The Machine Age, 1877-1920

I’m sorry that we didn’t get a chance to run through the entire chapter today. In the future I’ll budget our time more wisely and we’ll cover more ground.

As I said in seminar, the entire Norton text is required reading for this course. The main reading schedule only indicates specific chapters for lecture, but be assured every chapter is necessary. Go to the American Civilization page for a recommended schedule of Norton readings.

If we’re to grasp the stakes of the fifty years from Reconstruction to the Red Scare we’ll need to consider the ways that major social changes impacted ordinary people at the most basic levels: how they worked, played, related to one another, etc. To that end, you could do worse than peruse an earlier entry on this blog, Pittsburgh, ca. 1907 and/or this excerpt from my dissertation:

Historical Background

Any narrative seeking to generalize about the transformation of the United States from Reconstruction to the Palmer Raids would likely emphasize a favored trope of American historiography– the inexorable tightening of society, the increasing rigidity of a social order embedded in the inflexible necessities of gargantuan economic forces.

Life, such a story would illustrate, was becoming more determinate. And if the business cycles of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era were staggeringly erratic, plunging families into poverty and catapulting a new cohort of the ultra-rich upwards, scattering the waning ranks of yesterday’s “old stock” Anglo-Dutch elite, the hard facts of getting a living and the compulsions of convention were irrefutable. The horizon of the possible, perpetually flushed and inviting according to the national myth-system, was at once contracted and expansive: radiating from the urban clutter of cramped tenements the rail lines sliced through the static farm country steppes of the middle border region eulogized by Hamlin Garland. The market– in the days of the early Republic not only a location but an event,  an occasion for free holders to drive their wagons of flax and children, anticipating finished goods and penny candy– was abstracted: the self-sufficient barter and haggle of the mercantile system gave way to greenbacks and mystifying financial instruments, the occulted processes of corporate accumulation. What was once out in the open now receded into a fiduciary labyrinth blocked from the view of ordinary Americans. Is it any surprise then that the cultural and scientific values of verisimilitude and verifiability flourished in a period forged by invisible yet undeniable powers? Such a  question is really a declaration: the rise of the cult of realism has as its socio-economic correlate the dematerialization of the creation of wealth.

Yet even as the tokens of a ghost world of economic activity– stock certificates, hypothecated bonds– proliferated, prestidigitating the accumulation of capital into the polished recesses of law firms and financial offices, industrialization and financialization in their broadest senses reconfigured human experience. Erstwhile bobbin-boy Carnegie might vanish across the Atlantic to his Scottish castle but he left a stern lieutenant on watch, and Henry Clay Frick, the wizard’s apprentice who conjured the Homestead strike, understood very well the materiality of coal-field conditions and their effect on his laborers. It is not adequate then to say that social life lost some of its substance with the rise of the Robber Barons and what David Graham Phillips termed their “reign of gilt”. Still less that cultural modes such as realism and naturalism functioned to compensate for this spiritualization of matter. The period was characterized not only by an appetite for the Real and the experience of a financial uncanny, but by a persistent hunger for Romance in the midst of brute corporeality. If this was the age of Madame Blavatsky, of communion with the dead and fascination with fairies, it was also an era when the hieroglyphs of germ-plasm inscribed in the blood determined the fate of the million.

For the freedmen of the South land itself was what mattered, and the ownership of it was believed to be the foundation of citizenship, a theory proven by negation with the spread of the neo-feudal serfdom of sharecropping. “On the day of their freedom,” Charles Beard would write of the manumitted, “they stood empty-handed, without property, without tools, without homes, hardly the possessors of the clothes on their backs” (264).

In 1850 100 million acres of the continental United States had been cleared for farming. By 1900– 38 years after the Homestead Act, which privatized public land at a rate comparable only to the massive government largesse shown to the rail roads– that figure had doubled, and just ten years later in 1910 300 million acres of land was open for agricultural production. Yet the effect of the expansion of land under cultivation was compounded by greenbelt mechanization and the rise of what a later age would call agri-business and was then known as the “Bonanza farm”. If Delta sharecroppers labored using methods not significantly different from their neolithic forebears, “by 1898 McCormick was producing combines that cut a swath 28 feet wide and turned out three sacks a minute, each holding 115 pounds of grain” (Carlson 32). In one hour, then, seven men could reap enough wheat to produce 20,700 pounds of grain. What’s more, by the turn into the 20th century a mere fifteen man-hours were required to produce a crop of wheat. Undergirding a milling process improved by intellectual property theft, American farms generated a food surplus that became an enormously profitable commodity in global trade, a circuit of production, exchange, and accumulation so gigantic that it seemed to beckon for a poet to tell its epic tale. Frank Norris imagined he heard that call, and attempted to track its movements in his never-completed Trilogy of the Wheat. The average mill in Minneapolis, having outstripped an average output of 274 barrels of flour a day in 1874 to 1,837 barrels at the end of the 1880s, increased in size and ambition. Firms such as Washburn and Pillsbury began to vertically integrate their mills in the 1890s, moving backwards to encompass grain elevators and forwards to brand their product (Gold Medal Flour) and develop new foods such as breakfast cereals. With the South wrested from economic dependency on Britain, the incorporation of America under Northern capital advanced, and the reverberations of the industrialization and financialization of the national economy were of a magnitude that provoked mythologizing in those who attempted to describe it. Years later, Ernest Ludlow Bogart would write that

