The Industrial Revolution in Literature
The rapid industrial growth that began in Great Britain during the middle of the eighteenth century and extended into the United States for the next 150 years provided a wide range of material for many nineteenth-century writers. The literature of the Industrial Revolution includes essays, fiction, and poetry that respond to the enormous growth of technology as well as the labor and demographic changes it fostered. Having observed the adoption of such new technologies as the steam engine and the blast furnace, the Scottish intellectual Thomas Carlyle described this period as the "Mechanical Age," reflecting his belief that the machine was the dominant symbol of his era, one representing a profound change in both the physical and mental activities of his society. The Industrial Revolution figured prominently across a broad range of literary genres. While social critics such as Carlyle, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and Henry Adams examined the cultural changes that accompanied the machine, novelists ranging from Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell to Rebecca Harding Davis and Herman Melville provided a realistic treatment of modern working conditions. Meanwhile, poets such as William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman contemplated the artist's role in such a world.
During the initial stages of the Industrial Revolution in England, the literati, for the most part, supported the new discoveries of science, often promoting their application in literary reviews. By the close of the eighteenth century, however, the early romantics began to view the emerging technology in a different light. In his Letters upon the Aesthetical Education of Man (1795), Friedrich Schiller argued that the machine was a threat to individual freedom and a destructive force on contemporary culture. Likewise, William Wordsworth, in his Preface to the Second Edition of "Lyrical Ballads" (1800), asserted that the rise of technology blunted the mind "to a state of almost savage torpor." Carlyle's influential essay, "Signs of the Times" (1829), in which he decried the encroachment of "mechanical genius" into the "internal and spiritual" aspects of life, continued the critique of industrialism and set the stage for the social-problem novels of the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Dickens's realistic and ironic depictions of industrial towns in Hard Times (1854), for example, underscored the deleterious affects of urbanization on the working class. Works by Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontë sisters, and W. M. Thackeray also presented accurate accounts of the industrialism of Victorian society.
The transfer of new technologies across the Atlantic also shaped the development of literature in the United States. As in England, many of the initial responses welcomed the new technology, finding it indispensable to the economic growth of the fledgling nation. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, writing near the close of the eighteenth century, believed that the machine would blend harmoniously into the open countryside of the American Republic rather than produce the overcrowded and polluted cities of Europe. Critic Leo Marx contended that, with the exception of apologists for the Southern slavery system, there was little effective opposition to the forces of urbanization and industrialism. The abundance of land and scarcity of labor had intensified the demand for machinery, and by the time Carlyle's essay reached America, the economy was expanding at such a phenomenal rate that his attack on the machine was not widely accepted by the American populace. Writers such as Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, for the most part, embraced the new technology, finding in the railroad a vehicle for uniting the country and furthering democratic ideals. However, such a response was not universally shared. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain, among others, provided alternative perspectives, often critiquing the materialistic value systems that accompanied industrialism through the metaphors, themes, and details of their works.
The issues surrounding the relationship between technology and culture have continued to interest critics and writers well into the twentieth century. Not only have scholars concentrated on the canonical works by major authors of the period, but they have increasingly focused their attention on contemporary reactions found in magazines, newspapers, and popular novels in an effort to better understand the culture of the period. Contemporary writers also look to literary figures of the Industrial Revolution as they address similar concerns of the role of the machine in society.
The Education of Henry Adams 1918
Essays in Criticism 1865
Honoré de Balzac
The Quest of the Absolute 1834
The Four Zoas 1797
Jane Eyre 1847
Wuthering Heights 1848
Sartor Resartus 1833-34
Critical and Miscellaneous Essays 1873
Rebecca Harding Davis
Life in the Iron Mills 1861
Bleak House 1853
Hard Times 1854
Sybil, or The Two Nations 1845
Ralph Waldo Emerson
North and South 1855
Mosses from an Old Manse 1846
Science and Culture and Other Essays 1881
Notes on Virginia 1785
The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839-1860
John Stuart Mill
On Liberty 1859
Letters upon the Aesthetical Education of Man 1795
Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Defence of Poetry 1840
W. M. Thackeray
Vanity Fair 1847
Henry David Thoreau
The Gilded Age 1873
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court 1889
Democratic Vistas 1871
Leaves of Grass 1855, 1856, 1860-61, 1867, 1871, 1876, 1881-82, 1888, 1891-2
Preface to the Second Edition of "Lyrical Ballads " 1800
SOURCE: "The Dynamo and the Virgin," in The Education of Henry Adams, The Modern Library, 1931, pp. 379-90.
