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American Technological Sublime

American Technological Sublime

by David E. Nye

"David Nye always has something interesting and suggestive to say about the role of technology in American culture and society. American Technological Sublime is...a book that can be profitably and enjoyably read by specialists and general readers alike. It is an estimable piece of historical interpretation and writing and deserves a


"David Nye always has something interesting and suggestive to say about the role of technology in American culture and society. American Technological Sublime is...a book that can be profitably and enjoyably read by specialists and general readers alike. It is an estimable piece of historical interpretation and writing and deserves a wide readership."
-- David Nasaw, Boston Globe
Technology has long played a central role in the formation of Americans' sense of selfhood. From the first canal systems through the moon landing, Americans have, for better or worse, derived unity from the common feeling of awe inspired by large-scale applications of technological prowess. American Technological Sublime continues the exploration of the social construction of technology that David Nye began in his award-winning book Electrifying America. Here Nye examines the continuing appeal of the "technological sublime" (a term coined by Perry Miller) as a key to the nation's history, using as examples the natural sites, architectural forms, and technological achievements that ordinary people have valued intensely.

American Technological Sublime is a study of the politics of perception in industrial society. Arranged chronologically, it suggests that the sublime itself has a history - that sublime experiences are emotional configurations that emerge from new social and technological conditions, and that each new configuration to some extent undermines and displaces the older versions. After giving a short history of the sublime as an aesthetic category, Nye describes the reemergence and democratization of the concept in the early nineteenth century as an expression of the American sense of specialness.

What has filled the American public with wonder, awe, even terror? David Nye selects the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, the Erie Canal, the first transcontinental railroad, Eads Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, the major international expositions, the Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909, the Empire State Building, and Boulder Dam. He then looks at the atom bomb tests and the Apollo mission as examples of the increasing ambivalence of the technological sublime in the postwar world. The festivities surrounding the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986 become a touchstone reflecting the transformation of the American experience of the sublime over two centuries. Nye concludes with a vision of the modern-day "consumer sublime" as manifested in the fantasy world of Las Vegas.

Editorial Reviews

Nye (Center for American Studies, Odense U., Denmark) continues the exploration of the social construction of technology that he began in Electrifying America. He examines the continuing appeal of the "technological sublime" as a key to the nation's history, surveying some 200 years of large-scale technological projects in terms of their public value, and social and political contexts. Nye traces the pattern of changes in social attitudes to natural and technological wonders such as the Grand Canyon, the Empire State Building, the atom bomb, and the Apollo XI mission. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Boston Globe - David Nasaw
David Nye always has something interesting and suggestive to say about the role of technology in American culture and society. American Technological Sublime is...a book that can be profitably and enjoyably read by specialists and general readersalike. It is an estimable piece of historical interpretation and writing and deserves a wide readership.

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MIT Press
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6.29(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.14(d)

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1 The Sublime

The North American continent possesses every feature that a theory of the natural sublime might require, including mountains, deserts, frozen wastes, endless swamps, vast plains, the Great Lakes, and hundreds of unusual sights, notably Yellowstone, Mammoth Cave, Niagara Falls, and the Grand Canyon. Likewise, its tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters are among the most terrifying phenomena one could encounter anywhere. It would be tempting to say that had no theory of the sublime existed, Americans would have been forced to invent one. In a sense, this is what happened, for by the middle of the nineteenth century the American sublime was no longer a copy of European theory; it had begun to develop in ways appropriate to a democratic society in the throes of rapid industrialization and geographic expansion.

The American sublime drew on European ideas in the fine arts, literature, and philosophy. In art history the concept of the sublime is often applied to paintings that are unreal, monstrous, nightmarish, or imaginary. In architecture a sublime building usually is vast and includes striking contrasts of light and darkness, designed to fill the observer with foreboding and fear.(1) Intellectual historians and literary critics have been particularly interested in eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth century texts on the sublime. David B. Morris writes:

The discovery of the sublime was one of the great adventures of eighteenth-century England: accompanying the establishment of a commercial empire, the growth of industrialism, the invention of the common reader, and the rise of the waltz, a taste developed among almost all classes of society for the qualities of wildness, grandeur, and overwhelming power which, in a flash of intensity could ravish the soul with a sudden transport of thought or feeling. . . . Sublimity liberated the eighteenth-century imagination from all that was little, pretty, rational, regular, and safe--although only for as long as the moment of intensity could be sustained.(2)