The keynote of all American history, from whatever standpoint it may be written, is found in the efforts of a virile and energetic people to appropriate and develop the wonderful natural resources of a new continent and there to realize their ideals of liberty and government. The economic history of the United States is largely the story of the achievements of a people working under free competition, untrammeled by custom, tradition, or political limitations, and whose changing conditions of environment constantly compelled new adaptations and promoted ingenuity and energy of character. (vii).

Searching for an adequate means of expressing this history of inexorable and well-nigh divinely dispensed progress at its most titanic and irrepressible moment, the epoch of consolidation, he only paused for a moment: “By 1880 more than four fifths of the cheese produced in the US was made in factories” (318).

Inevitably the growth in agricultural production effected other sectors of the economy. Railcars were needed to deliver those hundred millions of bushels of wheat– by 1910 a sixth of the total world output– and thus factories to build them. The indispensable materials for this undertaking entailed a long chain of labor– the steel necessary to build trains and lay track required puddlers to process iron ore pried from the ground by miners. The packing and canning industries expanded, as did the merchant fleet. Spurred by the demands of economies of scale– “the American system”– technological innovation proliferated, and the cult of the inventor-entrepreneur represented by a purely individuated figure such as Thomas Edison celebrated the ingenuity and iconoclasm of the Laissez-Faire ideal-type even as it suppressed the blank mass of workers operating the trip-hammers and shear-presses of the industrial system.

“The American Jules Verne”, Luis Senarens, a Cuban-American teenager hired at 16 to write dime novels for publisher Frank Tousey, produced hundreds of dime novels devoted to the exploits of boy-inventors, edisonades, out of a lifetime total of probably 1,500 to 2,000 books. Initially writing under the house pseudonym Noname and later using his own, Senarens turned out 179 stories on the adventures of young genius Frank Reade, Jr. creator of an anthropomorphic “steam wonder” capable of traveling as fast as a locomotive, an electric submarine, and an air ship among other marvels of transportation. Edison and his dopplegangers featured in dozens of scientific romances and dime novels, including Tom Edison, Jr.’s Electric Sea Spider; or, The Wizard of the Submarine World in which the protagonist– ostensibly the son of the historical person– and a crew of “bright-looking young Yankees” battle Yellow Peril figure Kiang Ho, a Harvard educated “Mongolian” scientist who, with his gang of Chinese pirates, threatens to disrupt global shipping.

Over the course of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia ten million people crowded around the Corliss Walking-Beam Engine– seven hundred tons and forty feet high, generating 1,400 horsepower. As a machinic totem for masculine power the Corliss seemed to offer those who came to gaze upon it and wash in the aura of its steady pulse some kind of evidence that the nation had come of age: “what the country really celebrated” at the Exposition, a character in Henry Blake Fuller’s With the Procession remarks a shade too glibly, “however unconsciously, was the ending of its minority and the assumption of full manhood with all its perplexities and cares” (quoted in Kazin 24).

The May 10 opening of the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine was damp. Rain fell while a seemingly endless review of troops including the State Fencibles (Capt. Ryan commanding) and the Weccacoe Cornet Band tramped through the mud. As visiting dignitaries gathered, the Brazilian national hymn (one of eighteen played at the ceremonies) accompanied the portly Dom Pedro II’s arrival. He gestured with his top hat at the boisterous crowd– praise indeed for the Emperor of the world’s last slave state– his consort trailing at his side wearing a dress of “a rich lavender silk, en traine, with satin bonnet and delicate lace shawl” (80). The orchestra played a special musical number, the Centennial Grand March, composed by Richard Wagner, at the conclusion of which a grim, bare-headed Bishop Simpson arose to give a lengthy prayer of thanks to God for allotting to his “chosen people” this portion of the earth (“Thy footstool”) whose “unnumbered products and untold treasures” so enriched the nation, elaborating his thanksgiving to include “labor saving machinery,” and “books and periodicals” before asking a blessing upon President Grant, Secretary Fish, the Supreme Court, the members of the Centennial Commission and, in fact, “all the nations of the earth” with special reference to those “come to exhibit the triumphs of genius and art in the development of industry and the progress of civilization” (81-86). Above all, intoned the reverend, “May the new century be better than the past.”

