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“C’est à Binet, au début du XXème siècle, que nous devons une des premières formes modernes d’observation du corps des enfants instables, les retardés scolaires. Il propose de combiner les mesures anthropométriques et un regard attentif sur le corps de ces enfants, afin de pouvoir bien les distinguer et ainsi adapter un traitement destiné à leur venir en aide, ou tout au moins «éveiller l’attention du pédagogue». C’est ce qu’il appelle les idées modernes sur l’éducation. L’idée de combiner plusieurs types d’approches, dictée par l’état des connaissances anthropométriques de l’époque, ne permettait pas de conclure à l’existence de liens avec l’intelligence de l’écolier. Mais «sans doute des corrélations existent», pense-t-il. Après avoir examiné 600 enfants du primaire, il conclut «que les avancés-intellectuels, sont plus nombreux parmi les avancés-physiques que parmi les retardés-physiques». Cette règle ne se vérifie pas sur un petit groupe (il y a 21 % de chétifs parmi les avancés-intellectuels), mais plutôt dans les grands nombres, remarque-t-il.

Binet s’inscrit néanmoins dans le courant hygiéniste qui associe le corps des pauvres, des faibles et des délinquants à la mise en danger de la race. Il entend construire sur les enfants un savoir total. Il diffuse largement ses idées dans le système primaire, par les réunions qu’il anime, par son enseignement et par les revues auxquelles il collabore. Binet est, en France, le créateur de la psychologie et de l’orientation scolaires. Il a une position intellectuelle forte. Il est à l’origine de la constitution d’un savoir spécifique sur les élèves en difficulté scolaire. Ce savoir concerne l’intelligence, mais aussi le corps. A travers le développement physique, mesuré en partie par les données anthropométriques, «l’avenir de notre race et l’organisation de notre société» sont en jeu, dit-il. Il place ainsi l’étude du corps dans une perspective démographique et sociale, domaine bien plus large que les 600 élèves de son enquête, dans laquelle il postule des corrélations visibles entre le physique et l’intellectuel.

Le corps des élèves est un sujet d’inquiétude. Il faut apprendre à le regarder. Le regard est, pour Binet, un instrument de mesure sûr. Toutefois, il recommande de ne pas pratiquer les examens corporels avec un état d’esprit trop optimiste, qui fausserait l’acuité du regard. Lors de l’examen du corps, le regard doit se porter sur «l’attitude du corps, la coloration de la peau, du visage, la forme et l’expression des traits». Le corps des enfants instables, des retardés scolaires, se distingue clairement de celui des autres enfants, car il dégage «une impression indéfinissable de misère physiologique».

Les enfants de pauvres, qui constituent la majorité des enfants à problèmes, sont reconnaissables à leur corps moins développé, «chétif, maigre […] au système nerveux mal équilibré». Si le regard est attentif, on peut y voir «un tube digestif qui digère mal, un estomac dilaté, un sang qui n’est pas assez riche». L’examinateur verrait donc l’intérieur du corps. Binet octroie ainsi aux éducateurs un pouvoir redoutable sur le corps des enfants difficiles. En même temps, il contribue à déposséder ces enfants de leur propre corps, qui n’est défini qu’en termes négatifs au regard de la personne, de la race et de l’ordre social.

Ce corps des enfants à problèmes, qui résulte d’une double misère, physiologique et sociale, produit des déclassés, des mécontents, des révolutionnaires. Ces résultats sont, dit-il, identiques à ceux obtenus dans d’autres pays, par de nombreux chercheurs.

