Citation metadata

Author: Deirdre Ray
Editors: Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst
Date: 2006
American History Through Literature 1870-1920
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1520L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 317


Exploiting America's vast potential in the form of labor and resources, the Industrial Revolution epitomized the concept of cultural and technological evolution. Transforming America from the wild and sparsely populated agrarian society of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, technology brought the United States into the later nineteenth century with the promise of increasingly rapid growth, change, and progress. Increasing numbers of Americans and immigrants moved into city centers to work in the mills and factories that housed the new technologies. Urbanization, along with increased confidence in the use of machinery that streamlined mass production, was an important change in post–Civil War American society. This late-nineteenth-century America was prepared for new ideas, inventions, and theories that would benefit a nation on the rise as both a political and an economic power; scientific and technological advancement therefore became the philosophy of American life. This desire for progressive social, scientific, and economic advancement paved the way for America's interest in the work of the British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882).

Darwin was not initially earmarked as one of the world's most influential and historically prominent figures; a self-proclaimed "naughty child," Darwin was an average student in many areas and was often disinclined to study. However naughty and inattentive Darwin was as a boy, he grew up curious about the world around him; this natural curiosity led him to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. The practice of Victorian medicine was not suited to Darwin's gentle constitution, however, and he eventually attended Cambridge University as a student in theology and philosophy. Although he completed his degree at the university, Darwin's interests in science persisted and led him to the HMS Beagle, on which he would board as naturalist for five years while the Beagle traversed the globe. This journey proved instrumental in Darwin's discovery and cataloging of numerous ancient fossils he found in the Galapagos that were strikingly similar to contemporary species.

Determined to understand his findings, Darwin collected organic samples from around the world and studied them for many years; eventually this study resulted in several theories: first, that evolution did occur as a result of "natural selection" or the mutation and progression of an organism when the mutation or change was helpful to the survival of the species; second, that this process took hundreds of thousands to millions of years; and third, that all contemporary species of animate life were descendants of one ancient organism. Evolutionary theory effectively invalidated previous Victorian beliefs in a "clockmaker world" wherein God had placed all the species on earth for humans' pleasures and needs and replaced those beliefs with the knowledge that many species had come and gone over time. Further, evolutionary theory supported the fact that animals, including humans, could become extinct if their surroundings changed and they did not suitably change also.

Darwin's evolutionary ideas, published in 1859 as On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, rocked the religious foundations of Western society and thinking, altered the process of scientific discovery, and in fact colored every aspect of human life. Widely read in England immediately upon its publication, Darwin's text took nearly a decade to find its way into the American mainstream. However, it soon became the most popular and contentious book in the United States. It would perhaps have taken longer for Darwin's work to reach an American audience had it not been for the support of a leading American botanist, Asa Gray (1810–1888), whose own brand of "theological evolution" became a popular alternative to "pure evolution." Gray's ideas were shared by the likes of the American historian and philosopher John Fiske (1842–1901), whose works such as Darwinism and Other Essays (1879) and Excursions of an Evolutionist (1884) were curious blends of Spenserian Social Darwinism, Darwinism, and theology, and Joseph Le Conte (1823–1901), an American physiologist and geologist whose neo-Lamarckian version of evolution was, like Gray's and Fiske's, aimed at improved social conditions for all humanity.

At the heart of the heated debate surrounding Darwin's book was of course the premise that human beings, like all life on earth, had evolved over millions of years from first one, then a few, common, lower organisms and that the determining factor for any organism's ability to survive and evolve was its natural adaptability to its environment by means of innately "useful" characteristics. Unlike previous evolutionists such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), who had argued that organisms adapted to their surroundings by purposefully and often physically changing to suit them and that these changes forced by environment were passed on to subsequent offspring, Darwin's theory Page 318  |  Top of Article
The Darwin Club. Cartoon by Rea Irvin from the Clubs We Do Not Care to Join series in Life magazine, 18 March 1915. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Darwin Club. Cartoon by Rea Irvin from the Clubs We Do Not Care to Join series in Life magazine, 18 March 1915. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
instead implied that successful survival was a naturally occurring process of chance. While species whose chance mutations suited their environment survived, those whose changes did not eventually died out.

This relegating of survival to a sort of genetic serendipity was a bitter pill to swallow for many Europeans and Americans who had been taught to believe that their biological superiority was a gift from an all-knowing and powerful God. However, while many readers protested this secular explanation for human and indeed all organic development, others found in Darwin an explanation well-suited to contemporary modes of progressive thought in late-nineteenth-century America. Seemingly, evolutionary theory supported current trends in technological and socioeconomic success, wherein many men who had previously been relatively unsuccessful, lower-middle-class laborers were now increasingly financially solvent men of business whose rise was due to chance or ingenuity.


