- American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry
Daniel Bender's American Abyss is a fascinating, rich, and lucid intellectual history of the United States from the late Gilded Age through the restriction of immigration in the 1920s. Its focus is on the reactions of overlapping groups of academics, reformers, feminists, socialists, and eugenicists to industrialization and the social changes wrapped up with it. It offers us an impressive and provocative synthesis that will reward close consideration by specialists and that would work well in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses.
The novelty of this work begins with Bender's decision to unpack the meaning of industrialization to turn-of-the-century observers. This is no small task, for as Bender demonstrates, the drive to comprehend the sources and consequences of industrialization inspired expansive and consuming conversations. These conversations, which took place within and beyond the professionalizing disciplines of anthropology, economics, and sociology, reflected the dramatic nature of the changes taking place and, Bender emphasizes, a particular intellectual context. Integral to most interpretations of industrialization were theories of race and climate, the distinction between civilization and savagery, and competing Lamarckian and Darwinian theories of evolution borrowed from biology. These ideas embedded American interpretations, varied and conflicting though they were, in a common idiom, and, crucially, led Americans to understand industrialization in broad terms. Most, in fact, took industrialization to represent not only smokestacks and mechanized labor routines, but the culmination of processes of social and economic evolution that reached back to prehistory. Viewing their society, Europe, and—in some case—Japan as the embodiment of a new, higher stage of civilization, social scientists and the public studied "primitive" societies in the ancient and modern world for clues about the origins of these processes. As Bender makes clear, particularly in his chapters on concerns over immigrant "colonies" in U.S. cities and the American occupation of the Philippines, contemporaries thought about these subjects in ways that reached beyond and sometimes explicitly spurned the nation-state as a category of analysis.
Yet, even as these groups celebrated turn-of-the-century industrialization for bringing civilization to new heights, they worried that it was inundating the United States with hordes of immigrant barbarians and changing social conditions in ways that risked collective degeneration. When it came to explaining and remedying these ills, however, socialists, progressives, feminists, and eugenicists disagreed constantly despite sharing key terms. Some feminists, for example, argued that since women had historically been key agents in economic progress, there was no need for anxiety over their growing presence outside of the home. Others, in contrast, countered that exposing women to the industrial [End Page 1135] workplace imperiled family life and caused racial decline. Social Darwinists, progressives, and some socialists had pejorative attitudes towards unemployed transients and others on the margins of society. Socialists and progressives, however, held industrialization and its attendant changes responsible, at least in part, for the proliferation of such alleged undesirables. Both progressives and socialists, moreover, argued that the unrestrained competition celebrated by Social Darwinists was actually a barbaric relic of earlier stages of social evolution. Within these wide-ranging debates, progressives maintained the initiative for several years but found themselves on the defensive by the early 1910s. By then, eugenicists had formulated a critique of progressive reforms that condemned them for relying on outmoded Lamarckian theories of evolution. Instead of focusing on environmental factors, eugenicists argued, efforts should center on protecting America's "germ plasm" from contamination by the unfit, with immigration restriction constituting a vital first step. When the biological sciences eventually turned away from racial theories and developed more insights into genetic inheritance, eugenicists found themselves falling in stature. Bender concludes by warning that, while ideas like savagery and racial degeneration have slipped from public discourse, echoes of this period can still be heard in discussions of immigration, the Muslim world, and international economic development.
A brief overview, of course, cannot do justice to such a detailed and nuanced work, which analyzes everything from...