Les chétifs, les malingres, les enfants dont le développement du corps est retardé sont issus de parents «de condition pauvre et même misérable». Dans ce type de raisonnement, le corps faible est celui du pauvre, et il doit changer car il est dangereux pour la société. De ce point de vue, quelle que soit la pensée de l’auteur, et Binet est sincèrement attaché à l’aide aux enfants en difficulté, ce lien qu’il établit entre le corporel et le danger pour la race produit, in fine, une pensée intolérante et discriminatoire. Parmi les auteurs ayant abouti aux mêmes conclusions que lui, Binet cite Niceforo.26 Ce dernier a étudié, en 1905, «la classe pauvre » en France. Il est un des auteurs favoris de l’anthropo-sociologue Vacher de Lapouge qui le cite abondamment. Niceforo définit, lui aussi, les enfants pauvres comme faibles de taille, de poids, de périmètre thoracique, de circonférence de tête, de hauteur de front.27 Il fait de cette faiblesse une infériorité, et de cette dernière, une dégénérescence. Il note que les classes pauvres sont fécondes en dégénérés.

Liant le tout, il en conclut que leur corps faible est la cause principale de leur état social: «L’état misérable est et sera toujours l’effet de leur infériorité physique et mentale. Appliquant son modèle à l’exode rural, il met en garde contre «les débiles de corps et d’esprit, les paresseux, les alcooliques, les demi-infirmes […] ce flot impur de dégénérés [qui] arrive en ville». Le corps des pauvres est devenu celui des dégénérés, en qui Vacher de Lapouge voit «des sauvages primitifs à mentalité trop rudimentaire ». Eugéniste, malthusien, il fait de ces corps chétifs et malingres, faibles, le danger inacceptable pour la régénération de la race. Il sont «les descendants non éliminés des inaptes à la vie civilisée », qui contrarient le renouvellement satisfaisant de l’espèce humaine, dont ils sont exclus. La régénération de la race ne peut passer par eux, lorsqu’on a comme projet la sélection de l’espèce par « l’aristocratie héréditaire » qu’appelle de ses vœux Carrel.

La dégénérescence du corps, visible par des malformations diverses, devient la caractéristique des délinquants, de tous ceux qui constituent, selon Van-Etten en 1937, l’adolescence coupable. Pour Dussenty, dans sa thèse de droit, «le nombre des dégénérés est très grand»; la dégradation du corps, associée «aux tares nerveuses», est la cause essentielle du vagabondage des mineurs. Il appelle à la création de centres de tri et d’observation de la jeunesse vagabonde, en difficulté sociale et personnelle.”

– 

Francis Mendiague,
“Regards du corps et archaïsmes. L’ordonnancement des déviances par la rééducation du corps.”

Revue d’histoire de l’enfance «irrégulière».

Numéro 9 | 2007 : Violences et jeunesse, pp. 195-198.

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1) “THE MYSTERY OF DEGENERACY IN CIVILISATION” AND “THE MYSTERY OF
RICHTLESSNESS IN THE STATE”

Feuerbach, we know, conceived the Christian ideas of the Incarnation, the Trinity, Immortality, etc., as
the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of Immortality. Herr Szeliga
conceives all present world conditions as mysteries. But whereas Feuerbach disclosed real mysteries,

Herr Szeliga makes mysteries out of real trivialities. His art is not that of disclosing what is hidden, but of
hiding what is disclosed. 

Thus he proclaims as mysteries degeneracy (criminals) within civilisation and rightlessness and
inequality in the state. This means that socialist literature, which has revealed these mysteries, is still a
mystery to Herr Szeliga, or that he wants to convert the best-known findings of that literature into a
private mystery of “Critical Criticism”. 

We therefore need not go more deeply into Herr Szeliga’s discourse on these mysteries; we shall merely
draw attention to a few of the most brilliant points.

“Before the law and the judge everything is equal, the high and the low, the rich and the
poor. This proposition stands at the head of the credo of the state.

Of the state? The credo of most states starts, on the contrary, by making the high and the low, the rich
and the poor unequal before the law

"The gem-cutter Morel in his naive probity most clearly expresses the mystery” (the mystery
of the antithesis of poor and rich) “when he says: If only the rich knew! If only the rich
knew! The misfortune is that they do not know what poverty is." 