As Marjorie Hope Nicolson notes, English writers on the sublime (including Dennis, Shaftsbury, and Addison) agreed that the most important "stimulus to the Sublime lay in vast objects of Nature--mountains and oceans, stars and cosmic space--all reflecting the glory of Deity." To them, the experience in nature was primary; the "rhetorical" sublime was "only secondary." Despite this agreement on the primary stimulus of nature, however, it was difficult to classify the emotional content of this "moment of intensity." Shaftsbury argued that the sublime was the highest form of beauty. Addison saw the sublime and the beautiful as distinct categories. Burke agreed with Addison on this point, but he emphasized the terror of the sublime whereas Addison spoke of "pleasing astonishment" and "awe."(3) One can easily give too much weight to such differences, however. As Nicolson says, the important point is that "during the eighteenth century the English discovered a new world. In a way, they were like the imaginary cosmic voyagers who, from Lucian to writers of modern science-fiction, have traveled to the moon or planets to find worlds that puzzle, amaze, astound, enthrall by their very differences from our world."(4)

An actual new world had been discovered in the western hemisphere--one which, according to the first explorers, contained a wild profusion of monsters and previously unknown phenomena, including bullfrogs as large as dogs, mosquitoes the size of bats, mountains 50 miles high, strange winds that caused a living man's body to rot, earthquakes that toppled mountains, and enormous seagoing lions that seemed to glide over the water. Howard Mumford Jones surveyed the profusion of creatures and marvels described in early travelers' reports and concluded that "the New World was filled with monsters animal and monsters human; it was a region of terrifying natural forces, of gigantic catastrophes, of unbearable heat and cold, an area where the laws of nature tidily governing Europe were transmogrified into something new and strange."(5) Descriptions of such marvels continued unabated throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, establishing a discourse about the Americas as an anti-Europe, a strange world that challenged every presupposition about nature.

Since this discourse was well established by 1700, it should not be surprising that the intellectual ferment over the sublime was transmitted to the American colonies, although, as is the case whenever a complex of ideas is carried from one culture to another, its content was transformed in the process. A modified form of the sublime emerged that was in harmony with American political, social, and religious conditions. Because it had originated in classical antiquity, the sublime was peculiarly suited to Americans as they increasingly sought to emulate the Roman Republic and the democracies of ancient Greece, after about 1750. As Jones notes, in the revolutionary years "classicism remained a powerful force, whether for propaganda, historical precedent, warning, or the theory of a republic."(6) In the years after the revolution, as Americans fashioned a discourse that identified the new nation with the landscape, their language gradually became permeated with classical ideas--not least the idea of the sublime. As Raymond O'Brien notes, "Pre-Romantic concepts of mountain gloom, Old World superstitions of the forest, and puritanically mundane views of nature were dissipated more slowly in the colonies; consequently there is a time lag apparent between the formulation of landscape theories of the sublime and picturesque and the adaptation of these ideas in America."(7) Such ideas reached a large audience only in the nineteenth century.

The history of the sublime from antiquity shows, if nothing else, that, although it refers to an immutable capacity of human psychology for astonishment, both the objects that arouse this feeling and their interpretations are socially constructed. The objects and interpretations vary not only from one epoch to another and from one culture to another but also from one discipline to another, and a large volume would be necessary to provide a history of the sublime from antiquity to the nineteenth century. Here a short summary must suffice.

As conceived in the first century, the sublime was defined as an attribute of oratory and fine writing. The anonymous author usually identified as Longinus wrote:

If an intelligent and well-read man can hear a passage several times, and it does not either touch his spirit with a sense of grandeur or leave more food for reflection in his mind than the mere words convey, but with long and careful examination loses more and more of its effectiveness, then it cannot be an example of true sublimity--certainly not unless it can outlive a single hearing. For a piece is truly great only if it can stand up to repeated examination, and if it is difficult, or rather impossible to resist its appeal, and it remains fairly and ineffaceably in the memory. As a generalization, you may take it that sublimity in all its truth and beauty exists in such works as please all men at all times. For when men who differ in their pursuits, their ways of life, their ambitions, their ages, and their languages all think in one and the same way about the same works, then the unanimous judgement, as it were, of men who have so little in common induces a strong and unshakable faith in the object of admiration.(8)

