by Cecelia Tichi
"Bessemer" was a good name, smelt of money and mighty rolling
mills and great executives stepping out of limousines . . . .
John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel, 1930
An American born before, say, 1960 can probably recall the personal incident that crystallized his or her knowledge of the current technological revolution. Mine occurred on a 1985 visit to Pittsburgh's Station Square, a recycled riverfront railroad station with restaurants and shops. On a fine spring day the crowd gathered at a crafts fair up near a hulking structure that had been moved to the riverfront site from a shut-down steel mill. I approached and stood before it, a towering, 1930 Bessemer converter bearing the brass plaque of a historical commission.
You stare hard at that plaque if you are a native Pittsburgher born during World War II, your earliest memories those of the wartime night sky blazing from the steel mills. You stare because you realize that the Bessemer converter has now become an official symbol of your past and America's as well. The steel retort essential to steelmaking from the 1890s through the better part of this century has now become the focus of tourist curiosity and nostalgia. Economically of course, it represents a bygone industrial era, one grimly echoed in the abandoned steelworks up and down the Monongahela Valley.
But the industrial relic signifies something else as well. Mounted for exhibition in the era of the digital computer, the Bessemer converter represents a superseded technology. It is the technology we associate with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century inventions like boilers and gear wheels, ball bearings, pistons, and the like. It is the technology of interconnected component parts, many of them visible to the naked eye in traditional machines and structures. In operation, this technology became familiar in the last century in steam locomotives whose rods and wheels pushed and rotated before the eyes of bystanders on railroad station platforms. It is a technology still with us in the automobile engine and in steel-frame building construction. It is the technology of girders and gears.
It is no longer, however, the dominant or defining technology. That position belongs to the computer. Even popular slang underscores the change. An eccentric or crazy individual formerly had a "screw loose"; he or she now has a "bad chip." Mental effort is now the work of a "computer mind"; no longer do the "wheels go around." These images mark the transition from one dominant technology to another. The change involves much more than the adaptation of language to new material conditions. Behind the shift of images are new, technological definitions of the human relation to the world.
Twentieth-century science, of course, is also reconceiving the material world. In quantum mechanics it is a statistically probable set of circumstances at any given moment, in nuclear physics fluctuating energy levels. The functioning of higher organisms, biochemists argue, may depend upon chemical information systems far more sophisticated than the computer's binary model allows. Within technology, however, it is the computer which provides the powerful new metaphor for the human mind and brain. The classicist and student of the computer, J. David Bolter, explains this power on a historical basis. In any given era, he argues, there exists a technology which defines or redefines man's role in relation to nature. Currently, Bolter argues, the computer is giving us a new definition of man as an "information processor" and of nature as "information to be processed" (13). Accordingly, a contemporary magazine cover portrays the human brain as a mass of digital microcircuitry.
The now-eclipsed technology of gears and girders defined human beings and their relation to nature differently. Its central conception was that of an energy-transforming machine. True, some of its machine terms are still in use. "Systems" and "components;" for instance, continue from the Bessemer era into the computer age, where they are newly defined in a context of information processing. But when used in the era of gear-and-girder technology, these terms meant something very different. In fact, they referred to a different world view. The gear-and-girder era, powerful throughout the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, fostered a conception of the human as a machine for the consumption and production of energy. And it defined nature similarly as a congeries of machines and structures comprised of interworking component parts, meaning structural and mechanical members (gears, crankshafts, sprocket arms, armatures, belts, etc.). According to this technological outlook, each machine or combination structure-machine produced energy with greater or lesser efficiency, depending upon its design.
The human role in such a world was to formulate new designs. It was to engineer the structures and machines able to function with maximal efficiency and minimal waste. Under the aegis of this technology human beings intellectually understood the material world as dynamic, integrated assemblies of component parts. Studied analytically, the parts and the wholes could be reconceived in new relations to each other. They could be improved upon by redesign, making the systems stronger and more efficient. New, better designs were possible with redesigned, reconstituted components. The emphasis was always upon the component parts and the human role in design.
This machine world of the gear-and-girder technology had vast implications for all of American culture during the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. Until recently we have been simply too involved in it to see it, too much a part of its assumptions to gain the necessary analytical perspective. Now its decline in importance in the computer age opens up that perspective. The assumptions of the gear-and-girder technology can emerge clearly as just that--a set of assumptions. These can be seen as formulations of reality and not as reality itself. When we study these assumptions, therefore, we essentially study an era's perception. We investigate an outlook on the world and recognize that certain imaginative forms are necessarily cognate with it. In this instance I will approach that once-definitive technology of gears and girders in order to see how its assumptions affected diverse areas of American culture, from skyscrapers and autos to popular media and the arts of the written word.
We must bear in mind, all the while, that the gear-and-girder technology pushed aside certain cherished assumptions about the material world in its own day. Its ascendance brought about new conceptions of art because it posed a radical challenge to the existing order. Specifically, the machine world of gears and girders displaced the dominant Romantic view of a holistic, spiritual world of vegetative and bodily being. When the twentieth-century poet, William Carlos Williams, called the poem a machine made of words, he presumed a very different world from that of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in the Dial that "poetry . . . is a natural fruit" and that "man bears a poem . . . as naturally as the oak bears an acorn and the vine a gourd" (4:290-91). This nineteenth-century belief that nature, the human imagination, and art were unitary, fertile, maternal, and co-generative changed radically under the gear-and-girder assumptions of the twentieth.
Even Edgar Allan Poe, the Romantic writer fascinated by the machinery of works of art, repudiated a machine-based aesthetic of visible component parts and design. "To see distinctly the machinery -- the wheels and pinions -- of any work of Art is, unquestionably, of itself, a pleasure;" he began. But in the next breath Poe made it clear that to emphasize the artist's design is to deform the work of art. To reveal the anatomy of form is to destroy aesthetics (1464). In a holistic and spiritually unitary world, the mechanisms and structures of the poem, like those of the acorn or gourd, must remain concealed. Artifice must suit the world to which it refers. Even Walt Whitman, who sometimes carpentered the poem ("jointing, squaring, sawing, mortising, / The hoist-up of beams, the push of them in their places, laying / Them regular") was responding to a hand-crafts tradition and referred solely to static forms, not to energy-producing machines. He sings to a locomotive, but essentially to compel that "fierce-throated beauty" to "merge" into the organically holistic song-poem (186, 472).
