Leftist literature and the ideology of eugenics during the American Depression
This dissertation examines both literary and non-literary works to illustrate how leftist writing was profoundly influenced by notions of eugenics which circulated widely in Depression-era America, though often just beneath the surface. One of the most popular movements during the Great Depression was the attempt to prove that certain groups of the American population were “unfit” and that society should take intentional steps to intervene in citizens' reproductive rights. This eugenics doctrine was so pervasive that it became embodied in a variety of texts, including many “leftist” texts, thereby producing an ideological crisis for many of these writers. Leftist literature is generally believed to be on the side of the “common man”; however, during the Great Depression it was not working from outside the conservative (mainstream) “Right” but was working within it—and therefore was not a critique of eugenics but was complicit with that ideology. When looking at Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, I examine the rhetorical strategies—as well as setting, plot, and characters—that he borrowed from his father's and other sociologists' eugenic articles. In my subsequent dissertation chapters, I examine leftist writers who, in their attempts to uphold traditional gender roles, reinforced eugenic views about the lower class. I argue, for example, that in Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck is more concerned with the crisis of masculinity that eugenics fostered than he is with leftist politics. Likewise, I turn to the crisis of femininity in two ethnographic texts: I Went to Pit College by Lauren Gilfillan (a radical writer who went undercover and lived in a Pennsylvania mining town) and Second Hoeing by Hope Williams Sykes (a proletarian writer from Colorado who wrote about immigrant farmers). ^
Sarah Catherine Holmes,
"Leftist literature and the ideology of eugenics during the American Depression"
Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access).