The sublime is identifiable by the repetition and the universality of its effect. In this definition, the sublime is not an esoteric quality. Rather, it is available to everyone, regardless of background.(9)

Discussions of the sublime usually begin with Longinus and then jump to early-eighteenth-century England, where the topic was taken up and elaborated by many authors--most notably Edmund Burke, whose Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1756, became the most influential work on the subject. In the United States it went through at least ten editions before the Civil War.(10) Most discussions treat `sublime' as a noun, seldom noting that during the interval between Longinus and Burke it was also a verb meaning to act upon a substance so as to produce a refined product. Alchemists seeking to bring substances to higher states of perfection employed sublimation in their efforts to attain the philosopher's stone. Alchemy gave the term `sublime' a special coloring that anticipated the later response to industrial objects. Before the eighteenth century it was not yet common to praise as sublime an object of natural grandeur, such as a vast forest seen from a mountaintop or a tempest raging over the sea, but it was common to call the process of converting a substance into a vapor by heating it and then cooling it down to a refined product `sublimation'. Metaphorically, `sublime' suggested pure realms of thought and attempts to obtain hidden knowledge.(11) Alchemy was not a failed proto-chemistry; its practitioners did not see themselves as objective scientists. Alchemists were not neutral observers, and what happened in their beakers, vials, and retorts were not objectified experiments. They believed that material transformations worked upon the spirit.

In contrast, the general tendency of the new science of the seventeenth century was, as Mulford Sibley puts it, "to despiritualize nature, to wipe out the distinction between animate and inanimate, and to create a sharp separation between the inner and outer worlds."(12) Seen in this perspective, the eighteenth-century form of the sublime is not only a rewriting of Longinus; it is part of the Enlightenment project of defining reason, a project that included not only the creation of the encyclopedia but also the definition of what was not reason. As Michel Foucault has argued, to define science it was necessary to define what it was not. The mystical relation between man and nature assumed by the alchemist was replaced by the ideal of scientific objectivity. The alchemical connotations of `sublime' were largely forgotten. Burke and his contemporaries provided a checklist of the objective attributes in objects that could be expected to call forth sublime emotion, and Burke often speculated on how external objects affected the body.(13) The sublime of the eighteenth century was a permissible eruption of feeling that briefly overwhelmed reason only to be recontained by

Why did the sublime reemerge when it did, fastening attention on particular natural objects? The literature of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance marginalized the sublime. Nicolson's Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory investigates the dramatic revaluation of the natural landscape that occurred after the late seventeenth century in England. For centuries mountains were thought to be the deformities of a fallen world whose surface had been smooth at the creation. Until c. 1650, mountains were "warts, blisters, imposthumes, when they were not the rubbish of the earth, swept away by the careful housewife Nature--waste places of the world, with little meaning and less charm."(14) But this attitude began to change as astronomers demonstrated the existence of mountains on the moon and the planets and as geologists proposed theories that explained the formation of mountains through natural processes. Equally important, John Calvin argued that there had been mountains in Eden, and that they existed at the creation. No part of the natural world was inherently ugly or evil. Man's soul was deformed; the world was not. Calvin believed that God could be seen in the beauty of nature: "On all his works he hath inscribed his glory in characters so clear, unequivocal, and striking, that the most illiterate and stupid cannot exculpate themselves by the plea of ignorance." Protestants increasingly looked for God in "the mirror of his works."(15) Americans would later incorporate this view in a powerful version of the natural sublime. The central point is that the sublime was not part of a static view of the world, nor was it part of a proto-ecological sensibility that aimed at the preservation of wilderness. Rather, to experience the sublime was to awaken to a new vision of a changing universe. The reemergence of the sublime was part of a positive revaluation of the natural world that by the eighteenth century had become a potential source of inspiration and education.