Approaching the world of gears and girders, therefore, we enter into a world very different from that of the Romantics. It is a world whose sociopolitical difficulties have been addressed by numerous scholars and critics of culture. In this century its premises have precipitated a crisis of the liberal imagination by repudiating the Romantic concept of organic wholeness which gave the individual and society their integrity. Modernist thought lent itself to contemporary crises ranging from spiritual anomie to social fragmentation and even the political atrocities of fascism. In imaginative literature and criticism its presumptions have conceptually dislocated the word and the text in a crisis continuing from the late Victorians to the deconstructionists. The modernist world view, in addition, has left us disturbing paradoxes. It is ironic, for instance, that William Carlos Williams, a man of deeply liberal social sympathies, would nonetheless define the poem impersonally as a machine made of words.
Yet Williams and others could not sustain the terms of an older world. They saw signs of its exhaustion in sentimental, fey, and precious literature, and they rejected it. This study, then, is not a reiteration of the spiritual and political crises of twentieth-century modernism, but the story of American writers' efforts to reinvigorate imaginative literature in accordance with the terms of a new world. Materially, that world appeared to them to be a system of component parts, and human beings its designers. It is the world of Archimedes come to fulfillment, and one likely to remain with us in life and art insofar as it legitimately represents the visual and the kinetic. Now it is time to see how the principles of that technology emerged in the forms of language, art, and popular culture from the 1890s through the 1920s.
"I wanted to design."
Frank Lloyd Wright, A Testament, 1957
At the United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the mother of a five-year-old boy paused before an exhibition of educational blocks. Designed in 1830 by the German educator, Friedrich Froebal, the "Froebal Gifts," as they were called, consisted of smooth cardboard and maplewood cubes, cylinders, triangles, spheres. They were intended for programmed play. This mother determined that her son must have a set.
Whether Frank Lloyd Wright's mother knew it or not, her decision to educate young Wright with the Froebal blocks fit with the industrial age into which the boy was born. Post-Civil War America increasingly presented a landscape of machines and structures whose component parts were visible to the naked eye. The era of handicrafts was rapidly giving way to an age of manufacture from prefabricated component parts. The parts were integrated into the total design. Gear-and-girder technology was in ascendance, and prefabricated parts were the order of the day. Wright's mother somehow recognized that the multiform blocks were appropriate to that order.
For the blocks, factory milled, were components of design. Each smooth shape, an abstract solid, was nonetheless a prefabricated part to be integrated into a larger design system of the child's invention. Programmed play with the wood components perfectly suited the new industrial age. Wright recalled, "I sat at the little kindergarten table top and played with the cube, the sphere and the triangle. . . . I soon became susceptible to constructive pattern evolving in everything I saw. I learned to see this way, and when I did, I did not care to draw casual incidentals of nature. l wanted to design" (Testament 19-20).
The American industrial-age passion for component-part design continued. Few children had the opportunity to experience the esoteric Froebal blocks, but the vernacular version reached millions in the form of the Erector Set. By the early 1910s American boys were hard at work designing structures and machines with the steel components of the phenomenally successful Erector. Its component parts of stamped-out steel could be assembled into numerous designs. The Erector rewarded boys' ingenuity by awarding dazzling prizes for original models. Operating manuals otherwise guided boys in the component-part construction of a range of designs from bridges to skyscrapers and Ferris wheels. Powered by small electric motors, the girders and gears became moving parts of machines.
The toys and the industrial culture mirrored each other. Steel-girder bridges and buildings were rising on the landscape by the late nineteenth century, and electric motors and internal combustion engines soon powered a variety of machines. Americans found themselves living in a gear-and-girder world. The New Yorkers walking the concourses of Penn Station experienced much the same environment as the San Franciscans who swam at the steel-girdered indoor pools of the Sutro baths. The railway passengers routed over bridges routinely saw the same girdered trusses which World's Fair visitors to Chicago or St. Louis marveled at as they rode the steam-powered, original Ferris wheel. People found themselves in an "Erector" world.
That world was remarkable for visual accessibility. To scan photographs of the machines and structures between the 1890s and the 1920s -- or to look, really look, at them and at their counterparts today -- is to be visually involved. An onlooker has immediate access to the construction, to the design decisions of the engineers and architects. Open to view, so obviously designed, the world of girders and gears invites the onlooker to see its internal workings, its component parts. It insists upon the recognition that it is, in fact, an assembly. It demands that the viewer notice the design in and of itself and acknowledge its constructed reality. In turn it redirects the eye to the natural world, teaching by example that all forms, including nature's own, can be perceived in this way. Nature may be the engineer, but the energy-producing acorns and gourds must be made to reveal their "gears" and "girders" too.
This world of component-part design is visually compelling. Gears go round, bearings roll, pistons push, girders support. The foremost traits of this world are its visuality and its kinetics. They arrest onlookers' attention. Not surprisingly, schools of visual artists engaged the new technology. The American Precisionist painters and photographers were defined in the 1920s by their visual enactments of the gear-and-girder world. Other industrialized nations similarly produced schools of artists committed to machine aesthetics. Pictures and sculptural constructions were the clear and obvious response to the new technological landscape.
The pictorial quality of machines and structures was easily transferred into fiction and poetry. The novelist Frank Norris painted word-pictures of locomotives and harvesters, while in verse Carl Sandburg represented the skyscraper, its girders and rivets. Hart Crane, of course, comes immediately to mind because The Bridge (1930) bases the whole American experience on symbolic possibilities in the engineering-aesthetic triumph, the Brooklyn Bridge. All these writers freely developed symbolic meanings from pictorially vivid machines and structures, knowing that their readers were as familiar with these forms as they themselves were. Thus the writers exploited the idea that culture is a bridge into history, that the skyscraper began in a smelter of human blood and so signifies human vitality, that the harvester in operation represents dangerous energies. The symbolic meanings vary, but the machines and the engineered structures remain as original points of reference. They remain, that is, pictorially vivid. They are pictorial representations set inside the texts in which they appear. The poems and novels are, so to speak, the galleries hung with pictures of machines and structures.
Yet pictures of machines and of machine parts are not the point here. Form is. We must return to the notion that a dominant technology defines or redefines the human role in relation to nature. Thus the gear-and-girder technology summoned new literary forms suited to its perceptual values. The novel and poem, like the automobile and bridge (and gourd and acorn), exhibited formal traits of this technology. Fiction and poetry became recognizable as designed assemblies of component parts, including prefabricated parts. By this logic a poem or novel containing machine images was not necessarily a work of the gear-and-girder world. Yet fiction and poetry about flowers or fishing or chilled plums or a red wheelbarrow could enact the defining technology in its very form. The author's role in this technology was to design, even engineer, the arts of the written word.
In fact, three prominent early-twentieth-century American writers did just that -- as John Dos Passos indicated when he called himself an architect and as William Carlos Williams showed when he called the poem a machine and put himself in the role of engineer. In American literature their work, together with that of Ernest Hemingway, is the achievement of the gear-and-girder technology. Their fiction and poetry introduced a radically new conception to the arts of the written word. As we shall see, their poems and fiction were not the contexts in which machines could be pictorially represented. Their written texts were not galleries featuring pictorial representations of machines and structures. In that sense their works are not about machines. Their fiction and poetry, instead, is the machine.