[In the following essay written in 1905 and first published in 1918, Adams examines the influence of the machine on the Western world, suggesting that it functions like a religious symbol carrying a "moral force."]
Until the Great Exposition of 1900 closed [the Trocadero's] doors in November, Adams haunted it, aching to absorb knowledge, and helpless to find it. He would have liked to know how much of it could have been grasped by the best-informed man in the world. While he was thus meditating chaos, Langley came by, and showed it to him. At Langley's behest, the Exhibition dropped its superfluous rags and stripped itself to the skin, for Langley knew what to study, and why, and how; while Adams might as well have stood outside in the night, staring at the Milky Way. Yet Langley said nothing new, and taught nothing that one might not have learned from Lord Bacon, three hundred years before; but though one should have known the "Advancement of Science" as well as one knew the "Comedy of Errors," the literary knowledge counted for nothing until some teacher should show how to apply it. Bacon took a vast deal of trouble in teaching King James I and his subjects, American or other, towards the year 1620, that true science was the development or economy of forces; yet an elderly American in 1900 knew neither the formula nor the forces; or even so much as to say to himself that his historical business in the Exposition concerned only the economies or developments of force since 1893, when he began the study at Chicago.
Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts. Adams had looked at most of the accumulations of art in the storehouses called Art Museums; yet he did not know how to look at the art exhibits of 1900. He had studied Karl Marx and his doctrines of history with profound attention, yet he could not apply them at Paris. Langley, with the ease of a great master of experiment, threw out of the field every exhibit that did not reveal a new application of force, and naturally threw out, to begin with, almost the whole art exhibit. Equally, he ignored almost the whole industrial exhibit. He led his pupil directly to the forces. His chief interest was in new motors to make his airship feasible, and he taught Adams the astonishing complexities of the new Daimler motor, and of the automobile, which, since 1893, had become a nightmare at a hundred kilometres an hour, almost as destructive as the electric tram which was only ten years older; and threatening to become as terrible as the locomotive steam-engine itself, which was almost exactly Adams's own age.
Then he showed his scholar the great hall of dynamos, and explained how little he knew about electricity or force of any kind, even of his own special sun, which spouted heat in inconceivable volume, but which, as far as he knew, might spout less or more, at any time, for all the certainty he felt in it. To him, the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight; but to Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's-breadth further for respect of power—while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy, the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.
Yet the dynamo, next to the steam-engine, was the most familiar of exhibits. For Adams's objects its value lay chiefly in its occult mechanism. Between the dynamo in the gallery of machines and the engine-house outside, the break of continuity amounted to abysmal fracture for a historian's objects. No more relation could he discover between the steam and the electric current than between the Cross and the cathedral. The forces were interchangeable if not reversible, but he could see only an absolute fiat in electricity as in faith. Langley could not help him. Indeed, Langley seemed to be worried by the same trouble, for he constantly repeated that the new forces were anarchical, and specially that he was not responsible for the new rays, that were little short of parricidal in their wicked spirit towards science. His own rays, with which he had doubled the solar spectrum, were altogether harmless and beneficent; but Radium denied its God—or, what was to Langley the same thing, denied the truths of his Science. The force was wholly new.
A historian who asked only to learn enough to be as futile as Langley or Kelvin, made rapid progress under this teaching, and mixed himself up in the tangle of ideas until he achieved a sort of Paradise of ignorance vastly consoling to his fatigued senses. He wrapped himself in vibrations and rays which were new, and he would have hugged Marconi and Branly had he met them, as he hugged the dynamo; while he lost his arithmetic in trying to figure out the equation between the discoveries and the economies of force. The economies, like the discoveries, were absolute, supersensual, occult; incapable of expression in horse-power. What mathematical equivalent could he suggest as the value of a Branly coherer? Frozen air, or the electric furnace, had some scale of measurement, no doubt, if somebody could invent a thermometer adequate to the purpose; but X-rays had played no part whatever in man's consciousness, and the atom itself had figured only as a fiction of thought. In these seven years man had translated himself into a new universe which had no common scale of measurement with the old. He had entered a supersensual world, in which he could measure nothing except by chance collisions of movements imperceptible to his senses, perhaps even imperceptible to his instruments, but perceptible to each other, and so to some known ray at the end of the scale. Langley seemed prepared for anything, even for an indeterminable number of universes interfused—physics stark mad in metaphysics.
