149: Cecelia Tichi’s Shifting Gears

In Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America, Cecelia Tichi traces the change in metaphors, images, and methods of composition used by American writers from the 1890s to the 1920s as evidence of a change in worldview, a “shifting of gears” from a romantic view of the world to a mechanical one.  Incorporating a wide variety of texts, including popular journalism, ads, kids’ books, westerns, medical textbooks, government publications, modernist poetry, novels, and books on technology, not to mention toys, movies, and buildings, Tichi argues that the new “gear and girder” technology altered the ways writers used language – and that by adopting the tools, logic, and aesthetic of their surroundings, Machine Age writers made technology legible.

This new mechanical writing style differed from the older romantic style in a couple of key ways:

  • it emphasized identical, interchangeable parts, arranged not according to some intrinsic, holistic logic but to an artificial, rational and efficient scheme
  • it focused not on an emotional relationship with surfaces but on a rational, content-based understanding of internal structures
  • it celebrated the human power to manipulate and transform the environment
  • it figured the writer as an engineer rather than an artist
This emphasis on mechanics, rationality, and component parts led to a wide variety of results.  Housewives became “homemaker engineers in efficient domestic factories;” Sinclair Lewis wrote of machines as predators and assembly lines as death camps; Bellamy, Henry James, and Veblen indicted social waste and instability; Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies served as models of style and texture for William Carlos Williams and TS Eliot; Henry Adams was not afraid of technology but excited about engineering; Dos Passos and Hemingway developed machine-inspired prose styles; and, of course, William Carlos Williams made machines out of words.
While Tichi sets up more of a high/low divide than she probably intended (or maybe I just pulled out the names I knew?) and likely needs more historical context, her book serves a similar purpose to Terry Smith’s: showing how technology and culture, together, created the modern era.
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