The machine-age text does not contain representations of the machine -- it too is the machine. It is the functional system of component parts designed to transmit energy. As such, it can be shown to obey the design rules for sound structures and efficient machines. The components must all function systematically. There must be no unnecessary parts to lessen efficiency. The poet or novelist, as designer, must labor with those objectives in mind. Dos Passos, Hemingway, and Williams did so, and their work endures largely because of it. These writers benefited, while some others, notably Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson, failed to recognize the opportunities intrinsic to the gear-and-girder technology and consequently suffered artistically. Grasping the creative potential of the dominant technology, Dos Passos, Hemingway, and Williams exploited its possibilities and vivified the national literature. Their work shows that the culture of the gear-and-girder technology was a collaborative effort of the engineer, the architect, the fiction writer, and the poet. It demonstrates that a technological revolution is a revolution not only of science and technology but of language, of fiction, and ultimately of poetry.
CHAPTER ONE: TREES, ANIMALS, ENGINES
There are no sagas -- only trees now, animals, engines:
William Carlos Williams, Notes in Diary Form, 192
William Carlos Williams voiced a new worldview when he wrote that his was an age of "trees, animals, engines." For one thing, he acknowledged the proliferation of machines and structures in contemporary life. Trolleys, telephones, and automobiles, etc., were everywhere on the landscape. Sheer numbers made a claim for their recognition. Williams's statement is a concession to a new reality. It suggests a new outlook in which the bridge and the engine would be equal in status to animals and plants.
Two relevant issues underlie Williams's statement. The first, as we see, is logistical. The trees, animals, and engines could be listed as equal items in a series simply because technology was so pervasive in American life. It impinged on consciousness everywhere in the home and on the street. The traditional natural world of flora and fauna now included machines and structures.
Williams's observation, however, goes much further in its assumptions about the relation of technology to nature. As we shall see, it makes an important statement about contemporary perception. Quite simply, Williams joins trees, animals, and engines together because he, like many of his contemporaries, presumes that the structural principles of these phenomena are identical. For Williams, trees and animals, like machines and structures, were integrated systems of component parts. He sees them as categorical equals because they are anatomical analogues of each other. Perceiving in this way, Williams had every reason to join organism with mechanism. Both, in his view, were comprised of functional, integrated components. The body's skeletal and digestive systems had their counterparts in the structures of the tree and the automobile. Structurally they belonged together. When Frank Lloyd Wright proposed that "an entire building might grow up out of conditions as a plant grows up out of soil" and added that the tree is the "ideal for the architecture of the machine age," he only elaborated Williams's position. He, like Williams, saw the structural similarity between organic and inorganic forms. Both he and Williams recognized a similarity between nature's mechanisms and man's (Autobiography 147).
The perception of trees, animals, and engines as structural analogues had far-reaching implications for imaginative literature, as we shall see. It eventuated in a new conception of the novel as a designed structure of component parts, of the sentence as a structuring component of fiction, and of the poem as a mechanism comprised of constituent word-objects. This perception is the basis on which the technological revolution of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America was really a revolution in language as well as in engineering.
These matters, however, must await further discussion. For the moment we begin with the logistical side of Williams's remark, with his assumption that technology is as omnipresent in modern America as its flora and fauna. Briefly we must survey an America of trees, animals, engines. To do so is to see a nation that perceives technology mixing freely with nature both in the external environment and in the popular media. Middle-class periodicals presented this America both in visual and verbal texts from journalism to advertisements. Popular magazines are a valuable source showing how many Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were encouraged to think about machine technology in contemporary life.
This opening discussion will also reveal the development of a new machine-age consciousness. The proliferation of machines and structures in American life between the 1890s and the 1920s began to make itself felt in popular and serious fiction. Novels of commercial and artistic intent showed a new consciousness of a world of "trees, animals, engines." Mixed metaphors of nature and machines abutted each other even in novels whose themes were antitechnological. Fiction offered a good opportunity to see this cultural amalgamation of technology and nature, especially in the work of Frank Norris, Jack London, and Edna Ferber.
As we shall see, this process of amalgamation occurred with such rapidity that it often had the appearance of discontinuity. Suddenly loosed from their separate categories, technological and organic figures of speech seemed to jostle each other, suggesting the tensions that invariably arise in times of rapid sociocultural change, when the old order seems to vanish in the onrush of the new. The novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937) summarized the pace of this change. Born in an America that still adhered to Old World traditions, Wharton lived to see them repudiated in modernist America materially characterized by "telephones, motors, electric light, central heating, X-rays, cinemas, radium, aeroplanes, and wireless telegraphy [which] were not only unknown but still mostly unforeseen" (Backward Glance 6-7).
Wharton refers to a culture of discontinuities, one wrenched in the process by which values and material circumstances undergo rapid change. It is important to examine the enactment of those discontinuities in the very texture of imaginative writing. Of course not all writers experienced tortuous change. Williams and Wright, men trained in technological disciplines (in medicine and engineering-architecture, respectively), were comfortable with their perceptually unified world of trees, animals, and engines. They had reason to be, having learned to see the objects in the material world as designed assemblies of integrated component parts. Writers further away, however, from immediate sources of such perception felt caught between tradition and change in a post-Darwinian world that seemed above all unstable. It is perhaps surprising to find that their writings, nevertheless, prepared the way for technology's new prestige and its formal enactment in fiction and poetry.
Logistically speaking, technology was everywhere on the American landscape by the turn of the twentieth century. Rail and telegraph lines were a commonplace, and citizens even of smaller towns saw their dusty streets dug up for water, gas, and sewer lines, and poles sunk for the new telephone wires. Those living along the major river valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi had seen, and continued to see, mammoth bridge construction, and every medium-sized city could boast a tall, metal-frame building of the kind to be known as skyscrapers. For middle-class families the automobile and home electrification were just in the offing.
Personal knowledge of technology, however, exceeded the experience of one's family or hometown, whether in the metropolis or the heartland. The burgeoning, successful American magazines like Cosmopolitan, Harper's Weekly, Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, The Ladies Home Journal, and Literary Digest brought images of technological values and accomplishments into middle-class American living rooms weekly and monthly. A subscription to a mainstream magazine, even one specialized for children, for homemakers, or for businessmen, was a guarantee that the reader would be made constantly aware of the national and worldwide presence of machines and structures. Journalism and advertising saw to it. To scan some of these periodicals is to see that Americans from the 1890s to the 1920s were systematically taught that technology was no longer confined to the factory grounds. Virtually all readers learned that they now inhabited a world of "trees, animals, engines."
