American Reform and Progress at the Turn of the 20th Century

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Although this cartoon refers specifically to only one of the reforms during the Progressive Era (women’s suffragism), it is visually a great example of what was going on with all reforms during this time.

Photo Credit: Political cartoon about suffrage in the United States. Four women supporting suffrage on a steamroller crushing rocks “opposition”. Illustration in Judge, v. 72, 1917 March 17, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: Unsubtlety/ Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923

I’ve talked a lot about The Gilded Age here and here because much of the Waxwood Series takes place during this time but also because the excess, glitz, and innovation of that age fascinates me. The Gilded Age led into the turn of the 20th century which proved to be as significant, if not more so, for American society, politics, and culture, than the era before it. If, according to humorists Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, the last quarter of the nineteenth century in America were gilded, the start of the new century tarnished that image somewhat. We might even venture to say that the progressive reforms of the turn of the 20th century came as a sort of backlash to the decades preceding it.

Life was good in America after the financial shock wore off from Panic of 1873. America was making a name for itself on the world stage, and there was promise and hope for a better life for most people with new inventions and attitudes. But the era also had a dark side. Excess was the name of the game, especially for those who became millionaires for the first time in their lives and had no qualms about flaunting their new wealth and social standing. Social and economic divides were becoming more prevalent and consumerism and commercialism more important to American life. Wheeling and dealing in politics and business ran rampant, and things were out of control. 

Enter the Progressive Era. There had always been civic-minded reformers, largely white and middle-class, who vocalized their concern as to the consequences of Gilded Age extravagance but at the turn of the 20th century, there began more aggressive push for the government to pass laws and make reforms. While much of this was positive, these reform had hidden agendas, kinks in the road, and unanticipated consequences.

Political reforms spring to mind when we talk about the Progressive Era, of course, like government clean-ups and the fight for the vote for women. But, as my fiction involves more social and psychological history, I prefer to focus on these issues in light of turn-of-the-century reforms. 

The settlement house movement was one of the best known reforms of the era. Settlement houses conjure visions of white, middle-class women whose privileged lives and separate sphere ideals left them with little space in which to exercise their energies. One of the few outlets for nineteenth century women to show their creativity, learning, and efficiency was in aiding those in need. But settlement houses were about more than this. They set out to educate the working-class with the goal of giving them skills they needed to get better jobs and build better lives for themselves. This included not only practical subjects such as reading and writing but also more culture-oriented topics like art appreciation and music. These well-meaning women, though, were not without their hidden agenda, which was to “Americanize” the largely immigrant population which they served. Many of their teachings was firmly grounded in white middle-class values and beliefs that these women held to be true and right. There was not the awareness of or respect for other cultures that we have today. In other words, the settlement houses offered help and education in exchange for acceptance of a narrow view of American life and values that was based on a privileged population.

One of these white, middle-class beliefs was that a pretty environment bred pretty thoughts and manners. Since urbanization grew rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, these reformers abhorred the filth and neglect of city streets and slums, and lobbied for better sanitation and housing conditions. They also started the City Beautiful movement. It’s no coincidence many city parks we have today were established in the late-19th century. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, was conceived in the 1860’s, but construction began to fall into place from the 1880’s when this movement was in its infancy. Of course, there were detractors of the movement who argued that these reforms were meant more for the eyes of the middle-class and did nothing to address some of the real issues many Americans living in the cities were facing, like shameful house conditions and lack of sanitation. 

Photo Credit: Photo of Modernist author Djuna Barnes (working as a reporter) being force fed, like so many of the suffragists of the Progressive Era with the headline for her article, “How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed”. World Magazine, 6 September 1914: Celithemis~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Many of my protagonists are women, so it’s no surprise women’s suffragism plays a big role in my fiction just as it did in the Progressive Era. Suffragism started to gain ground in the late 19th century after a hiatus of sorts from mid-century reformers and, indeed, this movement plays a role in several books of the Waxwood Series. At the turn of the twentieth century, women across the country were protesting the social and psychological limitations placed on them. Many of their guerrilla tactics are now more familiar to us since the film Suffragette was released in 2015. One of the most revealed articles that gave people a glimpse of what the suffragists went through was written in 1914 by Djuna Barnes who later became an icon of Modernist literature. The article describes in detail what it was like for these women reformers, who often went on hunger strikes to protest their treatment by government authorities and police, to be force-fed, one of the hallmarks of the more radical tenants of suffragism.