This revaluation was well underway by the time of Burke. He established an absolute contrast between the beautiful, which inspired feelings of tenderness and affection, and the sublime, which grew out of an ecstasy of terror that filled the mind completely. The encounter with a sublime object was a healthy shock, a temporary dislocation of sensibilities that forced the observer into mental action. To seek out the sublime was not to seek the irrational but rather to seek the awakening of sensibilities to an inner power. Burke wrote to a friend after seeing a raging flood in Dublin: "It gives me pleasure to see nature in these great though terrible scenes. It fills the mind with grand ideas, and turns the soul in upon itself."(16) Burke's sublime was subjected to rational controls; he created a list of the attributes in objects that could arouse this passion: obscurity, power, darkness, vacuity, silence, vastness, magnitude, infinity, difficulty, and magnificence. Herder later argued that Burke had relied upon a Newtonian idea of attraction and repulsion according to which the beautiful attracted and the sublime repulsed. While this view is oversimplified, Burke's version of the sublime ultimately seems to rest on the view that human beings respond to certain terrible or vast objects in predictable ways. Similar usage of the term has continued since his time, and most textbook definitions of the sublime refer to powerful natural scenes that are universally available and that deepen and strengthen the mind of the observer. The Oxford English Dictionary notes this sense of the term as "Of things in Nature and Art, affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur."

When Kant adapted Burke's theory to his own, he argued that because the sublime included pleasure as well as pain it was not the opposite of the beautiful. Kant linked the beautiful to quality and the sublime to quantity, and argued that

the beautiful brings with it a direct feeling of the expansion of life, and hence imagination; the feeling of the sublime is a pleasure, which arises only indirectly, being produced by the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital forces followed by a stronger outflow of them, and as involving emotional excitement it does not appear as the play, but as the serious exercise, of the imagination. Accordingly, it cannot be united with sensuous charm [the beautiful]; and as the mind is alternately attracted and repelled by the object, the satisfaction in the sublime implies not so much positive pleasure as wonder or reverential awe, and may be called a negative pleasure."(17)

The function of this negative pleasure was to unite aesthetics with moral experience. As John Goldthwait summarizes, for Kant "the sublime makes man conscious of his destination, that is, his moral worth. For the feeling of the sublime is really the feeling of our own inner powers, which can outreach in thought the external objects that overwhelm our senses."(18)

In the Critique of Judgement Kant divided sublime experience into two forms: the mathematical sublime (the encounter with extreme magnitude or vastness, such as the view from a mountain) and the dynamic sublime (the contemplation of scenes that arouse terror, such as a volcanic eruption or a tempest at sea, seen by a subject who is safe from immediate danger). The mathematical sublime concerns that which is incomparably and absolutely great. But since every phenomena in nature is measurable, and therefore great only in relation to other things, the infinity of the sublime ultimately is an idea, not a quality of the object itself. In the presence of this apparent infinity, Kant's subject experiences weakness and insignificance, but then recuperates a sense of superior self-worth, because the mind is able to conceive something larger and more powerful than the senses can grasp.(19) In this experience the subject passes through humiliation and awe to a heightened awareness of reason.

In the dynamic sublime, the individual confronts a powerful and terrifying natural force. Kant notes that "we can, however, view an object as fearful without being afraid of it." He gives the following examples:

Bold, overhanging and as it were threatening cliffs, masses of cloud piled up in the heavens and alive with lightning and peals of thunder, volcanoes in all their destructive force, hurricanes bearing destruction in their path, the boundless ocean in the fury of a tempest, the lofty waterfall of a mighty river; these by their tremendous force dwarf our power of resistance into insignificance. But we are all the more attracted by their aspect the more fearful they are, when we are in a state of security; and we at once pronounce them sublime, because they call out unwonted strength of soul and reveal in us a power of resistance of an entirely different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent omnipotence of nature.(20)

Contemplating such dangers makes the subject realize that nature can threaten only his physical being, leading him to feel superior to nature by virtue of his superior reason. For Kant both the mathematical and the dynamic forms of the sublime are not attributes of objects; they are the results of a dialogue between the individual and the object, a dialogue in which the distinction between the senses and the ego is forcibly manifested. "Sublimity, therefore, does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, insofar as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without US. . . ."(21)

From Burke to Kant to later thinkers, the natural world plays a smaller and smaller role in definitions of the sublime, and the observer becomes central in defining the emotion as the mind projects its interior state onto the world. Burke insisted on the centrality of the natural scene in evoking the sublime. Kant emphasized that the mind was central in apprehending the sublime, thus shifting attention from physical nature to its perception.