With this final adjuration at an end, the crowd shuffled expectantly only to be met by the Centennial Hymn (in a somewhat excerpted form owing to the increasing hour) a prelude to the official handover of the Centennial buildings officiated by the President of the Centennial Board of Finance, Hon. John Welsh, a man possessed of sidewhiskers so regal they well overlapped the lapels of his coat. Accepting this charge was the President of the Centennial Commission, Joseph Hawley, who thanked President Welsh amid great cheering and deferred to Dudley Buck who led the Centennial Chorus in his own composition the Centennial Cantata featuring lyrics by Sidney Lanier. The performance completed, President Hawley rose again to present the Exhibition to President Grant, referring perhaps in expectation of lawsuits to come to “the remarkable and prolonged disturbances in the finances and industries of the country” occasioned by the crash of ’73 which had made the organization and funding of the Exposition such an arduous task.

President Grant– his popularity not yet so diminished by the Whiskey Ring and Credit Mobilier scandals, Black Friday and the Sanborn Incident, though his surname had already been adapted to a term, “Grantism”, denoting graft and greed– spoke of the labor of building a nation, of “felling forests, subduing prairies, building dwellings, factories, ships, docks, warehouses, roads, canals, machinery, etc., etc.” (91). With a nod to “our foreign visitors” he looked out over the crowd, as many as 186,272 people (110,000 of whom held free passes) and said simply “I declare the International Exhibition now open.”

A year later in the course of the first nationwide strike American workers in West Virginia, Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania unconvinced of the felicity of Progress felt the force of state violence when federal troops and militia fired upon them.  Beginning in Martinsburg, West Virginia and lasting 45 days,

when the great railroad strikes of 1877 were over, a hundred people were dead, a thousand people had gone to jail, 100,000 workers had gone on strike, and the strikes had roused into action countless unemployed in the cities. More than half the freight on the nation’s 75,000 miles of track had stopped running at the height of the strikes. (Zinn 246).

The conflict between workers and owners intensified in the years that followed, and from the patchy statistics gathered concerning “the labor question” we learn that between 1881 and 1905 there were 36,757 strikes involving 6,728,048 workers.

many of whom were recent immigrants. Of the 14,359 common laborers employed by Carnegie’s Pittsuburgh plants, for example, 11, 694 were recent arrivals from South and Central Europe who earned below-subsistence weekly wages of $12.50.

Such conditions, their employer wrote in 1889, were the product of “the law of competition,” a mechanism which in the long term benefitted “the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department.” As the guarantor of social evolution, he affirmed, “We accept and welcome… great inequality of environment; the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few; and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race.”

Others were not so sanguine about the effects of industrialization, particularly in terms of the need for immigrant labor to feed the rapidly expanding manufacturing sector. Rena Atchison’s study of a congressional hearing on labor and immigration, Un-American Immigration: Its Present Effects and Future Perils, worried that foreign born workers were transforming “the native land of Washington, Lincoln and Grant [into] a sewer for the social filth of Europe [by] transplanting to American soil the industrial serfdom of Europe” (13).

Widespread concerns about national character and cohesion were obvious even to visitors. Traveling through the United States in 1890, Rudyard Kipling, whose jaunty doggerel “The White Man’s Burden” soon resonated with imperial longings for the vivifying violence of conquest,

sounded a rather snide note of caution:

The bond between the States is of an amazing tenuity.  So long as they do not absolutely march into the District of Columbia, sit on the Washington statues, and invent a flag of their own, they can legislate, lynch, hunt negroes through swamps, divorce, railroad, and rampage as much as ever they choose.  They do not need knowledge of their own military strength to back their genial lawlessness (American Notes).

Despite his deepening annoyance at being informed repeatedly of the charm of his “English accent,” Kipling’s views on the United States are not entirely negative. He is struck by the amiability of those he encounters, from the members of San Francisco’s Bohemian Club to a bunco operator who attempts to lure him into a fixed poker game. Yet the incessant optimism of his acquaintances begins to grate fairly quickly, particularly when it takes the form of breathless pronouncement. Stopping over in Chicago he chats with a cab driver who extols the anarchic development of the city in the long wake of its famous fire as “proof of progress,” a statement, Kipling tells his readers, indicating “the cabman… had been reading his newspaper, as every intelligent American should. The papers tell their clientele in language fitted to their comprehension that the snarling together of telegraph-wires, the heaving up of houses, and the making of money is progress.” Extending his visit a few days Kipling begins to realize that such journalistic cliches have not only entered popular consciousness but have in fact come to dominate it:

All that Sunday I listened to people who said that the mere fact of spiking down strips of iron to wood, and getting a steam and iron thing to run along them was progress, that the telephone was progress, and the net-work of wires overhead was progress. They repeated their statements again and again.

