- Reading for Reform: The Social Work of Literature in the Progressive Era by Laura R. Fisher
Is the American Progressive Era a literary period? Defining it as the years from 1890 to 1920, it is, from a literary perspective, an age of realism and naturalism, the New Negro and the New Woman, and the first stirrings of modernism. These frames, however, do not capture the literary dimensions of progressivism as such. Progressivism was not just a political movement; it was a widespread cultural orientation, a commitment to solving social problems that challenged social Darwinism and laissez-faire capitalism but ultimately sought stability rather than revolution. Because of progressivism’s importance as a cultural substrate, it makes sense to talk about progressive literature in the same way that we talk about, say, the literature of Cold War liberalism, but few critics have adopted that perspective. But as Laura R. Fisher demonstrates in this admirable book, progressive reform institutions—the settlement house, the working girls’ club, the corporate-philanthropy-backed African American college, and the undercover social investigation—produced not only thriving “amateur literary cultures” but also a distinctive kind of literary theory that influenced canonical [End Page 323] writers and critics (4). She illuminates not just a literature but also a literary theory of progressivism, in one of its major tendencies.
The theme of this literary theory, in Fisher’s account, is “the politics of proximity,” or the relationship between points “far and near” in social space (1). (Far and Near is the title of one of Fisher’s archival sources, a working girls’ club association journal.) The politics of proximity has three facets. First, the reform institutions that Fisher discusses create a form of social nearness, a novel cross-class contact that will edify their working-class clients and revitalize their privileged patrons. Second, they rely on the printed word to spread the benefits of those close relationships far and wide. Third, the far and the near intersect when patrons use their social adjacency to police their clients’ relationship to books, imposing their own conceptions of literary quality and disciplined reading.
In the book’s central chapters Fisher shows the politics of proximity playing out in widely varying ways, from settlement house gentility-via-osmosis to the Tuskegee Institute’s embrace of a write-what-you-know pedagogy intended to keep Black readers away from high culture. Each of these institutional theories, paired with literary readings that exemplify or challenge it, is reconstructed in compelling detail, revealing several distinct aesthetic universes. Yet certain commonalities emerge. All of these institutions validate “unequal but still friendly relations that obtained between reform’s benefactors and its beneficiaries” that make inequality tolerable, and even aesthetically rewarding (3). All, too, insist that literature’s social value arises from its contribution to this project, its power to publicize an ideal of class closeness that blends social reform and social control.
Fisher traces the influence of these practices of “reading for reform” across the period’s usual literary categories (3). With its focus on fictional representation as a vicarious experience of social contact, reading for reform has obvious implications for literary realism, which Fisher skillfully pursues, noting the often self-serving ways in which upper- or middle-class writers construct images of working-class authenticity. The reformers’ ideas of environmental determinism impinge on naturalism, too. Finally, in one of the book’s most compelling threads, in opposition to (literally) patronizing institutional theories of literary utility, some of reform’s ostensible beneficiaries, from Lower East Side Jews to African American college students, develop concepts of aesthetic autonomy that contribute to modernism. The chapter on Black colleges is particularly fascinating on this topic, showing how aesthetic theorists of the Harlem Renaissance sharpened their ideas against those schools’ stifling literary curricula.
Fisher’s analysis is a giant leap for the literary study of progressivism. To [End Page 324] be clear, however, progressivism as such is not her object of inquiry. Although her subject is the...