Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance

By Hanlon, Mollie K. | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance


Hanlon, Mollie K., Nursing History Review


Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance By Daylanne K. English (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) ($49.95 cloth)

In Unnatural Selections, Daylanne K. English, a professor of African-American literature, argues that eugenics, the science of breeding better humans, was a pervasive component of early twentieth-century American culture. It permeated the social sciences, medicine, and politics. Eugenics affected public policy, popular culture, and American literature. The early twentieth century has variously been termed the "Progressive Era" by historians, "modernism" by American literary scholars, and the "Harlem Renaissance" by AfricanAmerican historians and literary scholars. In this interdisciplinary, cross-racial cultural study, English asserts that the content of the various writings in this period in American history was shaped by new national struggles such as immigration, migration, and intraracial breeding.

English examines the similarities and differences of eugenic ideology and its challengers as seen in literary, medical, and sociological texts. Furthermore, through the works of vastly disparate writers such as W.E.B. DuBois, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, "New Negro" female playwrights such as Angelica Weld Grimke, and white female eugenics field workers, English argues that modern American literature mirrored the social, political, and scientific climate of the day. She justifies her selection of DuBois, Eliot, and Stein as being representative of the American modernist movement, the Progressive Era, and the Harlem Renaissance according to contemporary literary scholars. Along the lines of Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization? English emphasizes the "shared intellectual contexts of white and black modern writers" (p. 22), while recognizing that these writers' own personal conditions (race, gender, and social class) influenced their thinking and writing.

In the introduction, English traces eugenic thinking and its Utopian roots back to England's nineteenth-century social philosopher Herbert Spencer and social scientist Sir Francis Galten. She explains how this ideology spread to America and made its way into all facets of American life. Then, in the first three chapters, specific writers and their texts are analyzed. In Chapter 1, the writings of the influential African-American leader W.E.B. DuBois are examined. Editor of the NAACP's magazine entitled Crisis, DuBois championed African-American uplift and fought for civil rights long before the term was coined. At the same time, English argues, DuBois was a proponent of eugenic thinking, as evidenced by his racial uplift discourse. In a 1922 edition of Crisis, for example, DuBois states: "...In time efficiency and brains and beauty are going to be well-bred in the American Negro race" (p. 48). This was not racist, according to English. However, it was elitist: DuBois envisioned a "better social and political future" (p. 64) for people of color that could be achieved through aesthetics and selective reproduction. In Chapter 2, English examines the modernist author T.S. Eliot's writings and poetry. To her surprise, she discovers Eliot, a social and political conservative with strong religious prescriptions for cultural improvement, to be a less than passionate eugenics supporter. In Chapter 3, the writings of the avantgarde feminist writer Gertrude Stein are explored. Stein registered a feminist protest against conventional literary and medical techniques, but she also perpetuated quite conventional racist portraits of African Americans. English examines Stein s writings in the context of not only eugenics but also of the battle between obstetrics and midwifery that was being waged at the time. English contends there is an undercurrent of anxiety regarding the fecundity of the immigrant woman in America in Stein's writings. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.