Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture, 1870-1920by Nancy Bentley
Late nineteenth-century America saw an explosion in mass culture—from sensationalist tabloid newspapers to amusement parks to Wild West shows. Historians and critics have traditionally observed the advent of mass culture as undermining literature's central role in the public sphere. Literary writers of the time either reacted with a public show of disdain or
Late nineteenth-century America saw an explosion in mass culture—from sensationalist tabloid newspapers to amusement parks to Wild West shows. Historians and critics have traditionally observed the advent of mass culture as undermining literature's central role in the public sphere. Literary writers of the time either reacted with a public show of disdain or retreated to conduct their own private experiments in style and form. In Frantic Panoramas, Nancy Bentley questions these narratives of opposition.
For literary writers, Bentley explains, the confrontation with mass culture was less a retreat than a transformation, an ordeal through which habits of contemplative appreciation could be refashioned into new forms of critical thought. By grappling with the energies that marked mass culture, authors came to recognize kinds of human experience that were only then becoming visible as public. William Dean Howells shaped the plots of his novels around tabloid events like rail and trolley accidents and the public chaos of apartment house fires. Although Henry James was distressed at the way dime fiction had changed the very definition of literature, his meditations on mass culture led him to reimagine the novel as a collective "workshop" in which authors and readers jointly discovered new meaning. Bentley offers close readings of these and other writers such as Edith Wharton, James Weldon Johnson, Pauline Hopkins, and Gertrude Bonnin to demonstrate how leading artists took inspiration from commercial culture to create new and distinct literary forms.
Drawing on original archival research and a historically grounded theory of realism, Frantic Panoramas is an innovative and comprehensive study of how the emergence of mass culture affected literary culture in America.
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The Analytic Instinct and the Art of the Crash
On a September day in 1896, more than forty thousand people traveled by chartered railcars to a site fifteen miles north of Waco, Texas, where they prepared to watch a novel form of entertainment: the head-on collision of two locomotive trains. A sign in the newly built depot informed the visitors they had arrived in Crush, Texas, a name that managed to pay tribute to both the spectacular event and the man who had dreamed it up, William George Crush. This was not the first train wreck staged for spectators; William Crush was inspired by a similar event in Ohio earlier in the year, and there had been other planned collisions before that. What newspapers called "the Crash at Crush" belonged to a species of public entertainment that was immediately popular though necessarily rare. But it was a spectacle that quickly was becoming commonplace in the emergent medium of film; by 1905 train and motorcar crashes were already a regular feature in cinematic shorts. Films like Asleep at the Switch (1910), The Railroad Smash-Up (1904), and How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900) brought the mediated experience of observing a high-speed collision to an even larger mass audience, while offering a proximity to the crash that was closer than any eyewitness in Texas or Ohio.
The enduring popularity of cinematic crashes shows that mechanical destruction and kinetic shocks do not necessarily belong outside the sphere of culture, the domain of aesthetic expression and convention. But in 1896, the leading arts authorities no doubt would have objected to including the Texas train crash in the realm of culture, regardless of its drawing power with audiences or its compatibility with film. For some four decades, artists and intellectuals in the United States had been busy building up a very different map of the terrain of culture, organized around an impressive constellation of new metropolitan museums, concert halls, and scholarly institutions. Not long after Crush staged his spectacle in Texas, a number of leading figures in the arts established what would become the American Academy of Arts and Letters. For these founders, a national academy—modeled after the Académie française—would supply the visibility and prestige due the nation's highest artists and institution builders, and they borrowed this Old World form to stake a claim for parity with European nations in matters cultural. For all its appeal, William Crush's brainchild possessed none of the criteria for culture that these authorities were intent on enshrining in civil and even state structures.
But what exactly was the spectacle of a train wreck if not culture? Authorities could not count a railway crash as a species of art, but they knew a rival when they saw one. "The Crash at Crush" was an intensified sensory event that had been deliberately set outside the quotidian realities of everyday life. It excited and moved an audience gathered expressly to see it. To stage the event, Crush had borrowed and developed protocols necessary for constructing a distinct kind of visual and aural experience, protocols that would be cultivated further through the formal resources of film. At the time it was hard to name or classify this order of event. But the genre of staged wrecks was clearly inspired by what William Dean Howells, the first academy president, had dubbed the "spectacular muse," a modern goddess who reigned over a bewildering new landscape of commercial forms and productions, from the visual innovations of advertising to the new sorts of kinetic experience available in amusement parks and urban subcultures. Several decades later, intellectuals would eventually settle on a compromise term for this domain: mass culture. Observers at the time, however, were at a loss and tended to cite older, smaller-scale forms of amusements like the carnival or to invoke the names of publicity titans—P. T. Barnum or Buffalo Bill Cody—in their attempts to find compass points for this seemingly unbounded world.
The close proximity of these "frantic panoramas" to the territories of traditional art was unnerving, and yet the differences seemed all but unaccountable. Like a concert or an art exhibit, the train wreck in Texas drew an eager audience, but the scale of that audience far exceeded what anyone was accustomed to seeing in museums or performance halls. Publicists had expected twenty thousand spectators to make the trip to see the spectacle in Texas, and when twice as many people tried to crowd onto the charter trains, the more adventurous—or more desperate—had to ride on top of the railcars. Authorities thought of culture as something necessarily rooted, as the distinct forms of human cultivation that are an outgrowth of sustained local habitation and continuities of time. But the event in Crush, Texas, invented its own place and time in the uninhabited space of an empty valley. The train depot, restaurant, bandstands, carnival midway, and two telegraph offices of this nominal town were erected only for what transpired on a single September day. The locale was then abandoned as quickly as it was constructed.
