- Minding the Machine: Languages of Class in Early Industrial America
The miasma in the current thinking about the language and meaning of class in America, a subject at the heart of Stephen P. Rice's book, is painfully apparent in a series appearing as I write in the spring 2005. Serialized in the New York Times, and entitled "Class Matters," the series purports to examine "the role of social class in America today."1 Nowhere is any class defined—middle, working, upper middle is each bandied about; never is there an upper class, and the presumption is that success is only to escape the working class. In one paragraph we are told "[t]hrough it all, one thing was certain: a factory job was [the]... ticket to the middle class," and in another a bold headline proclaimed, "Diplomas' Absence Strands Many in the Working Class."
Rice's book is a welcome read that offers considerable insight both into this muddle and into the conservative thinking that celebrates the 'middle' in opposition to the working class. Against the analytic mishmash that dominates contemporary journalism, the book is also part of an emerging historiographic cottage industry that seeks to understand the formation of the American middle [End Page 1211] class in the first half of the nineteenth century. Mary P. Ryan's study of the Utica and Paul Johnson's history of Rochester shopkeepers tilled this ground. And now Rice, echoing Jonathan Daniel Wells' new account of the origins of the middle class in the ante-bellum south,2 productively updates these accounts by interrogating the languages of class and the emergence of middle-class subjectivity in the ante-bellum north.
Minding the Machine looks at the development of a self- conscious middle class through the discourse on mechanization in the first half of the nineteenth century, most especially by examining the relationship between 'hand' and 'head.' Paralleling, but in contrast to working-class histories of the era, Rice focuses on those men (and he acknowledges his study is not of women nor the domestic sphere in which historians have usually located middle-class culture) who engage in and celebrate the distinctiveness and superiority of work with their heads and he traces the means through which they come to authorize and cement their political, social and cultural authority.
Rice elucidates the popular discourse on mechanization with a familiar account of the reception and debates surrounding Johann Maelzel's automaton 'chess player.' While engaging, the subsequent chapters on the Mechanics' Institute Movement and the Manual Labor School Movements are more original contributions. Drawing on lectures given at the Mechanics' Institutes, Rice illustrates how the divide between hand and head was used to figure new social relations of the industrial era. We learn little about the place of artisans in the Institutes, but these associations bridged the increasingly troubled and changing identities of the master-manufacture/artisan, and Rice illustrates how they become the home of the 'engineer' rather than the 'mechanic' by mid-century. Likewise, a chapter on the Manual Labor Schools tells fascinating stories of Lafayette and Oberlin Colleges in the 1830s and 1840s, noting how the "the conservative strain of the movement" celebrated the healthful effects of manual life (but not hand work?!) to "give expression to a harmonious vision of class."
It is the last chapter of the book, however, that Rice is most inventive and convincing. Rice examines the public concern with steam engine explosions as a metaphor for conservative [read business] social fears of a social explosion during industrialization. Regulating engines then becomes a metonym for social engineering, and the engineer, in reinventing himself to solve this social problem, elevates his social status and authority in following the quintessential middle-class social trajectory. Until mid-century, engineers were held in low status, often thought to be drunk and lazy men as responsible for accidents as anyone. By the 1850s, 'trained' with 'knowledge' (which Rice notes was of little value to them on the job), they gained...