My dissertation project explores the various and competing meanings of the neologism “altruism” in late-nineteenth-century reformist social thought and literature in the United States. From its inception, altruism was understood as a scientific concept, due to its coinage within Auguste Comte’s positivism and the term’s dissemination in the English language via contemporary evolutionary theory. With an approach informed by the history of science and conceptual history, I focus on altruism’s capacity to reformulate other existing terms and concepts concerned with moral imaginations of the human good, such as the Christian notion of charity, the sentimentalist concept of sympathy, and the socioeconomic model of philanthropy. Embedded in a transdisciplinary field, the concept of altruism exhibits semantic flexibility and is therefore productive for a number of reformist and social projects, for example in discourses on and about woman reform, in popular sociological and evolutionary studies, in socialist and anarchist political thought, and in literary imaginations. Among other things, I analyze the reception of Comte’s and Herbert Spencer’s work in the United States, as well as four reformist magazines that have, as of yet, received no critical attention.
The second aim of my dissertation is to ask what role the concept of altruism played for a variety of popular literary forms in the late nineteenth century. My analysis centers on the reformist realist novel. I conceive of reformist or social realism as a form that is wedged in-between the discourse of sentimentalism on the one hand, and utopianism on the other, an in-between position that results in a formal problem. I argue that altruism’s conceptual flexibility allows it to negotiate and tentatively solve some of the formal problems that constitute and challenge late nineteenth-century American reformist literature. In my readings, I concentrate on William Dean Howells’s reformist fictions and his utopian novels, on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s writings, and on other contemporary authors - most of which have been left unexamined by critics until now - who have written on and worked with the concept of altruism.