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  • Women's Agency, Adoption, and Class in Theodore Dreiser's Delineator and Jennie Gerhardt
  • Jude Davies (bio)

Towards the end of Theodore Dreiser's novel Jennie Gerhardt (1911), the title character adopts two young children. The first, "a chestnut-haired girl" whom Jennie names Rose Perpetua, is "taken from the Western Home for the Friendless" (394). The second, Harry, is adopted in part as Jennie's response to her failure to gain a post in "some charitable organization" because "she did not understand the new theory of charity which was then coming into general acceptance and practice—namely, only to help others to help themselves." Jennie, rather, "believed in giving—and was not inclined to look too closely into the protestations of those who claimed to be poor" (397). In the narrative, Rose Perpetua and Harry become the latest recipients of Jennie's emotional directness and "giving" nature after the death of her daughter Vesta and her rejection by the love of her life Lester Kane. The adoptions thereby help to fulfill Dreiser's intention to validate Jennie's innate and spontaneous generosity of spirit, in contrast to the mores of a "respectable" middle-class that excludes her and condemns her extra-marital sexuality. What has become less clear over time is that the novel particularizes Jennie's adoptions in relation to very historically specific philosophies of child welfare. Jennie Gerhardt was composed and published during a period when the historical counterparts of the orphanage from which Rose Perpetua was rescued were being challenged and replaced under what was recognizably a "new theory of charity" that emphasized fostering, adoption, and support within the family home. By contrasting Jennie's adoptions with first a Victorian asylum and then the investigative, family-centered programs of the Progressive era, then, the novel does more than simply foreground Jennie's virtues; it positions her at the center of contemporary debates about gender, class, and the role of the state.

Dreiser himself, during the extended composition of Jennie Gerhardt, [End Page 141] was partly responsible for igniting the national debate on adoption through which Jennie's adoptive motherhood could be read. Late in 1907, as editor of a women's magazine, the Delineator, he had launched the "Child-Rescue" campaign, aimed at taking children out of institutions and having them adopted (after suitable checks) by readers of the magazine. The campaign culminated in a Conference on the Care of Dependent Children hosted by President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in January 1909, which historians regard as a watershed in American social policy, "open[ing] the way for an American welfare state" (Crenson 35; see also Berebitsky 51–74; and Critchlow and Parker 5),

Social historians have demonstrated the modernizing influence of Child-Rescue (Crenson, Berebitsky) and highlighted its role in consolidating a racially and economically exclusive middle-class by splitting the category of American motherhood into the "unfit" (working-class, immigrant, non-white) woman induced to give up her child, and the "fit" (middleclass, native, white) adoptive mother (Hainze).1 Building on that work, this essay argues that Child-Rescue is best understood not as a unified ideological intervention, but as engaging with a variety of perspectives and desires, embedded in the Delineator's wider address to women's identities as consumers and potential social activists, as well as mothers. The main body of the essay demonstrates how the Delineator operated according to the original definition of a magazine, as a "storehouse," in this case, for these various models of women's agency. In this context, Child-Rescue, both as a personal appeal to individual women's maternal feelings and as a public campaign for policy reform, was symptomatic of the way that the Delineator acted as an ideological centrifuge, scattering the significances of motherhood and women's agency. While at one level the Delineator did enforce a classed and racialized definition of American motherhood, an unease with this hierarchy and with the promise of Progressive reform shadows the pages of the magazine. To fully understand Dreiser's intervention, therefore, this essay finally turns to his writings about maternity and adoption before and immediately after the Delineator years, from an 1896 editorial in Ev...


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