The home provides a good example of the magazines' role in technological consciousness-raising. A subscriber to the Ladies Home Journal (LHJ) was offered, via advertisements, a range of technological equipment including cameras, bicycles, furnaces, electric dishwashers, irons, waffle irons, phonographs, automobiles. These objects were unified in the concept of the home as factory, and the lady of the house as engineer. Good Housekeeping (GH) (1910) said that "a house is nothing, more than a factory for the production of happiness" and urged that it be equipped accordingly, with machinery" (58:525). The magazine's famous institute offered a booklet entitled Household Engineering, which promised that the technical ability heretofore applied to the factory and business world would now be devoted to "a housekeeper's engineering problems" (67 [Oct. 1918]: 45). Similar articles in Technical World and Woman's Home Companion included "Running the Home Like a Factory" and "Training the Home Engineer" (23 [July 1915]: 589-92; 53 [Feb. 1926]: 42). One 1920 article presented a young bride aghast at the first sight of her new mechanized kitchen. She exclaims to her husband, "You know I did not have a course in machinery at the finishing school!," only to hear him say that a happy marriage will result from these labor-saving machines, those which the Hotpoint Corporation vowed originated with "a housekeeping engineer -- not in some casual workshop" (LHJ 37 [Sept. 1920]: 3; 39 [Apr. 22]: 173). If such articles show the extent to which disempowered women were co-opted in an industrial age, they also mark the deep incursion of technology into the domestic sphere.
In one respect, in fact, the homemaker was crucial to the encouragement of technological activity, since advertisers bought space in women's magazines to promote such toys as steam engines, electrical sets, motorboats, and construction kits for boys, most of them appealing on the basis of education, motivation, and character development. (Erector, typically, promised mothers to "help prepare [their boys] for the business world by developing ambition" and promised to "encourage imagination, concentration, ingenuity and skill -- and increase chances for success as a man") (LHJ 33 [Dec. 1916]: 85; Collier's 58 [Dec. 9, 1916]: 22-23).
Boys themselves could alternate hands-on play with forays into encyclopedic literature intended to explain the new world of machine processes. One good example, The Book of Wonders (1916), shows precisely how the young (or adults for that matter) would understand the era as one of trees, animals, and engines. Typically the book tells the "story" of some item in daily use, such as a suit of clothes or rubber tires, moving from photographs of pastured sheep and plantation rubber trees to a pictorial display of the complicated machinery that completes the story by turning wool and sap into cloth and tires. The world's "wonders" are both natural ("Why the Moon Travels with Us") and technological ("The Story in a Submarine Boat"). The book's cover sends that very message, displaying the double image of a wise old owl whose head and eyes also become the world rotated, Archimidean-fashion, by belts and pulleys.
Middle-class youngsters with access to wonder books would probably also enjoy subscriptions to a children's magazine like St. Nicholas, which relegated the sewing machine and the camera to little girls, but offered boys a world of adventure in the realm of the engineer and inventor. To turn the pages of St. Nicholas from the turn of the century is to see it define an interesting, worthwhile life as one of adventure and ingenuity. The publisher spared no effort to involve boys in contemporary machine and structural technology. One illustrated series --"Nature Giants that Man Has Conquered" -- portrayed human triumph over natural forces via steam, waterpower, electricity, chemistry. There were also inspirational feature stories on prominent inventors like Edison ("The Boyhood of Edison"), George Westinghouse, and the explosives wizard Hudson Maxim (whose book on literary criticism, as we shall see, made Ezra Pound conscious of the technological values inherent in language). One St. Nicholas series, entitled "With Men Who Do Things," invited young readers to identify with the boy-narrator and his friend, both transported to major civil engineering sites, where they work and learn the design principles of elevators, suspension bridges, tunnels, dams, explosives, submarines, electrical power stations, skyscrapers, the Panama Canal locks and excavations, waterway diversions, and industrial machinery. Photographs, illustrations, and diagrams vividly enhanced the text, doubtless increasing the attraction to young readers.
"With Men Who Do Things" was evidently so successful a series that St. Nicholas followed it up in 1916-17 with another entitled "On the Battle-Front of Engineering," emphasizing that ingenuity can triumph over natural and man-made perils, including floe ice and tunnel collapse. The heroic modern life in this periodical was clearly that of the engineer or inventor, and boys were encouraged to think of their place in the technological future, whether as builders of bridges or architects of airships (38 [Apr., May, June, 1911 ]: 499, 593, 700; 40 [Mar., Apr., May, June, July, Aug., Sept., Oct., 1913]: 402-9, 533-40, 638-44, 735-40, 822-27, 927-33, 1023-30, 1126-33; 41 [Jan., Feb., Mar., Apr., May, July, Aug., Sept., Oct.]: 237 -43, 333 -39, 421-27,526 -31,621-27,837 -41,893 - 99, 1006-12, 1094-1100).
The husbands and fathers of these same middle-class families also imbibed a steady stream of technological messages from magazines, prominent among them the Literary Digest (LD), forerunner of Henry Luce's Time. The Digest, as its title implies, distilled stories from a wide range of American periodicals, including journals like Engineering-News, Iron Age, and Cassier's, all periodicals of professional engineers, as well as Popular Science Monthly and the Scientific American. A reader would have found Digest articles on "The Development of American Industries since Columbus;" "New York's Great Underground Railroad," "Some Wonderful Calculating Machines," "America at the Paris Fair," "Achievements of Electricity in Human Progress," and "American Mechanical Supremacy and American Character" (2, no. 7 [Dec. 13, 1899]: 9-10; 20, no. 6 [Feb. 10, 1900]: 183; no. 8 [Feb. 24, 1900]: 247; no. 17 [Apr. 28, 1900]: 505-6; no. 19 [May 12, 1900]: 577; 21 [Oct. 6, 1900]: 402).
Engineering and its achievement was a recurrent emphasis in the Digest and in other magazines like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. The middle-class male reader heard his magazines tell him that "in this country we have gone further in engineering than any other people," that "in the progress of engineering we are contributing more than our share," and that "civil engineers have supplied the grand arches and ribs of steel which made it possible thus to excel in vastness every building enterprise which earth in its unnumbered centuries has borne upon its bosom" (LD 24, no. 6 [Feb. 8, 1902]: 182; no. 11 [Mar. 15, 1902]: 357; Scientific American 71 [Aug. 11, 1894]: 87).
