Introduction

 

This is a book about some American writers and what they thought of industrialism. The writers discussed include Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos and several others who were active in the 1910’s and 1920’s. My procedure in preparing to write this book was a simple one. I read as much as I could of what these men had to say in their essays, poems, novels and historical works on American culture In the twentieth century under the aegis of industrial capitalism. 1 wanted to find out what preoccupations and ideas they shared and in what ways they differed from one another, and to try to explain to myself why they thought as they did. I found, as I suppose anyone will who undertakes a task of this sort, that such frameworks of explanation as I was able to construct sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. There is a sense in which the sources of a writer’s ideas and attitudes, and the route or routes by which he arrived at them, will always remain unknown to his reader, especially if, as is the case here, the reader encounters them fifty years after they were set down, and brings to them an experience and a perspective very different from the writer’s own. one is likely, in short, to get some things wrong. So be it; one can only try to be as sympathetic and alert a reader as he is able, and then to write honestly.

Other books have treated many of the themes taken up in this one, and at least one book, to my knowledge, on American writers and industrialism in the twentieth century, Thomas Reed West’s Flesh of Steel: Literature and the Machine in American Culture, is concerned with explicating the ideas and explaining the responses to “.the machine” of several of the men discussed in this book. The question then arises, “why this book?” The answer is that while I benefited from reading Professor West’s book, I found myself in disagreement with some things he wrote and interested in some things which did not interest him, and that I wanted to have my own say.

Some words about the scope of this study are in order before going on to discuss the principals. I have employed the term “the machine” throughout to refer to a broad range of vitally related phenomena. In this usage I have followed the practice of the writers with whom this study is concerned. By “the machine,” I mean, as they did, first and most obviously the whole ensemble of tools, implements, mechanisms and appliances of industrial civilization, from punch presses and dynamos to electric refrigerators. The term also refers to the industrial discipline required to make such things. “The machine” refers as well to the physical environment brought into being by industry: factories, office buildings and highways, the whole system of production and the essential networks of transportation and communication. Finally, these writers often used the term “the machine” in a quite general way to refer to the institutions, techniques, values, Iconography and products of industrial society under capitalism: mass literacy, newspapers, movies, electric signs, advertising, billboards, hit songs, salesmanship, the class structure, consumerism, spectator sports, ready‑to‑wear clothes, amusement parks, synthetic fibers, and so on.

“The machine,” then, is used more often than not as a synonym for industrial civilization, and even when the reference is to a specific machine, as for example, the camera, the use is almost always implicitly or explicitly symbolic: the individual machine or appliance “stands for” everything behind it. This usage may seem suspiciously loose: engineers have something more specific in mind than “all that out there” when they use a word like “machine.” But these men were not engineers, they were writers‑‑critics, poets, and novelists‑‑who, when they wrote about the machine, wrote as critics of American culture. When Hart Crane wrote with light self‑mockery of his ambition to be the “Pindar of the dawning Machine‑Age, so called,” he did not mean the Pindar of turret‑lathes or automobiles, but of what he saw as a whole new culture that had been brought into being in the 1920’s. When Edmund Wilson protested in 1922 that “the machines are tearing us to pieces,” he did not mean that machines were killing workingmen, but that the civilization which the machines had produced was becoming psychically unsupportable. Similarly, when Matthew Josephson said in the same year that “the machine is our magnificent slave, our fraternal genius,” he was saying that the whole milieu of industrialism, and the ways of living it had made possible, were good.

I have begun this study not with a twentieth century writer but with Walt Whitman. There are two reasons for this. First, it seemed to me that Whitman, in a welter of sometimes blithe and sometimes painful contradictions, gave expression to almost every point of view that a poet might adopt toward the culture of industrialism. Whitman was the first American poet to identify himself with the common man and the first  to pay serious attention to the industrial environment. In his Democratic Vistas, the several dilemmas of a poet of democracy in an age of industrialism were revealed as clearly as they would ever be. For instance, Whitman confessed to his delight at the sight of printing presses—roaring monsters whose beauty and speed of operation stunned the observer. But, Whitman asked, what did these beauties produce? “Not a single first‑class work,” he said, only stuff  “to amuse, to titillate, to pass away time, to circulate news,” and all of this “on a scale of infinity.” The daily presses produced mountains of junk. Which was the more important fact, that the machines were marvels of technical intelligence, or that they spewed trash? This was a question which twentieth century writers would ask themselves, and still do. Whitman on that ground alone seemed to me necessary to this study.

The other reason is that the example of Whitman was important to four of the writers treated at length in this book—Brooks, Frank, Mumford and Dos Passos. To understand them, I must understand him. There was a related problem. Whitman was indisputably a major influence upon writers in the 1910’s and, equally indisputably, a minor one upon writers in the 1920’s, with the exception of Dos Passos and Hart Crane. I sensed that this change in Whitman’s fortunes was not entirely due to the fact that T.S. Eliot had said that Whitman was of little use to a poet. For one thing, Whitman’s influence upon writers in the 1910’s was not primarily technical; it was more pervasive and far more subtle than that. Whitman suggested an attitude toward industrialism, and somehow around the First World War that attitude ceased to be “usable” for most writers. It was in attempting to discover why this was so that I became aware of the extent of the breach that opened up just after the war between the two literary “generations” discussed in Chapter III.

One distinct limitation of this study is that its geographical focus is almost exclusively on New York City. It has been pointed out to me that if one is speaking of the “machine age” in the early twentieth century, there are other American cities with far better claims to being representative of the spirit of the age than New York—Chicago and Detroit most obviously. This is certainly true, and it is also true that Chicago for a few years in the early 1910’s was a literary capital too. But from about 1915 on, New York thoroughly dominated, almost monopolized, American literature, and it was in New York that the writers discussed in this book lived and worked. When they said “the city,” they meant New York City. Almost all “urban” novels of the Twenties are about New York. So are all the poems, most obviously and majestically Hart Crane’s The Bridge. Nor was this fascination with New York only an American phenomenon. The city was the symbol of America in the machine age to Europeans as well. Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis was suggested by the New York skyline; Le Corbusier’s White Buildings was an exploration of the possibilities inherent in New York skyscraper architecture, and so on.

Finally, a word about the procedure I have followed in this book. I wish it possessed more symmetry than it does. In the first three chapters, I have arranged things thematically; thereafter I deal with a series of writers, devoting a chapter to each. There is a certain clumsiness to this procedure that a better writer would have known how to avoid. Names appear in the early chapters following the briefest of introductions, only to reappear later on to be treated at length. The same is true of a few books, although I have tried to limit that as much as possible. My only defence is that there is a large number of writers discussed in this book and that some of them were more preoccupied by or obsessed by or wrote more trenchantly on industrial culture than others, and that such writers deserved chapters to themselves. I can only trust that for whatever losses in symmetry this procedure has entailed, there are compensating gains in coherence and clarity.

 

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