The Industrial Revolution in Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.