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A 2014 deconstruction of James McNeill Whistler's 1876 Gilded-Age Peacock Room, Darren Waterston's installation Filthy Lucre captures the persistent, dangerous allure of international trade from the nineteenth century to today. The walls of Waterston's room drip with gold paint, the floors are strewn with the detritus of smashed porcelain, and the shelves that once held ceramic vessels sag under the weight of the history they carried. In a replica of Whistler's painting La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine that hangs on the wall, Waterston covers the face of a kimono-clad woman with a swath of black paint, taking the objectification of the original painting to its extreme by removing any possibility of subjectivity from the woman depicted, while simultaneously creating an unsettling and uncanny picture of the black void of Orientalist desire. Waterston's refracted recreation of the Peacock Room thus offers a visual metaphor for the decay wrought by centuries of inter-imperial violence over global trade—damage still being felt and wrought well into the twenty-first century.
Whistler's original Peacock Room is a gilt-edged, richly saturated composition in blue and gold. Influenced by Asian designs with its intricately drawn peacocks, Whistler's room features walls full of nooks and crannies that eventually displayed his patron Frederick Richards Leyland's extensive collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain. Curator Susan Cross observes that Waterston's piece “manifests visually and physically the ugliness embedded in the story of [the Peacock Room’s] creation”—a story that includes both a contentious dispute between Leyland and Whistler over the direction and scope of the project, and “the commodity culture that Leyland's collecting represents for Waterston” (13). Characterizing Filthy Lucre as “a scab from a wound that will never truly heal,” art historian John Ott suggests that the piece reminds viewers that “we cannot fathom a work of art without also looking at its complex web of economic and social relationships” (114). Though Waterston and his critics focus their attention primarily on the economic relationship between artist and patron, the history of the room's imported Chinese porcelain, as detailed in the previous chapter, makes it impossible to look at this artwork without thinking about the economic relationships between empires that fought to secure favorable trade conditions, as well as the inter-imperial cultural exchange that led to the artistically hybrid blue and white porcelain.
By the early twentieth century, art itself becomes the commodity scrutinized by novelists. This chapter will focus on two examples of such work: Frank Norris's 1903 novel about the global wheat market The Pit, and W. E. B. Du Bois's 1911 novel about the global cotton market The Quest of the Silver Fleece. By juxtaposing these novels’ shared economic concerns and strikingly similar aesthetic references, we can more clearly see Du Bois's revision of Norris's operatic drama, and his reflection on the gendered and raced conditions through which norms of taste are established and negotiated globally. If, as Simon Gikandi argues, the “signs of a black presence in the making of high culture often tended to slip away, not because of the invisibility of the enslaved but because the construction of the ideals of modern civilization demanded the repression of what it had introjected” (9), then Du Bois unearths the “black presence” lying dormant in economic narratives such as Norris’s. Anticipating Gikandi's critical methodology, Du Bois, too, calls attention to “what was excluded from the discourse of taste and the series of omissions, repressions, and conceptual failures that were its condition of possibility” (Gikandi 35). The implicit iconography of women's bodies in Constance Fenimore Woolson's Anne and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's Who Would Have Thought It?, as discussed in the previous chapter, becomes more self-referential in these novels by Norris and Du Bois, allowing these later writers to more fully question the way in which aesthetic values can shore up or disrupt economic values.
In this sense they anticipate Pierre Bourdieu's insights in his seminal sociological study Distinction, which argues that aesthetic values are not natural but socially constructed, operating in a system of coded knowledge that works to distinguish elites from those less educated or less privileged. Furthermore, the homogeneity of aesthetic taste among elites works to naturalize those distinctions so that they appear essential, rather than socially conditioned. This process of distinction relies on knowledge of a field of references that forms an “interminable circuit of inter-legitimation” (45), so that “to the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts, and within each of them, of genres, schools or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers. This predisposes tastes to function as markers of ‘class’” (xxv).
In Social Problems, published in 1883, economist and social theorist Henry George assesses the various threats plaguing the United States during the fraught period now known as the Gilded Age. Many of the dangers he decries will look relevant to the modern reader's eyes. Among them, environmental collapse due to industrial waste and trenchant poverty are at least as pressing to Americans now as they were in the nineteenth century. However, one of the most severe problems among these social ills may appear out of place to readers today: the ‘tramp’, the wandering vagrant type that confounded legal authorities near the turn of the century. Indeed, to George, tramps stand out as not one problem among many but the pre-eminent threat to democratic society. ‘Consider this terrible phenomenon’, he observes, ‘an appearance more menacing to the Republic than that of hostile armies and fleets bent on destruction’ (179). George continues in his text to outline an origin story for tramps that highlights their close relation to the tumultuous social context of the Gilded Age more generally. ‘In the beginning’, he writes, ‘[the tramp] is a man able to work … but who, not finding opportunity to work where he is … [is] driven by those imperative needs to beg or to steal’ (179). Although George saw job shortages as the underlying problem, he understands tramps to be imminent threats in their own right. Forced onto the road, the tramp ‘becomes a vagabond and an outcast – a poisonous pariah, avenging on society the wrong that he keenly, but vaguely, feels has been done him’ (179). In this presentation, the tramp is an agent of destruction. George was hardly alone in figuring the tramps as ‘hostile armies’, however. According to Richard Wrigley and George Revill, by the time Social Problems was published tramps had already become ‘the moral panic of the nation’ (262), distinguishing them from among the larger population of the poor that swelled in late nineteenth-century America.
