Sunday, February 24, 2008

Engines of Change

Engine and boiler from John Stevens' Little Juliana steamboat, 1804. Hindle and Lubar use steamboatery as an example of how inventions were often co-developed by several different independent people, who then competed to claim credit.

Title: Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790-1860 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986)

Authors: Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar. Hindle, who died in 2001, was apparently a guiding light of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), and an early adopter of the method of studying science, technology, and material culture in historical context. His first books included The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America (1956) and David Rittenhouse (1964), but apparently his most famous book is Emulation and Invention (1981), which was particularly focused on describing early American inventions in verbal terms for a verbally-oriented audience (that would be us, historians). Hindle worked at NYU and the Smithsonian, which published this exhibit companion volume. Lubar, Hindle's co-author, is a professor at Brown in the Department of American Civilization, with interests in material culture, museums, public culture, and the history of technology. Some other interesting books he's written or edited: History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, ed. with W. David Kingery (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993); InfoCulture: The Smithsonian Book of Information Age Inventions (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993). Here's his blog about museums.

The painting "Men of Progress," 1863, by Christian Schussele, depicted famous inventors, with Samuel Morse at the center and Benjamin Franklin looking on benevolently from above.

My Review: Hindle and Lubar describe the history of early American invention as being powered by three factors: an abundance of natural resources (wood, iron); an abundance of labor (including slaves); and a cultural climate which favored invention. The "special American conditions," in this story, meant that fewer people rejected or protested against technological advancement, because more people were flexible non-specialists who participated in many different types of production; also, people could see how technology would widen economic gaps, because of the example provided by the European Industrial Revolution, and were able to adjust their speed of technological development to ameliorate its social effects.

Chapters include interesting ones on machine shops, communitarian experiments (the Shakers, New Harmony), and the rise of railroading. There are many good pictures, as you might expect from a book which came from a museum exhibit.

I found the book to be overly invested in a story of American exceptionalism that celebrated the inventiveness of classes of men such as machinists and inventors, without examining the later results of this technological development or questioning the rightness of all of this invention—there's a definite feeling of positivist progressivism about the narrative.

Reviews of Others: In the Journal of American History, John Staudenmeier lauded the exhibit and the book for having respect for technological achievements of the past, rather than making fun of bygoners' missteps (is that really so endemic an attitude?) But he says that extending the exhibit's scope beyond the 1860s would bring some of the more negative consequences of technological development to light, a move which he says the exhibit attempts to make, but is often thwarted by the sheer impressiveness (or "sensuality") of the machinery. In the Winterthur Portfolio, John Skemer wrote that the book avoided the "one-man, one-invention" schema of history, but criticized it for portraying the America of this time period as focused exclusively on technological advancement, citing works which have found that there were other, more flexible, cottage-type modes of production co-existing with this Whiggish drive for industrial advancement.

The Hall rifle, invented by John Hall, was the first American rifle with fully interchangeable parts. The government ordered 1,000 of them in 1819 and it took Hall four years to complete the order. Things got a lot better in the mass-produced gun business later on. Hindle and Lubar hold that the invention of fully interchangeable parts was one of the most significant American contributions to the world economy in the nineteenth century.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Disciplines of Virtue

Title: Disciplines of Virtue: Girls' Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)

Author: Lynn Vallone, professor of English at Texas A&M. Her most recent book is Becoming Victoria (2001), about Queen Victoria's childhood in cultural context. Vallone was also an editor for the Norton Anthology of Children's Literature (2005).

My review: This collection of previously published essays moves from England to America and roughly chronologically, delineating how books, both novels and "conduct books," instructed female children in the arts of self-discipline and virtue. Vallone visits discourses around reclaimed prostitutes, Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), dowries, humor, and dirt. Her ultimate idea: the concept of "virtue" is used to signal to girls and young women that they can add value to themselves through their efforts to be good. If they self-negate enough, eventually they might be seen as virtuous enough that they could marry "up" in class, as Pamela does. Side casualties of this ideology are tomboys (liminal figures) and humor: "the ultimate lesson is that girlhood is not funny" (132).

(Ironically, Vallone writes, one of the ways of self-negating or being "good" in eighteenth-century England is by helping reform penitent prostitutes. Thus, through the act of helping, the "good" female accrues sexual value, while the prostitute is scrubbed of her one-time value and left in position of being suitable only for domestic service.)

Finally, Vallone points out, usefully, that in girls' fiction, as opposed to boys', the danger comes from within, not from the world.

The reviews of others: In American Literature, Barbara Ryan wrote that the choice of texts reads oddly to Americanists (yes) and wishes that Vallone had juxtaposed her textual readings with understandings of how girls read the books (as opposed to aligning them with general cultural practices). In the American Historical Review, Lori D. Ginzburg agreed that Vallone's work would have done well to pay better attention to the books' audiences, and added that she wished Vallone had paid more attention to the lives of the women, not dealt with in the book, who remain tomboys or never marry (and some of whom become authors of children's books).

