Historical Perspective

A Expansion and Reform in the 1910s

The decade of the 1910s in which Edith Wharton wrote Ethan Frome was characterized by economic prosperity in the United States and increasing political influence in the world, especially as it endured and triumphed in the First World War. It was a time in which the country’s freedom became a principal feature of America’s identity, but also a time in which these values were questioned by the unfinished business of women’s suffrage. Competing values of labor and capitalism also continued to work themselves out, sometimes violently through riots and strikes, like the “long-drawn carpenters’ strike” that is the reason for the narrator’s stay in Starkfield.

Tensions between conservative and liberal ideals became more apparent from the 1890s, and they came to a head during the decade of the 1910s. The progressive movement was not confined to a single party. It was advanced by the Republican former president Theodore Roosevelt; Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat president elected in 1912; and the Socialist party presidential candidate in that election, Eugene V. Debs. Wilson’s term of office advanced the progressive movement through a series of landmark legislative accomplishments. These included setting up the Federal Reserve System, regulating trusts, providing credit to farmers, restricting child labor, and establishing a graduated income tax. In addition, constitutional amendments were adopted governing direct election of senators, the federal income tax, woman suffrage, and Prohibition. These laid the foundation for the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s.

B Innovation in Industry and the Arts

Industrial growth and the use of new technologies were two of the reasons for the explosive economic expansion of the 1910s. The first direct telephone link between New York and Denver was opened in 1911, the year Ethan Frome was published. Examples of these developments are evident in the narrator’s remarks about having come to Starkfield in the “degenerate day of trolley, bicycle and rural delivery” and easy communication between the mountain villages, which he contrasts with conditions twenty-four years earlier. Although Ethan Frome is still driving a horse-drawn buggy, Ford Motor Company’s moving assembly line was typical of the kinds of innovations in the automobile industry that made the United States the decade’s world leader in producing cars. Productivity in this and other industries was further enhanced by application of scientific management theory and new manufacturing techniques. The “personnel management” of the 1910s was incorporated into the welfare capitalism of the 1920s, which used measures such as profit-sharing plans and grievance procedures to improve relations between workers and employers. This period of prosperity mostly benefited a new middle class of professionals and managers. The poor remained poor, particularly rural Southerners, urban immigrants, and African Americans.

A prosperous middle class was a boon to the arts, which enjoyed a period of great vitality during the 1910s. Inspired by European modernists such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Igor Stravinsky, Marc Chagall, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Walter Adolf Gropius, American painters, photographers, poets, dramatists, writers, and dancers broke free of tradition and experimented with both form and subject. Magazines such as The Masses and The New Republic reflected the radical vision of this generation of artists. In Ethan Frome, the narrator’s ironic recitation of Mattie’s cultural accomplishments illustrates the disdain of the rebels of the 1910s for the tastes of their parents.

C The First World War (1914-1918)

America’s attempts at neutrality became irrelevant as the efforts of American manufacturers to capture world markets drew the United States into the affairs of other nations. U.S. economic interests were particularly strong in Latin America and the Caribbean, exemplified by Bethlehem Steel’s purchase of Chile’s Tofo Iron Mines in 1911, and the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. The policies of interventionist presidents like Roosevelt and Taft contrasted with those of Woodrow Wilson. But Wilson was not blind to international realities and the need of U.S. industries for open markets. American economic ties were behind U.S. intervention in the Mexican Revolution of 1911 and the landing of U.S. Marines in Honduras, Cuba, and Nicaragua the same year. They were also what ultimately drew the United States into the First World War.

The war created tensions among a nation of immigrants, who in 1911 constituted a quarter of the U.S. population in every area of the country except the south. But the war also spelled opportunities for American bankers and businessmen. In addition, the commitment of millions of men called into service opened the doors to jobs for women and African Americans. Four hundred thousand blacks left the south for jobs in the north, beginning the “Great Migration” that was to affect not only African American life but American culture as a whole. In a move that would also have profound economic repercussions, close to a million American women joined the labor force for the first time. The government became an increasing presence in the lives of Americans, most notably in matters related to economic policy, production decisions, and labor disputes. Government-fostered xenophobia, backed by the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, resulted in the abusive treatment of German Americans and of anarchists, communists, and socialists, particularly following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in November 1917.

The conclusion of the war brought not the long hoped for serenity but widespread disorder. President Wilson’s design for the League of Nations foundered. Workers and employers were at loggerheads. The Red Scare resulted in the deportation of alien radicals and the expulsion of radical labor organizers from the New York State legislature. Conflicts between returning African American soldiers and other migrant southern workers, and their white counterparts in the North, led to race riots in several major northern cities.