- American Socialist Triptych: The Literary-Political Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Upton Sinclair, and W. E. B. Du Bois by Mark W. Van Wienen
Mark Van Wienen’s American Socialist Triptych is a well-researched synthesis of the complex socialist positions of three major figures in American literary history—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Upton Sinclair. The author’s aim is to demonstrate how profoundly socialist thought influenced early-twentieth-century U.S. intellectuals of all stripes. In revealing this rich history of nonviolent, gradualist political activism in the decades before the Great Depression, Van Wienen hopes to correct the tendency in leftist scholarship on the period to fixate on the more militant Communist movement. In his view, the seeds for the empowerment of the welfare state that blossom in the passage of the New Deal were planted in large part by this trio and their milieux well before the failure of capitalism would make government intervention ineluctable.
The socialist persuasion of Upton Sinclair—author of the politically efficacious The Jungle and one-time candidate for the governor’s seat of California— is well known. But for numerous reasons, this position has remained less discernable in Gilman and Du Bois. According to Van Wienen, however, his “triptych” authors all deserve the designation of socialist because of “a shared belief that the common wealth of the United States should be controlled democratically and shared equitably by all citizens and that this could be achieved through the collective organization of society’s less privileged members.” Although he does not entirely avoid the pitfall of privileging Sinclair in the literary history of socialism in the U.S.—the very act of privileging he condemns in previous studies—Van Wienen does a commendable job of demonstrating the centrality of socialism to the respective enterprises with which we have come to associate the other two figures. Gilman, he suggests, brought feminism to socialism and socialism to feminism; Du Bois, on the other hand, demonstrates the “symbiotic relation” between socialism and black intellectuals as well as the tension between them.
Usually, Van Wienen is careful to preserve the diversity of these three authors in his effort to synthesize them, responsibly attentive to key differences [End Page 86] even at times when their similarities seem most important. At a few crucial moments, however, his vigilance slackens. In the third chapter, for instance, Van Wienen attempts to show that the personal lives of these three were inconsistent with their feminist proclamations. Here Sinclair is implicitly criticized for his choice of a more conventional wife after the failure of his first, more experimental marriage. Mary Craig, his second wife, is described as the kind of economically dependent woman “that so much chagrined Charlotte Perkins Gilman” yet, a couple of sentences later, as an avid land speculator. (The “angel in the house” who buys houses?) Gilman, a woman in the early-twentieth century, comes under attack for professing the importance of female economic independence while herself remaining dependent on her lawyer husband’s income. But most objectionable of all is Van Wienen’s treatment of Du Bois on this issue. “When speaking of women in general,” he writes, “Du Bois focuses upon the need for independence…. When speaking of black women, his emphasis shifts to the power of mothers and of maiden modesty.” But what appears to be inconsistency in Du Bois’s thinking is actually the expression of a deep tension within feminism that stems from the differing historical circumstances of black and white women. After centuries of being animalized, black women were compelled to appropriate Victorian ideals of womanhood in order to win respectability for themselves—ideals that their white female contemporaries could more safely discard.
Notwithstanding its missteps—confined mostly to this heavily biographical chapter—Van Wienen’s study succeeds admirably on the whole. In addition to exposing the importance of socialism to these authors’ more conspicuously political activities, Van Wienen offers a...