Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Gender Trouble in the Long Day

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Gender Trouble in the Long Day

Article excerpt

Dorothy Richardson's 1905 novel The Long Day: The Story of a New York Working Girl, As Told by Herself exemplifies cultural fascination with the oppression of marginalized people. Popular literature fed this fascination during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: books by Helen Hunt Jackson, Jacob Riis, Upton Sinclair, and others called attention to Native Americans, immigrants, as well as the poor and sometimes inspired palpable social reforms. Jackson's bestselling novel Ramona (1884), for example, raised sympathy for the plight of indigenous people. Ramona directly contributed to legislation intended to improve land rights and promote sovereignty (Senier 17). Female wage earners also received attention in the late nineteenth century, and Cathryn Halverson characterizes readers' interest in them as "almost obsessive" (96). The Long Day transports that interest into the twentieth century by shifting the focus from the New England mill to the urban factory. The novel is the best-known example of the reform-oriented exposés that proliferated around the turn of the century, a genre which speaks to the popular culture's attraction to and anxiety about class, labor, and justice. Equally important, the novel's attention to the intersection of class and gender, prescient for its time, enriches its examination of labor and distinguishes it from similarly structured narratives.

Richardson, an American born in 1882, shares a name with the better-known British author of the Pilgrimage novels who was born in 1873. The American author is a turn-of-the-century prototype for Barbara Ehrenreich: The Long Day exposes the poor working conditions of so-called unskilled jobs and the near impossibility of surviving on their wages in much the same manner that Ehrenreich's New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America (2001) later would. The Long Day helped to forge the "honored journalistic tradition" (Gallagher) of what Ehrenhreich characterizes as immersion journalism, an investigative approach that often employs deception to reveal injustice. Richardson's novel originally was published anonymously with the claim that its middle-class author had gone undercover to live as an unskilled laborer, as Ehrenreich later would. The Long Day draws now-familiar conclusions about the dangers and demands of blue-collar labor, and the high costs of basic necessities. It arguably primed privileged readers for fiction from the working-class and immigrant woman's perspective, such as Anzia Yezierska's story collection Hungry Hearts (1920) and novel Bread Givers, which the New York Times reviewed favorably in 1925. Working-class fiction is difficult to define given the amorphous yet fundamentally binary construction of class, but it is a broad genre that has generated a wealth of scholarship.1 Yezierska's fiction, for instance, has received renewed attention from feminists, labor historians, and scholars of ethnic American literature since the 1970s (Hefner 188).

Like Nickel and Dimed, The Long Day was a bestseller, both as a serial (in American Magazine during 1903-1904) and in three editions published between 1905 and 1906. The popular response was strong, and the novel was a critical success as well. At the time, readers debated whether or not Richardson's portrayal of working women was truly authentic. Initially, some questioned the legitimacy of Richardson's account of the life of a wage-earning urban woman, while others praised its accuracy. Middle-class and working-class readers ultimately reached consensus and accepted the book as truth. In spite of its success and its deft negotiation of the era's social, economic, political, and gender issues, The Long Day largely has been forgotten. Some might regard the flaws of Richardson's novel as grounds for neglected status. The Long Day replicates the class prejudices of its time, including moral conservatism and the narrator's unawareness of her own position of privilege. …

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