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B A R B A R A L I N D Q U I S T University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Jack London, Aesthetic Theory, and Nineteenth-Century Popular Science Neither literary critics nor the general public think of Jack London as a popularizer of nineteenth-century science. The public considers him primarily a writer of adventure stories and dog sto­ ries, and for some time his reception within the field of literature was little different. London scholars have consistently had to justi­ fy treating London as a worthwhile author deserving of critical attention. As Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin maintains, London was “scorned” by literary critics as recently as the early 1970s (Critical Essays 1). Yet, even with the attention of devoted scholars over the past two decades, few have recognized the science in London. Rather than science, many critics focus on London’s personal politics and the political ideologies in his texts. For example, they discuss his socialism, his racism, and his pro Anglo-Saxonism.1 Critics also engage in substantial debate about whether London was more representative of the individualist philosophy than the social­ ism he professed (Brazil, Erbentraut, Littell, Maffi). These per­ ceived contradictions have produced critical essays that either explore the inconsistencies in London’s writing or attempt to resolve them.2 Frequently, the discussions incorporate biographical information about London, merging an exposition of his personal conflicts with an analysis of inconsistencies in his characters or the structure of his texts (Sinclair, F. Walker).3 I have found only one study that examines London’s incorporation of thermodynamics in his writing, Ronald Martin’s Literature and the Universe of Force.4 Yet thermodynamics is an important aspect of a number of London’s texts. 100 Western American Literature The first law of thermodynamics, also called the law of conser­ vation of energy, states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed but can be transformed from one form to another. Several scientists were simultaneously working on projects that contributed to the first law of thermodynamics, but Hermann von Helmholtz first enunciated it in 1847. Helmholtz argued that the forces of nature—mechanical, electrical, chemical, etc.—are all forms of a single, universal energy that cannot be added to or destroyed. In his popular lectures and writing, he portrayed the movements of the planets, the forces of nature, the productive force of machines, and human labor power as examples of the principle of conservation of energy. To explain this principle, and to illustrate that there was no difference between human, animal, and inorganic mechanical ener­ gy, Helmholtz compared a blacksmith’s powerful arm and a steam-hammer, a lacemaker’s agile fingers and weaving frames, and a spider and a spinning machine. After the formulation of this law in 1847, the concept of energy dominated explanations of both the natural and mechanical worlds throughout the rest of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Thinkers and writers of this time period, among them historians, social critics, and novelists, incorporated thermodynamics into their conceptual schemes. They used energy metaphorically and literally to define an American national character, to formulate theories of history and education, and to construct an aesthetic theory.5 The numerous popular-science publications introduced at this time illustrate the era’s fascination with science in general and the first law of thermodynamics in particular. The popular science mag­ azine Appleton’s Journal, founded in 1867, was followed by the Popular Science Monthly in 1872 (Hofstadter 9). The Popular Science Monthly created a virtual crusade around the law of conser­ vation of energy. The editor, Edward Livingston Youmans, believed this law not only governed “the movements of the heavenly bodies,” but it also ruled “the actions and relations of men,” and through the journal, he sought to teach his audience how to apply the law of conservation of energy to everyday life (Introduction xli-xlii).6 Nineteenth-century scientists also helped prepare a receptive audience for fiction that incorporated science by presenting their findings in language a lay audience could comprehend. John Barbara Lindquist 101 Tyndall’s Fragments of Science for Unscientific People, published for and dedicated to an American audience, is representative of sci­ entists’efforts to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 99-114
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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