To save money in tight circumstances in response to the father’s risky business schemes, Clara Laughlin’s family moved to Chicago in 1878, first from New York City then Milwaukee. Her mother took in boarders, her brother left school for work, and through her church activities, Clara eventually found a job as a literary magazine editor.

She succeeded at the commercial work, and began publishing her personal work for additional money. Her Chicago writing began in 1907 with short stories on contemporary life about the clashes in the Maxwell Street working-class neighborhood, between ethnic groups–Greeks, Italians, Irish, Jews–family economics, and the efforts of striking labor.

Just Folks, her novel published in 1910, followed a female probation officer for the Juvenile Court. Rather than more comfortable accommodations at Hull-House, she chose to board with an Irish-American family in a typical crowded and small tenement apartment over a grocery overlooking Maxwell Street. As she said, she was reacting to the perceived condescension displayed towards neighborhood peoples by the well-intentioned and somewhat angelic residents at Hull-House.

“Every day that Beth lived in Maxwell Street she became more and more aware of the amazing difference it was making in her…to live close to the daily problems…She began to think…of the profitless intercourse of the genteel boarding house…and to wonder if the people she had met there were actually as colorless, as bloodless, as apart from real life and its issues as they seemed, or whether there was something in the atmosphere that enveloped them as in a fog and made each of them to seem to all his neighbors like a phantom, a shape stalking through a vague, chaotic dream. Over here there was such intense reality in people.”

Laughlin threw sharp literary elbows. Addressing problems in the inner city, there were no virtuous heroes and evil villains in reality. Best to adopt, in Reinhold Neibuhr’s contemporary phrase, a “tamed cynics” perspective. Ethnic nationalities and racial groups addressed each other in conflicting relationships. An adversarial equation played out in street commerce between cheap consumer goods and services and “cheap wages” for workers. Questioning the value of worker strikes with a low chance of success seemed reasonable when city newspapers lied shamelessly on behalf of the rich.

But Laughlin especially doubted her own abilities to improve lives in the ghetto.  Social workers and officers of the Court were aligning institutionally both with “rich in leisure” charitable good Samaritans and with Settlement House residents including Jane Addams. The well-meaning reformers sincerely wanted to learn and to help but “didn’t know anybody to do anything for” outside their sheltered zones.

The more she “came to know of the Nineteenth Ward, the more reason she had to doubt if any possible benefit to the Nineteenth Ward could be so great as the benefit of acquaintance with the Nineteenth Ward” by locals living handsomely off  “Lake Shore Drive.”   bjb

Just Folks (1910)