Many articles emphasized the power and resourcefulness of engineering. "The Greatest Bridge in America," "Seventy Years of Civil Engineering," and "Character in the Engineering Profession" were typical and went hand in glove with articles like "The Mighty River of Wheat" in Munsey and "Gigantic Labor Savers" in Collier's, whose text and large-format photographs extolled the wonders of powerful machines from reapers to conveyer belts. All such articles endorsed the ingenuity of those conceiving, building, and using machinery. They invited the reader to enter a state of informed awe. The American middle-class man, like his son, learned that modern progress was the result of ingenuity and the development and application of machines and structures all over the world. The family parlor magazine rack held constant reminders that the old American agrarian world was transforming itself into one in which machines and structures took a proper place in the field, on the farm, and even in the forest (Collier's 32 [Dec. 19, 1903]: 7-8; Scientific American 112 [June 5, 1915]: 527-33; 71 [Aug. 11, 1894]: 87; Munsey 25 [Apr. 1901]: 17-30; Collier's 58 [Nov. 11, 1916]: 12-13).
WOLVES, WHEELS, PISTONS, PETUNIAS
Magazines reflect contemporary consciousness; so does fiction. Between the 1890s and the 1920s American writers and journalists were quick to reflect their awareness of the new integrated world of nature and machines. It was not, for instance, unusual to see that Country Life in America, a magazine devoted to articles on fruits and nuts, gardens, and sporting dogs, would include an essay on "The Rise of the Aluminum Piston" without editorial acknowledgment that anything incongruous was going on (31 [Nov. 1916]: 84). Indications are that from the viewpoint of the editors and the readers, nothing was. The new world of integrated organism and mechanism was firmly established by the 1910s. And if the magazines make this point abundantly clear, it is nonetheless important to search beyond them to find the record of this new world in the texts of imaginative writers.
Novels, in particular, provide a good source for inquiry. Novelists have the task of encoding culture in word choices that represent the vanguard of contemporary consciousness. The world of "trees, animals, engines" could be validated or denied in the very texture of prose fiction of the era. For the novelist is by definition the figure acutely sensitive to the nuances of language. The coarse-minded mass-magazine editor might juxtapose images of the forest glade against the automobile factory floor, but we expect the novelist to keep the two qualitatively separate or to join them if perception so warrants. It is therefore helpful to look for the world of "trees, animals, engines" in the fiction of prominent contemporary novelists.
We begin with the commercially successful fiction of Edna Ferber, whose early novels make an excellent case study. As a newspaper reporter for local midwestern papers and for the Chicago Tribune, Ferber had a shrewd sense of the timely, the practical, the middle-class slant on her subjects. Although she is best remembered for such later novels as Show-Boat, Saratoga Trunk, and Giant, Ferber's earlier, so-called "Emma McChesney" novels of 1914-15 interest us here. Under the improbable titles of Roast Beef, Medium, Personality Plus, and Emma McChesney & Co., Ferber created a popular new heroine. She is the spirited divorcee "Mrs. Mac," a traveling saleswoman guiding her son through the perils of young manhood as she outwits all her business competitors.
Of interest here, of course, is the range of machine images to be found in these novels, whose audience probably included the same women who subscribed to Good Housekeeping and the Ladies Home Journal. For instance, when Mrs. Mac's son interviews for a job in advertising, he feels his prospective employer send a warning "from that wireless station located in his subconscious mind." Soon we hear the man speak in similar figures: "Let me tell you something, young 'un. I've got what you might call a thirty-horse-power mind. I keep it running on high all the time, with the muffler cut out, and you can hear me coming for miles." Later on, the young man pays tribute to his mother's child-rearing skill. "If I've got this far," he says, "it's all because of you. I've been thinking all along that I was the original self-starter, when you've really had to get out and crank me every few miles" (Personality Plus 21,35-36).
Not all Ferber's images come from the automobile. Nor do they belong only to a man's world. A stenographer compliments Mrs. Mac (and herself) in these terms: "some people are just bound to -- well, to manufacture, because they just can't help it. Dynamos -- that's what the technical book would call 'em. You're one -- a great big one. I'm one. Just a little tiny one. But it's sparking away there all the time." Even business days can be described in technological images. Ferber writes that "the machinery of [Mrs. Mac's] day, ordinarily as noiseless and well-ordered as a thing on ball bearings, now rasped, creaked, jerked, stood still, jolted on again" (Emma McChesney & Co. 135, 143-44).
In Ferber we have an impressive lot of figures from machine technology, from rolling stock to the automobile to the dynamo. These images serve the fictional techniques of characterization, of description, of evocation of mood. In these novels no character scoffs to hear such terms used. Nor does Ferber duck responsibility for them. Not once are these images set inside the apologetic punctuation of quotation marks. As a journalist and commercial writer with her eye on the novelist's marketplace, Edna Ferber would be unlikely to take any stylistic risks that might alienate her audience. Her use of images from machine technology suggests a middle-class receptivity to such language. It signals its acceptability among respectable people. Ferber's readiness to use images from machine technology indicates how thoroughly assimilated technology had become in American middle-class culture.
Contemporary readers of artistic fiction also found technology making inroads in the prose of Frank Norris, Jack London, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton -- none of them enthusiasts of the new machine age of gears and girders. To see the mixture of nature and technology in their writings is to appreciate the depth of the new consciousness.
It is, we notice immediately, a consciousness reflective of cultural discontinuities. Edith Wharton shows both sides. She hates the incursion of machine values into traditional social life, identifying a character as "an appalling woman who runs a roaring dinner-factory that used to catch [a person] in its wheels" (The Reef 74). Yet elsewhere contemporary technology provides Wharton the analogy she seeks to define a character's relation to self and home: "It was as though in leaving his home he took his whole self with him, like a telephone receiver unhooked and carried on a long cord into another room" (Hudson River Bracketed 190). The literary critic, Fred Lewis Pattee, shows Wharton's kind of ambivalence. First he scorns a too-prolific writer as a novel factory, then approves the belated discovery of Emily Dickinson's poems in terms dear to Edison's heart: "she was brought like a phonograph record into the period that needed a poet" (155, 199). These writers instance the alternating attitudes of people whose culture is in rapid transition. On the one hand, technology intrudes into a traditional world and feels invasive. On the other, the machine defines the new age, providing the writer a wealth of new and vivifying terms.
In clustered images one early twentieth-century novelist, Robert Herrick, explored these discontinuities between preindustrial American values and the new technologies seeming to threaten them. Herrick called the novel Together (1908) his "colossus of marriage" because he had trouble writing an expose of such a hallowed institution. Numerous passages in Together reveal Herrick's up-to-the-minute awareness that technology was making its impress in American social intercourse and in turn revealing new social values. One woman taunts her lover for his reputation as "a calculating machine -- one of those things they have in banks to do arithmetic stunts." And a railroad executive is "an Industrial Flywheel of society" (216, 84).