Just as culture was rooted, it was also created and transmitted through forms, the inherited genres, conventions, and story patterns that were the necessary basis for creativity. But the Texas crash was centered on the thrill of watching forms implode. At the moment of impact, familiar shapes and functional forms were violently extinguished in a sudden hail of wreckage, enacting literally what Henry James described as the tendency in modernity toward "collapse of all the forms." To critics, moreover, the events and genres of this new field of culture seemed designed for nothing but the pursuit of sheer sensation. The train wreck in Texas had neither narrative development nor even any human protagonist—at least not until three spectators were killed when the boilers of both locomotives exploded simultaneously and created a force far beyond what engineers had anticipated. The fatalities then fit the mass culture version of tragedy: the "accident" narrative, a genre already developing a set of enduring conventions and a new species of observing subject—the "mass subject," in Michael Warner's formulation—primed to see and read about destructive mechanical accidents and large-scale disasters.
Profit alone was the governing force behind these kinds of spectacular productions. In its fealty to the profit motive, mass culture opened an expressive space freed not just from the tastes of aristocrats and wealthy patrons but also from the judgment of informed critics still attached to evaluating culture through established criteria of beauty. After Crush's successful Texas venture, an entrepreneur who came to be known as "Head-On" Joe Connolly began to accrue a fortune by staging live collisions before crowds that sometimes reached 150,000, making him among the first of many connoisseurs of kinetic wreckage who would succeed in making large amounts of money, especially in Hollywood, from refining the art of the crash. The Texas crash also demonstrated the ease with which mass culture products could create spin-off commodities in other media. Scott Joplin wrote a march, "Great Crush Collision," to capitalize on the fame already in circulation, and an Edison film, The Railroad Smash-Up, was directly inspired by the Texas spectacle.
The alarm felt by cultural authorities in the face of mass culture has been well documented. When the American Academy declared its opposition to the "tyranny of novelty," it was a backhanded tribute to the power already wielded by commercial culture. And yet historians' portrait of the "great divide" between high art and mass culture in this period has often obscured as much as it has revealed. It is true—and highly consequential—that the advent of mass culture created starkly different aesthetic forms and styles; giving attention to the distinct aesthetics of mass culture is one of the aims of this book. But it is a mistake to assume that artists at the highest levels were unmoved by the novel sensory experiences and iconic events that drew mass audiences. For leading artists and intellectuals, evocations of vertigo, speed, and collective shock began to supply creative structures and informing energies for use in even the most refined or cerebral of their works.
Even members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters drew on these mass materials. Howells shaped the plots of his novels around events such as rail and trolley accidents and the public chaos of apartment house fires. Although Henry James was distressed by "the collapse of all the forms" in modernity, his own stories and even his sentences seemed to explode the formal conventions of his genre and inject what he called the "imagination of disaster" into the thoughts and haunts of the transatlantic affluent classes. Edith Wharton (nominated in 1908 but not elected to the academy until 1930) made the sensation of anticipating the "possible crash" of a train or car into a dominant motif in her novels. It is not too much to say that Henry Adams, after producing multiple volumes of narrative history, became obsessed with the idea of a destructive historical velocity, a physical force that outstripped any narrative form and one that would finally leave his "historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new." William James wrote often of physical feelings of "ontological wonder-sickness" that characterized modern life. As unnerving as he sometimes seemed to find those uprooted sensory symptoms, however, James also represented creative breakthroughs in his thinking in similar sensorial terms—as the result of "speeding with the train to Buffalo," for instance, or of looking up at a workman "on the dizzy edge of a sky-scaling iron construction," a sight, he wrote, that "brought me to my senses very suddenly." W. E. B. Du Bois (spurned by the academy until 1944, when he was seventy-six) turned to disaster fables to transform standard modes of sociological analysis, imagining sensory reactions to scenarios such as a comet striking Manhattan or comparing the historical "movement" of the world to a "rushing express." Devoted as they were to matching the highest cultural achievements of Europe, these writers were still drawn to the unique kinds of sensorial consciousness emerging in modern commercial culture and explored overtly in a film like How It Feels to Be Run Over.
What is the significance of these momentary convergences between otherwise opposed domains? I take this question as a governing critical lens for understanding the high literary culture that emerged in the United States at the turn of the century and its self-appointed task of analyzing mass culture. In response to the scholarship that emphasized a definitive divide between literary culture and mass culture, a number of scholars have stressed aesthetic continuities that unite these disparate domains, finding unintended similarities between the prose of Henry James and the "consuming vision" of the urban shopper, for instance, or between the Kantian "laws of beauty" in Howells's fiction and the "aesthetic equipment of the slum." While this second wave of scholarship has produced far-reaching insight—much of which I have drawn upon in this study—it tends to erase crucial differences in the social location of cultural production and thus to elide what I will argue is the era's most important structural development: the uneven, conflicted intersection of the bourgeois public sphere with the emergent publics (such as cinema, consumer cultures, and mass publications) made possible through mass-mediated communication and industry. In order to highlight this intersection of different locations, it is important to resist the move to place mass culture and high culture on a single plane. Both are products of the same modern conditions, to be sure, but so is every object or process from this same period if we take up too distant an analytic vantage point. I approach this encounter between literary culture and mass culture not as a symptom of modernity but as a modern event—and not simply a literary event (the category theorized by scholars such as Hans Robert Jauss and Pascale Casanova) but an event in social history that inaugurates a "postliterary" era when literary culture could no longer presume to be the implicit model of the public sphere and the central arena for negotiating norms of public reason.