Words: "abecedarian" ("a person who is learning the words of the alphabet, or a beginning learner of any kind"); "eudemonism" ("the doctrine that the basis of moral obligations is to be found in the tendency of right actions to produce happiness"); "soteriological" ("the theological doctrine of salvation as effected by Jesus").

Leads: Secondary: Anne Scott MacLeod, A Moral Tale: Children's Fiction and American Culture (1975); Elliot West and Paula Petrik, Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850-1950 (1992)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Word in Black and White

Title: The Word in Black and White: Reading "Race" in American Literature 1638-1867 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Author: Dana D. Nelson, professor of English at Vanderbilt. Her other book is National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men (Duke University Press, 1998). Looks like she's working on a project about the history of alternative ideas of democracy.

My review: I'm going to have to get over my distaste for the use of quotation marks around words like "race" or "black" or "white", and the capitalization of the word "Other", and a host of other early-90s-race-lit-crit things which just distract and annoy me. This book is about the "ingraining" of categories of race through literature, in the pre-Civil War US. Basic philosophy: "to write is to know is to dominate" (see Lepore). The authors discussed include Edgar Allen Poe (for the awesome Arthur Gordon Pym book), Cotton Mather, Fenimore Cooper, Sedgwick, and Lydia Maria Child, the last being the only author Nelson describes as fulfilling the ultimate liberal white authorial mission of both disdaining racism and proposing alternative modes of racial interaction. Other authors, including Melville, whose "Benito Cereno" comes under Nelson's scrutiny, manage to criticize white slave-owning but don't move beyond into prescriptiveness.

Nelson borrows ideas from Richard Slotkin, Annette Kolodny, Richard Drinnon, Mary Louise Pratt, Karen Halttunen, and Abdul JanMohammed.

Books: Secondary: Nancy Stepan, Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800-1960 (1982)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

American Civilization

Title: American Civilization (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993; but written in 1950)

Author: Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989), Marxist scholar from Trinidad. Through his life, which was lived in T&T, London, and America, CLR James engaged with various strands of Marxism (while he repudiated Stalinism). He was integral to the anti-colonial movement, and wrote on such subjects as A History of Negro Revolt (1938) and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Rebellion (1938). He also wrote on dialectics, Melville, and cricket. Throughout his writing, he engaged with the theme that constitutes most of American Civilization's concerns: how should the individual human live within a system that continually seeks to dehumanize?

My review: Throughout this book, James sets up a series of dichotomies between civilization and barbarism (which he sees as regimes which, like Stalinism, decline to develop the potential of individuals); people and monopolies; freedom and slavery; and democracy and oligarchy. He never uses the word "Marxism," perhaps partially because he's trying to write this book to convince authorities to let him stay in the US even though his visa has expired, but partially perhaps because he's invested in the idea of finding a way forward that's not constrained by a particular ideology?

The history of America, he says, is the history of individualism: first, from 1776 through the middle of the nineteenth c, an individualism that finds expression; then, from the middle of the nineteenth c onward, an individualism that either gets perverted into monomania (as in Melville's Ahab, a character James sees as prescient) or gets subverted by the capitalist system. People in America, James thinks, are unhappy, and have been unhappy ever since the mid-nineteenth c, because secretly deep-down they recognize that the ideals of individualism and happiness have been hopelessly submerged by the realities of capitalism.

James says that America's lack of truly significant cultural production is due to these conditions. The writers of the American Renaissance mostly failed at expressing this thought, because they were the first to try to express the question of the relationship of the totally free individual to his/her society. This left them with exhilarating possibilities but a sense of formlessness (see Whitman). The mass culture of the forties and fifties is an example, for James, of the degree to which the mind of the masses has become sad and upset at the state of things - if the mass culture is an expression of the mind of the people, as James says it is, then the movies of the forties and fifties betray a deep fear at the state of society.

The connection between this mass culture and the state of mind of the American "negro" (as he says) is that the realization that society is not what it says that it is is a quintessentially American one - the frustration of the black American at the continual failure of white America to live up to its rhetoric. Similarly, American women are in despair because they are now responsible for creating, out of the home, the one site where society lives up to its promise.

James calls for the abolition of what he sees as the bankrupt intelligentsia, the training of workers in both technical and intellectual realms, and factory ownership by workers. Only by advancing this collective well-being, he argues, can the individual be truly well.

