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Reviewed by:
  • Machines for Living: Modernism and Domestic Life by Victoria Rosner
  • Susan Fraiman
Victoria Rosner. Machines for Living: Modernism and Domestic Life. Oxford UP, 2020. xi + 292 pp.

Victoria Rosner’s Machines for Living opens with a view of T. S. Eliot’s typist from The Waste Land as a type of the modern woman. In Rosner’s deft reading, modern women’s tinned food, gas stove, and automated gestures signal the presence of modernity’s objects and ethos at the center of modernist works by Eliot and others. Like the journal Modernism/modernity, Rosner’s project places innovations in such areas as manufacturing, epidemiology, and child psychology side by side with those in architecture and literature. As Rosner explains, however, her aim is to “discard the dividing bar” (4) of that journal’s title, placing greater emphasis on the mutual imbrication of, say, modernized plumbing and modern poetry. Machines for Living argues that even writers who were hostile to modernization were nonetheless preoccupied and influenced by its ideas—for example, functionalism, standardization, and hygiene—and material effects on everyday life. The book “investigates the ways in which modern-ist literature develops and communicates meaning through a new vocabulary of form substantially derived from non-literary discourses of modernity” (18).

Among these “non-literary discourses,” Rosner is interested above all in those concerning the modernization of the home. This is the book’s most important contribution: its commitment to triangulating the relationship between aesthetics and technics by inserting the domestic as a galvanizing third term. Domesticity is typically identified with stasis, sentimentality, and conservatism. Associated with women and coded as feminine, it appears antithetical to both modernism’s smashing of formal conventions and modernity’s fixation on speed and machines. Pointing to the modern home as a dynamic machine for living—insisting on it as a site of experiment, controversy, and change—Rosner redresses what she rightly sees as [End Page 599] an area of critical neglect. By refusing to treat the home as modernity’s backwater, she not only recognizes the kitchen as a mechanized workplace but also restores the bodies of women and children to a period more often troped by disillusioned men.

In a compelling reformulation, chapter 5 (“Modernism’s Missing Children: Mass Production and Human Reproduction”) shows that modernist fears of mass production were especially acute regarding standardized approaches to child rearing. In the 1920s, armies of child experts insisted on normative developmental “milestones” (194); in the 1930s, John Watson’s coldly rational and behaviorist model of parenting was the order of the day. Focusing on Aldous Huxley, Rosner suggests that writers countered these trends both thematically and formally—with images of children damaged by such methods and with nonlinear narratives of stymied development. One of the book’s most telling moves is to link modernist anxiety less to modernity generally than to modernity’s threat to encroach on a still sacrosanct private sphere. An interesting implication is that modernist discontents were underwritten by a residual Victorian view of domestic spaces.

Chapter 5 points to writers from Thomas Hardy to Huxley as active participants in debates about raising modern children. In chapter 3 (“‘Fear in a Handful of Dust’: Modernism and Germ Theory”), modernists weigh in on another pressing household matter: hygiene in the context of modern germ theory. On this topic, as opposed to childrearing, H. G. Wells, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Mann, and Sinclair Lewis generally reinforce the views of modern experts. Their works feature heroic bacteriologists, mocked by those who refuse to believe in microscopic health hazards. Rosner argues that Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, beyond explicitly depicting germ science, transposed the era’s concern with cleanliness into a modernist aesthetic that emphasized clarity. For Williams, poet-physician that he was, clarity of poetic vision and precision of poetic language amounted to a kind of literary hygiene.

It is one thing to see modernists directly thematizing contemporary theories of child development or infection. It is another, less obvious, matter to find these theories playing out at the more abstract level of form. In discussing germ theory, Rosner notes that hygiene in poetry operates differently from hygiene in kitchen design but goes on...

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