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. …

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