Touristic practice came to somewhat the same conclusion as formal philosophy, arriving there by a different route. For at the same time that philosophers were deemphasizing the external object as the stimulus to sublime feelings, tourists were having more and more difficulty capturing the elusive emotion. Elizabeth McKinsey traces such a declension in Niagaran Falls: Icon of the American Sublime. By the second half of the nineteenth century, she notes, the sublime was seldom an accessible emotion: "Changes in the image of Niagara Falls after about 1860 indicate a profound shift in attitude toward nature. Both the actual scenes at the Falls [marred by excessive tourism] and the aesthetic assumptions of artists who journeyed there reveal the eclipse of the sublime as a motive force in American culture."(22)

Since touristic experience and formal philosophy seem to point to the same conclusion, it would only seem necessary to illustrate the gradual disappearance of the sublime with extensive examples from the nineteenth century. But it will be the burden of this book to describe the popular sublime, a history of enthusiasms for both natural and technological objects that has lasted until our time and that answers to classic aesthetic theories only partially. This history will not trace the intellectual's sense of an attenuating connection to the world, nor will it be concerned with the sublime in literature and the fine arts. Rather, it will trace the continual discovery of new sources of popular wonder and amazement, from the railroad to the atomic bomb and the space program. Such a history requires a different definition of the sublime, one that treats it less as part of a self-conscious aesthetic theory than as the cultural practice of certain historical subjects. Even if the sublime is not a philosophical absolute but a historicized object of inquiry, I will argue, the sublime experience still retains a fundamental structure, regardless of the object that inspires it or the interpretation that is given to the experience.

At the core of any sublime experience is a passion that Burke defined: "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force." The Grand Canyon is a good example of such a natural object. William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, wrote in a visitor's book that the canyon was "too sublime for expression, too wonderful to behold without awe, and beyond all power of mortal description."(23)

The millions who travel to the Grand Canyon visit it in order to sense a magnificence that cannot be described or grasped through descriptions or images but must be experienced directly. The huge scale can produce an awareness of human insignificance, of natural power, of immensity, and of eternity. The experience of visiting it is akin to the classical definitions of the sublime, even if there is little reason to believe that ordinary Americans self-consciously visit such a site with either Burke or Kant on their lips. The canyon exemplifies much of what Burke said about the sublime, and it exercises a powerful hold on the imagination of most who visit it, particularly if they do more than merely park their cars and look at a small part of it from the rim. The first reaction to this sublime object is often incomprehension. Joseph Wood Krutch realized this in observing both his own reactions and those of others on first peering over the rim into the abyss: "At first glance the spectacle seems too strange to be real. Because one has never seen anything like it, because one has nothing to compare it with, it stuns the eye but cannot really hold the attention. For one thing, the scale is too large to be credited. . . . We cannot realize that the tremendous mesas and curiously shaped buttes which rise all around us are the grandiose objects that they are. For a time it is too much like a scale model or an optical illusion. One admires the peep show and that is all."(24) At first one stands outside the object as though one were looking through a frame at a peep show. It requires much more effort to "relate one's self to it somehow"; indeed, that may take days.

Krutch provides a specific example of Burkean astonishment, a state in which all internal reflection is suspended. The Grand Canyon opens up suddenly in the midst of a high plateau, and the Colorado River is so far away that it seems to be a small stream when it is in fact 300 feet wide. The canyon's sheer size is difficult to grasp. Its depth is so terrifying that many pull back in fear after their first glimpse. A late-nineteenth-century traveler reported one group's experience: "Our party were straggling up the hill: two or three had reached the edge. I looked up. The duchess threw up her arms and screamed. We were not fifteen paces behind, but we saw nothing. We took a few steps, and the whole magnificence broke upon us. No one could be prepared for it. The scene is one to strike dumb with awe, or to unstring the nerves; one might stand in silent astonishment, another would burst into tears. . . . It was a shock so novel that the mind, dazed, quite failed to comprehend it."(25)

But the Grand Canyon does more than suspend the mental faculties. Burke points out that "to make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes."(26) The canyon meets this requirement admirably, because it is so large that proportion and scale are confusing for a long time after one first looks into it. Furthermore, because of weather conditions and because of the shadows cast by the walls, much of the canyon is obscured a good deal of the time. The Grand Canyon contains virtually all of the elements Burke associated with the sublime in natural landscapes, including power, vacuity, darkness, solitude, silence, vastness, infinity, magnificence, and color. It is 280 miles long and up to 18 miles wide. It seems infinite in both time and space, presenting 2 billion years of geology in 15,000 feet of tilted-up stone, carved down by the Colorado River. It offers so many intriguing views and so many vantage points that it can never be seen in its entirety. Burke noted "that height is less grand than depth; and that we are more struck at looking down from a precipice, than at looking up at an object of equal height."(27) Who would deny that the mile-deep Grand Canyon is more impressive than a mile-high mountain range?