While the Waxwood Series is set somewhat earlier than the height of the Progressive Era, my upcoming historical mystery series puts Adele Gossling, its main protagonist, right in the center of these reforms. As a young, outspoken woman of this era, she embraces suffragism and other reforms and, in fact, earns the stigma of being a “radical” from some of the more Victorian-minded people living in Arrojo, a small town where she resides after her father’s death. She helps the police solve crimes, many of which are form fitted to the era and expose some of its rising tensions.

To find out more about this upcoming series, you can check out this page.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, go here. The first book of the series can be found here.

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A Prequel Short Story: The Rose Debutante

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Photo Credit: Painting of a pink rose with purple background, uploaded 8 August 2017: G4889166/Pixabay/Pixabay license

A few months ago, I announced to my readers group and author page that I would be updating the free gift I was offering for my newsletter subscribers (present and future). I would be giving a short story related to my Waxwood Series. The story gives some insights into the Alderdice family and, in particular, the character of Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series.

I call the story a prequel, which it is on one level. Dictionary.com defines the word prequel as “a literary, dramatic, or filmic work that prefigures a later work, as by portraying the same characters at a younger age” (“Prequel”, 2010). I’m not entirely satisfied with this definition, as it leaves out what I think is one of the most important elements of prequels — story (or series) importance. Authors and filmmakers create prequels for a reason. A prequel usually contains some keys to a richer understanding of the story or the characters, a sort of “this is how they got here” element in a separate work. This, then, gives readers a reason to read the story outside of the fact that they (hopefully) loved the characters enough to want to know about their lives before the story/series began.

This is why I wrote the short story “The Rose Debutante”. As I was writing The Specter, Book 1 of my Waxwood Series, I realized one of the keys to understanding both Vivian and her grandmother Penelope Alderdice (whose role in the story and series I wrote about here) was to understand their position as 19th century debutantes. I could have chosen to discuss the debutante in a factual blog post (and probably will do so sometime in the future), but I started getting more intrigued by the psychological aspects of this role thrust upon Vivian a little before the start of Book 1. I wanted specifically to explore what that role meant for her in light of Gilded Age thinking about women, money, and marriage.

In Book 1, there is reference to one of the most salient events in a 19th century wealthy young woman’s life — her debutante “coming out” ball. Researching this, I was fascinated by the undercurrents of this seemingly gay event, when a girl stopped being a girl in the eyes of society and became a woman. I wanted to explore the question, “What did that really mean for  her, beyond the obvious (putting a young woman into the marriage market?)” I wanted to examine Vivian’s psychological reality as it related to this one very important event in her life that becomes the pinnacle of her thoughts and actions in the evolution of the Waxwood Series.

So it was natural for me to write a story about Vivian’s coming out ball. The story isn’t only a glimpse inside the excitement and lavishness of this event in wealthy Gilded Age society, but it’s also about the apprehensions, the expectations, and the fears encountered by a young woman who, with her hair up and in her first pair of high heels, is no longer seen as a girl but as a young woman with a role to play in her very structured and class-conscious society. For Vivian, perhaps, more than for many young women who took their coming out ball as a matter of course, the event brings the epiphany that her days of psychological liberty are over and now begins the straight and narrow path of womanhood as experienced by so many 19th century women of all classes. The story also gives readers a foundation on which Vivian’s later epiphanies, explorations of the past, and discoveries of the future are based in the series.

This is the first time I’ve written any kind of prequel to any of my stories, and I discovered in the process not only a way to let readers know about Vivian with more psychological depth but the beauty of making connections. In this story there appears several characters who later make a more standing appearance in Book 2 of my series, Tales of Actaeon.

To receive a copy of the short story The Rose Debutante, you must either already be signed up for my newsletter or you can sign up for it here.

To find out more about The Specter, the first book in the series, and get your copy, check out the links on this page.

And you can find out more about the Waxwood Series here.  

Works Cited

Prequel, 2010. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/

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Revealing the Hidden: Psychological Reality Revisited

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Photo Credit: iceberg painting 2, oil on canvas, Philippe Put, taken on August 21, 2013: Philippe Put/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

“Our psychological reality… lies below the surface….”  (Nin, Ch. 2, location 816)

Welcome to my new blog! It’s actually not a new blog – it’s the old blog in a new place.