By far the most influential American economist of his time, George is but one prominent voice among many clamouring for a solution to the so-called tramp problem. For readers in the twenty-first century, however, the tramp may appear to be a poor representation of the problems attending both migration and homelessness.
As perhaps the most widely read account of poverty and migration in the US, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath has exerted a powerful influence over the discourse of migration politics since its publication in 1939. Much has been written on the specific aspect of domestic migration that Steinbeck portrays – the Okies fleeing both the Dust Bowl and the farm-tenancy system – to advocate for the expansion of the social-welfare net. That Steinbeck's novel had such an influence on welfare governance is unsurprising. Indeed, numerous critics have brought to light the extent to which literature during this period considered and repackaged emerging political platforms on behalf of the American public at large. For Michael Szalay, The Grapes of Wrath is an archetypal case of popular sources participating in the ‘reinvention of modern governance’ in the wake of the New Deal (3). Though the reception of the novel among the political left continues to shift, reviews at the time of publication likewise identified the policy-oriented focus of the book. The proximity of Steinbeck's novel to the legislation of its day indicates not only the sweeping relevance of the text but also the broadly ambitious scale of New Deal governance in general. In addition to stimulating the economy, the policies enacted in the 1930s following the Great Depression did more than respond to financial crisis: champions of the New Deal both in and outside of government saw these reforms as crucial to transforming the social fabric of the US. To this end, the welfare codes crafted during this period enabled the state not only to provide for its neediest citizens but also to define the standards by which citizens were deemed worthy of support in the first place. Literary sources like The Grapes of Wrath played a central role in actualising the state's social policies by assisting in this project of scrutinising different segments of the population.
Steinbeck's novel also initiates a turn in the type of political activism embedded in vagrant narratives as practised by, for example, Jack London and George Orwell. Unlike the vagrancy sources explored in previous chapters of this book, Steinbeck's work depicts vagrants who embrace the domestic sphere: rather than picaresque tramps or hobos, he concerns himself in The Grapes of Wrath with families – men, women and children – who involuntarily find themselves on the margins of society.
In her 1841 poem “To a Fragment of Cotton,” Lydia Sigourney apostrophizes the commodity whose volatile economic and political history would come to define much of the nineteenth century. With a curiosity and ambivalence about the circumnavigatory history of the scrap of cotton that sneaks its way into her home, the speaker of Sigourney's poem raises questions about the cotton cloth's origin that would be echoed by US writers for decades to follow about many goods beyond cotton. She implores, “If thou hast aught to say, / I’ll be a listener. Tell me of thy birth, / And all thy strange mutations, since the dow / Of infancy was on thee, to thine hour / Of finish’d beauty ‘neath the shuttle's skill” (9–13). Though the cotton does not literally speak to answer the question of its “birth” and “strange mutations,” its physical presence in her home causes the speaker to imagine how the cotton's progeny has “sown themselves in every sunny zone / Of both the hemispheres” (21–2), how “Commerce loves thee well” (26), how “thou dost make / Much clamour in the world” (26–7), and how difficult it is to count the cotton's “many transmigrations” (36).
The speaker travels with the cotton across the globe, from “the vessel's hold” (38) where it sleeps “in ponderous bales” (39), to its transformation into “many-colour’d chints” worn by “the countrydame in Sunday-gown” (45–6), or its “slow emerg[ence] from the Indian loom” (47). Sigourney's fanciful engagement with this humble scrap of household cloth expands into a vision of the multidirectional nineteenth-century system of global trade, in which raw cotton was cultivated in the US and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to supply material for England's cotton-spinning industry, with India also supplying inexpensive colorfully printed chintz cotton textiles to England and beyond. Awareness of this vexed international history fills Sigourney's speaker, like many of her fictional successors, with consternation about her responsibility given this knowledge, as she exclaims, “Mysterious Guest! / I seem to fear thee. Would that I had known / Thy lineage better, and been less remiss / In the good grace of hospitality” (58–61). Given cotton's “lineage” as a commodity harvested by the labor of enslaved people working under tortuous conditions, a commodity that would also later lead to the US Civil War and greater colonial and imperial expansion, Sigourney's speaker is perhaps prescient to fear this “Mysterious Guest.”
