A Progressive Era in American History
In American history, the Progressive Era was a period that saw considerable progress in the society. The population moved from the rural to the urban areas as the country finally shifted from an agrarian community to an industrial society. The rapid changes in the society, and how it organized itself led to the anxiety in the country as the factory system and its effects, the corporates and large scale arrival by immigrants such as Lithuanians depicted in the novel the Jungle. For historians, this is one of the most important epochs in the molding of the contemporary American culture, values, and politics. This essay is an analysis of the concerns and values of the Progressive Era and how the novel The Jungle depicts them.
The Concerns and Values of the Progressives
The progressive era came about as a reaction to the concerns and values of Americans who lived during that period. Many Americans felt that their culture, and America as they had known it was changing due to the increasing power of the corporates that controlled the economy and the increase in the number of immigrants from Europe as a result of whom slums proliferated and wages reduced. This raised a lot of concerns with the American community which was to lead later to cultural pluralism and moral reform agenda.
The Progressive Era had values that rejected Social Darwinism. Rather than believing that one's station in life was a result of his/her talents, values, and other aspects, they felt that the society, through philanthropy and a strong sense of social duty to the underprivileged, could address most of the problems that the community faced. Progressives believed that they could accomplish this through the provision of good education, better workplace environments and the government that had the welfare of the people at heart. This was to be apparent in the various social projects that occurred, dealing with the resettling of immigrants for instance, led by progressives.
During this time, there was a concern that the corporates were gaining too much power in the political and economic life of Americans. Thus, most perceived that there was a need to curb the influence of the corporates. This concern translated into a departure from Laissez Faire economy when President Theodore Roosevelt ascended to office. He established the Bureau of Corporations to monitor the corporates. The Supreme Court was to later assist in this through the Standard Oil case. Roosevelt saw this as necessary to help curb the insidious influence of large corporates.
Factory safety and labor standards such as some working hours was another looming issue to the progressives. During the time, there were no laws on worker safety and many injuries would occur in the workplace with numerous deaths. During the time, insurance was rare, and courts seemed reluctant to hold the factory owners and employers to task as seen in Lochner v. New York which the court struck down a state law restricting the hours bakers could work. This was a worry to many Americans.
During this time, the Progressives also seem to have been undergoing a crisis of faith. Most of them grew up in pious Christian homes, but then would in adulthood find themselves unable to sustain their parents faith. Thus, some of the progressives joined politics, social work and education, where the Progressives secular values and piety could meet. This was also manifest in the increase in the Social Gospel doctrine among many of the clergy.
The concern about the labor issues of this period, coupled with the poor living standards led to a new form of reform journalism. Many people termed this murk journalism. While full of idealism, this journalism was also full of intent. The pioneer of this form of journalism was a 1902 issue of McClures in an article done by Lincoln Steffens. The article, Steffens wrote about what he perceived to be shameful in the cities, and the corruption perpetuated by the political and business class.
The other issues during this time also gave rise to the concern for the welfare of women. This is apparent through the lens of organizations such as the New York Consumers League in 1890 and later the National Womens Trade Union League sought to have businesses limit the number of hours women could work per day. Courts were to later asset in this regard by capping the maximum number of hours a woman could work to ten in Muller v Oregon. This period also saw the revival of the movement to achieve womens suffrage and would later lead to the modern feminist movement.
At this time, racism was still a hallmark of the American political and social establishment. The migration of Blacks to Northern cities has further complicated issues, with the usually liberal north also exhibiting tendencies only seen in the south such as race riots. However, the racial reform also took root in this time exemplified by The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which white progressives led by Mary White Ovington formed in 1909. Other than giving blacks a voice through its magazine which Du Bois, edited, it also helped to stop President Wilsons will to segregate the civil service.
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The Jungle and the Progressives
The novel Jungle is one of the best depictions of the Progressive Era in the US. The book serves to show that in spite of the idealism of the Progressive era, for most people, especially the immigrants, life was much different. The concerns of the era are apparent in the novel. An instance is the working conditions at the time. This is evident in Jurgis workplace which is filthy and unsafe. Moreover, the poor working conditions are also apparent in that after hurting his foot while at work, when he goes back to the factory, there is no job for him anymore. Another concern of the era apparent in the novel is immigration. Jurgiss family arrive in the US in the hope of a grant life. However, the adjustment is not easy due to language and cultural issues. The book also reflects the CONCERS of the era by highlighting corporate abuses of both the workers and the consumers by mislabeling meat and pork as potted chicken.
The book gives a good description of the concerns of the epoch among American workers. However, it fails to capture many of the values of the era. Thus, rather than the idealism of the era among the middle-class progressives, it mainly captures the despondency of the age. This is not surpassing considering that the book was meant to be a murk ruck of the meat packing industry. However, in one aspect, the Sinclair captures the hope and the value of philanthropy and humanity of the Progressive Era when Jurgis, meets a socialist hotel owner who hires him. The election of reform-minded politicians in Packingtown excites and gives hope to Jurgis once more.
The essay sought to analyze the values and fears of Americans during the Progressive Era. As it is apparent, American were concerned about immigration, the increasing power of the corporates and the labor and working standards such as the factory safety and working hours for women. As it is apparent, the values of the era were a rejection of social Darwinism and the espousal of the philanthropy and a sense of social duty to the poor and the underprivileged. The novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair capture many of the frustration of the era, in particular for the immigrant community by showing their poor living and working conditions, but still offering hope of a better future.