Technology, Industrialization, and Antebellum U.S. Literature

America changed dramatically during this time.

"While the majority of Americans seemed to embrace technology and its promise of progress and equality, many of the most famous writers of the era rejected technology on multiple grounds, even as they saw profound potential in either the inventive spirit behind new technologies, technology's ability to free the body for presumably higher pursuits, or the disciplined efficiency of mechanical works."

Read this introductory overview of antebellum American literature's relationship to technological development and industrialization during the era.

The antebellum period in U.S. history saw the rapid development of new technologies and the emergence of industrial techniques, which together transformed society broadly, including the production and circulation of written material. Railroads, telegraphy, and photography all came into being within a few decades, leading many commentators to envision the era as a time of unprecedented progress, as hearkening humankind's full dominance of nature and with its ability to overcome longstanding political and social issues. Although the reorganization of economic production from more home-based or small-scale artisanal shops to large factories, involving a greater division of labor and the use of new types of machinery, provoked more ambiguous reactions, it seemed that most nineteenth-century Americans readily embraced the promises of technology and industrialization to generate a kind of unending material prosperity that would allow all humans to fulfill their individual and social destinies more completely. At the same time, an important minority, including many of the most canonical writers of the era, worried over the human and natural costs of these material transformations, criticizing an American faith in progress on several different grounds, from it furthering class-exploitation to it leading to environmental degradation to its dehumanizing effects and its erasure of the spiritual essence of humankind.

As much as the United States was envisioned as a different kind of country due to its abundant natural resources and its supposed ability, due to its lack of history, to create a more natural society, technological innovations played an important role in notions of the nation's destiny from its creation forward. It was not just that founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were famous inventors; the entire nation itself was seen as a kind of experiment or invention based on what were seen as natural laws. Further, until the end of the nineteenth century, technology seemed particularly important for a nation of seemingly endless natural resources and potential lacking in the human labor to develop that potential fully. For many commentators, the United States came, both negatively and positively, to be defined by its technological innovation and know-how, a heritage leading from Franklin and Jefferson to Robert Fulton, Samuel Morse, and, after the Civil War, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison.

It is no coincidence, then, that the modern usage of the term "technology" is usually traced to Harvard professor Jacob Bigelow's 1829 textbook Elements of Technology . Bigelow's book suggests the centrality of technology to antebellum notions of progress, but it also reveals the continuing emphasis of techne – the Greek root of technology – as referring to all sorts of techniques and bodies of knowledge for manipulating the world around us. As such, Bigelow's series of lectures link the mechanical and fine arts as he includes chapters on "Sculpture" and "Designing and Painting" alongside those on "Arts of Locomotion" and "Elements of Machinery". By the end of the antebellum period, however, the more common modern meaning of technology as the useful application of scientific knowledge to material ends had become dominant.

That shift paralleled the growth of an apparent American faith that the technological dominance of the natural world would usher in a new era of prosperity and peace. Commentators on the railroad and the telegraph, in particular, frequently imagined that the new methods of transportation and communication would eliminate time and space as barriers to economic growth and human understanding. With the world unified by new networks allowing the free flow of materials, people, and ideas, the human race would overcome the barbarism of the past, as the free trade in goods and information would enable the realization of a true human equality. These utopian visions often imagined technology either uniting all of the nation or the world into one shared body or all but eliminating human bodies and their limitations and differences. In The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Nathaniel Hawthorne's character Clifford Pyncheon echoes this sort of commentary as he and his sister, Hepzibah, flee their home on the railroad: "our wonderfully increased, and still increasing, facilities of locomotion" enable us to "purg[e] away the grossness out of human life", while through the telegraph "the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time", making "the round globe" a "vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence". While Hawthorne immediately calls Clifford's vision into question by having another passenger allude to the telegraph's use in questionable financial dealings and for capturing criminals, Clifford's enthusiasm seems to have mirrored that of the nation as a whole. In overcoming nature, technology would allow us to overcome the natural limitations on human development.

Technological improvements in manufacturing were similarly praised, although the reconstitution of material production into factories was met with some concern. Americans feared the kind of economic and social inequality that industrialization in Europe produced. As early as the 1780s, in fact, Thomas Jefferson had argued against encouraging manufacturing in the United States, because it would erode the economic – and thus political--independence of the citizenry. While improved machinery enabled the mass production of goods associated with industrialization, many Americans came to see those machines as counteracting industrialization's diminution of the individual worker. From such a perspective, one Jefferson would come to accept later in his life, the United States provided the perfect society for the use of machinery; as rather than deepening already existing class differences as it did in Europe, it would further equalize the nation by allowing all individuals to dominate nature.