There’s no better way to kick off my old blog in a new place than by revisiting one of my first blog posts. I chose this one because psychological reality is the foundation of everything I write, from my fiction to my blog posts. Even though I’m moving into different territory in terms of genre, my fascination with this concept hasn’t waned since I first discovered it. But the concept has evolved for me over these last 3 years.

The idea festered for years before I published my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories in 2017. The term was first introduced to me in Nin’s book The Novel Of The Future. I was fascinating by this idea that reality was more than what we experience in our daily lives, something that, as a teenage wrier, I had discovered when I dove into my own stories and lived the lives of my characters.

I know the concept sounds abstract. But psychological reality is really the opposite side of the coin to physical reality. We have what we experience on the surface through our contact with the world. This is the life through the sensations and intellect and the patterns we form as we go through our daily routine.

Psychological reality is the hidden aspects of our lives, the things we try to shrug off or don’t talk about because we know they have a deeper meaning and connection to some of the unpleasant aspects of our lives. It’s the stuff that doesn’t always come to the surface, whether we know if or we don’t. It’s made up of a tapestry of emotions, perceptions, and motivations, and goes beyond what we do or see in our daily lives, as it forces us to examine how and why we do what we do and makes us question what we’re really seeing.

For example, a while back, I wrote a story based on an interesting incident my mother told me about a birthday celebration she had while I was living in the States. My father was doing some contract work at the time for a big chemical plant (he was a chemical engineer before he retired) and was working with a young man whom my mother met a few times. My father mentioned he wanted to take my mother out for her birthday and asked the young man to recommend a restaurant. On the day of my mother’s birthday, when my father asked for the check, the server informed him it had already been paid. My mother found out later the young man who had worked with my father had paid it.

The story intrigued me and I wrote about it using a fictional couple who were middle-aged and had been estranged for some time. The incident with the birthday dinner took on meanings behind a kind gesture and became a story of emotional tensions between the couple, the husband’s failure to understand his wife’s emotional needs, and the young man’s platonic appreciation for the woman he had only met once but who had shown an understanding and compassion for his art which his own wife did not understand. The story that surfaced was more about those difficult emotions than it was about the birthday party.

A story might be just a story meant to entertain. I read a lot of classic mystery stories where the mystery is intriguing and the “whodoneit” engaging. I love Agatha Christie because she writes stories that lead to unexpected twists and turns and readers get caught up in trying to solve the mystery themselves. There are no hidden meanings behind why the criminals commit their crimes. There’s some background, perhaps, as to what motivated them, but these are more surface level facts, like a blackmailer who is killed to stop him from draining the purse of a widow who can no longer pay him.

One of the reasons why I love19th century fiction is because it is devout of the modern obsession with realism (though, of course, there was a school of literature at the time that attacked just this issue). Victorian fiction has been accused of being too ornate and sentimental and far-fetched. I just read an article where poet T. S. Eliot slammed Victorian mystery writer Anna Katherine Green for lapsing into sentimental melodrama. But, in fact, Green’s fiction is about characters and their psychological motivations and her stories have more psychological reality than most mystery fiction.

My upcoming historical family saga, The Waxwood Series grew out of my own psychological reality and digs into the lives of the Alderdice family. They are a wealthy Gilded Age family, high up on the San Francisco social register, but the mangled relationships between its members mirrors the kind of dysfunctionality we’re more familiar with today. The series traces the way in which psychological realities such as hidden family secrets, half-truths, evasions, dreams, and unexplained family mementos lead Vivian, the main character of the series, down a path of self-discovery. But the series includes other characters outside the family who also take their own journeys and make their own discoveries. The thread of looking back at the past so that it won’t stop the future runs through all four books.

Anais Nin sums it up when she says, ““[one can] only find reality by discarding realism.”  (Nin, Introduction, location 115, par. 2). This is not to say realism doesn’t have its place in fiction. Historical fiction is filled with real facts, real events, and real people that make the past come alive for readers, as well as the social, political and cultural realities related to a certain era that still speak to us today. But if we become too obsessed with physical realities, we miss out on understanding life and understanding ourselves on a much deeper level

Works Cited

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.

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