Knut Hamsun’s account of his two year sojourn in the states, The Cultural Life of Modern America, is even more dour than Kipling’s irritable assessment. He notes “the intense noise, the restlessness, the hectic life in the streets, the nervous, bold dispatch with which things move along everywhere” (5) in New York and concludes that it is not the nation’s institutions that galvanize Americans into action but ruthless economic necessity. “Everywhere there is the same bustling hurrah in things, the same steam-hammer din, the same clamorous activity in all that goes on,” he writes. The immigrant family who “lived on two crowns a day” in Norway “needs a dollar and a half” in New York “and for the great majority it takes considerable doing” simply to stay afloat (6). The frenetic economic life of the city, for Hamsun, takes on the character of a relentless, uninterrupted assault on the senses: “People are in a constant state of alarm; they feel pressured… astonished… confused…. They get upset if they are simply going to get a new pair of shoes, dreading that they may not know enough English to haggle.” This anxiety, provoked by a sense of inadequacy, of not yet being fluent in the language or customs of the assimilated and native-born, rapidly contorts into disbelief at “Americans’ enormous patriotism,” a love of country so pronounced it seems to the author deranged. “It is incredible,” Hamsun complains, “how naively cocksure Americans are in their belief that they can whip any enemy whatsoever. There is no end to their patriotism; it is a patriotism that never flinches, and it is just as loudmouthed as it is vehement” (7). Sucked into the life of the city as if by centrifugal force, derided as foreigners or greenhorns, pummeled by market forces, immigrants and visitors  are “frequently amazed at the ignorance, the gross unenlightenment on which this national pride rests” (8). Americans seem to be entirely insulated against even the very existence of life beyond the national borders, and “this ignorance of others… pervades every social class, all ages, everything” (9). It is a disregard so enormous that Hamsun can only conclude that it must be cultivated, a collective narcissism ranking as “one of the national vices of the American people.” Americanization, then, proceeds at a breakneck pace. Socio-economic pressures– the bludgeoning rhetoric of national pride and the desperate rush to survive– are so pronounced that immigrants are pushed “to erase every last trace” of their origins (11). Soaked in an effluence of nationalist fervor, relative newcomers begin to espouse the doctrine of reduced immigration, nativist sentiments which, for Hamsun, “are simply green fruits of American patriotism…. the result of the Americans’ strongly developed celestial belief in themselves” (13). For natural born citizens “penny-whistle patriotism has permeated their thinking since childhood, transforming a justifiable national pride into an unjustifiable arrogance that nothing and no one can shatter” (20). Even the poorest seem to wallow in this complacency, and to see “the aristocracy of fortunes, of accumulated capital” as a kind of divine hierarchy, a belief “the entire nation cultivates with out-and-out religious fervor” which smacks of “the medieval power of the ‘true’ aristocracy without possessing any of its nobility; crudely and brutally, it is a certain horsepower of economic invincibility.”

Written at the terminus of the first of two stunning surges in manufacturing (1884-1889 and 1899-1909) Hamsun’s metaphor for the magnitude of of American capitalism blended seamlessly into the rhetoric of the Age of Energy. Over the course of the long 19th century– from the 1780s until WWI– American gross national product had increased at an average rate of 3.9% per year growing 175-fold.  In the same period population grew by a factor of 40– between the Civil War and US intervention in Europe alone 25 million immigrants arrived– while capital stock rose 388-fold. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century the relative economic position of the United States– now the largest producer of goods and services in the world, with a gross domestic product 2/3 as large as all the leading western economies– and the United Kingdom were reversed. What did it all mean? As Michel Beaud explains,

a fundamental mutation of capitalism was beginning: concentration and centralization of industrial capital, formation of trusts and national monopolies, and, inevitably, expansion onto a worldwide scale of the sphere of influence of the dominant capitalism, by means of trade and the exportation of capital, the formation of multinational groups and colonization. (156).

Yet such a characterization, as accurate as it is, lacks the immediacy of thoughts and sentiments responding to the vagaries of everyday life. For the author of A Literary History of America, published one year into the twentieth century, the shocks of transformation seemed to indicate that “the world is passing though experience too confused, too troubled, too uncertain, for ripe expression; and America seems more and more growing to be just another part of the world” (518).