Herr Szeliga does not know that Eugéne Sue commits an anachronism out of courtesy to the French
bourgeoisie when he puts the motto of the burghers of Louis XIV’s time ”Ah! si le roi le savait!“ in a
modified form: ”Ah! si le riche le savait!“ into the mouth of the working man Morel who lived at the
time of the Charte vérité.” In England and France, at least, this naive relation between rich and poor has
ceased to exist. There the scientific representatives of wealth, the economists, have spread a very detailed
understanding of the physical and moral misery of poverty. They have made up for that by proving that
misery must remain because the present state of things must remain. In their solicitude they have even
calculated the proportions in which the poor must be reduced in number by deaths for the good of the
rich and for their own welfare. 

If Eugene Sue depicts the taverns, hide-outs and language of criminals, Herr Szeliga discloses the
“mystery” that what the “author” wanted was not to depict that language or those hide-outs, but
“to teach us the mystery of the mainsprings of evil, etc." 

"It is precisely in the most crowded
places … that criminals feel at home." 

What would a natural scientist say if one were to prove to him that the bee’s cell does not interest him as
a bee’s cell, that it has no mystery for one who has not studied it, because the bee "feels at home
precisely” in the open air and on the flower? The hide-outs of the criminals and their language reflect the
character of the criminal, they are part of his existence, their description is part of his description just as
the description of the petite maison is part of the description of the femme galante

For Parisians in general and even for the Paris police the hide-outs of criminals are such a “mystery” that
at this very moment broad light streets are being laid out in the Cité to give the police access to them.

– Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Chapter V: ‘CRITICAL CRITICISM’ AS A MYSTERY-MONGER,
OR
“CRITICAL CRITICISM” AS HERR SZELIGA,” The Holy Family.1845.

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“Notions of hierarchy ordered views
of what had seemed the anarchy of American racial and class diversity. They
were crucial, as well, in justifying the seemingly contradictory ways reformers
approached the problems of the poor. Some at the top of the hierarchy might be
saved. The degenerate were to be eliminated. Historians have understood
segregation simply as the dividing lines of blackness and whiteness, as
something rooted in Southern Jim Crow culture. The move toward Jim Crow around
the turn of the century occurred alongside another contemporary campaign for
‘segregation’: the isolation of the degenerate and their eventual extinction through
the regulation of reproduction Segregation, most broadly, in
turn-of-the-last-century America was obviously not about separate but equal,
but nor was it purely about separation.
Like observers of African Americans who imagined their eventual extinction,
those who advocated the segregation of tramps, the feebleminded, and
prostitutes aimed at their elimination, biological selection, and extinction. As
Franklin Giddings would demand: ‘Give them the fat of the land, build them
separate cottages…but put a hedge and a ditch around their garden and prevent
them mingling with untainted children and youth.’

The idea of segregation was applied
to a range of degenerates, from tramps to prostitutes to the feebleminded to
paupers. The segregation of delinquent women has received the most historical
attention. Ruth Alexander, for example, has described the incarceration of
adolescent women in two New York State reformatories. The experience of these
women, while providing a glimpse of the confrontation of young working-class
women with changing sexual mores, also hints at the way segregation potentially
replaced regulation as the means to combat female degradation and degeneracy.
Thus, the Committee of Fifteen’s report criticized simple regulation. It argued
that regulation only perpetuated the existence of prostitution in tenement
houses and poor neighbourhoods.  Instead,
the committee recommended the formation of a ‘morals police’ charged with
formal investigation – indeed, the ‘surveillance’ – of prostitution. Along with
a Chicago vice commission, the committee sought to arrest degeneration by
separating the ‘semi-delinquent from delinquent girls’ and by creating ‘an
industrial home’ that would segregate confirmed prostitutes.