Darwin's later work, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), asserted that, among other things, women rather than men were the ones in control Page 319  |  Top of Article of the sexual situation when in nature. Citing reproductivity as the major goal of humanity, Darwin placed women squarely in the center of life's most important undertaking. Although Darwin explained that socialization and domestication had altered the sexual situation by placing the male in the more controlling role, the idea of primeval woman selecting her mate was very exciting for women in the 1800s. Sexual selection lent itself to the idea of female equality and supported current trends in favor of women's civil and reproductive rights; it also opened a new door on the study of human behavior by becoming the foundation of psychology.


Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the Austrian father of psychoanalysis, asserted the validity of the evolutionary premise and cited Darwin's work as integral to the foundations of psychological study. Freud's own theories were based on the evolutionary insistence of two primal drives: to kill and eat and to procreate. The fulfillment or repression of these needs, Freud argued, was at the nexus of human psychological health. By extension, so was Darwinism.

Like Freud, the British "sexologist" and psychologist Havelock Ellis (1859–1939) cataloged a series of mental and emotional disorders and conditions, and his seven-volume Studies in the of Psychology of Sex, compiled between 1897 and 1928, contained hundreds of case histories from all over the world. Ellis believed strongly in a form of Darwinism that agreed with the major premises of the great naturalist but which insisted that the sexual act itself transcended the physical; Ellis maintained that human sexual experiences could also be spiritually uplifting and psychologically healing. Ellis's ideas would eventually be eclipsed almost completely by those of Freud; however, in the 1900s, Ellis's explanations for human sexual behavior, based as they were primarily in Darwinian evolutionary thought, were hugely influential, and his works were widely read by intellectuals, artists, and philosophers as well as scientists. His coining of the term "sexual invert" gave many important figures of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, such as the writers Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, and Radclyffe Hall, a means of understanding their own sexual identities.


Because of Darwinism, social commentators began to make the connection between the idea of success and the idea of evolution. Offshoots of Darwinian thought arose in various forms and contended with both Darwin's work and that of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), whose own version of evolution had been articulated in his essay "The Development Hypothesis" in 1852 and whose Spencerian "Social Darwinism" became extremely popular directly following the publication of Darwin's first book. More specifically, the notion that evolution could be tampered with in order to improve humanity was much discussed, fueled heavily by the unrest that an influx of "inferior" races in the form of eastern European immigrants had created among the upper middle class. Discussions of race and ethnicity were the cause of many debates in social and scientific circles; these debates were often caused by an increasing number of conflicting theories. Lester Ward (1841–1913), a geologist and paleontologist considered by many to be the father of American sociology, gave voice to one such theory, whose premise was that once any social law is identified, it can be modified and thereby controlled for the betterment of all involved. His work of 1883, Dynamic Sociology, identifies the effectiveness of this concept as a means for creating a more egalitarian society. Ward's desire for social equality included all races and both sexes and was often met with angry responses from other learned men of his day; however, his theories were of vital importance to contemporary schools of social thought and were founded on a "reformed" version of Darwinism.

The persistent habit of reforming Darwinism in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century illustrates the common misinterpretation and misunderstanding of evolution's lengthy process; it also makes tracing the impact of both Darwinism and its competitor, Social Darwinism, difficult. Perhaps the most distinctive differences are Darwinism's focus on the biological impulse to procreate and its incorporation of chance.


While Darwinism's impact on American culture was certainly most keenly felt in science, socioeconomics, and philosophy, it was also a huge influence on late-nineteenth-century art, music, architecture, and literature. Because Darwin had aimed his narrative of evolution at both a scientific and a lay audience, it proved extremely readable and was therefore ingested by anyone interested in society and culture. The proof of Darwinism's impact on the arts lies in the radically different works created by individuals such as the architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), whose "organic school" of architecture radically altered American living space, the American painter James Whistler (1834–1903), and the ragtime musician and composer Scott Joplin (1868–1917). However, as the visual and musical arts were evolving to reflect new and ever-changing tastes, so too was the literature of the day.

Page 320  |  Top of Article


Like art, music, and architecture, literature was forced to evolve from its early-nineteenth-century romantic conventions into a more current reflection of nineteenth-century America's preoccupation with progress. Whereas readers of the mid-nineteenth century had devoured the gothic romance of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the transcendental and mystical qualities of Ralph Waldo Emerson, new audiences sought material in keeping with the changing times. Among the most notably Darwinian authors of the late 1800s was Kate Chopin (1851–1904), whose characters struggle to survive in a world controlled by their biology and their gendered roles of wife and mother, husband and father. Perhaps the most well known and well received of Chopin's works is her novel The Awakening (1899), in which the main character, Edna Pontellier, epitomizes a woman trapped by marriage and motherhood. Dissatisfied with both but unable to survive alone, Edna learns to swim only to drown herself in the ocean at the novel's conclusion.

