Hawthorne Against the Techno-Utopians

I’ve had occasion to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing a time or two in previous posts. In his journal, he noted the manner in which the train whistle broke into the natural idyll he was enjoying — “But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive” — inaugurating a long-standing literary convention which persists to this day (see Sherry Turkle).

Elsewhere, Hawthorne anticipated de Chardin and McLuhan’s metaphorical rendering of the electric age: “Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?”

Hawthorne and his generation were grappling with the consequences of industrialization. We are grappling with the consequences of digitization. These two are not necessarily analogous, but they share one variable: human nature. Hawthorne in particular had a keen sense of our faults and foibles. While his stories did not always dwell on technology explicitly, they imaginatively explored the darker proclivities that human beings bring to the techno-scientific project.

In the opening paragraph of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne writes,

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

This is a grim observation, but it seems incontrovertible; and it applies with equal force to all techno-utopian projects and hopes. Wherever we go, there we are and our imperfections with us.

Pascal observed that the error of Stoicism lay in believing that what can be done once can be done always. I would offer an analogous framing of the techno-utopian error: Believing the wonderful use to which a technology can be put, will be the use to which it is always put.

Better, it would seem, to go forward with a hopeful skepticism that avoids the cycloptic vision of either the techno-utopians or the techno-cynics. And reading a little Hawthorne might be a good way of nurturing that disposition.


Over the past couple of years, the folks at The New Atlantis have been publishing a series of reflections on a handful of Hawthorne’s short stories as they bear on Science, Progress, and Human Nature. These are each thoughtful and engaging essays.  

The Smartphone in the Garden

[Update: If you are seeing this older post in your RSS feed, it is because I updated the post to correct a glaring factual error and the post inadvertently re-published.]

Following an extended stay in Europe, Henry James returned to America in 1904.  Shortly after landing in New York, he made his way to New Hampshire. There he was struck by how the landscape impressed itself upon him. It was full of “the sweetness of belated recognition, that of the sense of some bedimmed summer of the distant prime flushing back into life and asking to give again as much as possible of what it had given before.” James wondered what it was that triggered this reaction, “shamelessly ‘subjective’” as it may have been, but he interrupted his own introspection: “When you wander about in Arcadia, you ask as few questions as possible.” Recounting this experience in The American Scene, however, he could not help but return to the questions: “Why was the whole connotation so delicately Arcadian, like that of the Arcadia of an old tapestry, an old legend, an old love-story in fifteen volumes …?”

James’ reflections were noted by Leo Marx in the closing chapter of his classic, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. First published in 1964, The Machine in the Garden is a rich, absorbing study of the tension between the pastoral ideal and the intrusion of machine technology throughout American history. In the first part of the work, Marx explains how, soon after the European discovery of the New World, the pastoral ideal was seized upon to describe America. Thomas Jefferson in particular translated what had been a literary construct into “a guide to social policy.” America was to be a society wherein the opposition between nature and civilization was resolved in favor of a delicately balanced, harmonious relationship; it was not a wilderness, but a garden.

America’s quasi-mythic self-understanding, then, included a vision of idyllic beauty and fecundity. But this vision would be imperiled by the appearance of the industrial machine, and the very moment of its first appearance would be a recurring trope in American literature. It would seem, in fact, that “Where were you when you first heard a train whistle?” was something akin to “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” The former question was never articulated in the same manner, but the event was recorded over and over again.

In Marx’s view, the recurring vignette describing the startled recognition of the machine’s intrusion into the pastoral ideal was an American adaptation of the traditional “pastoral design.” The pastoral design was a literary convention with roots in classical antiquity. Within the pastoral design, the pastoral ideal of the harmony between man and nature, positioned between civilization on the one side and wilderness on the other, is troubled by the intrusion of some “counterforce” which signals the larger reality within which the pastoral ideal is played out. The gesture is made visible in the landscape paintings of the 17th century that introduced some momento mori into the idealized scenery. It is, for example, spelled out by Poussin when his shepherds stumble upon a grave with the inscription, “Et in Arcadia Ego.” Within the pastoral design, impinging disruptive forces always trouble the pastoral ideal.

The train whistle became, for a certain generation of American writers, a memento mori signaling death’s presence within the pastoral ideal of America. This ideal, however, was not eradicated by the industrial revolution. It was still alive in the imagination of Henry Adams, even if it appears more self-consciously quaint unto itself. Well into the 20th century, the artistic conventions of the genre are still visible, even in the technocratic vision of Charles Sheeler.

Sheeler’s “American Landscape” (1930) adopted the formal conventions of the landscape painting, down to the solitary human form provided to indicate the scale of all else, but, of course, the striking feature of Sheeler’s landscape is the total absence of land. The entire environment has been “mechanized.” Marx does not make this point, but I’m tempted to read the ladder in the lower right corner, the only archaic element in view, as a memento mori. A return to pre-industrial technology is the death that threatens. But, Marx notes, “this bleak vista conveys a strangely soft, tender feeling.” As is characteristic of Sheeler’s technological paintings, movement has been stilled. Sheeler, according to Marx, has “imposed order, peace, and harmony upon our modern chaos.”

It is useful to contrast Sheeler’s painting with an older attempt to harmoniously represent a new order which encompasses the machine into the ideal.