Herrick's critique of technological America emerges in images drawn from familiar contemporary machinery. His dialogue is riddled with electrical-mechanical figures when his most engaging character, the wife of a railroad executive, consults family and physicians about her psychological problems. The woman worries whether "we are just machines, with the need to be oiled now and then" and is skeptical when the nerve doctor promises to be "your temporary dynamo." But she listens closely when her brother warns about exertion: "You may shift the batteries, Belle, but you are burning up the wires, all the same." And she confesses to her physician, "I never thought before what it means to be tired. I have worked the machine foolishly. But one must travel fast -- be geared up as you say -- or fall behind and become dull and uninteresting" (232,234,375,243).
Herrick deliberately uses images that double back on themselves to express his alarm at the emotional and physical consequences of this new fast-paced modern life. Not surprisingly, he sends his exhausted matron into the country, which is to say into preindustrial America, to a sanitorium directed by a physician who is himself an urban emigre. The true healer at the sanitorium is the blacksmith. This symbol of preindustrial America embodies spiritual and neural health and has the power to confer it on those around him. The smith, whose forge and house are principal buildings of the sanitorium, is the man of "vision, of something inward and sustaining . . . something that expressed itself in the slow speech, the peaceful manner." At suppertime his "ripest wisdom" emerges (446-47). Relaxed, he gazes at his wife and finds the world good.
Herrick's blacksmith exists as a totemic figure in this realistic novel drawn from contemporary America of the 1910s. The novelist virtually exhumes Longfellow's village smithy and makes his forge a shrine of miracles from a vanished, preindustrial era. Modern urbanites, their nerves so many burned-out wires, can visit the forge and somehow be neurologically restored and spiritually revived. Blessed by the benedictory wave of the smithy's glowing bar of iron, the urbanite reenters modern life inwardly aglow himself. In this novel the matron returns to the city to find her estranged husband, renews the marriage, and ultimately moves west with him to found a new railroad -- and thus by an implication Herrick failed to see, begins again the very technological cycle that keeps people "geared up" and overloads the electrical circuits (491).
It is clear that in Together Herrick grappled unsuccessfully with the meaning of cultural change. He struggled with problems he suspected evaded solution. On the one hand, he identified humane life with the preindustrial America of the farmer and the artisan. Yet he acknowledged the disappearance of that world, for the stock ticker now penetrated the forested mountains which, in this century, are but pleasant views the city people see through plate glass. The images of electrical and mechanical power, moreover, indicate that speed and movement were becoming new values in contemporary America. As one character remarks, "The merest backwoodsman in Iowa is living faster in a sense than Cicero or [Daniel] Webster" (356). One may visit preindustrial America in a theme park of a sanitorium, but one lives fast and powerfully in a world of dynamos and gears.
The texture of the novelists' prose tells the same story. Writings that date from the turn of the century through the 1910s show that "the machine culture," to use Thorstein Veblen's phrase, had pervaded novelists' imaginations just as it had captured journalists' energies. It is startling, nevertheless, to see machine-based figures of thought appear abruptly in texts of writers known to be hostile to technology, writers devoted to the natural world of field and farm. For instance, in Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Sherwood Anderson describes the endearing rural eccentric, Wing Biddlebaum, as a man whose "slender expressive fingers, forever active, . . . came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression" (28). And in Song of the Lark (1915), Willa Cather describes her Colorado "Lark," Thea Kronborg, as a girl who lies awake at night by her window "vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed" (177). Here, ingrained in prose, we see the inadvertent acceptance of machine technology by two writers overtly hostile to it.
Jack London's Call of the Wild (1903) is an excellent case study in the covert assimilation of machine values in fiction. London's dog-hero, Buck, reared in civilization, answers the wilderness call to the northern "uncharted vastness" which London portrays all at once as edenic, pastoral, and primitive. This dog has the wild nobility of London's beloved free spirit, the wolf, for Buck is at the "high tide of his life, overspilling with vigor and virility." Into these organic phrases, however, London suddenly interjects an image direct from machine technology when we hear that every part of the dog, "brain and body, nerve tissue and fibre, was keyed to the most exquisite pitch," that "between all the parts there was a perfect equilibrium or adjustment." As a result of this perfect synchrony of machine parts, the animal responds to stimuli with "lightning-like rapidity." Electrically charged, the dog's muscles snap into play "like steel springs." Giving no sign whatever that these images are different from those of the natural world, London tells us that the dog is lithe as wild cats and covert as the snake (130-31).
London repeats the pattern in a subsequent novel, White Fang (1906), which chronicles the wild wolf-dog's gradual accommodation to civilization. White Fang, like Buck, is a consummately efficient fighter whose neural calculations are "automatic," his parts being in "better adjustment" than those of the other dogs. "Body and brain," says London, "his was a more perfect mechanism" (303-4). Following these phrases, however, London hastens on to describe summer in the Rockies, as if unaware of the incongruity, the very incongruity which Mark Twain deliberately exploited for humor in "The Damned Human Race," in which the Machine is tried in a court of law along with its putative peers, the animals. It is especially ironic for London to be unaware of his discontinuity, since he was vehemently opposed to industrial society, having parodied Milton's Satan: "Better to reign among booze-fighters a prince, than to toil twelve hours a day at a machine at ten cents an hour" (qtd. in Pattee 125).
London is by no means singular. The same covert assimilation of machine technology in American fiction occurs in the writings of Frank Norris. His fiction is interesting because he tries so hard, and so unsuccessfully, to keep the world of "trees and animals" separate from that of the "engines." His The Octopus (1901) is plotted on the hostility between California ranchers and the corporate railroad whose tentacles reach out to strangle everything. Essentially Norris portrays two worlds in the novel, one romantic and mystical and the other reflective of brutal socio-cultural-economic realities. The novelist-poet's self-appointed task is to fuse these two, somehow, in order to create a modern American epic. In The Octopus Norris's ranchers are agribusiness corporate men who farm vast tracts of wheat with the aid of farm machinery, the telephone, the telegraph, tickertape (connecting them with international markets), and ranch hands who, at plowing time, form a military echelon in machine-like discipline. One of the ranchers is a civil engineer, and another thinks of the ranch as a machine ultimately to be automated. In the meantime, because "the machine would not yet run of itself, he must still feel his hand upon the lever" (48).