Concurrently, reformers sought to
segregate tramps. They advocated the creation of a model municipal lodging
houses that would provide an alternative to city jails or to the private
lodging houses castigated by Sanborn. Such model lodging houses, in addition to
providing a sober environment, food, and a bath, would aid in  the very process of classification. Inmates
would be subjected to a ‘work-test’; those capable of work would be forced to
labor. Advocates also described the municipal lodging house as a substitute for
harmful almsgiving. Instead of loose change, a beggar might be presented with a
ticket for a night at the municipal lodging house. Chicago’s Municipal Lodgin
House created a ticket that the well-meaning could give to a passing tramp.
Indeed, the text of the ticket, explaining the work of the house and its labor
test, was aimed primarily at ‘citizens and housewives of Chicago,’ not at
tramps. The ticket worked not only to segregate the tramp but also to replace,
reform, and improve the practice of charity.

Massive institutions, labeled
‘colonies’ and removed from cities, represented the most ambitious plans for
the segregation of tramps, as well as the feebleminded. ‘Colonies’ for tramps
and the feebleminded took their inspiration not from the nineteenth-century poorhouse
(which they resembled in general form, but not in intent) but from European
examples. American observers admired European experiments in segregation, such
as Mexplas, a Belgian colony for the ‘waste of humanity’ that included the
feebleminded and vagabonds. Rice argued that colonies might not only separate
tramps from those they might contaminate and dissuade others from vagrancy but
they also improved the efficacy of philanthropy. With the colony, charitable
aid could be directed toward those who might actually climb the class
hierarchy. By the turn of the century, colonies became an essential part of the
American campaign for social reform and settlement work. For Kelly and tramp
expert Orlando Lewis, colonies were key to remaking reform along scientific
lines. With the tramp removed, there was less temptation for what Kelly
denigrated as ‘indiscriminate almsgiving and such…charities as shelters, soup
kitchens, etc.’ Lewis, likewise, denigrated the mere imprisonment of the tramp.
Once released from prison, the tramp remained at large and became ‘a teacher of
parasitism.’ In the compulsory colony, vagrants could be put to work producing
their own food, while being segregated from the rest of the population.

At the same moment that Kelly and
Lewis advocated the creation of tramp colonies, leading reformers also clamored
for the construction of colonies to segregate the feebleminded, the label for a
newly defined category of congenital mental degenerates. The segregation of the
feebleminded, argued the Committee on Colonies for and Segregation of Defectives,
would relieve future generations of the burden of their degeneracy. Yet their
segregation, the committee said, was simply part of a movement for the
segregation of all degenerates, including ‘prostitutes, tramps and…many
habitual paupers.’ The colony housed classes of degenerates ‘who, if they
mingled with the world at large, would be useless or mischievous.’

The term ‘colony’ was affixed with
yet another meaning, alongside its imperial and immigration contexts: the idea
of removal. Calls for the construction of colonies along European models echoed
in reform and even socialist circles. It was, for example, central to efforts
to remake New York’s system of philanthropy. In 1911, with great support from
reformers and social workers, the New York legislature approved a bill to fund
the construction of a tramp colony. Reformers boasted that able-bodied tramps
could be forced to work to grow their own food. They would meanwhile be removed
from local jails and city streets.

Segregation was particularly
central to reform. Armed with the evidence gathered from slum exploration,
reformers set out by the early 1900s to reform the proletarian environment.
Naturally, they clamored for better housing and safe streets; they also sought
the elimination of degeneracy. In 1901, the South End House, Boston’s leading
settlement house, proudly reported the eviction of a drunk tramp from it’s men
reading room. The settlement, it declared, was not ‘a resort of bums.’ The
settlement’s leaders even saluted the refurbishment of the reading room with
new paint and open windows as part of a process of closing the city’s
working-class colonies to tramps. Something as simple as new paint might become
part of a larger, if brutal, process of segregating and eliminating the
degenerate: ‘Thus, death itself is the final factor in this process of social
regeneration. The morally fit survive, and the morally unfit drop away.’
‘Social degeneracy,’ the House declared,’ demanded isolation. The degenerate
was a ‘carrier’ whose presence could pass on their affliction to the desperate
poor. As a result, the House urged the creation of lodging houses and colonies
to put Boston on the ‘tramp’s black list.’ Social reformers, the inheritors of the
survey and slum exploration tradition, were dedicated to the positive
amelioration of the social environment as well as to the segregation and
extinction of degenerates. As the South End House reported, ‘From the beginning
of its career, the South End House strongly urged and earnestly striven for the
gradual segregation from the community of its degenerate and degraded types.’

