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Eugenic decline and recovery in self-improvement literature of the thirties

posted on 2023-06-07, 22:47 authored by Sue Currell
In her essay on popular self-improvement literature from the 1930s, particularly the writings of Walter B. Pitkin, Susan Currell points to the rhetorical overlaps between the personal and the political in the arenas of decline and recovery. She intertwines three narratives in her argument: Franklin Delano Roosevelt's personal struggle with polio, so resolutely overcome to establish his fitness for the presidency; the lessons Roosevelt and many other Americans learned from physical fitness guru Bernarr Macfadden, lessons that strongly pushed eugenic principles; and Pitkins personal eugenic beliefs and the ways that these infused his highly popular writings on self-improvement. In each of these narratives, the heavy emphasis on exterior environmental actions that one could perform for self-improvement seemed to overturn mainline eugenic emphases on the Mendelian genetics that was so prevalent in the 1920s, to the extent that traditional eugenic principles of controlling heredity became hidden. Yet as Currell, Kline, and others throughout this volume argue, eugenic assumptions still ran deep, serving as the foundation on which environmental contexts were built. Each of these three men, in their respective areas, assumed an inherent genetic potential 'for themselves, for middle-class individuals, for the nation as a whole' that could only be brought forth through hard work and willpower. Currell's essay thus illuminates how fundamental eugenic beliefs became infused with and perhaps overshadowed by a heightened emphasis in the 1930s on environmental influences as the means to stem decline and spur recovery and a return to overall personal and national eugenic fitness.


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  • Published


Ohio University Press

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Book title

Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency and American Mass Culture



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  • English Publications


Collection edited by Susan Currell and Christina Cogdell, with an introduction by Susan Currell and a sole authored chapter

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Sue Currell, C Cogdell

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