Class Unknown: Undercover Investigations of American Work and Poverty from the Progressive Era to the Present

Class Unknown: Undercover Investigations of American Work and Poverty from the Progressive Era to the Present

Class Unknown: Undercover Investigations of American Work and Poverty from the Progressive Era to the Present

Class Unknown: Undercover Investigations of American Work and Poverty from the Progressive Era to the Present

Synopsis

Since the Gilded Age, social scientists, middle-class reformers, and writers have left the comforts of their offices to "pass" as steel workers, coal miners, assembly-line laborers, waitresses, hoboes, and other working and poor people in an attempt to gain a fuller and more authentic understanding of the lives of the working class and the poor. In this first, sweeping study of undercover investigations of work and poverty in America, award-winning historian Mark Pittenger examines how intellectuals were shaped by their experiences with the poor, and how despite their sympathy toward working-class people, they unintentionally helped to develop the contemporary concept of a degraded and "other" American underclass. While contributing to our understanding of the history of American social thought, Class Unknown offers a new perspective on contemporary debates over how we understand and represent our own society and its class divisions.

Excerpt

In 1902, Bessie and Marie Van Vorst—sisters-in-law, writers, and avowed “gentlewomen”—changed their clothes and took up factory work, promising to reveal to readers the world of the “unknown class,” for whom they intended to serve as a “mouthpiece” in the struggle to inaugurate a more just and egalitarian society. In undertaking this project, they joined an American tradition of undercover investigation that had begun to take shape in the late Gilded Age, flourished from the Progressive Era through the 1930s, shifted in focus and method during the postwar decades, and persists to the present, constituting a distinctive ongoing commentary on the development of class society in the age of industrial capitalism. The Van Vorsts shared a conviction with other journalists, social scientists, novelists, and intellectuals who went “down and out,” to use the term later coined by George Orwell: The only way to understand life across the class line was to live it. Over more than a century, a mass of such investigators fanned out through American steel mills, coal mines, construction sites, hotels, department stores, paper-box factories, taxi-dance halls, restaurants, hobo jungles, hop fields, and lumber camps. They hoped to learn what it meant to work hard and to be poor. They wanted to know what it meant not to be—and perhaps by extension, what it did mean to be—“middle class.” Most writers shared with the Van Vorsts a suspicion of grand theory, favoring instead a homespun epistemology of experience. Their books and articles characteristically foregrounded two perspectives: a sometimes shrewd critique of the official knowledge obtainable from self-interested employers, sentimental philanthropists, and abstractly minded economists; and an often naïve and condescending conviction that, through class masquerade, they might “discover and adopt” their subjects’ viewpoint, and thereby contribute to resolving “the social problem.” For most, going undercover was both an empirical task and an existential dare— a mission, and an adventure. This book tells their story.

The Van Vorsts’ coinage of the “unknown class” implies two things about the undercover tradition. First, these investigators went beyond tourism or slumming to immerse themselves in what the restaurant investigator Frances Donovan called “a new world” replete with “life, new and strange”: a world . . .

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