- Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882–1952 by Jennifer L. Lieberman
Jennifer L. Lieberman’s Power Lines explores how turn-of-the-twentieth-century literature opens what she calls the “black box” of technology (216). To do so, Power Lines traces the depiction of electricity in American fiction from the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries in conjunction with industrial, governmental, legal, and medical discourses. Elucidating the multiple meanings of electricity as it animates multiple systems (transportation, power, communications), Power Lines enables us to reconsider how literary form is transformed through the second industrial revolution and, in turn, how literary texts take part in defining the emerging systems of this revolution. As it positions literature at the heart of discourses of hope and fear for a changing material culture that we have come to reify as “technology,” Power Lines is an important book for modernism scholars researching the connection between literature and these turn-of-the-twentieth-century systems.
Power Lines begins with Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) as a case study for what Lieberman calls the “technological fallacy”: a critical projection of the concept of technology as an all-encompassing and inevitable system onto a period that was still grappling with the meaning of new inventions. Lieberman focuses on displays of electrical power in Twain’s novel to show how it resists what she calls the “anachronistic coherence” that contemporary critics have imposed on it (19). Depictions of electricity in the novel alternately emphasize human agency and forward a determinist “belief that inventions could constitute an end in themselves” (44). Twain’s novel also, according to Lieberman, wavers between representing electricity as evidence of social progress and as a power that might merely “recapitulate existing . . . structures” or even serve socially regressive ends (44). She shows how A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court moves from a linear to a circular narrative as these contrasts are foregrounded so that the novel, like its protagonist Hank, struggles to “choose between individualistic and systemic paradigms” emerging in the late nineteenth century century (47).
The next chapter considers the larger stakes of the “technological fallacy” as Lieberman investigates discourses around the invention and institution of the electric chair in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. She posits that discussions around the electric chair rendered capital punishment a “technical rather than ethical problem” (52). Two novels based on actual trials and executions by electric chair—Gertrude Atherton’s Patience Sparhawk and Her Times (1897) and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925)—serve to reveal how fiction introduced questions of social and political agency generally absent from journalistic and legal writing in the period. Lieberman shows how Atherton and Dreiser’s novels attempt to reconnect the electric chair to the systems from which it had become increasingly abstracted: “the power grid, the sensational press, the class system” (88). As with Twain’s novel, this attempt to rethink the relationship between individuals and systems influences literary form as the novels construct senses of “unreality and fragmentation” to grapple with the relationship between individuals and the interconnected systems that enmesh them (87). This grappling, which likely resonated with readers’ questioning of the “place of the individual in a networked world,” explains why the novels were popular at the time without precipitating large-scale movements against the death penalty (88). The contest between individual agency and determination by overlapping systems shapes these discourses around the electric chair. Further, Lieberman shows that Atherton’s and Dreiser’s novels challenge the relationship between new inventions and social progress that was being developed in other discourses on electricity.
In the third chapter, Power Lines moves from countering the “technological fallacy” to exploring how writers envision electrical systems in their fiction. Lieberman here presents Charlotte Perkins Gilman as a utopian writer for whom electricity promises social and political progress. She begins by looking at the metaphor of the “human storage battery”—an electrical potential—elaborated in Gilman’s nonfictional...