The ocean is a constant symbol of Darwinism in the texts of American writers because it was in the ocean that primordial life began. Like Chopin, Jack London (1876–1916) employs the ocean as the suicidal end for his title character in Martin Eden (1913) and places his most Darwinian character, Wolf Larson, on the ocean in a ship in The Sea-Wolf (1904). Stephen Crane (1871–1900) likewise uses the ocean as a Darwinian image when the oiler, the best swimmer in "The Open Boat" (1897), drowns at sea. Many of Crane's works, like London's, have nature or the social environment—as in Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893)—pitted against the main character, and this seemingly inescapable enemy often gets the better of those characters ill equipped in the fight for survival.

Edith Wharton (1862–1937) also employed nature as the setting for much of her fiction, using it most often as an uncaring but undeniably violent entity; while many of her works are inspired by her acceptance of Darwinism, Ethan Frome (1911) is perhaps the best illustration of this idea. In the story, the title character gives in to his sexual and romantic attraction to a young relative; knowing that they cannot be together and thus be happy, the married Ethan climbs aboard a sled with the girl and attempts to kill them both. Ironically, nature and chance, in the form of a large tree, intervene with Ethan's plans, and the two characters end up miserable physical and emotional cripples as a result. Wharton demonstrates Darwin's awareness that even when characters are fit for survival, chance often wins out in the end.

Perhaps the most compelling example of Darwinism's element of sexual selection in American fiction is Sister Carrie (1900) by Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945). Explicit in its bleak portrayal of the darker side of the Darwinian reality, Sister Carrie is one of the most important novels of the early modern era. Theodore Dreiser's naturalist novel is an important bridge from the genteel works of the American realists to the gritty modernist prose that would come later.

Dreiser's Sister Carrie is among the first novels in American literature whose female protagonist breaks from culturally constructed codes of morality, puts her own interests ahead of others as well as any notions of right and wrong, and yet still comes out a winner. While initially an impoverished young woman from the country, Dreiser's youthful heroine makes it to the top of society's ladder by "selecting" first Drouet, a budding entrepreneur, and then Hurstwood, a successful married businessman, to assist her in making her social and financial ascent. When Hurstwood, her married lover, ceases to be of use to her, Carrie's complete abandonment of him results in his financial ruin and suicide. It would appear that Carrie is far more "naturally" suited to the harsh environment of the city than Hurstwood, for ultimately it is she who makes the ascent to artistic fame.

Dreiser's implementation of Darwinian language is unmistakable, and Carrie's selection, control, and ultimate rejection of Hurstwood exemplifies the principles of selection when applied to a "natural" (or naturalistic) woman. This natural characterization of Carrie is evidence of Dreiser's desire to present human behavior as a response to biological needs. While the text of Sister Carrie seems bleak indeed, it appears that Dreiser was merely replicating what he viewed as the harsh but natural reality around him, as were most American writers of the day.

As object of desire and subsequent catalyst for struggle between males, Carrie epitomizes the Darwinian female; she amorally chooses the male most likely to assist her in her struggle for success and survival. Dreiser's dark realism evinces the growing awareness of Darwin's theory regarding natural selection with its insistent "struggle for existence" as an important influence on human behavior.


Primary Works

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. New York: Avon Books, 1994.

Crane, Stephen. Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. 1893. New York: Bantam, 1988.

Page 321  |  Top of Article

Crane, Stephen. The Open Boat and Other Stories. 1897. Boston: Dover, 1993.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. 1871. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. 1859. Reprinted as The Origin of Species. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. 1900. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Ellis, Havelock. Studies in the Psychology of Sex. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1936.

London, Jack. Martin Eden. 1913. New York: Penguin, 1994.

London, Jack. The Sea-Wolf. 1904. New York: Bantam, 1992.

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. 1911. New York: Signet, 2000.

Secondary Works

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.

Gowaty, Patricia. Feminism and Evolutionary Biology: Boundaries, Intersections, and Frontiers. New York: Chapman and Hall, 1997.

Martin, Ronald E. American Literature and the Universe of Force. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1981.

Persons, Stow. Evolutionary Thought in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1950.

Russett, Cynthia Eagle. Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response, 1865–1912. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1976.

Young, Peyton. Individual Strategy and Social Structure: An Evolutionary Theory of Institutions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Deirdre Ray

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3470800072