminded us of their immense value. I had this idea-and I still do today-that literary recovery projects are vital, and that there is still so much that has been written not available to the public. Those works are not being written about or talked about and I know they could have incredible significance.

I am constantly thinking about how I can make a stronger case to the students I teach. A lot of the time, English students come to class wanting to read the classics, expecting to learn about what’s most important-you know, capital-I important. But literary importance is socially constructed. I’m really hungry to read the works of people who are not considered that kind of important, to see them recovered and restored so that we can have a richer understanding of what literature and writing have meant in the past, and what it can mean in the future.

When you talk about these tensions between what is known and what remains undervalued or suppressed, you return to an idea you call “the politics of proximity”-can you explain what that is, and where you found it in your research?

All of the reform organizations I looked at were organized around contact between wealthier, more educated people, and then a disadvantaged population. Reformers argued that a poor person speaking to a rich person or an immigrant hanging out with a native-born white American was educating and uplifting in and of itself. Even just being in the same room together-bringing people who would normally never speak to each other, even if they rode the same streetcar most days-was considering to be a mode and method of social change. Literature played a key role here: proximity to books and reading was at the heart of how social reform was thought to happen.

It’s political, of course, because these various kinds of proximity are supposed to be uplifting for the poor, as well as instructive and useful for the rich as well. A generation of middle-class women who had received university educations were seeking an outlet for their abilities; they found that outlet in “safe” settlement houses, working girls’ clubs, colleges, and other reform organizations. These privileged women were started to feel idle and useless-they, too, are being uplifted, or their lives were granted meaning, through proximity to the poor. So again, there is the idea of thinking about underprivileged populations as a resource, or something to be called upon to soothe and alleviate the pains of the rich. There is this amazing, furious counter-archive of Jewish immigrant and African American writers protesting the hegemonic politics of proximity.

These privileged women were started to feel idle and useless-they, too, are being uplifted, or their lives were granted meaning, through proximity to the poor

You also write about working girls’ clubs as being a source of tension-how what they didn’t speak about pointed to a deliberate avoidance of subjects that highlighted the disparity inherent to their proximity. For example, there aren’t records of these clubs discussing labor conditions and union organizing, the principles and practices that could have actually fairly distributed or shared power between the two groups of women.

Working girls’ clubs are a really good example of this tension. They were an offshoot of the larger women’s club movement from the late 19th century. But working girls’ clubs were financed and run by wealthy women, frequently the wives and daughters of industrialists-so, the people who owned the mills and factories who stoked up these so-called friendships had a vested interest in making sure unionization was not discussed, and that the working-class or poor women they were becoming friends with thought about their work in a very specific way. A lot of what happened in these clubs was about rich women trying to teach women about the nobility of their work. They were also trying to make the case that the work they did, as philanthropists and homemakers, made them busy, and because they were busy, they shared something in common with factory workers and mill workers. All of them had busy days, so they had something important in common. “Busy” becomes this amazing keyword within the institutional materials of the working girls club movement. Because if everyone is busy, then it’s almost an afterthought to ask what kind of labor of is keeping them busy. Whether they’re organizing parties or working fourteen hour days with no break is irrelevant; they tried to gloss over these vast socioeconomic disparities that have to do with labor.

These organizations all published their own periodicals and hosted conventions with speeches, which are now in the public domain. So we can see what they did talk about and we can see what was being ignored. This is the early 20th century. This is a moment of immense growth for unions in the United States, and specifically for women organizing labor unions, like the International Ladies Garment Union and the Women’s Trade Union League. The fact that these words never come up, and when they do they’re shushed up very quickly without any kind of fair hearing, is very telling as to what was off-limits. Women involved in the working girls’ club movement tried to insist that friendship and friendly feelings were a fine substitute for labor organizing-which is unfortunately still a familiar refrain in workplaces today.

Women involved in the working girls’ club movement tried to insist that friendship and friendly feelings were a fine substitute for labor organizing-which is unfortunately still a familiar refrain in workplaces today.

I wanted to talk to you about “undercover literature,” the genre of journalism in which a reporter chooses to embed themselves in a subculture or scene to gain greater access. You write about Cornelia Stratton Parker, who worked at a mill and wrote about it for Harper’s, and experienced (in my opinion, rightfully so) backlash from the people she wrote about. Can you explain how this undercover literature functioned to serve or perhaps strengthen an existing social construction?