Norris intermingles these many machine motifs with those of the Homeric epic. But he keeps machine-age images essentially separate from the romantic, mystical passages on the spirit inherent in the California land. In the course of The Octopus readers come to expect that distinction to be preserved. The mystical landscape is separate and distinct from the modern machine culture. Yet Norris, like Jack London, allows a miscellany of machine figures to enter, apparently without awareness of the discontinuity. In an early scene, for instance, Norris's aspirant poet, Presley, climbs a mystical California mountaintop, about to recognize that the titanic struggle in the wheatlands of the San Joaquin Valley is the true subject for his American epic poem. Before the would-be poet can have his revelation, however, he must first calm himself and enter a receptive frame of mind. But what language does Norris use for the transition? -- that of a machine coming to a stop. "By degrees . . . the little wheels and cogs of thought [moved] slower and slower." Then "the animal in him stretched itself, purring (37). Shifting his images from machine to cat, Norris gives no sign that he recognizes the stunning discontinuity.
Once again Norris reveals his unconscious assimilation of machine technology in the scene of a turbulent barn dance. Trouble starts when a messenger arrives with a wire announcing the railroad's public sale of the very acreage the ranchers have been working and improving on lease options. Instantly, festivity turns to tumult. To describe it, Norris first uses images from nature. The scene is a "whirlwind," and the people's shouts sound like "thunder." In Hobbesian terms that echo Alexander Hamilton, Norris calls the crowd a "great beast" and a "brute . . . baring its teeth." But these organic-natural terms of intensifying, monstrous energy evidently left the novelist unsatisfied. So he sought an additional term to express an exponential increase in power. This brute mob, Norris writes, "imposes its will with the abrupt, resistless pressure of the relaxed piston," a piston "inexorable, knowing no pity" (199-200). The transition from the organic to the technological is instantaneous and never acknowledged by the author.
Norris's mixing of the machine with nature continues in his sequal to The Octopus. The Pit (1903), set in Chicago, concerns the stock market manipulations of a wheat financier who drives a team of horses impressive even to men who know good stock. The team moves with "heads up, the check rein swinging loose, ears all alert, eyes all alight, the breath deep, strong, and slow, and the stride machine-like, even as the swing of a metronome" [emphasis added] (153). In this passage, of course, the synchrony and rhythm of the machine is the standard against which the movement of the horses can be measured. The equine ideal is not organic, but mechanical. Norris, as usual, shows no self-consciousness about his craft or about the underlying assumptions of his language.
Pistons, cogs, wheels, steel springs, telephone cords, a metronome -- what are we, the readers, to make of this odd lot of machine parts? It is tempting at first to find nothing new in these tailings from a Newtonian universe. (Did not Ralph Waldo Emerson, moreover, deliberately invoke images direct from the New England textile industry?) It may even seem petty of a reader virtually to tweezer these images from texts which otherwise yield rich language patterns far more consenting to literary interpretation. Why not be satisfied, for instance, to verify the Darwinian world of Theodore Dreiser from his many animal figures? In The Titan, the financier Frank Cowperwood is described as leonine, wolfish, and canine (a "sort of hounding collie"); so why should readers take notice of the remark that "Cowperwood's brain had been reciprocating like a well-oiled engine" (432,343 532)? When Edith Wharton, in The House of Mirth (1905), exploits the tension between aesthetics and commerce, why ought readers to notice that a desperate Lily Bart, ever a figure of "loveliness in distress," suddenly invokes phrases from a world utterly foreign to her experience? "I can hardly be said to have an independent existence," says the fragile flower, Lily. "I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life" (319-20). And further, when the romantic F. Scott Fitzgerald turns an automobile into a symbolic garden and writes seriously of Jay Gatsby's "tuning fork struck upon a star," why should readers pause to notice that his West Egg is of "spectroscopic brilliance" (25)? Or, for that matter, why heed Sinclair Lewis, a writer so consistently scornful of American technology throughout Babbitt, when in Dodsworth he dispenses with irony to say that "it was raining, and the street looked like the inside of a polished steel cylinder" (224)?
Most of these technological figures are striking precisely because they are desultory and seem, for the most part, to enter the texts without awareness by their authors that they are inconsistent -- or that they create problems. For they change the narrative tone of voice abruptly. Or they insinuate a new realm of imaginative possibility, but fail to develop it. Appearing infrequently in lengthy novels, these images seem aberrant, as if indicative of authors' momentary inattention or of their failure to edit their own work.
And yet this evident lack of self-consciousness on the part of these American writers is itself important. It provides a clue to the basis for a changing worldview in twentieth-century American literature and culture. For it is clear that the artistic strategies of Norris, London, Dreiser, etc., are not like the metaphysical poets' yoking of disparate images for poetic wit. The authorial self-consciousness of John Donne's lovers-as-compasses forms no part of the imagination of these American authors. Nor (closer to home) do they seem to have been moved to use technological images, as Whitman did, to enhance themes of democracy and national vitality. Nor is it useful to repeat old charges of "clumsiness" in the craftsmanship, for instance, of Dreiser or London.
The crux of the issue lies precisely in the authors' obliviousness to the discrepancy between themselves and the machine image. In fact, the abruptness, the very instantaneous appearance of the technological figures in these earlier twentieth century writings suggests that the authors have begun to think of it as natural (at least unexceptional) to move back and forth from the organic to the technological, from the "trees and animals" to the "engines." This enmeshment of images really signals a new worldview in the twentieth century. For the mix of American flora and fauna with pistons, gears, and engines indicates that the perceptual boundary between what is considered to be natural, and what technological, is disappearing. The world of the pastoral, the primitive, the edenic, the agrarian is fusing with that of machine technology. This is the new outlook to which Williams gave expression when he described the contemporary world of "trees, animals, engines."
At this point we can acknowledge what the novelists only hint. The world of trees and animals, like that of engines, is by definition a world of component-part constructions. Some are static, some dynamic, depending upon whether they are structures (for example, bridges) or mechanisms. And some intermix the two, the structural "skeleton" giving overall form while moving parts within transmit motion or power. But whether the construction is static, dynamic, or a combination of both, it is presumed to be an assembly of component parts. The world to which it refers is a gear-and-girder world. Its components are integrated into innumerable structures and into the machines which function to transmit energy. In this world the human being is perceived in mechanistic terms, as are flora and fauna everywhere. Whether the object is a tree, a dog, the human ear, or the earth itself, the underlying assumption about it is the same. It is a mechanism. It is a construction. Whatever its category, animal, mineral, or vegetable, it is presumed to be mechanical in its form and operation. The novelists' various images of the piston-rod fingers, of the reciprocating engine of a heart, of the machine vibration of an excited individual -- all point to the presumption of this world.
Nor is it strictly a Newtonian one, for Darwinism brought into play the notion of nature itself as an engineer of increasingly sophisticated mechanisms. The survival and endurance of adaptive species testify to nature's ingenuity. By this logic the successful species are the well-engineered ones. In turn, nature's evolutionary role in design implies a parallel human role. Humankind's function is to expedite progress, wherever necessary, by redesigning sociocultural parts of the material world ranging from the kitchen to the government. It is not unusual to come upon figures of speech which presume that human progress is a function of mechanical advances in design. "The time is coming," wrote a feminist in 1922, "when we are
going to be as proud of our political machine as we would be of any piece of industrial machinery, when that machine is directed by men and women in the interest of . . . cordial equality" (LHJ 39 [Oct. 1922]: 123).
