Dreiser’s Hurstwood ends his life in a rundown hotel on the Lower East Side, site of New York’s foulest slums. In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane portrayed these neighborhoods with painful accuracy. But it took the invention of flash photography and the crusading spirit of Jacob Riis, an immigrant himself, to expose this earthly hell to a national audience. Riis came to America from Denmark in 1870 at the age of 21 and landed a job as a police reporter eight years later. His beat included Mulberry Bend, the worst neighborhood in New York. In 1890 he published How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (many editions), a book that should be read until urban poverty is abolished.
Riis made his readers feel as if they were there, at his elbow, as he took flash photographs with his handheld detective camera. The flash powder exploded with such sudden force that it left many of his subjects with looks of fright or surprise on their faces. Yet some of Riis’s most heart-stabbing photographs are carefully posed shots of street kids and struggling families. Riis was not free of the racial prejudices of his time, but his work—the prose nearly as powerful as the pictures—awoke the conscience of the nation and led to tenementhouse reform.
An altogether different urban America is described in the work of two of the outstanding interpreters of our national culture, the critic and social philosopher Lewis Mumford and the historian David McCullough. In a slim, sparkling book, The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865-1895 (1931; Dover), Mumford rediscovered a “buried Renaissance” beneath the political corruption and sordid speculation of the Gilded Age, a group of writers, painters, and builders who produced work of integrity and permanency. Among them were Frederick Law Olmsted, Louis Sullivan, Henry Hobson Richardson, Thomas Eakins, Emily Dickinson, and John A. and Washington A. Roebling, builders of the Brooklyn Bridge, “perhaps the most completely satisfactory structure of any kind that had appeared in America.”
The Roeblings—father and son—are the heroes of McCullough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972; Simon & Schuster), a magisterial account of the building of the greatly loved East River span. For Mumford and McCullough, the Brooklyn Bridge is a poem of granite and metal, the Chartres Cathedral of the epoch of steam and steel. It is also a stupendous engineering achievement, a story McCullough turns into an enthralling family and urban drama. His is the best book about nineteenth-century New York City and one of the masterworks of American scholarship and storytelling.
In his novel Poor White (1920; New Directions), Sherwood Anderson tells a darker tale, the betrayal of man by his own machines. It is the story of a small town’s sudden and thoroughgoing transformation by industrial capitalism. The people of Bidwell, Ohio, embrace new laborsaving machines only to see these machines trigger “a long silent war between classes, between those who have and those who can’t get.” Pre-industrial Bidwell is an impossibly warm and satisfying place, but the characters caught up in the painful process of change—farmers and mechanics, dreamers and entrepreneurs—are expertly etched, with what H. L. Mencken called a “superb reality.”
John Dos Passos, in his trilogy U.S.A. (1930–36; Library of America), written during the opening years of the Great Depression, picks up the march of industry where Anderson stops, giving us an unequaled social portrait of the first 30 years of twentieth-century America. (The novels are The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money.) Like Veblen, Dos Passos means to “put the acid test to existing institutions, to strip them of their veils.” A novel of failure and despair, of men and women crushed or corrupted by advertising, financial racketeering, and corporate greed, it is, one critic wrote, “one of the saddest books ever written by an American.” It is also the finest historical novel in our literature, a work in which the novelist, to use Henry James’s phrase, succeeds to the “sacred office” of the historian. U.S.A. remains a book for our time because its characters are current—we can recognize all of them—and because we can take inspiration from the outsiders that challenge the anonymity and greed of modern mass society, most of the kind of people Veblen celebrated in his work—artists, builders, and social visionaries.
In The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973; Knopf), the final volume of his trilogy on the evolution of the American character, the historian Daniel J. Boorstin describes “countless, little-noticed revolutions… in homes and farms and factories and schools and stores … so little noticed because they came so swiftly, everywhere and every day.” This is not a history of politics or political ideas. There is nothing on the union movement, feminism, or civil rights. Instead, Boorstin serves up fascinating pocket histories of American plumbing, meatpacking, product packaging, refrigeration, central heating and air conditioning, supermarkets, and myriad other often ignored transformations that shaped our national uniqueness.