Historians undertake to arrange sequences,—called stories, or histories—assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about. Adams, for one, had toiled in vain to find out what he meant. He had even published a dozen volumes of American history for no other purpose than to satisfy himself whether, by the severest process of stating, with the least possible comment, such facts as seemed sure, in such order as seemed rigorously consequent, he could fix for a familiar moment a necessary sequence of human movement.
The result had satisfied him as little as at Harvard College. Where he saw sequence, other men saw something quite different, and no one saw the same unit of measure. He cared little about his experiments and less about his statesmen, who seemed to him quite as ignorant as himself and, as a rule, no more honest; but he insisted on a relation of sequence, and if he could not reach it by one method, he would try as many methods as science knew. Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years' pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.
Since no one else showed much concern, an elderly person without other cares had no need to betray alarm. The year 1900 was not the first to upset schoolmasters. Copernicus and Galileo had broken many professorial necks about 1600; Columbus had stood the world on its head towards 1500; but the nearest approach to the revolution of 1900 was that of 310, when Constantine set up the Cross. The rays that Langley disowned, as well as those which he fathered, were occult, supersensual, irrational; they were a revelation of mysterious energy like that of the Cross; they were what, in terms of mediaeval science, were called immediate modes of the divine substance.
The historian was thus reduced to his last resources. Clearly if he was bound to reduce all these forces to a common value, this common value could have no measure but that of their attraction on his own mind. He must treat them as they had been felt; as convertible, reversible, interchangeable attractions on thought. He made up his mind to venture it; he would risk translating rays into faith. Such a reversible process would vastly amuse a chemist, but the chemist could not deny that he, or some of his fellow physicists, could feel the force of both. When Adams was a boy in Boston, the best chemist in the place had probably never heard of Venus except by way of scandal, or of the Virgin except as idolatry; neither had he heard of dynamos or automobiles or radium; yet his mind was ready to feel the force of all, though the rays were unborn and the women were dead.
Here opened another totally new education, which promised to be by far the most hazardous of all. The knife-edge along which he must crawl, like Sir Lancelot in the twelfth century, divided two kingdoms of force which had nothing in common but attraction. They were as different as a magnet is from gravitation, supposing one knew what a magnet was, or gravitation, or love. The force of the Virgin was still felt at Lourdes, and seemed to be as potent as X-rays; but in America neither Venus nor Virgin ever had value as force—at most as sentiment. No American had ever been truly afraid of either.
This problem in dynamics gravely perplexed an American historian. The Woman had once been supreme; in France she still seemed potent, not merely as a sentiment, but as a force. Why was she unknown in America? For evidently America was ashamed of her, and she was ashamed of herself, otherwise they would not have strewn fig-leaves so profusely all over her. When she was a true force, she was ignorant of fig-leaves, but the monthly-magazine-made American female had not a feature that would have been recognized by Adam. The trait was notorious, and often humorous, but any one brought up among Puritans knew that sex was sin. In any previous age, sex was strength. Neither art nor beauty was needed. Every one, even among Puritans, knew that neither Diana of the Ephesians nor any of the Oriental goddesses was worshipped for her beauty. She was goddess because of her force; she was the animated dynamo; she was reproduction—the greatest and most mysterious of all energies; all she needed was to be fecund. Singularly enough, not one of Adams's many schools of education had ever drawn his attention to the opening lines of Lucretius, though they were perhaps the finest in all Latin literature, where the poet invoked Venus exactly as Dante invoked the Virgin:—
Quae quoniam rerum naturarti sola gubernas.
The Venus of Epicurean philosophy survived in the Virgin of the Schools:—
Donna, sei tanto grande, e tanto vali,
Che qual vuol grazia, e a te non ricorre,
Sua disianza vuol volar senz' ali.