Social Darwinists such as William Graham
Sumner had long been suspicious of reform as charity that led to the survival
of the unfit. Reformers were similarly concerned about the biological effects
of their work. To balance the preservation of those who might otherwise have
been eliminated in the social struggle, reform depended on a program of
segregation. ‘Charity…must not itself multiply the occassion for its
exercise,’ editorialized the Survey journal in 1909. But, in its
inherent contradictions, the balance between segregation and amelioration was
impossible to achieve. As the new century wore on, definitions of degeneracy expanded
and programs of elimination and segregation necessarily proliferated. As plans
for segregation and elimination broadened in their viciousness to include
sterilization and immigration restriction, social reformers would find
themselves questioning their ability to combine uplift with extinction. As
early as 1913, one settlement worker decried the expanding definition of
degeneracy. ‘Care must be taken to guard the border line between the fit and
unfit,’ she warned. When should reformers ‘halt’ the elimination of those ‘who
carry the germs of degeneracy?’

– Daniel E. Bender, American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry. New York: Cornell University Press, 2013. pp. 157-60.

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“The work of the noted Italian
criminologist Cesare Lombroso on prostitutes was translated from Italian into
English in 1895. Its English publication helped American authors, regardless of
their fidelity to his theories, refocus debates about prostitution from the
sense of moral crisis prevalent in the 1870s and 1880s to a biologically driven
concern about degeneration by the dawn of the new century. The surgeon G. Frank
Lydston, one of the most vocal American popularizers of Lombroso, sought to
render moral outrage secondary to ‘modern scientific thought’ and ‘evolutionary
law as applied to biology.’ The task of the criminologist, as of the
sociologist, was ‘to reduce the subject to a material, scientific, and
…evolutionary basis.’ The degenerate, for Lydston, must be understand less in
terms of moral failing than for its place at the bottom of the evolutionary
ladder where hierarchies of race and class converged. Vice commissions, formed
in large American cities, often by elite civic leaders, sought to fulfill
Lydston’s dictate – even as they less rigorously followed Lombroso’s theories.
New York’s Committee of Fifteen (and the Committee of Fourteen that succeeded
it), as part of a report that used European theories and experience to
understand New York’s prostitution problem, noted a changing attitude toward
the problem from one of moral outrage to one of scientific concern about
degeneration. As the noted sociologist and the Committee’s secretary Edwin
Seligman noted, ‘In America to-day, we find not only special associations
devoted to this matter, but also its more frequent appearance on the programmes
of many of our great scientific associations.’ The committee’s report located
modern prostitution within the ‘industrial conditions’ of the ‘social
organism.’ However ancient the root of prostitution, the committee focused on
the ‘Social Evil’ as ‘a creature of civilisation.’