Jürgen Habermas famously diagnosed this event as the "disintegration of the public sphere in the world of letters." His compelling historical study describes the "collapse" of the literary public sphere in this moment, a breakdown that occurred when the dialectic joining private reading and public discussion was severed by a new culture industry based in forms of mass communication. Because Habermas models public discourse after a reading public (the bourgeois public sphere that emerged in eighteenth-century Europe), for him the postliterary communication and association fostered by mass media cannot be truly public—intersubjective, reflexive, critical, and at least partially autonomous from private economic interests. With the advent of mass culture, Habermas argues, "the web of public communication unraveled into acts of individuated reception" within consumer culture, on one hand, and more privatized, estranging avant-garde literary production, on the other. Subsequent scholars have argued that it is possible to accept Habermas's history of a transformation in the public sphere while still contending that other types of circulation—no longer modeled after a reading public—might offer conditions for public reason and reflexivity. But scholars on all sides of the debate agree that whether communicative modes cultivated in sites like cinema and the mass press can count as genuinely public, they are qualitatively different from the modes of circulation and reception that characterize literary culture.
The encounter between literary culture and postliterary publicity is the story at the heart of Frantic Panoramas. The effort by U.S. literary authors to come to grips with a new order of mass culture publicity, I argue, was not simply a matter of patrician recoil or an attempt at social control. Nor was it merely a strategy for converting mass culture material into the formal innovations of modernism. Instead, the literary analysis of mass culture expression, experience, and conditions was an attempt to understand the fate of literary expression in its relation to public communication and reason—critical issues that have continued to intrigue and vex cultural critics throughout the twentieth century and into our own postmodern moment. What is needed is a way to understand how and why writers found critical resources in the transformations wrought by mass culture, even as they posed tough-minded questions about changes in cultural perception and expressivity that they could not wish away. Pursuing the question of convergence, then, requires close attention to the separate institutions, aims, and genealogies that created markedly distinct spheres.
To pursue the history of this postliterary encounter, this study follows a method of cultural close reading that offers sustained, comparative analyses of high art and mass forms in immediate conjunction with one another. Henry James's fiction, I argue, can be read next to the kinetic experience available at amusement parks and the bravado style of lithograph posters. I analyze the writing of Howells alongside the dime museum, burlesque theater, and how-to manuals for getting rich. The rise of the African American novel achieved through the work of Charles Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Pauline Hopkins is understood through analysis of "Black Bohemia," the generative urban culture of black musicals, dance, and celebrity performers like Aida Overton Walker and Leo Gowongo. Kate Chopin's fiction, I argue, can be illuminated by innovations in the design of department stores, innovations that are both a stimulation for and a record of desublimated female desire. I analyze the writing of Native American intellectuals such as Arthur Parker, Charles Eastman, and Gertrude Bonnin in tandem with the international fame of Wild West performers and the celebrity charisma of Geronimo.
Broadening my critical framework, I include literary analyses of some of the global economic transformations that created the commercial matrix for mass culture forms. Edith Wharton's polished fiction is reinterpreted in light of the new exhilarations and hazards produced in mass transportation and the "Americanization" of culture around the globe. I read the social thinkers Henry Adams, W. E. B. Du Bois, William James, and John Dewey as writers who grapple with the disorder and energies erupting from mass print, technology, and consumer capitalism, as those energies transformed a literary model of the human subject. Finally, I examine Henry James's cultural criticism alongside the generative effects of astonishment, disjuncture, and involuntary memory solicited in the early "cinema of attractions." Hostility and friction are evident in all of these encounters, but this friction, I argue, is also formative: although literary culture secured its autonomy as a separate sphere in this moment, high culture only became high through its hostile intimacy with the low. What Howells called "the flair of theatrical facts" became in turn a source of critical illumination, as writers drew upon the incongruities of mass culture to help fashion a new kind of literary analysis equal to the age.
A larger historical irony lies behind the confrontation between mass culture and high art in this moment. In fulfilling the charge to create an "academic institution of unquestioned origin and standard," the founders of the American Academy were convinced that the United States could finally make a secure claim to world-class achievements in the arts. The academy itself did not always reward the most talented or innovative American artists and critics, but its appearance as an official institution is an accurate enough index of the fact that this former colonial stepchild was making good on its ambitions to match the great powers of Europe in culture as well as commerce. And yet, at the very moment the United States caught up to European nations in high culture, the global game was changing in a profound way. Arjun Appadurai describes this change as a deep structural shift, gaining momentum throughout the twentieth century, through which mass culture helped invent a new social role for the human imagination. For Appadurai, the advent of mass culture marked an epochal transition by which institutions of religion, art, and the state lost their effective monopoly over social imaginaries and personal imagining.