All this was to American thought as though it had never existed. The true American knew something of the facts, but nothing of the feelings; he read the letter, but he never felt the law. Before this historical chasm, a mind like that of Adams felt itself helpless; he turned from the Virgin to the Dynamo as though he were a Branly coherer. On one side, at the Louvre and at Chartres, as he knew by the record of work actually done and still before his eyes, was the highest energy ever known to man, the creator of four-fifths of his noblest art, exercising vastly more attraction over the human mind than all the steam-engines and dynamos ever dreamed of; and yet this energy was unknown to the American mind. An American Virgin would never dare command; an American Venus would never dare exist.
The question, which to any plain American of the nineteenth century seemed as remote as it did to Adams, drew him almost violently to study, once it was posed; and on this point Langleys were as useless as though they were Herbert Spencers or dynamos. The idea survived only as art. There one turned as naturally as though the artist were himself a woman. Adams began to ponder, asking himself whether he knew of any American artist who had ever insisted on the power of sex, as every classic had always done; but he could think only of Walt Whitman; Bret Harte, as far as the magazines would let him venture; and one or two painters, for the flesh-tones. All the rest had used sex for sentiment, never for force; to them, Eve was a tender flower, and Herodias an unfeminine horror. American art, like the American language and American education, was as far as possible sexless. Society regarded this victory over sex as its greatest triumph, and the historian readily admitted it, since the moral issue, for the moment, did not concern one who was studying the relations of unmoral force. He cared nothing for the sex of the dynamo until he could measure its energy.
Vaguely seeking a clue, he wandered through the art exhibit, and, in his stroll, stopped almost every day before St. Gaudens's General Sherman, which had been given the central post of honor. St. Gaudens himself was in Paris, putting on the work his usual interminable last touches, and listening to the usual contradictory suggestions of brother sculptors. Of all the American artists who gave to American art whatever life it breathed in the seventies, St. Gaudens was perhaps the most sympathetic, but certainly the most inarticulate. General Grant or Don Cameron had scarcely less instinct of rhetoric than he. All the others—the Hunts, Richardson, John La Farge, Stanford White—were exuberant; only St. Gaudens could never discuss or dilate on an emotion, or suggest artistic arguments for giving to his work the forms that he felt. He never laid down the law, or affected the despot, or became brutalized like Whistler by the brutalities of his world. He required no incense; he was no egoist; his simplicity of thought was excessive; he could not imitate, or give any form but his own to the creations of his hand. No one felt more strongly than he the strength of other men, but the idea that they could affect him never stirred an image in his mind.
This summer his health was poor and his spirits were low. For such a temper, Adams was not the best companion, since his own gaiety was not folle; but he risked going now and then to the studio on Mont Parnasse to draw him out for a stroll in the Bois de Boulogne, or dinner as pleased his moods, and in return St. Gaudens sometimes let Adams go about in his company.
Once St. Gaudens took him down to Amiens, with a party of Frenchmen, to see the cathedral. Not until they found themselves actually studying the sculpture of the western portal, did it dawn on Adams's mind that, for his purposes, St. Gaudens on that spot had more interest to him than the cathedral itself. Great men before great monuments express great truths, provided they are not taken too solemnly. Adams never tired of quoting the supreme phrase of his idol Gibbon, before the Gothic cathedrals: "I darted a contemptuous look on the stately monuments of superstition." Even in the footnotes of his history, Gibbon had never inserted a bit of humor more human than this, and one would have paid largely for a photograph of the fat little historian, on the background of Notre Dame of Amiens, trying to persuade his readers—perhaps himself—that he was darting a contemptuous look on the stately monument, for which he felt in fact the respect which every man of his vast study and active mind always feels before objects worthy of it; but besides the humor, one felt also the relation. Gibbon ignored the Virgin, because in 1789 religious monuments were out of fashion. In 1900 his remark sounded fresh and simple as the green fields to ears that had heard a hundred years of other remarks, mostly no more fresh and certainly less simple. Without malice, one might find it more instructive than a whole lecture of Ruskin. One sees what one brings, and at that moment Gibbon brought the French Revolution. Ruskin brought reaction against the Revolution. St. Gaudens had passed beyond all. He liked the stately monuments much more than he liked Gibbon or Ruskin; he loved their dignity; their unity; their scale; their lines; their lights and shadows; their decorative sculpture; but he was even less conscious than they of the force that created it all—the Virgin, the Woman—by whose genius "the stately monuments of superstition" were built, through which she was expressed. He would have seen more meaning in Isis with the cow's horns, at Edfoo, who expressed the same thought. The art remained, but the energy was lost even upon the artist.