Lombroso claimed that the
prostitute – and the degenerate generally – was produced by a combination of
physical heredity and environment. Therefore, he focused attention on the
prostitute’s body and surrondings. He advocated the close examination of the
prostitute’s anatomy: brain size, skull shape, and physical features. The same
method of measurement applied to immigrants was also employed for degenerates.
American investigators adopted the technique of examining the prostitute within
the broader context of their slum explorations. Yet such a gaze presented
problems. Explorations of the life of prostitutes might ‘gratify…prurient
curiosity,’ as the authors of Chicago’s Dark Places put it, but, unlike
investigations of tramps and the unemployed, even disguise could not morally
insulate elite observers. Instead, New York’s Committee of Fourteen paid
working-class men to assume the disguise of men of their own class seeking out
the city’s vice. Their findings replicated Lombroso’s evolutionary hierarchy of
the prostitute. Lombroso argued that some prostitutes were simply born into the
profession; poverty acted merely as a ‘catalyst’ that transformed moral
deficiency into degeneration. Others were ‘occasional prostitutes,’ whose
defeneracy could be blamed largely on their dangerous environment. The
Committee of Fifteen echoed Lombroso when it suggested that many prostitutes
were ‘a type which varies little with time and place.’ In addition to these
biologically ordained ‘real prostitutes,’ the committee described a hierarchy
of other women seduced into the Social Evil. Some women were attracted to
prostitution because the wages of prostitutes trumped those offered by wage
labor. Others became prostitutes because their environment pushed them toward
degeneracy. They were ‘contaminated by constant familiarity with vice in its
lowest forms.’ At the top of the hierarchy were ‘occasional prostitutes,’
driven temporarily toward the Social Evil because of destitution. Their
position as ‘occasional,’ however, was fraught with peril. Degeneration loomed
and ‘many of them drift gradually into professional prostitution.’

Unlike elite vice commissions, the
socialist muckracking author Reginald Wright Kauffman was willing to live with
the sordid world of prostitutes. He and his wife spent a year among New York’s
prostitutes to write his 1910 novel House of Bondage. Like many
socialist critics of prostitution, he linked an attack on the ‘vice trust’ to
hierarchies of prostitutes. Typically, Kauffman included victims of white
slavery in his pantheon of prostitute types. Although the novel focused on
Mary, a victim of white slavery, it introduced a variety of prostitute types.
Fritizie chose prostitution as an alternative to wage work. Wanda was an
immigrant victim of seduction. Evelyn had trod the ‘descending steps’ of
degeneration. Celeste, alone, was ‘temperamentally predetermined’ for
prostitution. Most socialist observers minimized the numbers of women naturally
inclined toward prostitution – even as they relied heavily on the statistics of
reform vice commissions. Theresa Malkiel, for example, declared that
‘congenital sexual perverts…form only a negligible fraction of the entire
number of prostitutes.’ Instead, Kauffman, Malkiel, and other socialist
observers described the degradation of women as a symptom of capitalism. The
‘prostitute is a production of civilization,’ concluded the Socialist Woman.
‘And the capitalist brand is the worst humanity has ever known.’

Socialists cast prostitutes as
capitalist victims by stressing their odiousness. Malkiel mourned our
‘unfortunate sisters,’ but her sympathy was restrained. Prostitutes were still
‘miserable creatures…left to rot in their own vice.’ The normally staid
Malkiel turned to the lurid language of primitivism to describe prostitutes.
They became ‘hordes, like beasts driven from their lairs.’ The aging prostitute
Old Frances, likewise, was a ‘victim of the system’ and also an example of
‘repulsive womanhood.’ In a socialist parable, she spent money for medicine on
alcohol.

Tramps emerged as the male
equivalent of the despised prostitute. The focus on male tramps was less
European in its origin. American fears of tramps coalesced in the aftermath of
the great strikes of 1877, one of the first shocks of the industrial age. For
elite observers the tramp came to represent, at once, the dangerous tendencies
of the disaffected unemployed, the zeal of revolutionaries, and the murderous
moral failings of the inebriate. Lee Harris’s 1878 novel, The Man Who
Tramps: A Story of To-Day
, notably casts tramps as leaders of a conspiracy
to foment tension between capital and labor. In dramatic, reactionary prose his
novel echoed a chorus of voices accusing tramps of stirring up the culturally
jarring strikes.