These concluding pages briefly explore what I term the afterlife of the tramping archetype, which continued to make its presence felt in both post-war American literature and, as I will elaborate, prominent accounts of whiteness in that period. The centre of this book's Epilogue, Jack Kerouac and like-minded artists associated with the Beat movement took tramping journeys of their own while valorising the type of rebellious subjectivity they associated with Black culture. Kerouac's artistic indebtedness to vagrancy writers such as Mark Twain, Jack London and John Steinbeck is acknowledged in other accounts of the author. Rather than retread those studies, I wish to demonstrate how the literary history of tramp writing recontextualises one of the most famous examples of post-war American literature, Kerouac's On the Road (1957). This argument reiterates and extends the governmentality narrative running through The American Vagrant in Literature, which has traced how tramping literature – which codes the tramp's exceptionalism in terms of race and masculinity – counterintuitively helped to rationalise a robust liberal welfare society. In the years following the end of the Great Depression and World War II, however, the exceptional qualities once associated with tramp characters largely disappeared from the public eye (Feied 58). By reading On the Road as a text fully immersed in the tramping-narrative template, I add an essential pre-history to the relatively familiar subjects and aesthetic forms that stand out in Kerouac's novel – namely, his anguish over the institutionalisation of whiteness and, relatedly, his association of blackness with social rebellion.
Writing after World War II, Kerouac sustains the allure of tramping literature for a generation removed from the Great Depression and, more distantly, the tumultuous turn of the century. At the same time, he can only lament the disappearance of actual tramping types in post-war America. In ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’, an essay first published in Holiday magazine in 1960, Kerouac celebrates vagabondage as a quintessentially American identity while decrying the ‘increase in police surveillance’ that makes tramping impossible (164). His preoccupation with both tramping culture and the social conditions that control vagrancy already situates his work on the same spectrum of tramping artist-sociologists that includes not only London in the US but, as previous chapters established, George Orwell and W. H. Davies in the UK.
This book argues that the rapid development of anti-vagrancy laws in the late nineteenth century, which were written alongside widespread public fascination with 'tramps', facilitated a transatlantic dialogue between sources eager to modernize the state's ability to describe, catalogue, and manage this roving population. Almost always depicted as white, solitary, and artistic, the tramp character was once a menacing threat to society only to disappear from the public eye by the postwar period. This book brings to light the often-surprising lines of influence between authors, sociologists, and government authorities who alike seized on the social panic around tramping in order to reimagine the relation of work to national citizenship.
What is a reference to an Italian Egyptologist doing in Louisa May Alcott's portrait of domesticity in Little Women? Why does Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's painter protagonist Avis Dobell know - and care - that her red shawl is dyed with desiccated beetles? Why might W. E. B. Du Bois's fictional sharecropper display a reproduction of a painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau near his cotton field? These questions, and more, are answered by Consuming Empire in US Fiction, 1865-1930. An interdisciplinary study of references to internationally-traded commodities in US fiction, this book assembles an integrated geopolitical analysis of Americans' material, gendered, and aesthetic experiences of empire at the turn of the twentieth century. Examining allusions to contested goods like cochineal, cotton, oranges, fur, gold, pearls, porcelain, and wheat, it reveals a linked global imagination among authors who were often directly or indirectly critical of US imperial ambitions. Furthermore, the book considers the commodification of art itself, interpreting writers' allusions to paintings, sculptures, and artists as self-aware acknowledgments of their own complicity in global capitalism. As Consuming Empire in US Fiction, 1865-1930 demonstrates, literary texts have long trained consumers to imagine their relationship to the world through the things they own.
