The Industrial Revolution in Literature
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
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Historical And Cultural Perspectives
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;...
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Contemporary Reactions To The Machine
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 at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.
Know'st thou Yesterday, its aim and reason?
Work'st thou well To-day, for worthy things?
Then calmly wait the Morrow's hidden season,
And fear not thou, what hap soe'er it brings!
But man's "large discourse of reason" will look "before and after;" and, impatient of "the ignorant present time," will indulge in anticipation far more than profits him. Seldom can the unhappy be persuaded that the evil of the day is sufficient for it; and the ambitious will not be content with present splendour, but paints yet more glorious triumphs, on the cloud-curtain of...
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Themes And Symbols In Literature
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 plant which has so many diverse ramifications, contemplating everything that is required to make a piece of cloth, we felt that the very suit we wore was spoiled.
Goethe, Poetry and Truth
One of the commonplaces which plague us is the statement: "Industry and technique can of course be harmful to the spirit, but that is only due to their improper use." In truth, the machine does not by itself become tyrannical; it does so simply because of a certain "spirit" which pervades, accompanies, and spreads its aura around it. To detach the object from the effect it has on the subject is already tantamount to being subjugated by the spirit of the Industrial Revolution. Whoever tries to...
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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 of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers. Edited by Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge. New York: Free Press, 1985, 376 p.
Excerpted poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, by writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reflecting the impact of industrialism upon British life and culture.
Johnson, Patricia E. "Hard Times and the Structure of Industrialism: The Novel as Factory." Studies in the Novel XXI, No. 2 (Summer 1989): 128-37.
Examines Dickens's symbolic use of the factory, focusing on his "critique of the interlocking structures—economic, social, and political—of industrial...
(The entire section is 282 words.)