American women endured many inequalities in the 19th century: They were denied the vote, barred from professional schools and most higher education, forbidden to speak in public and even attend public conventions, and unable to own property. Despite these obstacles, a strong women's network sprang up. Through letters, personal friendships, formal meetings, women's newspapers, and books, women furthered social change. Intellectual women drew parallels between themselves and slaves. They courageously demanded fundamental reforms, such as the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage, despite social ostracism and sometimes financial ruin. Their works were the vanguard of intellectual expression of a larger women's literary tradition that included the sentimental novel. Women's sentimental novels, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, were enormously popular. They appealed to the emotions and often dramatized contentious social issues, particularly those touching the family and women's roles and responsibilities.
The Rise of Realism: 1860-1914
The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) between the industrial North and the agricultural, slave-owning South was a watershed in American history. The innocent optimism of the young democratic nation gave way, after the war, to a period of exhaustion. American idealism remained but was rechanneled. Before the war, idealists championed human rights, especially the abolition of slavery; after the war, Americans increasingly idealized progress and the self-made man. This was the era of the millionaire manufacturer and the speculator, when Darwinian evolution and the "survival of the fittest" seemed to sanction the sometimes unethical methods of the successful business tycoon.
Business boomed after the war. War production had boosted industry in the North and given it prestige and political clout. It also gave industrial leaders valuable experience in the management of men and machines. The enormous natural resources -- iron, coal, oil, gold, and silver -- of the American land benefitted business. The new intercontinental rail system, inaugurated in 1869, and the transcontinental telegraph, which began operating in 1861, gave industry access to materials, markets, and communications. The constant influx of immigrants provided a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive labor as well. Over 23 million foreigners -- German, Scandinavian, and Irish in the early years, and increasingly Central and Southern Europeans thereafter -- flowed into the United States between 1860 and 1910. Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino contract laborers were imported by Hawaiian plantation owners, railroad companies, and other American business interests on the West Coast.
In 1860, most Americans lived on farms or in small villages, but by 1919 half of the population was concentrated in about 12 cities. Problems of urbanization and industrialization appeared: poor and overcrowded housing, unsanitary conditions, low pay (called "wage slavery"), difficult working conditions, and inadequate restraints on business. Labor unions grew, and strikes brought the plight of working people to national awareness. Farmers, too, saw themselves struggling against the "money interests" of the East, the so-called robber barons like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Their eastern banks tightly controlled mortgages and credit so vital to western development and agriculture, while railroad companies charged high prices to transport farm products to the cities. The farmer gradually became an object of ridicule, lampooned as an unsophisticated "hick" or "rube." The ideal American of the post-Civil War period became the millionaire. In 1860, there were fewer than 100 millionaires; by 1875, there were more than 1,000.
As industrialization grew, so did alienation. Characteristic American novels of the period Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jack London's Martin Eden, and later Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy depict the damage of economic forces and alienation on the weak or vulnerable individual. Survivors, like Twain's Huck Finn, Humphrey Vanderveyden in London's The Sea-Wolf, and Dreiser's opportunistic Sister Carrie, endure through inner strength involving kindness, flexibility, and, above all, individuality.