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Reading for Reform

The Social Work of Literature in the Progressive Era

2019
Author:

Laura R. Fisher

Reading for Reform

An unprecedented examination of class-bridging reform and U.S. literary history at the turn of the twentieth century

Reading for Reform rewrites the literary history of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, putting social reform institutions at the center of literary and cultural analysis. It tells a new story about the fate of literary practice, and the idea of literature’s practical value, during the very years that modernist authors were proclaiming art’s autonomy from concepts of social utility.

At once richly archival and theoretically nuanced, Reading for Reform investigates a neglected period of U.S. literary history by exploring how settlement houses, working girls’ clubs, and African American colleges influenced the era’s fiction. It is necessary reading for any student of Progressive-Era literature and print culture.

Mary Chapman, author of Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism

Reading for Reform rewrites the literary history of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America by putting social reform institutions at the center of literary and cultural analysis. Examining the vibrant, often fractious literary cultures that developed as part of the Progressive mandate to uplift the socially disadvantaged, it shows that in these years reformers saw literature as a way to combat the myriad social problems that plagued modern U.S. society. As they developed distinctly literary methods for Americanizing immigrants, uplifting and refining wage-earning women, and educating black students, their institutions gave rise to a new social purpose for literature.

Class-bridging reform institutions—the urban settlement house, working girls’ club, and African American college—are rarely addressed in literary history. Yet, Laura R. Fisher argues, they engendered important experiments in the form and social utility of American literature, from minor texts of Yiddish drama and little-known periodical and reform writers to the fiction of Edith Wharton and Nella Larsen. Fisher delves into reform’s vast and largely unexplored institutional archives to show how dynamic sites of modern literary culture developed at the margins of social power.

Fisher reveals how reformist approaches to race, class, religion, and gender formation shaped American literature between the 1880s and the 1920s. In doing so, she tells a new story about the fate of literary practice, and the idea of literature’s practical value, during the very years that modernist authors were proclaiming art’s autonomy from concepts of social utility.

Reading for Reform

Laura R. Fisher is associate professor of English at Ryerson University.

Reading for Reform

At once richly archival and theoretically nuanced, Reading for Reform investigates a neglected period of U.S. literary history by exploring how settlement houses, working girls’ clubs, and African American colleges influenced the era’s fiction. It is necessary reading for any student of Progressive-Era literature and print culture.

Mary Chapman, author of Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism

Reading for Reform is an extraordinary exploration not only of the possibility but also the limits of empathy. Arguing that progressive era reform institutions took reading literature to be instrumental, not merely persuasive, Laura R. Fisher suggests that negative reactions to this task-oriented idea about reading paved the way for new modes of storytelling in subsequent decades.

Brad Evans, Rutgers University

Elegantly written, Reading for Reform breaks important new ground in United States literary studies, contributing to vital contemporary conversations about labor, class, working-class women’s literary cultures, and U. S. literary aesthetics. Laura R. Fisher carefully examines the role of Progressive-Era institutions in authorizing certain forms of literary expression and offers richly detailed case studies of how particular reform institutions generate versions of the ‘literary’ and uphold distinctions in the literary field. It is a revisionist work of fine-grained literary history of a very high quality.

Lori Merish, author of Archives of Labor: Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum

Reading for Reform

Contents
Introduction: The Politics of Proximity
1. Sites of Contact: The Settlement House
2. The Problem with Comparison: The Working Girls’ Club
3. Correlation and Conformity: From the African American College to the Harlem Renaissance
4. Forms of Mediation: Undercover Literature
Coda: Twenty-First Century Afterlives
Acknowledgments
Notes
Index