Yet in mind and person St. Gaudens was a survival of the 1500; he bore the stamp of the Renaissance, and should have carried an image of the Virgin round his neck, or stuck in his hat, like Louis XI. In mere time he was a lost soul that had strayed by chance into the twentieth century, and forgotten where it came from. He writhed and cursed at his ignorance, much as Adams did at his own, but in the opposite sense. St. Gaudens was a child of Benvenuto Cellini, smothered in an American cradle. Adams was a quintessence of Boston, devoured by curiosity to think like Benvenuto. St. Gaudens's art was starved from birth, and Adams's instinct was blighted from babyhood. Each had but half of a nature, and when they came together before the Virgin of Amiens they ought both to have felt in her the force that made them one; but it was not so. To Adams she became more than ever a channel of force; to St Gaudens she remained as before a channel of taste.
For a symbol of power, St. Gaudens instinctively preferred the horse, as was plain in his horse and Victory of the Sherman monument. Doubtless Sherman also felt it so. The attitude was so American that, for at least forty years, Adams had never realized that any other could be in sound taste. How many years had he taken to admit a notion of what Michael Angelo and Rubens were driving at? He could not say; but he knew that only since 1895 had he begun to feel the Virgin or Venus as force, and not everywhere even so. At Chartres—perhaps at Lourdes—possibly at Cnidos if one could still find there the divinely naked Aphrodite of Praxiteles—but otherwise one must look for force to the goddesses of Indian mythology. The idea died out long ago in the German and English stock. St. Gaudens at Amiens was hardly less sensitive to the force of the female energy than Matthew Arnold at the Grande Chartreuse. Neither of them felt goddesses as power—only as reflected emotion, human expression, beauty, purity, taste, scarcely even as sympathy. They felt a railway train as power; yet they, and all other artists, constantly complained that the power embodied in a railway train could never be embodied in art. All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.
Yet in mechanics, whatever the mechanicians might think, both energies acted as interchangeable forces on man, and by action on man all known force may be measured. Indeed, few men of science measured force in any other way. After once admitting that a straight line was the shortest distance between two points, no serious mathematician cared to deny anything that suited his convenience, and rejected no symbol, unproved or unproveable, that helped him to accomplish work. The symbol was force, as a compass needle or a triangle was force, as the mechanist might prove by losing it, and nothing could be gained by ignoring their value. Symbol or energy, the Virgin had acted as the greatest force the Western world ever felt, and had drawn man's activities to herself more strongly than any other power, natural or supernatural, had ever done; the historian's business was to follow the track of the energy; to find where it came from and where it went to; its complex source and shifting channels; its values, equivalents, conversions. It could scarcely be more complex than radium; it could hardly be deflected, diverted, polarized, absorbed more perplexingly than other radiant matter. Adams knew nothing about any of them, but as a mathematical problem of influence on human progress, though all were occult, all reacted on his mind, and he rather inclined to think the Virgin easiest to handle.
The pursuit turned out to be long and tortuous, leading at last into the vast forests of scholastic science. From Zeno to Descartes, hand in hand with Thomas Aquinas, Montaigne, and Pascal, one stumbled as stupidly as though one were still a German student of 1860. Only with the instinct of despair could one force one's self into this old thicket of ignorance after having been repulsed at a score of entrances more promising and more popular. Thus far, no path had led anywhere, unless perhaps to an exceedingly modest living. Forty-five years of study had proved to be quite futile for the pursuit of power; one controlled no more force in 1900 than in 1850, although the amount of force controlled by society had enormously increased. The secret of education still hid itself somewhere behind ignorance, and one fumbled over it as feebly as ever. In such labyrinths, the staff is a force almost more necessary than the legs; the pen becomes a sort of blind-man's dog, to keep him from falling into the gutters. The pen works for itself, and acts like a hand, modelling the plastic material over and over again to the form that suits it best. The form is never arbitrary, but is a sort of growth like crystallization, as any artist knows too well; for often the pencil or pen runs into side-paths and shapelessness, loses its relations, stops or is bogged. Then it has to return on its trail, and recover, if it can, its line of force. The result of a year's work depends more on what is struck out than on what is left in; on the sequence of the main lines of thought, than on their play or variety. Compelled once more to lean heavily on this support, Adams covered more thousands of pages with figures as formal as though they were algebra, laboriously striking out, altering, burning, experimenting, until the year had expired, the Exposition had long been closed, and winter drawing to its end, before he sailed from Cherbourg, on January 19, 1901, for home.