While the majority of Americans seemed to embrace technology and its promise of progress and equality, many of the most famous writers of the era rejected technology on multiple grounds, even as they saw profound potential in either the inventive spirit behind new technologies, technology's ability to free the body for presumably higher pursuits, or the disciplined efficiency of mechanical works. In this respect, they followed the lead of influential English thinkers such as Thomas Carlyle. In 1829, Carlyle had decried the broader social and economic transformation that he saw as "the machine age": "Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand." Along similar lines, Henry David Thoreau famously dismisses the telegraph and other innovations in Walden , expostulating that "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate". The telegraph, for Thoreau, is simply another one of those "'modern improvements'" that "are but improved means to an unimproved end". For Thoreau, the telegraph and railroads do not help us to live our lives better. Rather they tend simply to speed us up on a course of living and of thinking that should be analyzed reflectively and deliberately. In "Resistance to Civil Government" (better known as "Civil Disobedience"), Thoreau's central complaint with his neighbors is that they "serve the state . . . not as men mainly, but as machines". Technology and machinery, for Thoreau, connote a deadened, dehumanized existence lacking in any individuality or connection to the moral, spiritual, and natural wellsprings of life. Rather than allowing us to pursue our humanity fully, technology sunders us from the most basic foundations of our material existence and denatures from our spiritual essence by emphasizing the material world as the site of human fulfillment. Thus, the railroad's presence at Walden Pond serves as an ever-present reminder of the encroachment of modern life's sterility and shallowness, an example of how far people are imposed upon by their things: "we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us".

Yet in the "Sounds" chapter of Walden, Thoreau offers a more ambivalent account of his relationship to the railroad at Walden, claiming that he is "refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me, and I smell the stores which go dispensing their odors all the way from Long Wharf to Lake Champlain, reminding me of foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes, and the extent of the globe". The railroad, he acknowledges, connects him to society, to the rest of the humanity. The problem is, then, not so much with modern improvements per se as with the fact that we continue to use them for unimproved ends. Early in Walden , Thoreau contrasts civilization and savagery not to contend for the superiority of an uncivilized life but in order to "show at what a sacrifice this advantage [of civilization] is at present obtained, and to suggest that we may possibly so live as to secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage".

Emerson and Poe, despite their great differences, offer somewhat similar ambivalent accounts of technology and machinery. Emerson, like Thoreau, takes an often negative view of technology in emphasizing the importance of self-exploration and connection to the divine through nature, frequently echoing Thoreau's skepticism about the merely material nature of technological improvements. Yet Emerson also connected the inventive genius behind technology – and technology's ability to reshape our perspective on the world – with poetic creation. In "The Method of Nature", for example, he proclaims "I love the music of the water-wheel; I value the railway. . . . There is in each of these works an act of invention, an intellectual step, or short series of steps taken", while in Nature he contends that traveling on the railroad produces a "pleasure mixed with awe . . . a low degree of the sublime", which, "In a higher manner, the poet communicates". The inventor – and his invention – provide us with a glimpse of our potential to reinvigorate our lives by using our imagination to reconnect ourselves with the divine spirit behind nature. For Poe, the potential of technology as a model of art lies less in its ability to reshape the world than in its conformity to rational principles. Thus, in "Philosophy of Composition", he equates the composition of a poem to "the wheels and pinions" that produce verse "with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem". Poetry becomes a machine for generating a particular response through its exploitation of the natural properties of language and of human nature's psychology.

Literary authors of the antebellum period sometimes commented on the ongoing industrialization of the era in positive terms, but more often they saw it as epitomizing technology's danger of mechanizing humanity, often associating the mass production of goods – including books and other print matter – with the erasure of individual difference, the mass production of people. As Thoreau puts it in Walden , the men who read and write the mass of literature are both "machines". While Thoreau, like Carlyle, foregrounds culture and the development of the self in decrying this mechanical dehumanization, other writers emphasized industrialization's creation and exploitation of a working class trapped by economic conditions. The transcendentalist Orestes Brownson, for example, attacks his society's treatment of the laboring classes on decidedly materialist grounds, moving away from the emphasis on individual reform – for both employers and employees – that other transcendentalists such as Theodore Parker and Emerson would propose in offering their own prescriptions for wholesale, systemic change. In their stories of industrial degradation, Herman Melville and Rebecca Harding Davis similarly attempted to break through their readers' distance from the workers they try to represent, but, unlike Brownson, are far less secure in offering a specific plan for stopping or alleviating the denigration of the working class, instead foregrounding the relationship between their own work and their audience's social position and the industrial exploitation they decry. These works paralleled the increasing concern about working-class degradation due to industrialization across the Atlantic as expressed by literary artists such as Charles Dickens and as theorized by political writers such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They also anticipated the development of realist and naturalist works later in the century in the United States, helping to establish the terms and forms later writers such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Jack London would explore in more depth.


Suggested Further Reading

Benesch, Klaus. Romantic Cyborgs: Authorship and Technology in the American Renaissance. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

Gilmore, Paul. Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism . Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Kasson, John F. Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900. New York: Grossman, 1976.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Source: Saylor Academy
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Last modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2019, 3:23 PM