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American Socialist Triptych

The Literary-Political Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Upton Sinclair, and W. E. B. Du Bois

Mark W. Van Wienen

Publication Year: 2012

"A meticulously researched, highly informed, carefully argued, and very accessible account of American socialism, socialists, and socialistic thinking, from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s . . . challenges the intellectual and political legacy of Werner Sombart's Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?, whose spirit still hovers over animated discussions about the 'failures' of socialism in the United States." ---James A. Miller, George Washington University "A valuable rethinking and reframing of the traditions of leftist literary scholarship in the U.S." ---Sylvia Cook, University of Missouri, St. Louis American Socialist Triptych: The Literary-Political Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Upton Sinclair, and W. E. B. Du Bois explores the contributions of three writers to the development of American socialism over a fifty--year period and asserts the vitality of socialism in modern American literature and culture. Drawing upon a wide range of texts including archival sources, Mark W. Van Wienen demonstrates the influence of reform-oriented, democratic socialism both in the careers of these writers and in U.S. politics between 1890 and 1940. While offering unprecedented in-depth analysis of modern American socialist literature, this book charts the path by which the supposedly impossible, dangerous ideals of a cooperative commonwealth were realized, in part, by the New Deal. American Socialist Triptych provides in-depth, innovative readings of the featured writers and their engagement with socialist thought and action. Upton Sinclair represents the movement's most visible manifestation, the Socialist Party of America, founded in 1901; Charlotte Perkins Gilman reflects the socialist elements in both feminism and 1890s reform movements, and W. E. B. Du Bois illuminates social democratic aspirations within the NAACP. Van Wienen's book seeks to re-energize studies of Sinclair by treating him as a serious cultural figure whose career peaked not in the early success of The Jungle but in his nearly successful 1934 run for the California governorship. It also demonstrates as never before the centrality of socialism throughout Gilman's and Du Bois's literary and political careers. More broadly, American Socialist Triptych challenges previous scholarship on American radical literature, which has focused almost exclusively on the 1930s and Communist writers. Van Wienen argues that radical democracy was not the phenomenon of a decade or of a single group but a sustained tradition dispersed within the culture, providing a useful genealogical explanation for how socialist ideas were actually implemented through the New Deal. American Socialist Triptych also revises modern American literary history, arguing for the endurance of realist and utopian literary modes at the height of modernist literary experimentation and showing the importance of socialism not only to the three featured writers but also to their peers, including Edward Bellamy, Hamlin Garland, Jack London, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Claude McKay. Further, by demonstrating the importance of social democratic thought to feminist and African American campaigns for equality, the book dialogues with recent theories of radical egalitarianism. Readers interested in American literature, U.S. history, political theory, and race, gender, and class studies will all find in American Socialist Triptych a valuable and provocative resource.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Class : Culture


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List of Abbreviations

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p. ix

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Introduction: Toward a Literary History of (Social) Democracy in America

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pp. 1-19

This book focuses upon three prominent American socialists who also happen to be essential figures in the study of modern American literature. To be sure, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Upton Sinclair, and W. E. B. Du Bois aspired to careers in writing and intellectual work prior to their becoming socialists. Du Bois in fact wrote the work that made his name as an intellectual, The Souls of Black Folk, prior to expressing ...

Part I: Social Democracy in America

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1: Looking Backward, Working Forward: Fin de Siècle Socialism according to Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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pp. 23-63

In approaching the history of socialism in the United States, we immediately face the problem that historians have widely assumed socialism has never amounted to much here—even, among some specialists in the field, that in this country there has been no socialist movement worthy of the name. Werner Sombart’s Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? (1906) was notably premature in its negative judgment upon the ...