SOURCE: "The Industrial Revolution and the Common Man," in Ideas in Context, edited by Joseph Satin, Houghton Mifflin, 1958, pp. 7-14.
[In the following essay first published in 1951, Hawkes outlines various causes and effects of the Industrial Revolution, emphasizing the destruction of eighteenth-century rural culture and the predominance of scientific thought..]
The pattern of settlement was no longer to be decided by the character of the soil, the surface features of the land and the climate, but by the distribution of the deposits which time had left far below the surface. Huge numbers left farms and villages and swarmed to the places where coal and metal ores lay hidden; once there they showed an extraordinary fecundity. The population doubled and doubled again. By the middle of the nineteenth century half the people of Britain were living in towns, a situation new in the history of great nations.
Those town dwellers, cut off from the soil and from food production, soon lost all those arts and skills which had always been the possession if not of every man, then of every small community. The sons and daughters of the first generation of town dwellers were not taught how to use eye and hand in the traditional skills, and, a loss of absolute finality, they could not inherit all the traditional forms, the shape for an axe handle, a yoke, for a pair of tongs; the proportions of cottage doors and windows, the designs for smocking, lace making, embroidery. Some of these forms, because they had achieved fitness for their purpose as complete as the unchanging bodies of the insects, had remained constant for centuries or millennia; others were always evolving yet maintained their continuity. Now all of them, or almost all, were to fade from the common imagination, to become extinct. I know of only one traditional form for an everyday tool which has been adapted without loss to machine production; this is the exquisitely curved and modulated handle of the woodcutter's axe.
With the extinction of ancient arts and skills there went also countless local rites, customs, legends and histories. All these, whether or no they had been adapted to Christianity, were survivals of a paganism that helped to unite country people with nature and their own ancestors. Stories and names for fields and lanes recalled men and women who had worked the land before them; legends still commemorated local deities who had lived in wood, water, and stone; many customs recognized and assisted in the main crises of individual lives; rites helped to harmonize these individual rhythms with the greater rhythms of nature—they celebrated the return of the sun, the resurrection of the corn, harvest, and the return of death.
Without these immemorial ties, personal and universal, relating men to their surroundings in time and space, the isolation of human consciousness by urban life was a most violent challenge. It gave opportunity for the heightening of consciousness and the sharpening of intellect, but human weakness and material circumstances made it impossible for any but the few gifted or fortunate to respond. The urban masses having lost all the traditions I have just named which together make up the inheritance which may be called culture, tended to become, as individuals, cultureless. The women were in better case, for all except the most downtrodden could rear children, clean, launder, sew, and cook after a fashion, though all their work was dulled and robbed of distinction by the standardization and poor quality of their materials. (It is one of the more bizarre results of industrialism that the rich will now pay great sums to obtain goods that were once taken for granted by quite humble people. Such things as real honey, fresh butter and eggs, hand needlework, tiles made of real stone, reed thatch.) For the men it was far worse. Usually they could do only one thing, and that without direct relation to their own lives; when they returned from the set hours of "work" there was nothing for hand or imagination to do. So, when at last leisure was won for them, it proved to be a barren gift.
