Thursday, October 10, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series #2

Nelly Bly
Wealth had great power and influence in America in the 1800s, not terribly unlike today.  While farmers struggled to survive, in the cities there was a growing middle class, and they began to focus on issues beyond their personal needs.  Middle class urban women tended to focus on prohibition and suffrage, but other issues caught the attention of the middle class.  With more leisure time for reading, their newspapers and magazines began including articles about things outside the lives of their readers.  There was curiosity about the extravagant lives of the wealthy--their mansions, their social events, their clothing, and their power.  Wherever there is excessive wealth and power, there is likely to be abuse, and reform-minded journalists began to write about those abuses.

Newspapers began to report their scandals, sometimes exposing wrongdoing as much for increasing readership as for seeking a correction of the abuses.  Gradually, however, certain writers began investigating social abuses with the intention of reform. Most of these reporters were male, but the beautiful young Nelly Bly was among them.  Her work was even covered in the St. John County Capital where Isaac would have seen it.  In 1887 she focused on the scandal of placing 'troublesome' women in mental hospitals.

She set out to determine whether women were sometimes admitted to these hospitals because they were unconventional or inconvenient rather than being mentally ill.  Further, even if there was mental illness, Nelly wanted to see how these women were treated.  With the approval of her editor, she faked mental illness and was admitted to Bellevue Mental Hospital, where she personally observed and endured the cruelties suffered by women who had been admitted to get them out of the way.  It was a daring way to investigate actual conditions, but she gained release and published a series of articles in The World newspaper that brought public attention to the abuses.  Later, her information was published as a book, and her reporting made a difference in correcting the mistreatment of women.

Also in Isaac's time, Henry Demarest Lloyd published Wealth Against Commonwealth, an expose revealing the corruption of the Standard Oil Company.  A few years later, but prior to Isaac's death, McClure's Magazine was formed, and in addition to articles about general topics, they became a leading publication for exposing social abuses.  Later, Willa Cather joined McClure's to cover the arts.

The early 1900s were the highpoint of what came to be known as muckraking journalism.  Next week's blog will include some of the familiar names known for their exposure of abuses in American business and society.   

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #1

One of Isaac's favorite authors
Among the first things that appealed to me about Isaac was his love for books.  I have written about that in this blog before, but this series goes beyond prior posts.  A good place to start is to understand Isaac's (and the populist movement's) belief that education was essential.  

As a young druggist Isaac had read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but when he read the book as a homesteader trying to make a living breaking sod for farming, he realized that what he had learned from reading Smith as a merchant had been interpreted differently from his reading as a struggling farmer. 

I have discovered from observing quotes posted online that words I interpreted to mean one thing are sometimes construed to mean just the opposite by someone else.  We all respond to information based on our own experience and the bias we have.  As  Carlow Ruiz Zafon wrote in The Shadows of the Wind, "Books are mirrors:  You only see in them what you already have inside you."

Isaac was a serious scholar and own this title
Another book that Isaac read was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, the story of a wealthy young man struggling with insomnia, who is hypnotized to help him sleep, but like Rip VanWinkle, the young man awakens years later to a completely different world.  I had read the book years ago because it remains on many reading lists as a classic.  At that time, I read superficially, seeing it simply as an interesting tale about awakening in a changed society.  However, when it was originally published, people struggling to survive economically read it as a sort of guide to what could be a more equitable society if social changes were made.  The book was so popular during Isaac's time that Bellamy Clubs were formed around the world to encourage the sort of changes represented in the novel.

Edward Bellamy, author
Isaac also read Henry George, most famous for writing Progress and Poverty, which advocated Land Rents rather than taxes on land.  It would have eliminated owning land for speculation or investment, prohibiting the wealthy from acquiring and holding land to manipulate prices.  Collecting the land rents would, according to George, have been simpler than collecting taxes on production from the land, and would not have penalize successful farmers.

Farmers believed in the importance of learning, and they pooled their money to buy books.  Isaac gifted many of his books to their common library and built a cupboard at the school house where their books were stored.  I agree with Zafon that we see in books what we have inside us, but I also believe reading lets new light into our minds.  If we only read books and other material that reinforce what we already believe, we shut out the illumination of new perspectives.

Next week's blog will look at other books of that period with a different focus more aligned with urban issues.