Unit 5: Nature and Technology: Creating and Challenging American Identity

5a. Summarize the technological development and industrialization happening during the antebellum US.
  1. Summarize the technological development and industrialization happening during the antebellum US.
  2. How do these developments in technology and industry relate to literary production?
  3. How does the outpouring of literary product during this time shape the reading public?

The antebellum period saw a number of new inventions like photography and telegraphy as well as the new laying of an unprecedented amount of railroad track. This time sees a dominance of man over nature and a hope of overcoming political and social ills as well. Production moved from small, artisanal businesses to large factories, which signaled an era of industrial production that no one had seen previously. Consumption of material goods increased by huge numbers, and prosperity seemed inevitable. Many canonical authors saw these changes as potentially detrimental to society as they increased class divisions, environmental losses, and dehumanizing effects on the spiritual essence of humankind. Revisit this essay for more explanation.


5b. Describe Brownson's concerns about class division in the antebellum US and analyze his essay in terms of Transcendentalism.
  1. Describe Brownson's concerns about class division in the antebellum US.
  2. How does what he argues in his essay relate to the theories of Transcendentalism?
  3. How does Brownson's argument differ from that of other authors writing about the same subject at the time?

Brownson wrote one of the most powerful and controversial critiques of Capitalism during this period. He describes two systems of labor: slave labor and free labor. He essentially ends up arguing that slave labor is freer than free labor because slaves have never known what it is like to have to make wages for their labor. The free laborer suffers more, according to Brownson, when he cannot provide for his family when he is out of work. Brownson represents the socially engaged and activist branch of Transcendentalism. See Brownson's essay for more information.


5c. Trace changes in the socioeconomic context of the antebellum period in relationship to the election of 1824, the emergence of consumerism and the new Middle Class, the Penny Press, and immigration.
  1. Trace changes in the socioeconomic context of the antebellum period in relationship to the election of 1824.
  2. How does the emergence of consumerism and the new Middle Class relate to the Penny Press?
  3. How does immigration from Europe at this time figure into the socioeconomic context of the antebellum period?

The antebellum period saw huge changes in the social and economic systems operating in the US at the time. The election of 1824 ultimately led to Jackson, a self-made man, being elected president in 1828, showing just how important the popular vote could be in a national election. Production moved from small, artisanal home offices to large factory manufacturing. With the rise of the Middle Class, many new consumers found themselves with extra income to buy modern conveniences. They had time for leisure activities, like reading, which was made much easier by the invention of the Penny Press. A large rise in immigration from Europe also began to affect the economy and the type of labor available to all. See "The Election of 1824", "Antebellum Economic Development", "The Penny Press", "A New Social Order", and "Immigration" for more information on this topic.


5d. Describe the chief features and some of the leading attractions of Barnum's American Museum and other forms of urban popular or mass culture, specifically blackface minstrelsy.
  1. Describe the chief features and some of the leading attractions of Barnum's American Museum.
  2. Why were people so drawn to Barnum's American Museum?
  3. Name other forms of urban popular or mass culture, like blackface minstrelsy, and explain why they were so important at the time.

Barnum created a space of novelty in his American Museum. He captured the unique and provocative and weird in a place where those of all different classes could mingle. There was even a day of the week that African Americans were allowed to visit and engage with popular culture in a way they were never able to do previously. Blackface minstrelsy is known as the practice of white actors donning black makeup while caricaturing black behaviors and experiences. While most condemned the practice, some said it showed a genuine interest in black culture and helped expose white audiences to new ways of viewing the world. Revisit "Blackface Minstrelsy" to read more about the role that blackface played in antebellum culture.


5e. Formulate interpretations of Melville's "Bartleby" in terms of Capitalism, drawing on his other works and other secondary material.
  1. Formulate interpretations of Melville's "Bartleby" in terms of Capitalism.
  1. What does the relationship between Bartleby and his boss, the narrator, communicate to the reader about the complications of Capitalism?
  2. How does Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids" relate to the depictions of class divisions and labor in "Bartleby"?

Melville's "Bartleby" communicates the complications of Capitalism as it deals with motivation and desire to perform labor for a salary. Bartleby's boss, the narrator, struggles because he wants to be friends with his employees but realizes he ultimately holds more power than they do. He also must make money for himself, the business owner, and decides who gets paid and who doesn't, which puts him in a different position entirely than those he employs. In his "The Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids", Melville makes an even clearer distinction between the upper class elite and the exploited working class. He ultimately comments on the ways that Capitalism seems to reward those who are already wealthy and penalize those who are not. Read Melville's "Bartleby", "Paradise", and this essay on "Bartleby" again for more info on his critique of the emerging market economy.


5f. Articulate the ways that Davis' novella draws on both sentimentalism and realism in fostering the reader's identification with the working class.
  1. Articulate the ways that Davis' novella draws on both sentimentalism and realism in fostering the reader's identification with the working class.
  2. Who is the audience for Davis' novella?
  3. What does Davis ultimately want to teach this population of readers?

Davis' novella draws a picture of life for Hugh Wolfe, a laborer in the iron mills, for upper class readers who would have no direct experience with the physical labor he performs. She draws on both sentimental and realist tactics to make Hugh more accessible to her audience. Hugh is an artist whose endeavors of carving have been overshadowed by his class status and his need to work in an industrial factory to make a living. Davis humanizes the working class through the focus on Hugh and his struggles both inside and outside of the mills. See Davis' Life in the Iron Mills and this critical essay for additional information on this topic.


5g. Summarize Thoreau's argument against material progress in Walden.
  1. Summarize Thoreau's argument against material progress in Walden.
  2. Why does Thoreau go out into nature in the first place?
  3. What does he hope this isolation will teach him?

Thoreau was part of the Transcendentalist Movement that opposed many of the technological and industrial changes of this time period. He worried about the natural, environmental costs of these changes and imagined that the spirituality of the human being was being usurped by an interest in material gain. He also worries about the ways that this type of progress further divides those of different classes. In the isolation at Walden, Thoreau contemplates the natural world and seeks scientific explanation for what he sees and imagines how those same principles apply to the arrangement of society. See Walden and this critical essay on it to help you further answer these questions.


5h. Define Thoreau's critique of American politics in "Resistance to Civil Government" and analyze his use of nature to critique American society more generally.
  1. Define Thoreau's critique of American politics in "Resistance to Civil Government".
  2. How does Thoreau use nature to critique American society in a general sense?
  3. What does Thoreau ultimately argue that those who are of like minds should do to protest government actions?

In Thoreau's political manifesto, he talks about how he put his philosophical convictions into material practice. He refuses to pay his taxes and is thus jailed. He sees this as an act of civil disobedience because he does not agree with the government's stance on slavery and does not like the Us' involvement in the US-Mexican War. He suggests that if all citizens did the same, the government would have no choice but to follow the will of the people. Revisit "Resistance to Civil Government" for more information on Thoreau's position on American politics at the time.


Unit 5 Vocabulary

This vocabulary list includes terms that might help you with the review items above and some terms you should be familiar with to be successful in completing the final exam for the course.

Try to think of the reason why each term is included.

  • Capitalism
  • Consumerism
  • Symbolism
  • Imagery
  • Allegory
  • The Election of 1824
  • Penny Press
  • Class Divisions
  • Urban Mass Culture
  • Immigration and Racism
  • Popular Culture
  • P.T. Barnum's American Museum
  • Blackface Minstrelsy
  • Realism
  • Employer-Employee Relationships
  • Extreme Class Divisions
  • Autobiography
  • Political Manifesto
  • Civil Disobedience
Last modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2019, 4:01 PM