I do not wish to suggest that there was any lessening of man's dependence on the land, of his struggle to extract a living from it; that is the stuff of existence and cannot be reduced. It is not true either that industry is lacking in its own bold regional variations; the collieries with hoists and slag heaps, the steel furnaces, the clustering chimneys of the brick kilns, the potteries, all create their own landscape. But the individual life, the individual culture, was not sensitively adjusted to locality, and the nature of the relationship was profoundly changed. It ceased to be creative, a patient and increasingly skilful lovemaking that had persuaded the land to flourish, and became destructive, a grabbing of material for man to destroy or to refashion to his own design. The intrusion of machines between hand and material completed the estrangement.
By this new rapacious treatment of the land man certainly made himself abundantly productive of material goods. But he cannot be sure of getting what he wants from the great cauldron of production. Meanwhile the land, with which he must always continue to live, shows in its ravaged face that husbandry has been succeeded by exploitation—an exploitation designed to satisfy man's vanity, his greed and possessiveness, his wish for domination.
As a starting point for the Revolution I shall choose the time about two hundred years ago, when men began to smelt iron with coke. Earlier attempts to use coal instead of wood had failed, but now, largely through the efforts of generations of one family, the Darbys of Shropshire, the new process was mastered and the coal-and-iron age of Victorian England was already within sight. It is, of course, possible to say that the real revolution, the tipping of the balance from agriculture to manufacture, took place later than this. Equally, or indeed with more justification, it can be claimed that it began much earlier with Tudor commerce and the scientific ferment of the seventeenth century. I would agree, I would even willingly push it back to the depths of the Carboniferous forests; there is never a beginning. But I prefer to select the mating of coal and iron, for with the thought of it the weight and grime of the Black Country, the bustle and energy of material activity, at once take shape in the imagination. Besides, it was a time when the intellect, sharpened by the new scientific, analytical modes of thought, was achieving many other of the devices that made industrialism possible. In one year, 1769, Arkwright gave the water frame to the cotton industry and Watt patented the steam engine. Within another ten years the gorge of the Severn which had been cut in the Ice Age by the overflowing waters of Lake Lapworth was spanned by the first iron bridge to be built in the world. Together these closely consecutive events well represent the new forces of the Revolution: coal and iron, mechanical power, mechanization, and the corresponding development of transport.
The Industrial Revolution was certainly in part brought about by the scientific mode of thought that had grown from the Renaissance intellect. Yet it was not itself a rational episode. To me it seems an upsurge of instinctive forces comparable to the barbarian invasions, a surge that destroyed eighteenth-century civilization much as the Anglo-Saxons destroyed that of Roman Britain. No one planned it, no one foresaw more than a tittle of the consequences, very few people said that they wanted it, but once begun the impetus was irresistible; more and more individual lives became helplessly involved, drawn into the vortex. It went forward as irresistibly as the evolution of the dinosaurs and in it was included the roaring of Tyrannosaurus. It seems indeed that Tyrannosaurus and Apollo of the Intellect worked together for the Revolution and no combination could be more powerful or more dangerous.
It lent to its instruments an astonishing strength. It enabled this chip of the earth's surface, the small fund of human mind, will and energy that it supported, momentarily to dominate the whole surface of the planet and in so doing, like a gigantic, slow explosion, to disperse fragments of itself all over that surface. It seems possible that had there not been this association of coal and iron, growing population and intellectual ferment within the bounds of a temperate island, the industrialization that in two centuries has totally changed human life might never have assumed its present forms.