Parker wrote two undercover narratives, somewhat consecutively, as part of this larger literary trend of the time. Educated, white, wealthy women would go undercover as working-class women for a discrete period of time in order to discover how the other half lived, to see through their eyes, and then return to their bourgeoise lives to write revealing narratives of what they found. We’re familiar with these kinds of texts because people do still write them. Barbara Ehrenreich and Nickel and Dimed is the major figure in our time, and her work picks up on a longstanding literary and journalistic tradition that had its heyday around the turn of the h century.

Parker was incredibly hungry for working-class speech and stories, and fascinated by family structure. She had studied economics and sociology under Thorstein Veblen at the New School, but that wasn’t enough-she wanted to feel what it was like to live in a tiny apartment, to live on a very meager income. She wanted to wear tattered clothing and have friends who spoke different English vernaculars; she wanted to feel what it was like to speak what she considered to be a broken tongue. And one of the most important aspects of the undercover experience for these kinds of writers were the friendships they formed-the heart, the key to their work. So Parker considered herself to have been very successful at writing about the mill for Harper’s because she made a lot of friends at the bleachery she worked at, but when she returned after the article was published, she found the people she had considered good friends were upset and offended by their depiction in the magazine. Specifically, they were offended by the way she represented their speech. They felt their trust had been violated when they read the way she transcribed their conversations, saying that they had been diminished in her representations, as well they should have.

Her response to this controversy was really telling: she justified it by saying she never expected them to read Harper’s. She was sad she had hurt their feelings, but kept saying: how could I have known that people who do manual labor also read Harper’s? She had this understanding of who these people were, what their capacities were and what their taste was like, and she was totally wrong. All of this was written about in their own periodical, which was called Bleachery Life.

And in Parker’s writing, did she ever reference that she knew the mill had their own internal publication?

It didn’t come up until that point in her narrative, no.

This is such a good example of what you describe as cross-class friendship, that it’s predicated not just on the existence of an unequal power dynamic but in maintaining that unequal power dynamic. In Reading for Reform, you talk about the tensions that exist between “gratitude and defiance, dependence and self-reliance, conformity, self-determination” when attempting to make cultural artifacts with an explicit moral dimension. The work was intended to serve a social good, but the way in which that work was produced didn’t subscribe to standard morality practices in itself.

Oh yeah, these undercover narratives were utterly predicated on eavesdropping, on totally violating the trust of people with whom these writers were living and working. People’s life stories, their pain and traumas… and also just their petty workplace struggles! All these stories were told without their permission and without their consent by these so-called friends.

For me, it comes down to language. The representation of language and dialect was itself such a highly charged and morally fraught issue at the turn of the century. The fact that authors were constantly writing about the so-called broken and distorted vernacular of working-class people is so telling. When you read those books today-books like Bessie and Marie Van Vorst’s The Woman Who Toils: Being the Experiences of Two Ladies as Factory Girls and Dorothy Richardson’s The Long Day: The Story of a New York Working Girl -it’s shocking to see the way working-class and racialized speech is represented in texts as an extension of realist literature, this unchallenged assumption that you can understand different populations from the way they speak.

these undercover narratives were utterly predicated on eavesdropping

You cite a famous quotation from Henry James, about how small social details were missing in the texture of American life. But writers like James often had disparaging opinions about journalists, like his character Henrietta in Portrait of a Lady, who is kind of coded as nosy and unladylike. Edith Wharton, who you write about in your book, also had a very low opinion of writers-some of her best burns are about New York media. Even writers were expressing tension between what they believed was best artistically and what was right morally, the roles that journalists did or should have in their communities.

Right, and it’s such a gender thing as well. When more highbrow writers like James and Wharton write about contemporary journalism, they’re often depicting women and the work they do as being frivolous or trivial, perhaps as an extension of gossip. Which is all a highly gendered way of thinking about how knowledge is transferred between people. This is one of the reasons why social reform and activist organizations proved so artistically fruitful for women writers and journalists in particular. The idea that their writing was sponsored by a larger moral or societal imperative empowered many women to begin publishing their work.

In the same vein, you write about both Wharton and Nella Larsen, and how in their major works of fiction they wrote about these contrasting or comparative narratives that were assigned between women-what made a woman’s character good or not. What was the value of that contrast, and where do we see it in their writing?

One of the major themes of the book is that writers in the early 20th century were trying to find a new language for talking about the changes that had dramatically transformed American society very, very quickly. Cities were changing and more kinds of languages were being spoken on city streets. Writers were searching for a literary language to represent this new social landscape, and one of the sources they found, or at least where they thought they found such language, were the cross-class reform institutions funded by millionaire philanthropists, staffed largely by university educated people, and used by low-income populations. Settlement houses and working girls’ clubs were also some of the only places where rich and poor folks, immigrants and people born in the US were spending extended time together. So within the organizations themselves, the contrast between people from different socioeconomic backgrounds was unbelievably stark.