Even as memory of the strikes
receded, the tramp continued to evoke alcoholism, uncontrolled sexuality,
criminality, and indolence. Increasingly the tramp came to be represented as a
degenerate, a consummate threat to civilization. By the late 1870s and 1880s,
many states had begun drafting vagrancy laws. Such laws, while offering a
series of punishments for vagrancy, also proposed definitions of the tramp.
Tramps appeared in these laws less as conspiratorial revolutionaries than as
degenerates living of misguided charity and unwilling to work. L. L. Barbour’s
1881 definition of the tramp was typical: ‘He is an indigent, idle wanderer who
has nothing to do and wants nothing to do – no trade, no business, no aim in
life but to satisfy his daily hankerings at the expense of society.’ By 1886,
the National Conference on Social Welfare had launched a survey to identify the
causes of trampery.’ Using reports from thirty states describing trampery as an
‘inherited mental condition’ or – more colloquially – as ‘pure cussedness,’ the
Conference characterized tramping as laziness, drink and vice, unemployment,
and depravity.

The tramp may have been revolved,
but he was also a focus of fascinated study, as historian Frank Tobias Higbie
has noted. By assuming disguises, social investigations sought to penetrate the
urban habitat of the tramp in order to understand the symptoms of his
degeneracy. The moderate socialist and settlement worker Robert Hunter pointed
to physical evidence gathered from the Chicago Municipal Lodging House to prove
the degeneracy of the tramp. In a remarkable confession of voyeurism, he
described watching vagrants taking spray baths. He noted their potbellies and
pigeon breasts, curved spines, and degraded muscles. From these ‘physical signs
of degeneracy,’ he read their character. Such tramps possessed a ‘childlike
love of petty adventure,’ but little energy or efficiency. They were beyond
redemption. Similarly, Stuart Rice, an investigator for the New York
Commissioner of Charities, studied the city’s vagrants after donning the
‘outfit of hobo.’ As an investigation, he boasted that he often assumed
different disguises in order to work in the most dangerous of environments. He
had labored among immigrants mucking a railroad tunnel and slept in a rough
bunkhouse. As a tramp, he experienced not simply the desperation of empty
pockets, but also the very process of degeneration itself: ‘Have you felt the
insidious, downward pull of the undertow, the loosening of your moral grip, a
deterioration of your character which you seemed powerless to prevent?’

Such explorations helped observers
outline a hierarchy of tramps and vagrants. Like hierachies of prostitutes, the
classification of tramps divided those who had sunk to the lowest levels of
degeneracy from those afflicted by poverty. Stuart Rice and Alvan Sanborn both
used their experiences in the guise of a tramp to study vagrancy
‘introspectively.’ Not only could they experience tramp life for themselves but
they also could physically examine other tramps in the close quarters of the
lodging house. Rice described the different categories of tramps, including the
tramp temporarily ‘down on his luck’ and the professional beggar. He even
donned fake splints and bandages to join the ranks of vagrants unwilling to
work. They preyed on the sympathy of the civilized. The lecturer and
self-proclaimed tramp expert Edmund Kelly built on the notion of tramp types to
insist on the classification of tramps as the first step in their
‘elimination’. In a complex hierarchy, he divided vagrants into five
categories, including youths seized by ‘wanderlust,’ the born degenerate whose
tramping was a symptom of his condition, the able-bodied, and the
non-able-bodied.

The gendered classification of
degenerates – the tramp and the prostitute – produced a new kind of ‘poverty
knowledge,’ as historian Alice O’Connor calls it. In particular, this
hierarchical view helped distinguish poverty from pauprism. The pauper, like
the tramp or prostitute, was distinct from the poverty-stricken unfortunate.
Pauperism was recast as racial atavism, the final stage of degneration. In the
urban context, savagery by the 1890s came to mean the lowest levels of both
class and race hierarchies. The bodily decrepitude of paupers was the sign not
only of their individual misery and fate but also of their biological unfitness
and racial primitiveness.  Even Edward
Devine, the long-time editor of Charities and Commons, argued that
‘biologically, pauperism represents a primitive type, surviving in the struggle
for existence only by parasitism.’ Male and female degenerates led a life that
was, as Devine argued, ‘suitable to an earlier and more primitive stage of
existence, but out of place in the modern world.’ The fall from poverty to
pauperism was recidivism and economic free fall: it was also racial
degeneration, as the semicivilized impoverished worker became an urban savage.
John Commons worried therefore that the impoverished might join the parasitic
ranks of ‘the criminal, the pauper, the vicious, the indolent, and the vagrant,
who, like the industrial classes, seek the cities.’

