In the last two decades of the nineteenth century Americans were faced with the challenges--and the uncertainties--of a new era. The comfortable Victorian values of continuity, progress, and order clashed with the unsettling modern notions of constant change, relative truth, and chaos. Attempting to embrace the intellectual challenges of modernism, American thinkers of the day were yet reluctant to welcome the wholesale rejection of the past and destruction of traditional values.
In Reluctant Modernism: American Thought and Culture, 1880-1900, George Cotkin surveys the intellectual life of this crucial transitional period. His story begins with the Darwinian controversies, since the mainstream of American culture was just beginning to come to grips with the implications of the Origin of Species, published in 1859. Cotkin demonstrates the effects of this shift in thinking on philosophy, anthropology, and the newly developing field of psychology. Drawing upon his extensive knowledge of these fields, he explicates, in terms easily accessible to the general reader the essential tenets of such major thinkers and writers as William James, Franz Boas, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Henry Adams, and Kate Chopin.
Cotkin devotes careful consideration to the underlying assumptions of racism that culminated in the `separate but equal' doctrine, the struggles of women to combat the pseudoscientific arguments relegating them to the domestic sphere, and the attempts of self-appointed custodians of culture to create a morally improving public culture that would counteract the decadent influence of consumerism.