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