My American Literature Association 2010 Abstract

Utopian and Dystopia on Foot: Shoes in Turn of the 20th Century American Fiction
J. Michael Duvall, Assistant Professor, College of Charleston

A famous scene from Theodore Dresier’s Sister Carrie (1900) has the shoes in a department store angling to replace Carrie’s perfectly functional, but less novel pair, while elsewhere in the narrative, beaten souls tread the city streets in “soppy[, …] shred[ded]” shoes.  William Dean Howells, for his part, forms a miniature jeremaid in A Traveller from Altruria (1892), around the “saturday night shoe,” with a farmer decrying the factory-produced disposable shoes his daughters so fervently desire.  And then there’s Dorothy’s famous silver slippers (ruby in the film) in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz (1900), which critics have convincingly arrayed in an allegory of contemporary currency standard debates.

These three exhibits suggest something of the varied symbolic freight that fictional shoes carried at the turn of the twentieth century, a recognition of the place of the shoe in American culture.  Shoe-making was the United State’s largest domestic trade in the mid-19th century, having transitioned from cottage to mass-production so successfully that  by the 1880s production had outpaced domestic demand, creating a flood in the market of surplus footwear and precipitating an unexpected “American Invasion” of England in the late 19th century, undercutting that nation’s own domestic shoe output.  Fictional representation of shoes at the time makes ample use not only of the pervasiveness of mass-produced shoes, but of the ways in which shoes, by their type and condition, signal gender and class positions, and even moral distinctions.

In this paper, I will examine the representation of shoes in the narratives noted above (and in others) in order to discuss how shoes become part of the fictional discourse of dystopia and utopia at the turn of the twentieth century and particularly how such representations become indispensable to how this fiction speaks to rise of the culture of the consumption.

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