America at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: A Puzzle of National and Class Identity

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was an especially confusing time for national identity in America. On one hand, Americans strived to culturally establish themselves within Europe’s cultural and societal hierarchy. On the other, white Americans perceived themselves as wholly superior to other races and even fellow white “subordinates” — Slavs, Italians, Poles — which had already been established as inferior to elite Anglo-Saxon Europeans in Europe’s existing hierarchy.

The American middle class, the dictator of societal norms, strived to see itself as an extension of the European — notably British — social hierarchy, not as part of a new “American” hierarchy that would lump them in among cultureless immigrants that had risen to such prevalence in American society. A constant sense that American elites culturally lagged behind their European counterparts reinforced a social hierarchy that placed European elites atop the American “Victorians” — elites that attempted to emulate their British counterparts. Resting under the Victorian elite in this hierarchy were European working class immigrants, and below them, all the rest of the “uncivilized” colored peoples — Indians, Latin Americans, Asians, Africans — who were ubiquitously recognized as subordinate to whites, European or American.

The travel of American elites abroad to Europe served as a significant source of their sense of inadequacy to Europeans. Henry James’ illustration of a Europe-refined American, Winterbourne, in Daisy Miller, is a prime example of an American’s perception of what “being American” meant in relation to Europeans: “[Daisy Miller] was very unsophisticated; she was only a pretty American flirt” 1); “It was impossible to regard her as a perfectly well-conducted young lady.” 2) Winterbourne often correlates Daisy Miller’s lack of cultivation with her American upbringing, suggesting that all American girls share those characteristics. An American himself, Winterbourne seems quite comfortable regarding Daisy Miller as a simpleminded novelty to be analyzed and fit into a prescription by his European-produced sense of culture. Likewise, he treats her American mother with similar regard:

“Winterbourne took for granted that she deeply disapproved of the projected excursion; but he said to himself that she was a simple, easily-managed person, and that a few deferential protestations would take the edge from her displeasure.” 3)

James paints American women in a light of crudeness and lack of civility; he prompts his readers to regard these American characters critically against the backdrop of European refinement and social sophistication.

Indicative of white Americans’ longing to establish themselves on the same plane as European elites was their views regarding high culture — education, literature, and art. American elites felt a void in terms of sophistication and refinement that could only be found across the Atlantic. Naturally, the only acceptable venue for advanced graduate study was a European university; without an education abroad, an American could not integrate himself among academic elites.

Likewise, an “American literary tradition” was non-existent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Lacking the foundation of cultural institutions — prominent universities or renowned artistic traditions — that would indicate the high culture of their European counterparts, American writers failed to establish American literature as a genre in its own right. Rather, American writers viewed themselves within the confines of European traditions. American society was marked by an obsession with recreating and importing European culture; in the eyes of the American middle class, putting European art on display would surely show the world that Americans did not lag in culture — that in fact, they shared the same society as Europeans.

Regimes dictating etiquette, dress, and socializing centered on exclusivity and ostracization; elite society was wholly comprised of a European-imitating, new-money class who judged one another's merits on the strength of his connection to the European elite. Only by attempting to recreate the system of exclusivity of European society could American elites see themselves as an extension of that very system. Still, it is clear that the advent of this social hierarchy did not deter a prevailing sense of inferiority to European counterparts; it merely placed American civilization within the ladder as subordinate to that of Europe. Upon visiting the frontier city of Chicago, Rudyard Kipling wrote of the city: “It is inhabited by savages.” 4) Plainly enough, Americans and Europeans alike reinforced this struggle of cultural domination.

If fear about American inferiority to European culture was a significant factor in determining America’s place in the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the other major factor was the overwhelming sense of superiority Americans held over other non Anglo-Saxon races. Unfair treatment of indigenous peoples across the globe — in the West Indies, Latin America, the Far East, and elsewhere — along with formal interventions that trampled on the sovereignty of many free peoples, came to epitomize the American character as it regarded virtually all people outside of the American elite (and by proxy, the European elite).

This period in American foreign policy, categorized by unequal trade and commercial agreements and foreign interventions, has been historically justified by the idea of the white man’s burden — that it was the responsibility of the civilized white man to enlighten the barbaric cultures of the world, presumably through economic exploitation rather than the old tradition of conquest and enslavement. Theodore Roosevelt, in his speech, “The Strenuous Life,” delivered in 1899, embodies the perception of American superiority to colored and non-Christian peoples that served as the justification, if not the impetus, for American subjugation of foreign peoples:

“The Philippines offer a yet graver problem. Their population includes half-caste and native Christians, warlike Moslems, and wild pagans. Many of their people are utterly unfit for self-government, and show no signs of becoming fit.” 5)

Roosevelt, obviously a significant figure in America’s expansionist policies abroad, asserts that some peoples are simply unfit for self-governance — that they cannot be trusted with sovereignty and that America must be depended on to civilize the savages despite America’s foundations of liberty and supposed dedication to sovereignty.

This is not to say that America’s foreign policy decisions were fully condoned by Americans. In fact, the questions of America’s responsibility to “uncivilized” nations, and whether or not Americans were justified in proclaiming themselves anything besides equal with others were of constant controversy. Organizations like the American Anti-Imperialist League sprang up to contest these ideas of American superiority at a time when, interestingly enough, American elites — the dictators of societal norms — were more worried about their inferiority to Europeans. Amidst this juxtaposition of questions of national identity and social status, Mark Twain observes how “civilized” nations treat both one another and “uncivilized” nations in his essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” a work condemning the imperialist nature of the Philippine-American War. Twain poses the question of whether or not Germany, a “civilized” white nation, would treat America just as “civilized” white nations treat “uncivilized” nations:

“Is not this rapacity? Is not this extortion? Would Germany charge America two hundred thousand dollars for two missionaries, and shake the mailed fist in her face, and send warships, and send soldiers, and say: ‘Seize twelve miles of territory, worth twenty millions of dollars, as additional pay for the missionaries, and a costly Christian church to remember them by?’” 6)

Twain’s controversial essay points out the hypocrisy of the treatment of subjugated peoples as they pertain to sovereignty and liberty. He criticizes the imperialist nature of the U.S. for subjecting indigenous peoples to empire-like rule despite its foundations of liberty. Questions like this arose often at the turn of the century as Americans struggled to accept and assert their role as subordinate to the European elite while still superior to other “inferior” races.

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century America was an extremely difficult time to pinpoint a national identity, and thus, to establish the status of the “American” among the European hierarchy which Americans strived to be a part of. A constant controversy simultaneously existed between the foundations of sovereignty and liberty that the United States were built upon and the nation’s role as an expansionary power. These factors culminated in the formation of America as a society that depended on Europe in order to be civilized, and of a system in which the rest of the world, in imperialists’ eyes, depended on America to become civilized as well.


Henry James, Daisy Miller (London: Penguin, 2007) 12.
Henry James, Daisy Miller (London: Penguin, 2007) 41.
Henry James, Daisy Miller (London: Penguin, 2007) 23.
Rudyard Kipling, “How I Struck Chicago, and How Chicago Struck Me. Of Religion, Politics, and Pig-Sticking, and the Incarnation of the City Among Shambles.” As Others See Chicago: Impressions of Visitors, 1673-1933. Ed. Bessie Louise Pierce. (Chicago: Chicago University Press) 251.
Theodore Roosevelt. “The Strenuous Life.” Hamilton Club, Chicago. 10 April 1899.
Mark Twain, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” 1901, Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War. Ed. Jim Zwick. (New York: Syracuse University Press) 31.

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