The picture of global culture that emerges from the work of Appadurai and others is as paradoxical as it is provocative. As modern world systems have made societies of almost every kind increasingly bureaucratic and rationalized, the result has not been "the disenchantment of the world" predicted by Max Weber but something closer to the opposite: a startling expansion of the role of the imagination in everyday life. In Appadurai's terms, "The image, the imagined, the imaginary—these are all terms that direct us to something critical and new in global processes: the imagination as a social practice." There is nothing new, of course, in the idea that social norms are animated and sustained by myth, ritual, and expressive art, or that those norms can be altered or even overturned by the same energies of cultural imagining. In that sense the imagination has always been a social practice. But the history of global modernization, Appadurai argues, produces a decisive break with earlier epochs when it was only forceful leaders—the charismatic individuals who fostered "great revolutions, cargo cults, and messianic movements"—who could inject a new social vision into ordinary lives and thus reorder the traditional patterns of imagination informing everyday life. In contrast with earlier eras, however, modern technology and its expressive offshoot, mass culture, have made it possible for currents of imagination to bypass the dictates of tradition and charismatic leaders alike. Increasingly, ordinary individuals select for themselves the stories, images, and sonic rhythms that most stimulate their memory and desire, choosing from the materials of a mass-mediated imaginary that is more or less detached from the tastes of higher authorities and very often indifferent to national boundaries. That it is global capitalism that supplants traditional authorities as the agent of transmission and distribution, of course, may fatally compromise any idea that this shift represents an advance. But for Appadurai and others, these changes allow for at least the possibility that cultural subjects—not just individuals but groups, and not just producers but far-flung consumers—can "annex the global into their own practices of the modern."
Appadurai's theory is an especially provocative hypothesis for students of literature, suggesting as it does that the stuff of art—concrete stories and images, resonant scripts and roles, imagined worlds—have become more important after global modernization, not less. And yet the same history of modernization introduces new uncertainty about the literary as a distinct domain; after the advent of mass culture and the transformations wrought by modern empire and trade, it becomes far more difficult to give literature and the arts pride of place as a laboratory of the human imagination. If Appadurai is correct, the imagination has become more socially significant precisely for having "broken out of the special expressive spaces of art, myth, and ritual" through routes opened up by mass media, migration, and global commerce. Although many aspects of this historical argument are debatable, it presents an intriguing if surprising concurrence with Habermas's history of the origins of a postliterary era.
Against this uneven and still uncertain historical backdrop, I focus in this study on the intersection of two large transnational currents—the institutionalization of high culture and the inauguration of a mass-mediated imaginary—as the most illuminating context for understanding U.S. literary culture of this era, a context that approaches a self-consciously national project through far-reaching transnational developments. Viewed in this context, the literary object begins to look like an unstable compound molecule: literacy and print, mediated images, and everyday acts of imagining were becoming more powerful than ever before, even as the meaning and fate of literature as an institution were becoming more volatile and open to question.
From one perspective, Appadurai's account adds up to a hard luck story for the U.S. cultural elite of this era. At the moment that American artists finally earn a place alongside those of Europe, the foundation of their success was already eroding fast. The American Academy's assumption that "purity of expression" and refinement of perception were the true measures of cultural achievement was being abandoned—not just by the mass public but eventually by artists themselves. High modernism would soon arrive on the scene to reabsorb the more unruly energies of modernity for the domain of elite art and, in the process, generate a new mythology of the heroic dissenting artist. The intellectuals and artists who preceded the more self-conscious movement we call modernism, then, have often been portrayed as belonging to a becalmed historical moment, a "genteel" generation (few adjectives are as damning) that was too bound by conformity to heed the seismic changes remaking the world around them. The artistic virtues that seemed the most valuable and forward-looking to this generation—polished form and skillful execution, an ability to meet the highest standards inherited from European traditions—were viewed as the most backward. Nor have these American advocates of culture been portrayed as simply out of step. In the eyes of more suspicious critics, their efforts at fostering hierarchies of taste and building new institutions of high culture in this period were veiled ways of exercising social control. Fighting the "tyranny of novelty" was its own decorous form of tyranny, a way of turning high culture to the work of social discipline.
There is much in the historical record to support this picture of an alarmed elite for whom high culture was a refuge and an indirect source of class power. But this line of interpretation is also marred by significant blind spots. Clearly turn-of-the-century artists and intellectuals distrusted mass culture, sometimes reflexively, and the social class that profited most from modernization was also drawn to anachronistic or seemingly "antimodern" cultural styles. But the more open and incisive thinkers, I contend, confronted this antagonist with real intellectual curiosity, looking closely at a strange external landscape of mass forms that still seemed to have the uncanny ability to shape human subjectivity from within. And competition also produces kinship: as I demonstrate in the chapters that follow, American artists and intellectuals learned from and, indeed, even imitated elements of the rival mass culture they also subjected to sharp critical analysis. The critical habits and techniques that seemed most under threat, I will argue, are in fact the product of an emergent postliterary moment in which artists and intellectuals were required to rethink the relation of literature and public discourse. Understanding their artistic production and critical thought thus depends on recognizing the context of mass culture not just as a source of friction but also as a spur to insight and high creativity. Reading from this perspective changes the backstory regarding the place of high literary culture in a larger global history: what from one angle looks like a piece of bad luck for U.S. ambitions can be seen from another as a fortuitous conjunction, a moment in which sharpened techniques of literary analysis met a brave new world of commercial culture. I situate literary culture not at the end of a declining Victorian regime but at the beginning of the analytic exploration of sensory consciousness that has generated much of the critical theory of our time.