Socialist commentators equally cast
paupers and degenerates as primitives. Jack London compares those in the abyss
to the primitive Inuits he had encountered in his travels in the Klondike.
Residents of the slums, for London, were ‘the unfit and the unneeded! The miserable
and despised and forgotten, dying in the social shambles. The progeny of
prostitution – of the prostitution of men and women and children, of flesh and
blood, and sparkle and spirit; in brief, the prostitution of labour.’ The
evocation of savagery allowed socialists to undermine capitalist claims to
civilization. Yet socialists did not abandon the comparison of civilization and
savagery. ‘If this is the best that civilization can do for the human,’ noted
London, ‘then give us howling and naked savagery. Far better to be a people of
the wilderness and desert, of the cave and the squatting-place, than to be a
people of the machine and the Abyss.’ The life of the savage, dwelling in
caves, was preferable to the squalor of the slums. The poet Ernest Crosby evoked
‘bleached and stifled and enervated’ laborers and ‘the army of tramps’ in a
poem ironically entitled ‘Civilization.’

Socialist and reformer observers of
prostitutes and tramps cast degenerates as primitives. Some were born
degenerate whereas others tumbled down the slippery slope of degeneracy in the
slum environment. The degenerate dwellers of the abyss, for London, lived ‘like
swine, enfeebled by chronic innutrition, being sapped mentally, morally, and
physically, what chance have they to crawl up and out off the Abyss from which
they were born falling?’ When women tumbled into the abyss, they fell toward
prostitution; degenerating men became tramps. Charlottte Perkins Gilman
described women’s turn to prostitution not as a moral fall but as racial
degeneration toward primitivism. The prostitute ‘naturally deteriorates in
racial development.’ Likewise, a leading social worker, William H. Allen,
characterized the tramp as a ‘swaggering, ill conditioned, irreclaimable,
incorrigible, utterly depraved savage.’ For the noted reformer of tramps John
J. McCook, tramps had rejected the rigors and rules of industrial society, and
surrendered to primitivsm. Tramps, like ‘aborigines,’ lived outdoors and
relished the ‘savage life.’ Social worker A. O. Wright similarly declared that
tramping was simply ‘a reversion toward the savage type’ and Hunter argued that
the tramps he watched in the shower had all the characteristics of the
‘savage.’ Like tropical savages, they lacked foresight with only ‘maudlin’
dreams of the future.

Degeneration gripped the lowest
levels of the class hierarchy. However, it was not safely confined to the
bottom rungs of the American abyss. It might spread because of the effects of
the slum environment in which degenerates dwelt in close proximity to the poor
and desperate. Degeneration also passed from parents to children. Hunter noted
after years of exploring and living in the slums that ‘children, bred into the
ways of pauperism, nearly always took up the vices of their parents.’ Girls learned
promiscuity and boys learned to tramp. To explain degeneration in the
environment of slums, Hunter appropriately turned to the image of the
primordial jungle. He portrayed degeneracy in the form of predators preying on
the unfit and unlucky. For those in the slum ‘the abyss of vice, crime,
pauperism and vagrancy was beneath them, a tiny hop above them. Flitting before
them was the leopard persistently trying to win them from their almost hopeless
task by charms of sensuality, debauch, and idleness. The lion, predatory and
brutal, threatened to devour them…Some were won from their toil by sensual
pleasures, some were torn from their footholds by economic disorders, others
were too weak and hungry to keep up the fight.’ For Hunter, the urban and colonial
jungles were thousands of miles apart. Racially, they were frighteningly close.

–  Daniel E. Bender, American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry. New York: Cornell University Press, 2013. pp. 152-157.

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