restricted access Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (review)
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Reviewed by
Cecelia Tichi. Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1987. 310 pp. $35.00 cloth; pb. $14.95.

Component parts, gears and girders, efficiency—these are the catchwords of the twentieth-century imaginative vision according to Tichi. In her wide-ranging study of the industrial revolution and its reverberations in American culture and literature at the turn of the century, Tichi painstakingly traces a web of cause and effect, of action and reaction between environment and writer. Some writers, such as Sherwood Anderson and Willa Cather, "rebelled thematically against the idea of human mechanizations," whereas others, notably Hemingway, Dos Passos, and W. C. Williams, are indebted to this "machine-age consciousness" for the structure and form of their works. As Tichi says, "their texts were not galleries featuring pictorial representations of machines and structures. . . ." Their work "instead is the machine." "Fiction and poetry," she adds, "became recognizable [End Page 675] as designed assemblies of component parts, including prefabricated parts."

Tichi carefully builds her thesis by examining the influence of the machine upon popular culture. The fascinating opening chapters of her book treat one to a panorama of an America seized by the excitement of mechanization and technological change: little boys could become master engineers by playing with Erector sets; housewives could build strong bodies with Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour, that "fine fuel for young engines!" The engineer, in short, became the "hero-engineer" in whom the "national vision remain[ed] pure and America's destiny intact." Tichi's detailed discussion is nicely supplemented with magazine prints, photos, advertisements, and the like.

The challenge to writers of the early twentieth century, according to Tichi, was to invigorate writing, to transform writing as American culture was being transformed. Here her book becomes less fascinating, less persuasive. Tichi says that the "engineer's machines and structures became the designs which, fashioned with component parts, enabled the novelist-architect to present a story in ways congruent with the times." Hence those writers she deems incongruent, those who "rebelled" (Anderson and Cather), "suffer artistically." The supposition that incongruency in some way equates with artistic failure is troubling. Her assessment of these writers is conditioned too rigidly by a presupposed thesis.

Tichi's discussions of Dos Passos, Hemingway, and Williams are interesting but, finally, superficial. Her focus is on the forms of their works, and she relies on biographical details and excerpts from letters and essays to buttress her thesis that technology/architecture—the "gear-and-girder world"—shaped their art. About Dos Passos, we learn nothing new. About Hemingway and Williams, we are promised a discussion about the incorporation of engineers' "values" into their works, but, alas, Tichi glosses over this content question to focus once again on form.

For instance, Tichi explains Hemingway's sparse prose style as arising at least in part from his experience working as a journalist during the height of the Frederick Taylor Efficiency Movement. The Kansas City Star, the paper Hemingway worked at as a novice reporter, in the spirit of Taylorism directed its reporters to use "short sentences, short first paragraphs," and to "avoid the use of adjectives." Tichi also attributes Hemingway's style to his use of the telegraph, for the technology necessitated the use of sparse prose. Tichi's discussion is persuasively made but is ultimately reductive.

A more unfortunate lapse on her part, however, is her failure to examine the content-dependent issues she raises. For example, Tichi says Hemingway's work is "full of nostalgia for a preindustrial 'natural' environment, but his sentences are irrevocably of another, a gear-and-girder world." Although this is a valid and interesting insight, Tichi leaves the first part of this thesis largely unexamined, focusing instead almost exclusively on Hemingway's "straight, pure, and natural line," a line that "becomes geometry's straight line, quite simply the shortest distance between two points." But what are the two points? And what is the significance of what lies between those points? Tichi refrains from answering such crucial questions in any depth.

To Tichi, William Carlos Williams became the "most articulate spokesman" of the "subject of design components...


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