As we shall see, presumptions about human ingenuity in design had a major impact on American imaginative writing of the 1920s. That impact was felt on popular literature, which made the engineer a modern hero. And it was felt with equal power in serious fiction and poetry, in which words or sentences were viewed as component parts by authors self-identified as designers. But before examining the development of engineering aesthetics in the arts of the written word, we must take another look at some machine images. The novelists whose work we have just glimpsed refer to a perceived world of machines and structures. Swirling around them, however, are contemporary texts that so clearly define that world, so explicitly set it forth, that we must stop to listen to the figures of speech and to grasp their perceptual implications.
A typical example of such explicit discourse reached readers of Everybody's Magazine in 1911. An article on "Our Human Misfits" indicates that the human body is an energy-consuming-and-producing machine comprised of numerous component parts. The passage is worth seeing in its entirety:
Is it any wonder that in the making of that exquisitely balanced and wonderfully complicated machine which we call the human body -- body, mind, and soul -- here and there one should be turned out with a flaw in its castings, with a twist in its transmission, with a balance wheel badly hung, or a bearing ill fitted, or a leak in its cylinder, or a twist in the spoke of its driving wheel?
We are beginning to be able to construct a sort of table . . . for the probable percentage of defects in the different cogs and wheels of our human machine. (25 [Oct. 1911]: 519)
The journalist and his readers knew, of course, that the human body was not comprised, literally speaking, of these automotive parts. But the word choices were not arbitrary either. The writer, like his audience, understood that body and machine were alike in one important way. Both were dynamic systems of integrated, functional component parts. On that basis, the language of the automotive machine was appropriate to a description of the human body. The concept of the machine, in fact, helped readers better understand the issues being discussed. The use of the machine images presumed that the readers could understand the human issue better if they saw it presented in machine terms. The accuracy of the analogy lay in the presumption that the two objects, the body and the machine, could be discussed in a language of component parts. The journalist's language presumes that both referents, body and machine, are structural analogues of each other and that the writer and his readers would grasp the validity of that connection immediately
This same presumption is at work in many similar statements in a variety of texts. Some deal explicitly with the body. An educator noted a medical theory that toxins are "packed away in the interstices of our physical machine to clog the wheels and make trouble" (Wild 348). The eminent physician, William Osler, wrote that to remove the thyroid gland is to "deprive man of the lubricants which enable his thought-engines to work -- it is as if you cut off the oil supply of a motor" (17). Ezra Pound called the mind of a mature man "a heavier and heavier machine, a constantly more complicated structure [requiring] a greater voltage of emotional energy to set it in harmonious motion" (Literary Essays 52). And in Dos Passos's The Big Money a weary executive is urged to visit the Mayo Clinic for "a little overhauling, valves ground, carburetor adjusted, that sort of thing" (569). In innumerable texts the image of the "human engine" is virtually a cliché, presumed to be as true as it is commonplace.
Still other texts show the same outlook on a range of subjects. In Wharton's The Fruit of the Tree a well-managed household is "a perfectly adjusted machine," while a children's book describes earthquake geology in terms of a boiler that can burst if its safety valve clogs and malfunctions ("In a way the volcanoes are the safety valves of the earth") (Wharton 380; Appleton, Motion-Picture Boys 88). One writer explained that "the bodily structure of a tree is a machine, because it provides for the life processes of the tree suitable channels, just as the steel structure of the steam-engine provides for the flow of steam suitable channels in which by its pressure and expansion it can do useful work" (Pupin 62-63). Each of these statements refers to the same world. From the earth-boiler to the tree and the household each presumes an engineered world in nature and culture. Each insists upon a material world of interworking systems of component parts.
Even those clinging to the romantic perception of an earlier age, those hostile to the idea of a mechanized world, found themselves acknowledging its authenticity. "The body rusts, clogs, and weakens, the mind dulls, the spirit goes out of you, and you are scrapped" under the influence of the machine, one critic complained (O'Brien 60-61). The novelist William Faulkner argued a similar point. The unimaginative mind, he suggests, is the one that conceives of thought in purely mechanistic terms. Faulkner's example is the character who consoles himself that the Lord intended human beings "not to spend too much time thinking, because his brain it's like a piece of machinery . . . it's best when it all runs along the same . . . and not no one part used more than needful" (As I Lay Dying 68).The writers detest the machine age, but we see at once that their terms presume the existence of a mechanized world. It is fair to say that machine-based values were so pervasive in American thought of the early twentieth century that even efforts to reject or evade them could result in inadvertent compliance with them.
One writer understood this dilemma, yet went on to argue that the twentieth century moderns could have no valid alternative perception of the material world. Those who try, he suggests, are schizoid or hypocritical. His statement, too, deserves attention because it argues so conclusively that to be alive in the twentieth century is to see the world for what it is, a complex of mechanized systems. The writer, a Columbia University professor of science, insists that every person confront the inescapable fact that the individual is comprised of machines:
Let him remember that an incomparably larger number of machines are set in motion whenever a message of our sensations is transmitted from a part of our body to the brain . . . . When the organs [of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch] are busy transmitting our sensations, each one of their functional units is busy contributing its share to the performance of the organ. Each one of them is a machine and works at the expense of the energy supplied by the foodstuffs, just as ordinary machines work at the expense of the energy of wood, coal, gas, and oil. We speak of feeding the fires under the boilers of our steam-engines just as we speak of feeding an organic body. This mode of speech expresses the similarity between the two processes . . . . When the word "machine" is used in this connection it is not used as a mere figure of speech. (Pupin 62-63, 17)
It is fitting to close this part of our discussion with this passage. For it really makes a definitive perceptual statement on the dominant gear-and-girder technology of the earlier twentieth century. Its implications are profound. Knowledge of the workings of nature is, it argues, knowledge of machines. By this logic there is no escape from, say, the mechanized city to the bucolic countryside. Perception itself has abolished the distinction between them. Nostalgic yearning for a pastoral world is, therefore, not only futile but impossible, even for "the aesthete who avoids employing machines, or even speaking of them. . . [who] longs for the simplicity of the classical civilization, and considers the employment of a great multiplicity of machines an artificiality, and therefore objectionable" (62-63). Like it or not, the statement says, contemporary knowledge brings cognizance of a world of mechanisms. This, then, is the world with which intellectuals and artists must contend. This is the world in which their opportunities lie.