For the people who patronized the institutions, the comparisons were frequently painful; for the middle-class and wealthy people who worked there or visited, these contrasts were the stuff of art. People don’t usually think of Edith Wharton as someone hugely concerned for the working classes, but The House of Mirth has a subplot about poor women, and throughout the novel as a whole, Wharton is constantly comparing Lily Bart, her beautiful and once wealthy heroine, to the other women in her life and in New York. She almost always comes out the winner because she is extremely beautiful, graceful, witty, popular, intelligent. One of the moments of true pain in the novel is when those comparisons between Lily and other people around her no longer flatter her. Even when writers were not explicitly writing about class disparity or social inequality, often they were drawing on this kind of comparative discourse that I think emerged more broadly from social reform and progressivism.

Nella Larsen was a Harlem Renaissance writer, and one of the keywords of the 1920s and in black culture for decades previous was uplift, the idea of racial uplift. In her novel, Quicksand, Larsen gives us a character who was somewhat reluctantly working within what could be described as uplift institutions, including a college and a rural church community. Her protagonist, Helga Crain, basically disparages the project. She is longing for freedom and autonomy and a relief from this imperative to fit within a paradigm of black femininity that didn’t allow her to be in control of her own narrative.

There’s a story you include about Larsen getting expelled from Fisk University for breaking the dress code, and it seemed like there was a parallel between the choices she made in her life and as an artist and a writer, not to conform to expectations.

In both of Larsen’s major novels, Passing and Quicksand, there’s so much attention to color and beauty, and to the morality and intelligence inherent in expressions of fashion. In Larsen’s life, she found that people chafed against the way she presented herself-the colors she wore, her sense of style. I think to her it became an extension of the way that people and structures had protested her being what she was: a mixed-race woman who had grown up poor and didn’t have a wealthy or well-established genealogy to call upon. And so color and fashion became freedom and artistic expression.

The Victorian idea that “decor is character” comes up in this period as well-about an aesthetic presentation of who a person was, or what their politics were-which is still a question that comes up today, this idea of how and where people show off their values. In your epilogue, you mention some parallels in the present, but the allusions to contemporary culture mostly go unsaid, and the reader has to draw their own conclusions. Does the historical context given in Reading for Reform provide a lens for looking at the moment we’re living in now?

I think one of the biggest questions the book asks is something that a lot of people think about and care about which is: why read? Why write? What good can literature do for us as individuals, and as a society? Can literature do anything? Or do they exist just for our pleasure? I mean, the idea of decor determining or saying something about character, or what it meant at the turn of the century was that a lot of people were deeply anxious about the fact of so many people living in tenements. Middle-class and wealthy people were anxious about how environments different from their own might be shaping the character of the poor, and thereby more broadly shaping the character of American society. So all of these reform sites were meant to be opportunities for working-class people to sit in a room that had books, with paintings on the wall. The point wasn’t whether or not they read the books; merely being in the same space with them was supposed to improve their character.

As you know, I’m obsessed with the way these turn-of-the-century organizations and idioms are re-appearing in the present. Hello again to the women’s club movement. I think one of the biggest questions the book asks is something that a lot of people think about and care about today which is: why read? Why write? What good can literature do for us as individuals, and as a society? Can literature DO anything about our broken world?

At the turn of the century, reformers argued that creating aesthetically appealing places where working-class people could spend time among books and paintings, and away from their tenement apartments, could re-shape the character of American society. The implications of this idea at the turn of the century were vicious. But the idea that dwelling in a beautiful space says something about who we are and our own taste is still present today. Taste is still a concept totally wrapped up in racist and classist beliefs. And today we have so many more opportunities to document and advertise the kind of taste we possess, to signpost something of our character through the way we curate and broadcast our daily lives to one another.

Taste is still a concept totally wrapped up in racist and classist beliefs.

This reminds me of a lot of the writing and critiques around social media-the claim that what matters more are images deliberately excluded from people’s feeds, and what it means to put people in charge of their own archives, more or less. For the most part, we choose to share what we think is most beautiful or puts us in the best light. It’s not always manipulative, though it can be, but sometimes I wonder if it’s read as sinister when the impulse itself is more opaque.

Showing the room you’re sitting in and the books stacked on your bedside table are kind of a shorthand for what you’re thinking about, what you’re caring about right now. We know that the image is cropped. It’s cutting certain things out, it’s telling a certain story. Social media makes it possible for us to tell a story about our lives, with particular concerns and characters. We’re in charge of our own archives to an extent, but I still think about these archives-all of this micro-memoirs!-disappearing.