Ewa Barbara Luczak, Breeding and Eugenics in the American Literary Imagination: Hereditary Rules in the Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave 2015) viii + 275 pp. £58.00 Hb, £45.99 PDF. ISBN: 978-1-137-54578-7
Because of its association with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, the field of eugenics has often been dismissed as an anomaly within the American culture of the early twentieth century. In Breeding and Eugenics in the American Literary Imagination: Hereditary Rules in the Twentieth Century, Ewa Barbara Luczak refutes this revisionist version of American history by highlighting the extent of the influence of eugenic discourse on American culture and literature in the first half of the twentieth century. Luczak’s brilliant exposé relies both on the use of actual scientific discourse and the analysis of their literary renditions, thus providing an understanding of how broad an influence the rhetoric of eugenics had on twentieth-century American culture as a whole. The pervasiveness of eugenic discourse is already attested by the scope and variety of the authors studied in this volume. Focusing on the works of Jack London, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and George Schuyler already challenges the notion that eugenic rhetoric was limited to thinkers leaning towards the extreme right. While London’s socialism and Gilman’s feminism might seem to contradict eugenic beliefs, both writers were strong proponents of eugenic practices such as selection of marriage partners on the grounds of heredity and a belief in controlled reproduction to guarantee the breeding of better individuals. Schuyler’s case was quite different as he devoted his career to disprove the racial logic of eugenics.
In the first chapter, '"A Truly Angelic Society": Eugenic Humanity without Humans,' Luczak prefaces her literary analysis with an overview of the major eugenic theories and their social application. Based on the theories of Mendel, Galton, and Davenport among many others, eugenics – the science of heredity – became the queen of social science in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. Its popularity within scholarly circles is evident given the creation of many research centers such as the Carnegie Station of Experimental Evolution (1904), the Race Betterment Foundation (1906), the Eugenics Record Office (1910), and the American Eugenics Society (1922). The popularity of eugenics was not limited to academia: it soon became a key issue in legal discourse, leading to the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 (which established immigration restrictions) as well as to sterilization laws in Virginia, and its popularity amongst the general public is attested by pedigree analysis, fit family contests, and the Annual Eugenic Sermon Contest throughout the 1920s. Luczak explains the popularity of eugenics because its profound utilitarianism 'seemed to offer a panacea to political religious and social activist both on the left and on the right; it singled out heredity and race as keys to understand social mechanisms and insisted that joining these two issues and addressing them together would put an end to the problems of poverty, city decay and racial and class tensions' (5).
In Chapters Two and Three, Luczak focuses on how eugenic theories of marriage and degeneration permeate London’s works. In both Kempton Wace Letters and A Daughter of the Snows, London’s focus on eugenic marriages reveals a fear of the racial and personal dangers of dysgenic marital choices. In the latter, readers are introduced to a new archetype of femininity: Frona represents the New Woman who is in the position to choose her husband in the name of racial and personal betterment. At the end of the novel, celibacy is presented as a better option if no eugenic marriage can be attained. This already suggests what would be later developed in The People of the Abyss and The Scarlet Plague: humanity can either evolve through eugenics or devolve in accordance with the theory of degeneration. His study of urban slums (especially in London) led him to believe that 'social degenerates' devolve into 'beasts' and that the only solution is militarism. If London started his career as a socialist, his last works betray his growing attraction to fascism in the name of eugenics.
In Chapters Four and Five, Luczak identifies a somewhat similar pattern in the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Before focusing on Gilman’s work, we are reminded that her favourable view of eugenics was not an exception within the feminist movement of the early twentieth century. Eugenics was appealing to many feminists because it seemed to guarantee the liberation of women: the right to choose their partners, the advocacy of birth control, and a new value to their role as mothers. However, this very logic is grounded in the traditionally oppressive discourse that defines women only in terms of their ability to be mothers. Many of Gilman’s works (The Crux, Moving the Mountain, and Herland being the best examples) embody what Luczak calls the 'Woman’s Manifest Destiny,' a type of narrative 'promoting a eugenic agenda among women with the purpose of saving them from dysgenic marriages and future-oriented and utopian fiction painting the perfect American eugenic society' (110). Gilman’s eugenic liberation was, however, problematic as it relied on a logic of exclusionism and on a totalitarian state. Despite her desire to rescue women from the paternalism of the Anglo-Saxon white supremacist, her rhetoric relies on the same principles.
Finally, Chapters Six and Seven are devoted to the works of George S. Schuyler, in particular Black No More, The Black International, and Black Empire. Schuyler’s example is especially interesting and relevant to Luczak’s argument for two reasons. Luczak’s choice to use Schuyler might at first seem surprising because of Schuyler's adamant critique of eugenics. However, Luczak's discussion of Schuyler highlights the importance of eugenic rhetoric by showing the lengths to which Schuyler went to fight this belief system, as his refusal to acknowledge racial discourse led him to become extremely conservative, if not reactionary, rejecting the civil rights movement and distancing himself from the New Negro Renaissance in the 1920s. In this context, Schuyler’s response to the popularity of eugenics among African-American thinkers had ambiguous implications. Many of these thinkers thought that the control of reproduction and the promotion of a black intellectual elite would lead to the improvement of the 'Negro race', thus solving social issues. Schuyler’s ambivalence towards this movement is grounded in his desire to see African-Americans as equal actors in American society while rejecting eugenic practices. Schuyler's refusal to acknowledge race was not problematic in itself, but it blinded him to the racialist and racist discourses/practices plaguing the African-American community.
Throughout the volume, Luczak highlights the importance of eugenics in American social, political, and literary discourses of the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to her thorough analysis of works by London, Gilman, and Schuyler, she reads the rhetoric of eugenic as a pervasive and deceptive force that seduced these writers into sliding towards fascism. The strength of Luczak’s work is that she is able to explain these slips without recuperating or excusing them, illuminating the nature of eugenics, which relied on a hopeful vision of a future that could be attained through scientific positivism.
Caroline Mosser, Utah State University