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‘Slumming’ as a Social Good

Does going undercover as a low-wage worker make a difference? A scholar reviews the Nickeled and Dimed genre.

BY Maggie Garb

Writers of undercover narratives claimed the authority to speak for the unknown Other because they had experienced the reality of the worker’s life.

In the winter of 1893, Walter Augustus Wyckoff ended his “long experiment” in San Francisco. Wyckoff, a slightly-built Princeton graduate, had spent the previous the 18 months on a cross-country tramp to learn firsthand the life of an unskilled laborer. He had loaded boxcars at a factory in Chicago, worked on a wheat farm in Minnesota, and shared a shabby tent with half a dozen unemployed miners near Cripple Creek. He had trekked across mountains and slept in livery stables. It was “hard-scrapping for a living.” All in search of new “avenues of useful knowledge.” What he learned about the laboring man was published three years later in Scribner’s magazine. In 1897 and 1898, while an assistant professor of political economy at Princeton, Wyckoff published two-volumes on his tramp days, The Workers: An Experiment in Reality.

Wyckoff’s “experiment” among the down-and-out began during a dinner table discussion at the country estate of Wall Street financier, J. Pierpont Morgan, whose nephew, the banker Junius, was a close friend of Wyckoff. One evening the bankers’ guests discussed one of the great issues of the day: the relation of labor and capital. No socialist, but an empathetic observer, Wyckoff defended American workers. Morgan’s guests were unconvinced. But in the spirit of empiricism so popular among late nineteenth-century intellectuals, they urged Wyckoff to uncover the truth of the labor problem by becoming a worker himself.

With his expedition and published record of his exploits, Wyckoff became a new social type: the affluent intellectual turned-expert on the “dangerous classes.” The men and women who traveled into the depths of American society—and there were several adventurous women slummers—generally emerged to tell their stories. They produced a new genre of American social criticism, a first-hand account of the life of the struggling American laborer.  Writers of undercover narratives claimed the authority to speak for the unknown other precisely because they had experienced the reality of the worker’s life.

Going undercover was both an “empirical task and an existential dare,” writes Mark Pittenger in his new book, Class Unknown: Undercover Investigations of American Work and Poverty from the Progressive Era to the PresentPittenger, well-aware of Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 book about her trek among America’s hourly workers, Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, wants to put the genre in its historical context, to explain when and why such investigations proved powerful political tools, and when they did not. To do so, Pittenger, a University of Colorado history professor, profiles scores of class-passers. Much of the book reads like a “Who’s Who” of early-1900s social reformers.

Class Unknown is also a tale of how “class” faded from the American vocabulary. The Progressive Era investigators saw class as a structural force that rendered some people poor and some rich. By mid-century, class had been replaced by “culture.” And culture, though a seemingly benign explanation for social differences, quickly took on the characteristics of a biological condition, of something largely immutable. By the ’50s and ’60s, social critics wrote of a “culture of poverty,” which was passed across generations and was, like a chronic illness, incurable.  

As culture came to dominate academic rhetoric, undercover investigations went out of vogue, replaced in the social sciences by quantitative techniques. With them vanished the early-20th-century faith that drawing public attention to the poor could spur social change. Meanwhile, the Cold War and McCarthyism stifled public debate about class conflict.

As culture became the central explanation for social differences, race increasingly was treated as the primary division in society. Interestingly, the early-20th-century investigators rarely crossed the color line. Some went down-and-out among Italian or Eastern European laborers. But investigators were largely indifferent to the African-American poor. Perhaps the idealistic class-crossers saw race as did many of their contemporaries—and as later generations would see poverty—as a biological condition that determined an individual’s place in society.

It wasn’t until the late ’50s and early ’60s that a new generation of white investigators would go undercover, this time crossing racial divides. Amid the post-war civil rights movement and liberal calls for racial integration, a handful of white writers journeyed into Jim Crow black life. The most famous was John Howard Griffin, whose 1961 book Black Like Me offered a seminal—if deeply flawed—account of white America’s struggle to address the so-called American dilemma. Griffin concluded that beneath the skin, there was little difference among “men”; no debilitating or inferior culture. Griffin’s universalizing of human experience won laudatory reviews in the early ’60s.

But by 1970, Griffin’s conclusions seemed outdated. The Black Power movement was celebrating cultural differences between black and white Americans. Academics considered Griffin’s method—darkening his skin with sun lamps and chemicals—unprofessional, almost laughable.

Griffin’s flawed experiment explains a lot about the previous generations of class-crossers. Despite their earnest efforts to capture authentic experience, the down-and-outers could never truly understand the desperation, fear, anxiety, exhaustion and anger of American workers.

In 1896, an irate Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, sent off a letter to Scribner’s declaring that Wyckoff could not understand the life of the worker: “If the worst came to the worst, [Wyckoff] could retire from the struggle and enjoy the advantages which his position in life could give him.” The ordinary wage worker is “forever bound up with his condition as a wage worker.”

More than a century later, it’s not clear what impact Wyckoff and his successors have had. His writings did not lift the poor out of poverty. His articles did not make J.P. Morgan sympathetic to labor. Pittenger’s study, long on descriptions of the writers and critical analysis of their books, says little about how the undercover investigations affected American politics, society or the poor themselves. Which is too bad. Ultimately, Pittenger’s book suffers from the ailments of most of the studies he analyzes: It says little about the deeper structures of American capitalism that have produced a growing population of desperately poor laboring people.

Yet, as Pittenger notes, Wyckoff and his fellow social explorers did give voice to a strain of American political thought, one that believed that laborers contributed to American society and that poverty could be ameliorated. Unfortunately, that voice has nearly disappeared. Despite the work of writers such as Ehrenreich—who acknowledges her limitations as an outsider while still trying to humanize the poor—poverty is rarely mentioned in contemporary political debates. The working poor have become the stuff of history.

Magie Garb is the author of City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871-1919. An In These Times staff member in the 1980s, she now teaches history at Washington University in St. Louis and is studying African-American politics in Chicago from the 1850s to the 1920s.

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