As Henry James saw it, an "analytic instinct" had become the "supreme" aesthetic value of the age. This is a key insight that requires careful unpacking. Attachment to analysis, I will argue, implants a certain contradiction in the turn-of-the-century effort to make high culture serve the ends of national elevation. Advocates looked to art for civic uplift and even social redemption—or, by another name, social control. They were convinced that building up the best cultural institutions would produce a more unified nation: an "America of art." But this national project produced dissonant results that most scholars have overlooked. For many Americans, the push for high culture threatened to drain art of its spiritual qualities and seemed to foster habits of critical penetration they often found unnerving. Even educated viewers and readers frequently found the "analytic school" unpleasant or distressing—too cerebral, too unsparing, too close to what is performed in a medical dissection. Indeed, one reviewer complained that Howells's fiction serves up "Boston under the scalpel," and Thomas Eakins's paintings of surgeons operating on unconscious patients struck many as a grotesque confirmation of the worst tendencies in modern art. Artists and critics were after more than simply entrenching the cultural sovereignty of a genteel tradition, and their aims and ambitions provoked resistance in more than one quarter.
The larger significance of this new taste for analytic art, however, lies with its indirect and often elusive effects. To anyone who read his work, James's own "analytic instinct" was obvious; it quickly became notorious. But he was only the most overt of the writers devoted to creating art that could offer, in James's words, "a more analytic consideration of appearances." Howells liked to advertise American literary realism as "democracy in literature," but even scholars who debate his achievement have too quickly accepted the label at face value, echoing the idea that his fiction was designed to foster a cohesive citizenry by representing a "common" world of everyday life that should be of interest to all. In truth, however, Howells's way of articulating the common—in terms of the typical, the probable, and other sociological regularities—was also a function of the "analytic instinct" applied to the art of the novel. The operations of mental selection necessary to grasp meaningful types and socially illuminating plots were not democratic operations; this species of analytic mentality was far from common, as Howells knew all too well. Pleasure in the art of the scalpel was an acquired taste; it required readerly training and a kind of reflective mentality far more likely to appeal to the men and women of the new professional classes than to a broad democratic citizenry. As Phillip Barrish has argued about realist fiction, moreover, it is likely that no small part of the appeal of embracing advanced culture was the social distinction one could claim by possessing restricted tastes. The aesthetic sensibilities most responsive to the new institutions of high culture can be seen as counterparts to the new kinds of mental operations and reflexive thinking emerging in a competitive industrialized society where science and technology were ascendant powers.
Leading artists and intellectuals, then, shared a marked if sometimes uneasy attraction to the powers of secular, analytic reason. In the realm of culture, that power was perhaps most visible in the new institution of the metropolitan museum, a secular temple for modernity that replaced the cathedral as the leading institution for housing authentic artifacts and expert authority. As historian Steven Conn notes, the list of museums founded during this period is "staggering"; major institutions appeared in virtually every large American city and many midsize ones as well. Drawing on both historical evidence and textual analysis, I show that advocates sought to give American letters and philosophy the new civic glamour enjoyed by the modern museum. But this effort was at odds with its own aspirations to represent (in both senses) the collective life of the nation. For, in contrast with the largely secular tendencies of the new analytic culture, what Americans shared most in matters of culture was an affinity for religion and, increasingly, a taste for the experiences available through mass media and entertainment. (In fact, Gregory Jackson has shown how innovators were bringing these two currents, evangelical religion and mass culture, into new forms of conjunction at just this moment.) As a result, the analytic habits prized by leading critics and artists engendered precisely the kind of social static that great art, literary expertise, and elevated culture were supposed to transcend.
Writers found different ways to suppress this indwelling tension—though some (like Mark Twain and Charles Chesnutt) preferred to finesse or exploit it and others (like Du Bois) to politicize it. Howells, for one, attempted to make fiction an instrument of cultural pedagogy that would turn the popularity of the novel to the work of cultivating higher tastes in a broad national public. But at a moment when publishers had succeeded in making the novel into what James called a mass "article of commerce" and a thing of "easy manufacture," Howells's pedagogical project had to push back against the very novelistic pleasures that were drawing huge numbers of new readers to the genre. How does one inculcate a taste for secular reason, for analytic dissection and the pleasures of critical detachment and reflection? For Howells in particular, mass culture seemed a nemesis, a rival for the work of shaping the sensibilities of a national public. Heedless of any objectives other than profit (for producers) and sentiment or sensation (for consumers), the new terrain of mass culture appeared able to seduce even cultivated people into seeking out experiences that in Howells's view afforded no contemplative thought or directed purpose. And yet, precisely because he looked to an art form to foster a more analytic sensibility, Howells's pedagogical project was built on the implicit understanding that rationality is embedded in one's sensory life, that it is conjoined at some level with unreflective, bodily experience—an understanding, in other words, that reason is not wholly the other of mass culture's sensation seeking. James's conceit of an "analytic instinct," a mental operation akin to a bodily reflex, carried the same unspoken understanding.
In this and other ways, high culture's confrontation with mass culture put new pressure on reigning assumptions about reason. By examining how and why high literary culture invested new value in the analytic, this study shares an interest with a body of recent scholarship on the "cultivation of detachment" in nineteenth-century Anglo-American art and criticism. Motivated in part by a desire to challenge anti-Enlightenment critiques of liberal thought they consider too sweeping, these scholars reexamine the forms of rationality—from scientific objectivity and political disinterestedness to cosmopolitanism—that nineteenth-century artists and thinkers championed for the ends of art. Literary scholars, they urge, are obliged to be more discriminating about the nineteenth-century romance with reason, to pose questions and parse differences. When writers such as Matthew Arnold and George Eliot sought to valorize habits of critical distance, were they showing an unwitting allegiance with the more pernicious Enlightenment legacies of instrumental reason and social surveillance? Or were they instead cultivating practices that might be capable of loosening the tight bonds between modern knowledge and modern power? When political writers like Frederick Douglass and Du Bois appealed to the principle of universalism, could their use of this Enlightenment ideal break with the history of racial oppression underwritten by the texts of the Enlightenment? This book confirms scholars' contention that "modern practices of detachment" became a governing preoccupation and an inspiration for art in this period. And I share a desire to refrain from deciding in advance whether the "analytic instinct" that animated American high culture was necessarily disciplinary or emancipatory. In their faith in and fondness for analysis, these nineteenth-century literary authorities are our critical ancestors, whether or not we wish to claim the kinship. Rather than impose a sharp, qualitative difference on the nature of their critical practices, we can assume that their investment in analytic thought (whatever their distinct methods and archives) had the same potential for discovering insight—or falling into error and distortion—as our own.