In “The Lackawanna Valley” (1855), George Innes depicts a more traditional landscape, but he has incorporated the machine into the scene, both by the presence of the train winding its way toward the foreground and the smoke rising from the mills or factories further in the background. Setting Innes and Sheeler side by side, creates a suggestive illustration of the evolution of the machine’s place within the pastoral ideal of American society. What was for Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau and others of their generation a potentially destructive intrusion into the pastoral ideal, is first assimilated into the ideal and then transfigures the ideal into its own image.

Sheeler’s painting is characteristic of a trend, but it should not be taken to suggest the death of the pastoral ideal for American society. Like all deeply rooted cultural ideals, it has a way of reinventing itself and reemerging. Marx’s history, in fact, can be usefully understood as context for our present debates about the Internet and society. Seen in this light, Sherry Turkle’s Cape Cod narrative can be understood as an elaboration of a genre that goes back at least as far as Hawthorne’s “train whistle” notes. Here is Turkle writing in the NY Times:

“I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices.”

It is no longer the industrial machine that has entered the garden, it is now the smartphone.


(More to come.)

Paradise Interrupted: Train Whistles, Cell Phones, and Social Change

In his classic study of the pastoral ideal in American culture, The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx takes a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal as a point of departure. In his journal entry from July 27, 1844, Hawthorne describes what he observes as he sits down in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts to take in “such little events as may happen.”

Hawthorne, whose prescient metaphor for electrification we noted a few days ago, begins by describing the spot as follows:

“… a shallow space scooped out among the woods, which surround it on all sides, it being pretty nearly circular, or oval, and two or three hundred yards — perhaps four or five hundred — in diameter. The present season, a thriving field of Indin corn, now in its most perfect growth, and tasseled out, occupies nearly half of the hollow; and it is like the lap of bounteous Nature, filled with bread stuff.”

He goes on to note that, “… sunshine glimmers though shadow, and the shadow effaces sunshine, imaging that pleasant mood of mind where gaiety and pensiveness intermingle.”

Then he turns from landscape to soundscape and notes, in Marx’ summary, “the village clock, the cowbell tinker, and the mowers whetting scythes.” These sounds are not perceived as an intrusion into the peace of the idyll, rather they blend harmoniously into the whole.

Marx notes how Hawthorne is not idealizing undisturbed nature for itself, but rather nature and human culture in seeming harmony with one and for one another. Marx also observes that the journal entry is not merely about the place, it is about the human psyche as well. The subjective experience of the place is the primary object of consideration.

As we continue reading, suddenly the acoustical and psychic harmony is shattered:

“But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive — the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.”

Hawthorne then turns back to his observations and of nature, noting the leaves and “comparing their different aspects.”

This passage is notable for how often its pattern is independently repeated in the literature of the period. Marx notes similar patterns of peace and tranquility suddenly and harshly interrupted by a machine. In Walden, Thoreau likewise is disturbed from his admiration of nature by the sound of a locomotive. In Moby Dick, Ishmael is exploring the skeleton of a beached whale and suddenly the scene shifts an he is inside a textile mill. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim  are calmly floating down the river when suddenly they are rammed by a steamboat.

The specific case of the train’s piercing whistle is also recorded by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Marx suspects that if we had access to all the writer’s notebooks from the period we would have countless more instances of this “little event.”

It is, on Marx’s view, characteristic of a much older literary pattern employed first by Virgil in his Eclogues. The harmony of man with nature, positioned between civilization on the one side and wilderness on the other, is troubled by the intrusion of some “counterforce” which signals the greater reality within which the pastoral ideal is played out. The same gesture is made visible in the landscape paintings of the 17th century that introduced some momento mori into the idealized scenery. It is, for example, spelled out by Poussin when his shepherds stumble upon a grave with the inscription, “Et in Arcadia Ego.”

The trains whistle, then, symbolically signaled the larger realities that were inescapably inserting themselves into the cultural landscape. The train’s whistle signaled the arrival of Industrialization and the disordering and reordering of society that came in its wake. Emerson, for example, is explicit about this:

“I hear the whistle of the locomotive in the woods. Wherever that music comes it has its sequel. It is the voice of the civility of the Nineteenth Century saying, “Here I am.” It is interrogative: it is prophetic: and this Cassandra is believed: ‘Whew! Whew! Whew! How is real estate here in the swamp and wilderness? Ho for Boston! Whew! Whew! … I will plant a dozen houses on this pasture next moon …”

It is as if these “little events” were analogous to our asking where we were when Kennedy was shot or when the Twin Towers were attacked. We all, at least those of a certain age, have little narratives we tell about such moments when reality harshly intruded into our idylls and signaled the changing of the times.

As I read all of this, I also wondered whether similar widely shared, equally mundane “little events” were characteristic of other periods of social change. Perhaps, the first time one heard the ring of the telephone or the engine of an airplane overhead. What about our own time? I remember when I first began to notice, in the mid-1990s, that ads on television were now prominently featuring web site addresses. Perhaps, if we’re going for jarring, we might recall the when we began to notice people talking for all to hear on their cell phones in public spaces. I can imagine a contemporary, Hawthorne-like, taking in the scenery at a park let’s say, and then suddenly startled by ones side of some too-audible conversation. (Interestingly, this very scenario was the inspiration for a recent essay by Jonathan Franzen, a literary figure of our time if ever there was one.) All of these “little events,” these little annoyances, might be, like Hawthorne’s train whistle, signifiers of shifting social worlds and mental/emotional states of being.

Any other suggestions?  What your “little events” that in retrospect were harbingers of significant cultural change? What change did they signal? What symbolic role did they play? What larger meanings did they clarify?