Nick Strong, Working Cities: Labor and Fulfillment in Turn of the Century America

Working Cities:

An Examination of Labor, Class and Fulfillment in Turn of the Century Urban America


Fiction that is contemporary to a given society often provides an effective means of understanding

the nuances and conventions of that period. Thus, work and fulfillment across the classes of early 20th

American Cities can be understood within the framework of three novels: Edith Wharton’s 1920 narrative The

Age of Innocence examining the socially elite class, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 exposé The Jungle, depicting the

laboring class and Frank Norris’s 1899 work of realism, McTeague, highlighting the professional class.

Considering these novels collectively it becomes clear that the professional class, as embodied by the title

character of McTeague, is the only class in the early 20th

from its labor because, while members of the class must work for subsistence, their position as skilled

professionals allows them the autonomy requite to preforming meaningful work. In contrast, members of the

both the laboring and socially elite classes fail to find meaning in their work as those in the laboring class

engage in monotonous, banausic labor from which they can derive little meaning while members of the social

elite class are compelled into certain fields of employment through societal convention and, hence, are

disengaged from their work.

Newland Archer, the protagonist of The Age of Innocence, is an archetypical member of the socially

elite class whose apathetic approach to his employment causes him to trivialize his work and thus derive little

fulfillment from it. Due to his societal position, much of Archer’s future is preordained, from the focus of his

education at Harvard to his employment at a New York City law firm. However, Archer is not only denied by

social convention the opportunity to discover a profession about which he is truly passionate but, because of

his monetary stability, he has no need to engage with his work on the basis of providing sustenance for

himself. Thus, even when arriving hours late to his job, Archer “[perceives] that his doing so made no

difference whatever to anyone, and was filled with sudden exasperation at the elaborate futility of his life…”

(The Age of Innocence, 103).

Archer is a lawyer only in title; in reality he is without any sort of occupational direction

and, hence, lives a life in which he has few sources of true meaning. Archer, free from the concern of

providing himself with means of survival, is economically empowered to pursue humanity’s intrinsic desire to

cultivate sources of passion and fulfillment that allows one to lead a life of passion and meaning. However,

the stifling conformity of the almost tribal-like societal elite of urban America forces him to lead a life that he

recognizes as an abject “futility”. Though Archer has “seen enough of other young men who had dreamed his

dream [of living a fulfilling life]… and who had gradually sunk into the placid and luxurious routine of their

elders,” (103) he is socially restrained from engaging in more meaningful work despite actively recognizing

the utter uselessness of his current employment and, hence, the risk of leading an adult life that is entirely

absent of value. Archer attempts to stymie this progression by seeking alternative sources of gratification,

including reading books, associating with the “bohemian class” of writers and even engaging in a emotional

affair with a quasi-member of the societal elite who rejects the class’s conventions. However, after Archer

passively dissolves the affair so as to conform to the standard life path of a member of his class, his life

slowly crystalizes into the unfilled existence typical of his class. “[Archer] had been, in short, what people

were beginning to call ‘a good citizen’… His days were full, and they were filled decently. He supposed it

was all a man ought to ask.” (286). Thus the tragedy of Archer, and the greater tragedy of his class, is that

though he is in the rare economic position to seek out and engage in meaningful employment, he cannot

transcend the societal barriers that instead define his life. While “the young men [of Archer’s class] were

emancipating themselves from the law and business and taking up all sorts of new things” (285) to engage in

activities about which they are truly passionate, all Archer and the men of his generation can do is sit idly by,

living lives that are “all a man ought to ask”, though silently yearning for more.

In stark contrast to Archer, Jurgis Rudkus, the Lithuanian protagonist of The Jungle, lacks economic

autonomy as a unskilled immigrant and, as such, must accept whatever employment he can secure in

order to sustain himself and his family. While the calamity facing the social elite of urban America is the

inability of individuals to transcend societal convention to seek meaningful employment, the laboring class,

as personified by Jurgis, is unable to capitalize on its collective desire to find fulfilling labor, and hence

achieve the conventional “American Dream”, because of economic restraints. When Jurgis first arrives at the

Stockyards of Chicago, where his societal position has compelled him to find work, he is desperate to attach

a sense of meaning to his employment, despite the insignificance of his unskilled role. Thus, when Jurgis

secures a job at the stockyards, he concludes “all a man could do… was to take a thing like this as he found it,

and do as he was told; to be given a place in it and a share in its activities was a blessing, as one was grateful

for the sunshine and the rain.” (The Jungle, 51).

Jurgis recognizes that meaningful work is intrinsic to basic human fulfillment and thus

likens the “blessing” he sees his employment to fundamental natural sources of happiness. Indeed, Jurgis is so

eager to engage in valuable work, he is overcome with excitement after securing a job despite recognizing,

albeit excitedly, that he is merely “a sharer in all this activity, a cog in this marvelous machine [of the

stockyards].” (41). Jurgis is so optimistic about the stockyards because “he had the feeling that this whole

huge establishment had taken him under its protection, and had become responsible for his welfare” (51). He

derives this sense of security in the stockyards because he believes he has found meaningful employment, and

thus found a source of fulfillment, within its walls. However, because both Jurgis and the rest of Chicago’s

laboring class are economically compelled to work in the Stockyards, the management of the Stockyards has

little incentive to provide the sort of meaningful workplace that Jurgis envisioned alongside his initial feeling

of security. Instead, members of the laboring class preform agonizingly repetitive tasks at a frantic pace,

preventing even those individuals as initially sanguine as Jurgis to find any meaning in their work. Stockyard

laborers must effectively forsake all other sources of fulfillment, whether family, intellectual pursuits or even