A well-traveled Welshman, Colin Fletcher, had these Burkean reactions when he first came up to the canyon's rim: "And there, defeating my senses, was the depth. The depth and the distances. Cliffs and buttes and hanging terraces, all sculptured on a scale beyond anything I had ever imagined." His initial reaction also included a strong sense of light, fusing colors, and a powerful silence. "In that first moment of shock, with my mind already exploding beyond old boundaries, I knew that something had happened to the way I looked at things."(28) The novelist and essayist Frank Waters noted that the Grand Canyon is unlike such landscapes as the prairies, the Rockies, or the bayous of Louisiana, which can be depicted reasonably well in photographs or paintings. In contrast, the Grand Canyon is a complex system of views which no single image can possibly convey. "It is the sum total of all the aspects of nature combined in one integrated whole. It is at once the smile and the frown upon the face of nature. In its heart is the savage, uncontrollable fury of all the inanimate universe, and at the same time the immeasurable serenity that succeeds it."(29) In these contradictions, the Grand Canyon contains most of the qualities Burke finds essential to sublimity, and it illustrates Kant's mathematical sublime.(30) The first geologist to survey the region, Clarence Dutton, recognized this exemplary quality and named one of the most impressive lookouts Point Sublime.(31)

In contrast, the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State on May 18, 1980, exemplifies the dynamic sublime. An overwhelming force, it hurled millions of tons of pulverized rock into the air, creating a cloud that rose 60,000 feet. The volcano literally blew its top, reducing its height by 1500 feet. Dust fell to the thickness of half an inch 500 miles away, and nearby it covered fields with 8 tons of ash per acre.(32) The eruption evaporated a lake, melted a glacier, set innumerable forest fires, changed day into night, and unleashed mudslides that swept away every tree in a 120-square-mile area. The cloud of ash and rock moved so fast that drivers found they could not outrun it and were trapped in a blinding dry rain.(33) The Portland Oregonian noted: "Eclipsing Dante's horrible dreams of Hell, the mountain poured out burning pyroclastic clouds that incinerated everything they touched--animal, vegetable, mineral." One witness said: "When the mountain went, it looked like the end of the world."(34)

Yet more than one observer realized that the eruption's meaning could not be reduced to death and destruction. A pilot who saw the eruption from a safe distance recalled: "I consider it a great privilege to have seen it. It was just a beautiful show."(35) Many said that it was the most exciting thing they had ever seen. The Rocky Mountain News commented: "If it weren't for the loss of life and the devastation done to the environment, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington might almost be enjoyed as one of the most awesome spectacles of unleashed energy that nature can display."(36) There were thousands of eyewitnesses to the blast, which had been long anticipated. Tourists were drawn to the site by tremors in the weeks before the eruption, and the governor had to cordon off the area and even evict people from their own land, creating much resentment among property owners. Despite the barricades and numerous public warnings, however, at least 77 people died, including an 84-year-old man named Harry Truman who had lived on Spirit Lake at the foot of the mountain for half a century.

Because the eruption had long been anticipated, one television reporter and many amateur photographers recorded the blast on film. Yet no medium could capture the totality of the event. For example, an amateur photographer who had his camera pointed at the mountain at the moment it erupted made ten images that recorded the event as well as photography could; but even these images do not record what it looked like entirely satisfactorily, because the cloud grew so quickly that during the sequence the photographer had to switch from a telephoto to a 50-millimeter to a wide-angle lens.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"David Nye always has something interesting and suggestive tosay about the role of technology in American culture and society.American Technological Sublime is...a book that can beprofitably and enjoyably read by specialists and general readersalike. It is an estimable piece of historical interpretationand writing and deserves a wide readership." David Nasaw, Boston Globe

Meet the Author

David E. Nye is Professor of American Studies at the Danish Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the author of Technology Matters: Questions to Live With and When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America, both published by the MIT Press, and other books.

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