From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States

By Robert H. Bremner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10
The Literary Record

But what, asked the wanderer insistently, does LIFE mean in this vast gray labor-house?

ROBERT HERRICK, A Life for a Life.

By learning the sufferings and burdens of men, I became aware as never before of the life-power that has survived the forces of darkness, the power which, though never completely victorious, is continuously conquering. The very fact that we are still here carrying on the contest against the hosts of annihilation proves that on the whole the battle has gone for humanity.

HELEN KELLER, Out of the Dark.

D URING the Progressive era the life and condition of the poor received almost as much attention in imaginative literature as in factual social research. From the 1890's onward American writers were less and less content to chronicle only the affairs of the polite and prosperous classes and became increasingly interested in describing the adventures of the unrefined and underprivileged members of society. Many authors sought to depict the romance of poverty; others presented realistic accounts of lower-class life; and still others attacked the sins of society and glorified individual or class protests against injustice.

One of the characteristics of the literature of the period was an unusual emphasis upon strength and vitality. In its cruder forms this amounted almost to a worship of force. In its better manifestations it expressed itself in enthusiasm for humanity in the mass and reverence for the life power in individuals. There was a close connection between this literary tendency and the political and economic struggles of the time. As American democracy broadened and strengthened

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