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2: The Multiplicity of American Socialism: Upton Sinclair and the “Party of Agitation,” 1901–1914

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pp. 64-99

For all of the hopeful indications of the rising tide of progressivism, the American socialist movement ended the nineteenth century and began the twentieth at a critical juncture. The popular organizations that had espoused socialist and socialistic measures in the 1890s, especially the Nationalists and the Populists, had either lost their momentum or been co-opted by the mainstream parties. The more militant parties, De Leon’s ...

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3: The Feminism of American Socialism: Gilman and Company at Work, in Love, and on Trial

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pp. 100-127

The career of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her brand of socialist feminism provide further evidence for the continuity of American socialism before and after the turn of the century. Although Gilman, like other pre-1900 socialists, tended to eschew the socialist label and regard Marxism with some anxiety, the perspective upon women’s equality that she learned in the Nationalist movement and elaborated upon in her own intellectual ...

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4: Within the Veil: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Second Internationale, 1909–1919

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pp. 128-158

Diverse and multiple as American socialism was during the period of the Second Internationale, racial diversity, and specifically African American diversity, was much less readily accounted for. In the Jungle’s descriptions of the packinghouse strike of 1904 and the scabs who were used to break it, Sinclair’s narrative focalized through his protagonist Jurgis Rudkus—himself working as a strikebreaker—plays upon the gamut of racist ...

Part II: Literary Negotiations

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5: Call and Response: The Politics of Literary Utopianism and Realism

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pp. 161-192

The chapters of Part I have canvassed the writing of Gilman, Sinclair, and Du Bois broadly considered—published work, fiction and nonfiction, speeches in the case of Gilman, personal letters and other unpublished work. We have examined this writing with particular attention to what it says about American socialism of the 1890s and the two decades following: the period of the Second Internationale, and also the decades ...

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6: Utopia and Apocalypse: Social Democratic Fiction and the Great War

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pp. 193-229

More than the average citizen or statesman, socialists had foreseen the Great War. Capitalism had not only pitted class against class but nation against nation; mass, industrialized warfare was but the most open expression of day-to-day reality in a society riven by class conflict. In a 1913 editorial in The Crisis, Du Bois offered what amounted to a prediction of war, given unresolved issues in the scramble for empire: “The modern lust for ...

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7: Heaven and Earth: Revelations and Doubt in the Sacco-Vanzetti Decade

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pp. 230-265

The revolutionary moment of 1919 passed rapidly, a consequence both of the government’s stern repression of left-wing activity and of Left activists’ unreadiness, or unwillingness, actually to undertake the revolutionary violence the government accused them of plotting. Membership fell precipitously in both the Socialist Party of America and the several, successive Comintern-aligned parties that splintered ...

Part III: Political Interventions

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8: Once More unto the Breach: Social Democratic Advance and Retreat in the Red Decade

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pp. 269-307

In the narrative of American literature, socialism, and political change that we have been tracing, when we enter the 1930s and the Great Depression we approach the crisis. This narratorial understanding concurs with those scholars who have specialized in the Left and Communist- affiliated literature in identifying the 1930s as the historical moment of decision. But it also sharply disputes their singular focus on that decade and ...

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9: Reading The Jungle at Breakfast: The New Deal and Other Social Democratic Legacies

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pp. 308-338

It is just the kind of story that the politically savvy president might have entirely fabricated, when Roosevelt met with Upton Sinclair a few days after he had won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination of California in a landslide. Yet Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s improbable yarn about his mother reading from The Jungle at table and spoiling his breakfast ...


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pp. 339-375


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pp. 377-390

E-ISBN-13: 9780472028085
E-ISBN-10: 0472028081
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472118052
Print-ISBN-10: 0472118056

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Class : Culture
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OCLC Number: 773348837
MUSE Marc Record: Download for American Socialist Triptych

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Subject Headings

  • Socialism -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Socialism and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Socialism and literature -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Sinclair, Upton, 1878-1968 -- Political and social views.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. -- (William Edward Burghardt), -- 1868-1963 -- Political and social views.
  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, -- 1860-1935 -- Political and social views.
  • Socialism -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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