‘American literature today’, wrote Gertrude Atherton in 1904, ‘is the most timid, the most anaemic, the most lacking in individualities, the most bourgeois that any country has ever known.’1 A modestly successful and highly industrious lady scribbler, with over fifty books under her belt in a career which continued for a half-century from 1892, Mrs Atherton waved the banner of a high and serious art. She advised her contemporaries to abandon the snug and the conventional; writers must learn to ‘fight unceasingly’ for literature, and face the prospect of having ‘to stand absolutely alone’. Cynics, as is their wont, quickly pointed out how much easier it was for Mrs Atherton at forty-seven, the widow of a wealthy and socially prominent San Francisco landowner, to preach such austere integrity than it was for young writers like Upton Sinclair and Jack London, who had to support themselves by their writing. But Mrs Atherton had a splendid case to make, and her analysis of American culture at the turn of the century (echoed by Martin Eden: ‘The bourgeois is cowardly’) anticipates the attitudes of figures such as Van Wyck Brooks, Lewis Mumford and Matthew Josephson in the 1920s. She answered her question, ‘Why Is American Literature Bourgeois?’, through a scathing analysis of the domination of ‘magazine taste’ in America.


Radical Politics Socialist Party Happy Ending Packing House Socialist Movement 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Gertrude Atherton, ‘Why is American Literature Bourgeois?’, North American Review, 179 (May 1904) 771–81.Google Scholar
  2. 12.
    John R. Commons, ‘Labor Conditions in Slaughtering and Meat Packing’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, xix (1904) 1–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 20.
    Simons, International Socialist Review, vi (June 1906) 70.Google Scholar
  4. 26.
    Sinclair, ‘Reminiscences of The Jungle’, Wilshire’s Magazine, xiii (May 1909) 20.Google Scholar
  5. 29.
    Sinclair to Cannon, 27 September 1920, Upton Sinclair Papers, Lilly Library, Indiana University. A similar ending was devised by W. G. Henry when London’s The Iron Heel was ‘dramatized’ in 1911. The play ended on election eve, 1912, when news of ‘immense Socialist gains throughout the country are received in San Francisco’, at which point the cast and audience sang the Marseillaise. See Grace V. Silver, ‘The Iron Heel Dramatized’, International Socialist Review, xi (June 1911) 752–3.Google Scholar
  6. 34.
    Upton Sinclair, ‘The Socialist Party’, World’s Work, xi (April 1906) 7431–2.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Eric Homberger 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eric Homberger
    • 1
  1. 1.University of East AngliaUK

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