Daylanne K. English. Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance

Axel Knoenagel
Daylanne K. English. Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. 146. $22.95

1 Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the population of the northeastern United States underwent drastic changes. Large numbers of immigrants came from Europe, and numerous former slaves and their offspring left the southern states for the economic opportunities of the North.

2 These first forebodings of modernity shook the established society of the American Northeast to the core. It became clear that this society was very unsure of its own structure and of how to go about shaping its future. The perceived means to a better society was the creation of an elite capable of ordering the future. In an age fascinated by the concepts of evoluton and social Darwinism, the idea of solving this problem with biological means was almost logical.

3 Eugenics, the pseudoscience of breeding human beings, came to be viewed as a possible pragmatic solution. As critic Daylanne K. English suggests in her study Unnatural Selections, eugenics "saturated U.S. culture during the 1920s. It seeped into politics. It permeated social science and medicine. It shaped public policy and aesthetic theory. It influenced the nation's literature. It affected popular culture" (1).

4 After a very good and informed introduction to the philosophical and social origins of eugenics in the U.S., English concentrates on texts written largely between 1910 and 1930. Her book combines literary and social histories to show the literary consequences of the eugenics debate. The term literary comprises a wide variety of genres. In addition to fiction and journalism by W. E. B. Du Bois, a variety of texts by T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein's Three Lives, English bases her study on antilynching plays by Afro-American women and on the case studies written by field workers for the U.S. Eugenics Record Office.

5 The range of results presented in the five chapters is as wide as the range of texts. W. E. B. Du Bois's attempts to create an Afro-American elite—not just literarily in his fiction and editorials in the journal The Crisis, but also practically, namely, through the example of his daughter's marriage to poet Countee Cullen—is the most obvious and most easily understood example of the intellectual approach to eugenics. The chapter, in particular the discussion of Du Bois's novel Dark Princess as "eugenic fantasy" (42), helps to put the whole issue into perspective.

6 English's discussion of T. S. Eliot's demonstrates the problematic nature of her project. She has to concede that Eliot was very clearly interested in the creation of an elite, but one that is defined in cultural/intellectual terms and is "carefully disengaged from matters of sexuality" (67). Eliot, English analyzes, "wishes to encourage mingling and figurative propagation among the culturally superior" (84). The only common element is the interest in an elite.

7 The chapter on Gertrude Stein's Three Lives also suggests that the literary material is not quite fulfilling the prerequisites of the study. Focusing on the relevance and consequences of childbirth in the book's biographies, English suggests that Three Lives "emerges less as a progressive feminist text and more as an anxiously eugenic one" (106–107). Altogether, however, English can only conclude that, regardless of her eccentricites, Stein did not write in complete isolation from the intellectual tendencies of her age.

8 Eugenics was a relatively short-lived fashion. The concept of improvement that lay behind it gave way to other concerns after the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the excesses of Nazi Germany discredited the idea of biological selection altogether. Daylanne K. English's study shows the circumstances that led to this fashion, but it also suggests that the idea of eugenics played a rather negligible role in American literature.