As a working premise of this study, then, I take up analytic art as both a historical object and as genuine critical practice, an aesthetic body of thought that is not wholly different in kind than the critical operations I undertake to interpret it. Where I depart from other scholars, however, is in their tendency to see these writers' cultivation of "detachment" as part of a more or less unified cultural project—as constituting a liberal public sphere, for instance, or a transnational cosmopolitan community. In the cultural field I examine, the cosmopolitan values and habits of critical analysis never operate in uniform ways—nor even in the same critical spaces. This becomes especially clear when we widen the purview of high literary culture and consider not just the literary establishment that had acquired new civic prestige for American letters but also adjacent cultural projects that drew on the same energies of critical thought but remained invisible or excluded from the arts establishment.
The intellectuals who founded the American Negro Academy, for instance, were as committed as anyone in the period to the idea that high art and critical thought were to be prized. But they also knew that the white "cultured classes" were largely hostile to their goals and had excluded African Americans from most museums and concert halls. Native American intellectuals in this era originated literary traditions in English that are the foundation for the Native Renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet their efforts to articulate what Arthur Parker called an indigenous "thought world" proved all but impossible to disentangle from the mass culture publicity that was the conflicted foundation of Native public address. Indeed, close examination shows that it was the iconic fame of a celebrity like Geronimo or the glamour of Bill Cody's "show Indians"—far more than the writings of members of the Society for the American Indian—that brought Native expressive cultures within the purview of a collective "America of art." These fissures in the terrain of high culture in the United States make it a good deal harder to rely on governing liberal tenets when trying to understand literary culture, for a shared dedication to reflective thought did not produce commensurate spaces of public reason or aesthetic expression. To pursue the implications of this issue, I examine four cultural projects from this era—literary realism, African American belletristic letters, Native American scholarly production, and American pragmatism—all of which share an attraction to the powers of secular, analytic reason but which together display markedly uneven, syncopated, or broken connections between aesthetic reflection and liberal ideas of public reason.
These fractures might well cast doubt on aesthetic culture as a coherent category. What authorities touted as a single human capacity—the capacity for aesthetic feeling and judgment—can begin to look like the distinct sensibilities of separate classes or populations, an epiphenomenon of the social rather than a phenomenon of the aesthetic. Pierre Bourdieu has developed the most powerful theoretical account of aesthetic feeling as a social "taste for necessity"—as a responsiveness to cultural styles and objects that seems spontaneous and freely embraced but that is at bottom an index of one's deepest structures of socialization, the habitus rooted in class location. In surveying institutions of culture in the turn-of-the-century United States, it is easy to surmise that social divisions are the real basis for cultural distinctions. When Antonin Dvorak, appointed in 1892 to direct the new National Conservatory of Music, proposed that "negro melodies of America" could be the foundation for the future of American symphonic music, most in the U.S. music world viewed the idea as the "absurd" error of an outsider, a European "negrophile" unable to grasp his basic category mistake. Even among those who were persuaded by the idea, moreover, Dvorak's prospect represented the absorption of a folk expression—a "spontaneous musical utterance" from out of "the canebrake and the cotton field"—into what would continue to be white institutions. Reasoning in this way made it possible for white classical music authorities to recognize the powerful appeal of black "folksongs" while still remaining certain that African Americans themselves were "not inherently musical" and retaining their ignorance of or indifference to accomplished choral groups such as the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society of Washington, D.C.
Yet even though the divisions in American expressive culture from this era reveal that cultural institutions were wedded to social hierarchies, a closer examination ultimately points to a different relation between the aesthetic and the social than the one-directional relation theorized by Bourdieu. Despite the analytic habits shared widely among literary intellectuals, a divided society produced divided literary publics. But the artists and intellectuals in these disparate social worlds also shared a formative experience: a cautious, conflicted encounter with mass culture as a powerful force field that seemed able to unravel socialized identities at the deep level of sensory experience and thus to unsettle inherited structures of feeling and perceiving. The internalized social position Bourdieu calls the habitus was precisely the structure of subjectivity most in question. For better or worse, inside the dizzying spaces of mass culture an individual's specific social location no longer seemed to strictly dictate experience or perception, even as traits of specific bodies—the defiant postures of white men, the angular grace of cakewalk dancers, the prowess of the Indian warrior—were among the fragments of sensory subjectivity reproduced in these mimetic zones and newly represented before spectators of both sexes and all class strata.