(A quote from James on the status of the intelligentsia, as epitomized by the scientist: "The most miserable of all are the scientists. They are slaves if ever there were any, mutinous and rebellious sometimes in words, but slaves. They make atomic discoveries and bombs and then go home and cry. When Germany was defeated, the contending powers each captured where he could, some of the most highly developed and trained scientists, the most highly developed and trained minds the world has ever known, and put them to work in Moscow or Washington. They work, do as they are told, find what they are told to find, like any laborer at a dollar an hour. And in free America, if any one of them dared to defy the authorities and declare he would have nothing to do with a bomb which would kill a quarter of a million people, the whole machinery of politics and propaganda would set to roll and leave him utterly crushed. He would probably find it impossible to continue scientific work at all. And yet, the real dilemma is in his own mind, he does not know whether he ought to or not. The Journal of the Atomic Scientists is one of the most pathetic publications in the world." [262])

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Errand into the Wilderness

Title: Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956)

Author: Perry Miller (1905-1963), longtime professor of history at Harvard and one of the American Studies founding fathers. Taught Edmund Morgan and Bernard Bailyn, as well as Walter J. Ong (the Wikipedia entry features a suspiciously large amount of information on the Ong connection...I think some of the Ong people must have gotten in there and fixed it up). Miller wrote mostly on the Puritan mind early in his career (Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650, 1933; The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, 1939; Jonathan Edwards, 1949; The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, 1953), and Errand comes at the end of this Puritan phase. After this, Miller moves to writing about the Transcendentalists, which he sort of starts doing at the end of Errand with his musings on the possible relationship between Jonathan Edwards and Emerson. His final books were on the "life of the mind" (so Cartesian) and "the legal mind" in America, before the Civil War.

My review: This collection of Miller essays has a much more sparkling, attractive writing style than you would think when reading the words "analysis of Puritan thought." Miller describes, at the beginning, how he came to decide that analysis of Puritan thought would be his life's work. He was at the mouth of the Congo River as a young man, watching ships loading case oil (what's that? oh, it's just oil shipped a particular, now-outmoded way) onto other ships destined for the interior. Realizing the craziness of the fact that this oil was coming from the "inexhaustible wilderness of America" and being inserted into another such wilderness, he epiphanized that the impetus behind America was worth study. (He kind of compares himself to Edward Gibbon, who had the epiphany that resulted in writing Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while sitting in ruins, but calls himself "minute" in comparison.)

What major ideas does this collection cover? Puritans were driven by a vision of becoming a "city on a hill," and this drive led them to conceptualize the wilderness as their theater on which to show the rest of the world the efficacy of right Puritan gov't. When the events in England in 1649 (Charles I beheaded; governance passes to Parliament and religious crackdowns become less prevalent) meant that eyes turned away from America to the events in the home country, Miller believes that the Puritans were thrown into a state of confusion about their mission. The synod of 1679 examined the questions that this era of Puritans perceived that they faced, including rampant adulterous sex, heresy, drinking, pride in wealth, and the decline of morality in business dealings (welcome to America!) Miller also explores the significance of the covenant in "The Marrow of Puritan Divinity" (covenant being a way to combine Puritan religious thought with a sort of social contract ensuring good behavior); looks at Thomas Hooker and combats ideas that the founder of Connecticut was a democratic ruler; describes the early society of Virginia as possessing far more religious feeling, at least initially, than is typically thought; describes Jonathan Edwards as a thinker who defied the commercial turn of his merchant-oriented society in order to bring more people into the church; and connects Edwards and Emerson in a speculative essay linked by the concept of closer personal access to some sort of "divinity."

The reviews of others: The book was widely reviewed in a number of disparate places when it came out. I know that later on, Miller's work was discredited within American Studies for being too intellectually oriented, focused on too narrow a sample of people, etc. In the New England Quarterly, H. Shelton Smith pointed out that although many people before PM thought that "the New England mind" had been explored to the point of exhaustion, PM brought a fresh newness to the topic. Smith pays homage to Miller and then proceeds to completely disagree with Miller's idea, expressed in the titular essay, that the Puritans expected to one day return to England and govern there (after proving themselves with the City on a Hill). Smith writes that colonial historians took Miller's 1935 essay"The Marrow of Puritan Divinity" too far, to the point of positing that the Puritans weren't actually Calvinists, because of their belief in the covenant. Smith writes that although some of the conclusions others drew from the essay could actually be found in the text, he welcomes any writing which shows how complex seventeenth-c Calvinism was. Smith also admires Miller's prose, calling it "enviably lucid" (it was). Just for fun, I looked at another review that was in Modern Language Notes, penned by Herbert W. Schneider. Schneider liked most of what he saw in the collection, but thought that Miller characterized Emerson as overly connected to the American scene - Schneider thought Emerson's mind ranged far further afield than that.

Words: tergiversate (to change one's mind repeatedly, to equivocate)