They were there, and the new way of life developed with a speed that is almost unbelievable when it is compared with any other experience of human history. In south Wales, south Yorkshire, and Tyneside, all those regions where past events had left iron and coal in close proximity, there sprang up foundries whose crimson glare by night repeats something of the volcanic furies of other ages. With them there grew to colossal stature the manufacture of metal goods, a manufacture centred on Birmingham in a region that had remained longer than almost any other under the peaceful covering of the forests. On the moist western side of the Pennines the cotton industry, the first to be wholly dependent on material produced outside the island, grew up in obscene relationship with the trade in African slaves. The little mills once turned by the Pennine streams, family cottage manufacture, were soon abandoned for the factories of Manchester and the neighbouring towns that were growing round it. Away on the east of the central mountains, the ancient conservatism of the wool trade long resisted the new methods; in time, however, first spinning and then weaving left the rural valleys and moved to towns like Bradford, where the foamy white wool is combed and spun in mills of blackened rock, and to Leeds and Huddersfield, where it is woven on looms whose descent from those of the Bronze Age it is hard to credit. The salt that the evaporation of the Triassic lakes and lagoons had left under the Cheshire plain became the source of a chemical industry, a thing new even among so much innovation. One other industry there was which I will mention because it shows how, exceptionally, a few individuals may impose themselves on the land, creating something from their own wills that is not dictated by circumstances. There was no material reason beyond a supply of coal for his furnaces why Josiah Wedgwood and his family should have built up the pottery business in Staffordshire. Much of his material was dug in Cornwall (where the glistening white heaps of kaolin look so alien, so improbable among the soft, warmly coloured granite moorlands), and his kilns were inconveniently far from the coast for the carriage of both the raw clay and the finished china. However, Wedgwood lived there and started his work there and so the existence of the Five Towns was determined. The craft that even in Britain had a history of four and a half millennia now went into mass production largely through the inspiration of one man. It was appropriate that for a time his name was identified with that of the clay he manipulated—that "common Wedgwood" should become the accepted term for the people's crockery. Because of their history, the Potteries have remained more patriarchal in organization, more personal in feeling than other industries, just as from its nature the work itself remains exceptionally individual and unmechanized. I will not leave the Potteries without commenting on the extraordinary forethought that nature seems to me to have shown in the formation of kaolin; nearly two hundred million years after its deposition, it has proved that this substance can be used for making china, for fulling cloth, for keeping the shine from women's faces, for papermaking, and as a cure for diarrhoea.
Transport was of course one of the keys of industrialism. Upon it depended a state of affairs in which men no longer made things for local use and in which a locality no longer provided the food for its people. By the eighteenth century Britain was more closely unified by roads than it had been since Roman times and soon this was reinforced by the canals, a quiet, deliberate form of carriage that came to have its own nomadic population. Then down the ringing grooves of change came the railway engine begotten by Watt and Stephenson on the iron-and-coal age. Gangs of navies were moved about the country embanking, cutting, tunnelling, bridge-building; thousands of tons of metal were laid across our meadows, along our valleys, round our coasts. The incidental result of this activity in stimulating consciousness in its search for its origins has already been demonstrated in the life of William Smith, the Father of Stratigraphy.
The shift in population was the fourth and infinitely the greatest that had taken place since Mesolithic times. The north of England and southern Wales, formerly rather thinly settled, soon had the bulk of a sharply rising population. As mills, factories, foundries, and kilns multiplied, the little streets of the workers' houses spread their lines over hills that belonged to wild birds and mountain sheep, and up valleys where there was nothing busier than a rushing beck. Without intention or understanding the greater part of the people of Britain found themselves living in towns, uprooted, and in...
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SOURCE: "Signs of the Times," in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, D. Appleton and Company, 1873, pp. 187-96.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1829 in the Edinburgh Review, Carlyle describes what he observes to be the largely negative influence of modern technology on the action, thought, and feeling of nineteenth-century society.]
It is no very good symptom either of nations or individuals, that they deal much in vaticination. Happy men are full of the present, for its bounty suffices them; and wise men also, for its duties engage them. Our grand business undoubtedly is, not to see what lies dimly...
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SOURCE: "The Fruits of Industry," in The Eclipse of the Intellectual, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, Funk & Wagnalls, 1956, pp. 3-19.
[In the following excerpt, Zolla provides a chronology of literary responses to the Industrial Revolution, ranging from Blake to Melville.]
When we heard talk about the Encyclopedists or opened a volume of their enormous work, we felt we were making our way among the innumerable spools and looms of a huge factory, and before all that clatter and loud rolling of wheels, before that mechanism which disorients the eye and the sensibility, before the incomprehensibility of a...
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Buckley, J. F. "Living in the Iron Mills: A Tempering of Nineteenth-Century America's Orphic Poet." Journal of American Culture 16, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 67-72.
Discusses Rebecca Harding Davis's "realistic view of America" in the midst of war, transcendental idealism, and nationalistic fervor.
Chesterton, G. K. The Victorian Age in Literature. London: Oxford University Press, 1966, 120 p.
Broad-ranging thematic and historical study of the major Victorian poets and novelists, originally published in 1912.
Jennings, Humphrey. Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming...
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