The effects of this commercial mimesis were never certain. The potential for unsettling socialized tastes and perceptions is by no means proof that mass culture operated at cross-purposes with the reigning social restrictions and ideological norms; indeed, in an era of Jim Crow oppression and the aftermath of the Indian wars, the most profitable mass productions were often the most racist. But even the traffic in racist expressive objects belonged to the larger repertoire of pleasurable shocks that had the capacity to loosen inherited dispositions. If we assume with Bourdieu that the social habitus governs aesthetic taste, then, we will fail to account for the incoherence that mass culture was capable of introducing into the cultural field. Howells was dismayed, for instance, that middle-class men and women were just as eager as the uncultivated to see the theatrical troupes in which actresses dressed and performed as men. Mass markets catered to an appetite for departing from habitual roles and perceptions, and thereby fostered an uneven cultural topography with gaps and folds in aesthetic tastes and experiences that did not match hierarchies of class and race. The legalized racism of segregation could coexist with white Americans' admiration and even aspirational imitation of black expressive styles, just as state dispossession of Native peoples could go hand in hand with public stardom for notorious chiefs like Sitting Bull and mass fascination with Indian performances of "authentic" feats of battlefield riding and shooting.
Little wonder, then, that the energies of mass culture provoked the interest and alarm of cultural critics across a fractured society. Intellectuals operating in disparate critical spaces, from elite universities and literary journals to a Lakota reservation, together produced a shared examination of what historian James Livingston has called the "cultural revolution" at the end of the century, the tipping-point moment when consumer culture finally became an "unstable isotope" disrupting long-established ways of understanding selfhood and the social order. For Livingston this revolution enacted a shift in the way culture ratified authority, a transition from Atlantic ideologies of republican virtue to new sites of self-discovery in what William James called the "worldly wilderness" of industrial-commercial culture. Although Livingston tends to elide differences in these unruly territories, the literary intellectuals of this period uncovered conflicting dimensions of mass culture; the commercial location of the "low" could have very different implications for white women or Native Americans than it did for European immigrants or male Ivy League professors. But literary intellectuals from all quarters, I argue, converged in a shared discovery: reflecting on sensory modes of mass modernity could change the very idea of rational reflection.
When Maxim Gorky described the experience of watching Lumière's famous cinematograph The Arrival of a Train, shown at a fair in 1896, he underscored the feeling of sensory invasion and bodily threat: "It speeds right at you—watch out! It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones." Gorky's response was double, a mix of astonishment and dismay. Like many intellectuals, Gorky was uneasy at his own susceptibility to this startling form of entertainment and felt disdain at the idea of its mass appeal. However vivid the images, what is on the screen, he stressed, is "but a train of shadows." Anticipating a line of interpretation that would be developed further by critics on the left, Gorky argued that the stimulation and visual excess of film are really an index of the empty distractions crowding the spaces of modern industrial life. "Before you life is surging" on the screen, but it is "a life deprived of words and shorn of the living spectrum of colours—-the grey, the soundless, the bleak and dismal life." Similarly, when he visited Coney Island in 1906, Gorky saw crowds caught in "slavery to a varied boredom," enchained by "an amazement in which there is neither transport nor joy." External distractions seemed to correspond with a depletion of the mental life of the modern subject.
For all his disapproval, of course, Gorky found real significance in sites like film and modern amusement parks. Even if mass culture was regrettable or degraded, this low sphere still had a high critical value: it was a site for theorizing a broader aesthetics of distraction that was saturating everyday life, in the world of work as well as leisure. These expressive sites thus offered the analyst a privileged glimpse into the social enervation and restrictions of human freedom that were the real ends of modernization. For a thinker like Theodor Adorno, mass culture would remain the illuminating antithesis of the domain of high art, which was the only aesthetic domain capable of recollecting through its "halo of uniqueness" the lost unity in which human poiesis is merged with a larger absolute. In this view, the culture industry represents the victory of capital's encroachment into the furthest reaches of human imagining, a victory that can be resisted only by the most strenuous efforts of artistic genius.
Like a latter-day doctrine of original sin, the possibility that commercial culture represents the total victory of capitalist interests is not easily countered, especially as it is articulated in Adorno's powerful critique. The possibility that we are the peasants of capital perhaps cannot ever be banished. But among the intellectuals who explored commercial culture as a site of knowledge, the conclusions extracted by thinkers like Gorky and Adorno represent only one strain of thought. For others, mass culture and commercial conditions were also a catalyst for returning anew to what Georg Simmel called "the sensory foundation of mental life" as a field in which to speculate on the possibilities that might emerge from the very changes wrought by modern capitalism. The profound changes to what Stephen Kern has described as "the culture of time and space" during this period—changes brought about by both technology and expressive culture—did not always look like they were leading to the depletion of a richer or more integrated kind of existence, or at least not to depletion alone. Gorky understood his own sensations as a filmgoer in terms of cultural reification, but other writers would have approached the experience in the theater ("It speeds right at you—watch out!") not as an empty distraction but as a telling mental event, a distinct kind of imagining that realizes the idea of "flesh" or of a train as a form of sensory consciousness and thus as a witness to the startling truth that thoughts and things do not inhabit different ontological orders.
Uncovering the coextensive ontology of the mind and the world became the unorthodox goal of the American pragmatists. The disciplinary tools of philosophy and science, these thinkers believed, could turn analytic thought against the very disciplinary divide that sequestered the operations of the mind from the materiality of bodies and things. More startling yet, they came to argue that the "meeting of Mind and Reality," as John Dewey put it, occurs as much in activities of commercial "Trade" as in those of art, language, and thought. By turning from the truths of logic to the matrix of experience, pragmatists sought out the dynamic speeds and "altered equilibriums" of a commercial society as the potential source of new ideals and social norms. Opposition to mass culture from pragmatists like William James, then, came from an unexpected direction. James worried that the "excessive novel-reading and theatre-going" encouraged by mass producers were making Americans too much like remote spectators who only looked on the world from a distance—it was making them, in other words, too much like traditional philosophers, observers blind to the interanimating processes by which mental activities and forms of worldly matter were forever mutually recreating reality.
