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Title:Power lines: electric networks and the American literary imagination
Author(s):Lieberman, Jennifer
Director of Research:Markley, Robert
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Markley, Robert
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Michelson, Bruce; Fouché, Rayvon; Littlefield, Melissa M.
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):American literature
science and technology studies
Abstract:Between 1870 and 1916 electricity occupied the minds of some of America’s most prominent authors. Before Mark Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), he visited Nikola Tesla’s laboratory and recognized that the alternating-current machine he saw there would revolutionize American life. Before Jack London tried his hand at authorship, he spent six months training to become an electrician. My dissertation explores the literature of this period in relation to the rise of electric networks to reveal a complex and consequential set of interactions with technology previously unaccounted for within the scholarship of “the machine age.” Where the machine signified the sudden intrusion of industry into pristine nature, electricity represented latent power in the water and wind; where the machine connoted determinist aspects of the human self, electricity signified vitality, inventiveness, and even the sublime. By tracing the evolution of these technological symbols, I argue that writers of this era developed new literary forms, as well as rhetorics of the modern network society, that continue to shape our understanding of technology and modernity. The field of literary production incorporated electricity in everything during the turn of the twentieth century, from improved methods of printing (including electrotype and high speed presses) to figurative language that linked electricity with modern life. At the same time, electrical advertisements and trade journals frequently included poetry and literary allusions, while an array of scientists and technologists, from Harvard Professor of Physics John Trowbridge through General Electric engineer Charles Ripley, took up literary forms to capture the beauty and power of electricity. This feedback between technologists and literary artists contributed to an electric vocabulary—marked by new concepts like “electrocution” and “live wire”—which, I argue, inflected the rise of the modern American novel. Chapters One and Two investigate how electric execution challenged conventional narratives about technological modernity. In A Connecticut Yankee—published after New York passed its Electric Execution Act (1888) but before the first electric execution—Mark Twain illustrates the tension between the dangerous, tantalizing power of the electric charge and the symbolic progressivism of the electrical network. Alternating between technical and melodramatic depictions of electric circuits, he situates the fatal electric spark on the borders between realism and fantasy. Yet after the chair was first put to use in 1890, neither of these representational frameworks appeared suitable for describing the social meanings of this new device. Even Alphonso David Rockwell—an electro-medical doctor who helped “improve” the electric chair—described the electrocutions he witnessed as “unreal.” Drawing on archival and popular texts, Chapter Two explores how authors such as Stephen Crane, William Dean Howells, and Gertrude Atherton experimented with new representational frameworks for describing electrocution. Unlike writers who depicted electrocution as instantaneous, Atherton illustrates how the electric chair’s meanings are consistently produced around, as well as within, the moment of electric shock. In Patience Sparhawk and Her Times (1896), she describes her protagonist’s experience of the execution chamber as meta-textual; in the moments leading up to her electrocution, Patience chooses to act like a hero in a sensational news story rather than a person who has been wrongly sentenced to death. I argue that Atherton’s romance implicates modern systems of representation with a new form of capital punishment by hinting that the experience of electrocution could be mediated through the circulation of stories. Chapter Three reveals that literary artists found the power grid as complex and alluring as the electric chair. This chapter shows that Mary Hallock Foote’s novella, “The Harshaw Bride” (1896), and Jack London’s Sonoma Valley novels (1910-1915) portray the power distribution system as an emergent dimension of regional cultures. By illustrating how electrical networks might shape and be shaped by Western communities, these texts raise questions about contemporaneous narratives that linked the laying of telegraph wires to the “closing of the frontier,” and, concomitantly, the supposed disappearance of the Native American and the pioneer. This chapter argues that Foote and London’s western electrification narratives complicate the generic categories of regionalism and naturalism, respectively, by incorporating elements of utopianism and romance to describe the promise of new electrical frontiers. Western depictions of healthy, communal electrical grids anticipate a subgenre I call the “revitalization narrative,” a class of literature that describes the reawakening of bodies and communities. Defining and analyzing this subgenre, Chapter Four investigates how early twentieth-century authors used electrical analogies to grapple with changing definitions of health, life, and death. This chapter argues that Pauline Hopkins and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s euphoric descriptions of electrical revitalization counter medical discourses that privileged certain bodies while pathologizing others. Although these authors had divergent political aims, both narrate modern life in terms of a growing network society, writing against the individualistic paradigms of naturalistic literature. In so doing, they imagine a stronger relationship between electricity and the pastoral than we have previously seen in American literary history. They depict electricity moving like water through a landscape to refresh communities and individuals within them, anticipating rhetorics of sustainability that would gain prominence later in the twentieth century. Power Lines analyzes how electric technologies impacted the development of American prose fiction during the turn of the twentieth century. I began this project in conversation with scholarship on the literature of “the machine age,” but recent work on electricity and American literary modernism and Romanticism (by Mark Goble and Paul Gilmore, respectively) signals the emergence of a new subfield that my work directly complements and expands. By examining how Gilman blends utopianism with scientific realism to describe humans as “storage batteries” —or how London shifts away from the modes and techniques of literary naturalism to describe idyllic and sustainable electric grids—I contend that we can trace how new networks inspired authors to complicate or to move outside of prescribed genre conventions. Ultimately, I argue that authors who experimented with new electrical forms and symbols created narratives that anticipated modernism by troubling the boundaries between realism, romance, regionalism, and utopianism.
Issue Date:2011-05-25
Rights Information:Copyright 2011 Jennifer Lieberman
Date Available in IDEALS:2011-05-25
Date Deposited:2011-05

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