rest, to serve their role as a cog. The relationship between the laboring class and their employment is so

imbalanced that every winter “…those whose time was come died off in hordes. All the year round they had

been serving cogs in the great packing machine, and now was the time for renovating it and the replacement

of damaged parts.” (91). However, because of their societal positions, Jurgis and the laboring class must

accept this reality of labor relations or drop out of society all together. Therefore the only way for the laboring

class to engage in meaningful work is to restructure society by eliminating, as Marx and Engels advocated in

their Communist Manifesto “the miserable character of this appropriation [of labor], under which the laborer

lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires

it.” (The Marx-Engels Reader, 485). Thus when Jurgis learns of this alternative class system at end of the

novel he realizes he “was a man whose soul had been murdered, who had ceased to hope and to struggle– who

had made terms with degradation and despair…” (The Jungle, 367). While societal convention forces Archer

into trivial employment, it is economic necessity that compels Jurgis into all-consuming employment.

However, the result of each labor condition is the same as both men introspectively reflect on the

meaninglessness of their respective existences by the end of both novels.

Unlike both Archer and Jurgis, the title character of McTeague is able to engage in meaningful

work as a member of the professional class because his societal position allows him transcend the conformity

that plagues the social elite of the American city while still maintaining the economic autonomy that is

absent among the laboring class. As a dentist serving the working class of San Francisco, McTeague lacks

the monetary advantages that largely facilitate Archer’s apathetic approach to his work. Instead, McTeague

parallels the labor relationship of Jurgis in that he relies on his labor to sustain himself. However, while

Jurgis is placed in a dire economic position as member of the laboring class, and hence is forced to engage in

meaningless industrial labor, McTeague’s standing as a skilled professional allows him significant discretion

in defining his labor conditions. Thus McTeague, and other members of the professional class, engage in

work that strikes a medium between necessary and self-directed labor. Therefore, of the three examined

characters it is only McTeague who is demonstrated to lead a truly fulfilled life. McTeague’s general

satisfaction with his labor defines the rest of his existence, including the Sunday afternoons when he does not

work, which he approaches “as a period of relaxation and enjoyment. He invariably spent them in the same

fashion. These were his only pleasure–to eat, to smoke, to sleep and to play upon his concertina.” (McTeague,


Due to the nature of their employment, neither Archer nor Jurgis would be able to derive this

sort of pleasure from an idle afternoon. Archer’s labor is so trivialized by social convention and lack of

economic incentive that he could never experience McTeague’s intrinsic sense of satisfaction from resting

after meaningful work. Thus, to the social elite “on Sunday evenings…the whole of New York is dying of

inanition,” (The Age of Innocence, 71). In contrast, the brutal nature of Jurgis’ labor leaves him and the rest

of the working class with “only Sundays [for rest], and then they were too tired to walk. They were tied

to the great packing machine, and tied to it for life…” (The Jungle, 124) and hence are similarly unable to

experience McTeague’s sense satisfaction.

However the contrast between the work of McTeague and the work of Archer and Jurgis

stems deeper then the pleasure they experience in their idle hours. For members of the laboring class and the

socially elite class, labor is merely means to greater ends: fulfilling economic necessity and fulfilling societal

convention, respectively. However, because members of the professional class derive such fulfillment from

their labor, their employment serves to define their very identity. Therefore, even when McTeague, who did

not attend a formal dental school, is forced out of his practice due to the phenomena of standardized

qualification among the professional class, he cannot separate current identify from his former position. When

McTeague receives an official decree that he can no longer practice he questions, “Ain’t I a dentist? Ain’t I a

doctor? Look at my sign… Why I’ve been practicing nearly twelve years.” (McTeague, 205). While Jurgis is

able to seamlessly adopt a new position within the Stockyards when he loses his job and Archer attaches so

little meaning his job that he vacations in St. Augustine during the work week without fear of consequence,

McTeague is so deeply connected to his position as a source of identity-defining fulfillment that he cannot

imagine life without it. Accordingly, until an official from City Hall intervenes McTeague continues to

practice, “acting from sheer force of habit; his sluggish, deliberate nature, methodical, obstinate, refusing to

adapt itself to the new conditions” (207). Thus, McTeague slowly decays into the sort of meaningless

existence led by Archer and Jurgis, as his obstinate pursuit of replacing his former source of fulfillment

ultimately renders him a crazed alcoholic. However, it is telling that even as McTeague wanders through the

Nevada desert as a broken man at the end of the novel, he is still evoked as “the dentist”.

While The Age of Innocence, The Jungle and McTeague combine to provide an insightful perspective

into labor and fulfillment across class in the turn of the century America city, they also mark a seminal point

of transition in urban society. As the Gilded Age faded into the new century’s reality, the three principle

classes of urban America began to redefine themselves within the context of an industrialized economy. At

the top of society the social elite slowly transcended the traditional employment that had confined previous

generations to seek more meaningful work in fields such as politics, medicine and philanthropy. The laboring

class similarly began to seek more fulfilling labor by pushing back against the economic constraints that had

forced them into physically and mentally degrading industrial positions. Sustained strikes by the laboring

classes of cities across America provided workers with marked improvement in both wages and laboring

environment, launching some industrial laborers into the middle class by mid century. However, while both

the socially elite and laboring classes began to define a more fulfilling relationship with labor during the early

decades of the twentieth century, many members of the professional class were cast out of their positions of

meaningful skilled labor due to ordinances brought forth by expanded municipal governments standardizing

the practice of these professions. Thus, several decades into the new century the relationship between labor

and fulfillment across the classes of urban America had become inverted to a degree.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *