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  • A World of Difference: Constructing the “Underclass” in Progressive America
  • Mark Pittenger (bio)

He was going forth to eat as the wanderer may eat, and sleep as the homeless sleep.

—Stephen Crane, “An Experiment in Misery”


“Why not find out about the waitress?” the shopper mused as she browsed in the fashionable department stores and glanced through the gleaming restaurant windows of Chicago’s Loop. On this Saturday morning in 1917, Frances Donovan—a sometime school teacher, office executive, and housewife who was clearly conversant with the ideas and methods of Chicago sociology—found herself fascinated by the crowds of women workers who jammed her elevated railway coach, descended around her at the Madison Street station, and fanned out to their various places of labor. Pondering the place of women in the modern urban work force while passing one after another of the Loop’s four hundred restaurants, Donovan was struck by another thought: “Why not be a waitress?” And so, after vainly searching the libraries and soliciting the Bureau of Labor for evidence of previous research, a waitress she became. Although Donovan represented this project as originating spontaneously and rather idiosyncratically, the resultant book contributed to a considerable tide of popular and social-scientific [End Page 26] writing that rose in the Gilded Age, crested during the Progressive era, and remained much in evidence, if somewhat changed in form, during the 1920s. The producers of that literature shared Donovan’s eagerness to explore what she called “a new world,” one replete with “life new and strange”: a world of difference. 1

To pursue the origins and implications of the belief that workers and the poor were somehow fundamentally different—a strange breed in classless America—I will discuss the experiences of Progressive-era journalists, writers, and social scientists like Frances Donovan who went “down and out,” to use the term later coined by George Orwell. That is, they lived and worked in disguise among clerks and waitresses, factory laborers, itinerant workers, beggars, and tramps, in order to observe and to write about them. Jack London’s People of the Abyss (1903) is the best-remembered chronicle of such experiences, but I will mainly address an array of lesser-known figures whose books and articles, both in popular magazines and in scholarly journals, contributed importantly to public and academic discussions of American working-class life and poverty. 2 These particular investigators mark the origin of a longer-term tradition of down-and-outers who have explored the underside of American life throughout the twentieth century. Such explorers’ preconceptions and goals have varied with the historical moment, but their perspectives on the poor have consistently been shaped by shifting scientific and cultural emphases on matters such as heredity and environment, biology and culture, and free will and determinism. In the Progressive era, as today, that bottommost rank of society into which the working poor were always in peril of sinking—the social layer currently styled the “underclass”—was often represented primarily as the product of fixed behavioral and cultural traits, and only secondarily as the spawn of socioeconomic factors. Then, as today, journalistic descriptions emphasizing these apparently hereditary traits were often absorbed into academic analyses of poverty. 3

Two sets of concerns especially engage me. First, why did people undertake such expeditions and how did they record what they found? And second, how did these experiences affect their own personal, professional, and class identities? To address such questions is to explicate the construction of certain kinds of difference in a particular historical era, and also to cast light on efforts to conceptualize class, poverty, and the poor in a nation that wanted to reject “European” models of social stratification. 4 [End Page 27]

The first cluster of concerns suggests a series of interrelated questions. What motivated certain writers to breach the class line and to pass as workers, and when they did so, how did they construct images of the poor—both of the “respectable” working poor, and of the degraded “dangerous classes?” On what intellectual resources did they draw to conceptualize their experiences and to constitute for the poor a public image or identity—often as beings of a...

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pp. 26-65
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