Social Reform, Taste and the Construction of Virtue in American Literature, 1870-1910 - Studies in American Literature v.56 (Hardback)

by Janice H. Koistinen-Harris

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Dr. Koistinen-Harris's study of the relationship between literature, taste/aesthetics, and social reform in America at the turn of the twentieth century groups together subjects which scholars have not commonly linked with one another. Particularly, she has adopted an innovative way of thinking about reform writing, focusing not on what is being said about needy groups but instead on what the writing says to the potential reformers to whom it is addressed. Preface; Janice Koistinen-Harris's study of the relationship between literature, taste/aesthetics, and social reform in America at the turn of the twentieth century groups together subjects which scholars have not commonly linked with one another. In particular, Koistinen-Harris has adopted an innovative way of thinking about reform writing, focusing not on what is being said about needy groups but instead on what the writing says to the potential reformers to whom it is addressed. She thus establishes an important tie between thought and social action during an era which dramatically altered the course of American history. This book, then, fills an important gap at the junction between literary and historical scholarship. The link which Koistinen-Harris finds joining taste/aesthetics to social action turns out to have comprised a central aspect of what diverse writers regarded as the essential nature of a reformer. Through a close reading of late nineteenth and early twentieth century texts, Koistinen-Harris identifies a consistent motif which she terms a "virtuous social identity." The duty-bound reformer is expected to be a person of "good taste" and vice-versa. In effect, the reader of the novel or "quality journal" is conditioned to set out to improve society. Informed by attention to social class as well as to racial and gender stereotyping, Koistinen-Harris's research shows writers assuming a certain class solidarity among their more "virtuous" readers, with a concomitant subscription to the canons of high culture and a "common moral commitment to reform." As Koistinen-Harris notes, these assumptions operated across racial lines as well. Privileged blacks accentuated class differences within the African American community. They did so partly as a means of undermining racism by earning white respect in terms of elevated status per se, conjoined with reform-oriented virtue. During an era when African Americans debated different approaches to achieving civil rights and genuine equality with whites, this aesthetic impulse represented a fascinating perspective on the methods of liberation. Koistinen-Harris also illustrates, though, that the linkage between the virtuous and the tasteful was a relationship in continuous tension. In particular, enjoining a reader to enter a distasteful slum out of duty and moral purpose, with the goal of helping to allay poverty or social deviance, was to ask that the reformer fundamentally depart from the canons of cultivation and high culture. Beyond this contradiction, in The Bostonians, Henry James underscored the potential for "distasteful" settings to drag down the reformer. Indeed, in his 1897 novel In His Steps; "What Would Jesus Do?", Charles M. Sheldon called good taste itself an obstacle to change and demanded the renunciation of refinement on behalf of social reform. The professionalization of reform in the twentieth century rendered the debate over taste largely moot, an artifact of the dilettantism which had characterized much of the late Victorian reform impulse. Notably after the New Deal, professionalization meant governmental bureaucracies which were set up to deliver social services. With the triumph of mass culture over high, injunctions about good taste went the way of the buggy whip and the hat pin. Still, the author argues, echoes of the Victorian connection between taste and humanitarian reform continue faintly today in the pages of such publications as the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and Harper's Magazine. By carrying her account down to the present, Janice Koistinen-Harris forcefully and elegantly examines the impact of taste and aesthetics in shaping responses to industrialization, urbanization, and the broad processes of modernization during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Professor John J. Broesamle California State University, Northridge

Book details

Published
01/02/2003

Publisher
Edwin Mellen Press Ltd

ISBN
9780773470071


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