The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst

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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

World War I and the Growth of the Anti-war Movement

By July 1918, the United States was sending over 3,000 troops every month to Europe to fight in World War I (1914–18). By the end of the war in November 1918, total U.S. combat deaths numbered 51,000; U.S. non-combat but war-related deaths numbered 62,000.

Though the horrors of World War I led to its being dubbed "the war to end all wars," this hopeful prediction did not become fact. World War II began in 1939 and continued until 1945. Virtually all countries that participated in World War I were involved in World War II. Over 405,000 Americans were among the approximately 50 million people who died as a result of the war. This 50 million includes those who died in the Holocaust, the name given to the Nazis' program of extermination of peoples they deemed genetically inferior, and the United States' atomic bombings of civilians in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

Though the United Nations was set up in 1945 to prevent the outbreak of another world war, peace proved elusive. By 1961, the year after the publication of "The Scarlet Ibis," in response to a perceived Communist threat, the United States had deployed 4,000 troops in South Vietnam. The cold war was reaching its height, with tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union running high. In February 1960, France tested its first atomic bomb; the Soviet government had determined by 1959 that any future war would be nuclear and worldwide. In October 1960, U.S. presidential candidate John F. Kennedy first suggested the idea of the Peace Corps, which would promote understanding between the United States and the rest of the world. U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the cold war marked a significant rise in the peace movement, which first become organized after World War II. The peace movement advocated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam on the grounds that this would lessen tensions in the region and result in less bloodshed and that other nations should be allowed to work out their problems without foreign military intervention. Though by April 1970, approximately 115,000 U.S. troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam, complete withdrawal only took place in 1973.

Eugenics

It is difficult to read "The Scarlet Ibis" without a consideration of the history of the philosophy of eugenics. Eugenics (from the Greek for "good breeding") aimed to improve human hereditary traits through social interventions: for example, selective breeding; enforced sterilization of people seen as genetically inferior; and genetic engineering. Selective breeding was suggested by the Greek philosopher Plato (c. B.C. 427–c. B.C. 347), but the modern eugenics ideology, which developed from the growing discipline of genetics, was formulated in 1869 by Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), a British anthropologist and cousin of the founder of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin (1809–1882).

Eugenicists of a religious frame of mind fused Galton's scientific arguments with the biblical injunction: "I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" (Deut. 5:9). In this light, enforced sterilization of those considered to be degenerate was seen as a moral duty. The Supreme Court upheld eugenic sterilization in 1927, with the pronouncement of Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841–1945), as quoted in Trent's book Inventing the Feeble Mind, that "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Eugenics was supported in the early twentieth century by many prominent thinkers but became discredited after World War II, when it was seen to be the key idea justifying genocide by the Nazis (it was still practiced, however, by many national and regional governments into the 1970s and has as of 2005 been taken up by proponents of human genetic engineering). The Nazis had decided that anyone who did not conform to the so-called Aryan ideal (tall, blond, of Nordic...

(The entire section is 2,882 words.)