But what if the energies of mass print and spectacle could be harnessed for new forms of thinking, infused into new modes of writing? For Walter Benjamin, the invention of cinema supplied a new and necessary aesthetic form in which "perception in the form of shocks was established as a formal principle," a formal principle, moreover, that Benjamin could adopt in turn for his own critical writing. Similarly, when social scientists like Henry Adams and W. E. B. Du Bois found the protocols of their disciplines too limited for an analysis of modern life, they forged new kinds of writing, genres that permitted shock, velocity, and the somatic apprehension of force to become the formal means of generating insight. Brought together in composite forms, the incongruity of high and low materials might reopen topics such as lynching, nationalism, and Whig historicism that had hardened into closed sociological objects or historical dogma. Du Bois and Adams, I argue, create literary analyses that owe as much to the "worldly wilderness" of mass culture as they do to established genres of literary fiction and autobiography.
Efforts to fashion disciplinary styles of thought into new mass genres, however, were distinctly less successful. Howells's attempt to have his brand of realist fiction supplant romance, for instance, did not prevail (although the writer he championed as the "greatest romancer," Mark Twain, did find ways to fashion "theatrical facts" into analytic narrative forms while still reaching a broad audience). Similarly, John Dewey's early experiment in adapting techniques of the press for philosophy, a projected publication called Thought News, never got off the ground. Far more lasting, however, were the transformations effected within modes of critical thought and analytic art by intimate encounters with commercial culture, especially when the disorientations—both conceptual and somatic—deliberately cultivated by mass forms seemed to offer glimpses of new collectivities and ideals. In contemplating a mass reading audience in the millions (or the "fast-arriving billion"), Henry James recognized with no little dismay that a literary public of this scale would necessarily change the meaning of literature itself. In his essay "The Question of the Opportunities," he points to the fact that the literary criteria of "vitality and distinction" had become unfixed, and the very task of evaluating the worth of writing would be profoundly changed, since "all this depends on what we take it into our head to call literature." Yet James is also able to recognize an exhilarating prospect ("the drama and bliss when not the misery") inherent in the same enormity of scale that caused him such discomfort. For the very massiveness of the enterprise held the possibility of "new light struck out by the material itself." James seems to surprise even himself by his willingness to wager on commercial culture as a site of opportunity: "It is impossible not to entertain with patience and curiosity the presumption that life so colossal must break into expression at points of proportionate frequency. These places, these moments will be the chances."
Seen in retrospect, what James describes as "the question of the opportunities" may be said to mark a transitional moment when the bourgeois public sphere intersected with another order of publicness, an order consisting of what theorist Miriam Hansen has described as "industrial-commercial forms of publicity." Quite clearly, this commercial order does not even pretend to inhabit a location above the marketplace, but, by the same token, production and circulation in this domain are "no longer predicated on the exclusionary hierarchies of literary culture." Hansen describes a moment in which the turbulent conjunction of these publics creates spaces in which experience may be ordered either from above—by standards from high culture or social relations favored by the interests of capital—or from below—by the needs, desires, and mobile dispositions of experiencing subjects themselves, situated in different social locations. The fact that templates for giving shape to thought and feeling might come from either above or below is precisely the point. Whereas for Habermas the ascendance of mass culture can only signify the decline and disintegration of critical public discourse, Hansen sees the intersection of commercial and literary publics—enacted through modes of exploitation, alliance, and mutual borrowing—as a way that competing forms of collective social experience yielded possibilities for a "politics of relationality." The hopefulness of such a prospect does not lie in a naïve or programmatic conviction that would equate mass culture consumption with political populism. Rather, the utopian dimension lies in the critical edge inherent in the idea of a public—inherent even in competing publics, in contest with one another but also thereby in relation—that offers structural conditions for possibilities of collective self-determination and world building.
William James gestured toward a similar notion of public possibilities when he argued that "altered equilibriums and redistributions diversify our opportunities and chances for new ideals." The dynamic changes James calls "redistributions" presume different social worlds in conflict or disequilibrium—but they also presume a potential value inherent in those very differences. Protective of its autonomy and hard-won prestige, high literary culture attempted to sustain an institutional distance from both low pleasures of the masses and the "grope of wealth" of the rich, although efforts at disavowing Gilded Age materialism were compromised by institutionalizing projects that relied on the wealth of the new industrialists. As much as this distance made literary culture insular, however, it also formed a structural distance across which habits of contemplative appreciation could be refashioned into new forms of critical thought, strains of analytic reflection alert to what the resulting frictions and contingencies might apprehend or create for the future. The high literary culture of this period is thus one in which "the rush of physical joy" of riding in a motorcar can count for Edith Wharton as the material for a novel of manners and where the dread of a "possible crash" can emerge as a literary trope that reverberates across fractured social spaces. It is a culture in which Henry James, a mobile, "restless analyst," is compelled to study the "sword-swallowing" conspicuousness of the commercialized New York cityscape, and he does so with a style that could aspire to match the prowess of a Wild West performer, wrestling the unruly modern world with thought that styles itself as "great loops thrown out by the lasso of observation from the wonder-working motor-car."
Meet the Author
Nancy Bentley is Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of The Ethnography of Manners: Hawthorne, James, and Wharton and coeditor (with Sandra Gunning) of The Marrow of Tradition.
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