In the winter of 1879, Mark Twain was in Germany finishing the manuscript of what would later become A Tramp Abroad (1880), a travel narrative detailing his experiences in Europe. Twain's time abroad shaped his understanding of tramping in ways that extend beyond the pages of his own travelogue. In a letter written to the Hartford Courant, for instance, he draws on observations in Germany to comment on vagrancy measures in the US. As his letter makes clear, travelling abroad provided him the vantage point not only for understanding tramps – whose illicit travels spanned state lines and crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean – but for containing their movement. Twain's letter notes the implementation of strict anti-tramp codes in his adopted home of Hartford, Connecticut, and praises the ‘good news’ that the city ‘at last ceased to be the Tramp's haven’. The correspondence cites approvingly the editor's call to halt ‘giving at doors’ to beggars since, according to Twain, ‘any community which will allow tramps to be assisted by its citizens will be sure to have a plentiful harvest of tramps’ (‘Hartford’ 113):
We have a curious proof of this fact here in Munich. You are aware that when our ingenious Massachusetts nobleman, Count Rumford, took high office here under the Bavarian crown in the last quarter of the last century, he found Bavaria just what Hartford has been for years, – the Tramp's paradise. Bavaria swarmed with beggars. Count Rumford applied the same remedy which you have lately found so effectual: he provided work for all comers, & then shut square down on all forms of begging. His system has remained in force here ever since. Therefore, for three-quarters of a century Bavaria has had the reputation of being the only country in Europe uncursed by tramps. I have lived here two months & a half, now, & have walked a mile to my work & a mile back again, every day during that time, through a densely populated part of the city, yet I have never once been accosted by a beggar. (‘Hartford’ 114)
While tramps appear fleetingly in Twain's famous works, as this chapter will demonstrate, this letter elaborates his understanding of tramping in several ways. First, it recognises vagrancy as a problem for local governments that nonetheless applies to a global scale. At the same time, he also shows sympathy for tramps and their talents.
“To have things had always seemed to her the first essential of existence, and as she listened to him the vision of the things he could have unrolled itself before her like the long triumph of an Asiatic conqueror” (Wharton, The Custom of the Country 329).
“She took to luxury as the proverbial duck to water … Always she had wanted, not money, but the things which money could give, leisure, attention, beautiful surroundings. Things. Things. Things” (Larsen, Quicksand 67).
Nella Larsen's repetition quoted above aptly captures the consumerist concerns that structure many novels at the turn of the twentieth century: “Things. Things. Things.” During this era of increasingly widely available consumer goods, women's material desires forcefully drive the plots of novels by female writers. Although fantasies of consumption took root in much earlier fiction—such as Meg March's coveting of expensive violet silk in Little Women—in early twentieth- century works by Edith Wharton and Nella Larsen characters’ material ambitions are essential rather than incidental to each novel's action. And as evidenced by the vision of the “Asiatic conqueror” imagined by Wharton's character Undine Spragg in the epigraph, the discourse of consumption was often a vehicle for symbolically flaunting ownership over the riches of other regions.
Wharton and Larsen's obsession with things has not gone unnoticed; scholars have discussed their responses to shifting standards of fashion in an era of mass production, often focusing on the way in which gender inflects the issues of consumption, commodification, taste, and display tackled in their novels. Women in the early twentieth century were active consumers of goods that in turn amplified their own commodification, like clothes and jewelry, contributing to what Lori Merish describes as women's “unstable construction as both subjects and objects of exchange.” She elaborates that “this instability is especially apparent in the fashion system, a symbolic structure that historically has entangled signs of liberation and oppression—of feminine pleasure and autonomy, and masculine power and domination—within the image of the fashionable female body” (“Engendering Naturalism” 322).
Tracing the material history of the fashion system that Merish describes can lend further complexity to early twentieth-century American women's efforts toward economic liberation and self-actualization.
Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film Modern Times presents a provocative image of its tramping hero in a moment of extreme duress. The film follows Chaplin's Little Tramp – whose vagabond garb, consisting of baggy pants, bowler hat and toothbrush moustache, remains iconic to this day – as he works a variety of jobs against the backdrop of the Great Depression. One of the most memorable scenes occurs on the factory floor, where the Little Tramp struggles to keep pace with the frenetic activity of the assembly line. After throwing himself on the conveyer belt, he is quickly swallowed by the gargantuan machine and finds himself trapped among its cogs. As this brief description already implies, the scene is heavy with symbolism in a film that, alongside its slapstick comedy, casts into relief the hardships faced by a significant portion of the population around the world during the interwar period. The social context of the factory scene becomes especially clear in the moments immediately following the Little Tramp's journey into the machine. Sent into a work-induced frenzy, the Little Tramp continually turns knobs, pulls levers and wrenches bolts until he is whisked away from the factory first by a policeman and then by a medical doctor who believes he has suffered a nervous breakdown. Soon after, he runs afoul of the law again and, this time, is thrown into jail. Chaplin's tramp character traverses the factory floor and the jailhouse; he is treated medically so that he can continue working and then arrested when he proves he cannot. In short, Modern Times locates its famous tramp character in a setting where police power and medical oversight combine to regulate public health – and rid society of harmful influences. If the archetypal tramp figure once connoted exceptionally mobile characters, as the previous chapters have attested, then Chaplin asks audiences to reckon with a profound transformation in the tramp's relationship to the state. Rather than being on the outside looking in, the Little Tramp is – quite literally – at the centre of this industrialised society.
The transformed conditions attending vagrancy both in popular culture (as in Chaplin's case) and in law are at the forefront of this chapter. Modern Times is a transitional film in a number of ways. Much of the commentary surrounding it has to do with the film industry itself and Chaplin's role in it.