Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives

Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives

by Nicols Fox

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From the cars we drive to the instant messages we receive, from debate about genetically modified foods to astonishing strides in cloning, robotics, and nanotechnology, it would be hard to deny technology's powerful grip on our lives. To stop and ask whether this digitized, implanted reality is quite what we had in mind when we opted for progress, or to ask if we might not be creating more problems than we solve, is likely to peg us as hopelessly backward or suspiciously eccentric. Yet not only questioning, but challenging technology turns out to have a long and noble history.

In this timely and incisive work, Nicols Fox examines contemporary resistance to technology and places it in a surprising historical context. She brilliantly illuminates the rich but oftentimes unrecognized literary and philosophical tradition that has existed for nearly two centuries, since the first Luddites—the ""machine breaking"" followers of the mythical Ned Ludd—lifted their sledgehammers in protest against the Industrial Revolution. Tracing that currof thought through some of the great minds of the 19th and 20th centuries—William Blake, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, William Morris, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Graves, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and many others—Fox demonstrates that modern protests against consumptive lifestyles and misgivings about the relentless march of mechanization are part of a fascinating hidden history. She shows as well that the Luddite tradition can yield important insights into how we might reshape both technology and modern life so that human, community, and environmental values take precedence over the demands of the machine.

In Against the Machine, Nicols Fox writes with compelling immediacy—bringing a new dimension and depth to the debate over what technology means, both now and for our future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781597268332
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 04/15/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 907 KB

About the Author

The articles, essays, and book reviews of Nicols Fox have appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Ruminator Review. She has also written regularly for The Economist and is the author of Spoiled, a journalistic perspective of emerging foodborne diseases (1997) and It Was Probably Something You Ate (1999). She lives on the coast of Maine.

Read an Excerpt

Against the Machine

The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives

By Nicols Fox


Copyright © 2002 Nicols Fox
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-833-2


The Kellams and Their Island

AMONG THE MANY ISLANDS OFF THE COAST OF Maine there is one called Placentia. The odd-sounding name — pronounced without the final "ia" by the natives — is thought to be a corruption of the French word plaisance, or pleasure. It sits just off the much larger Mount Desert Island in a cluster that includes Black Island and the Gotts, Great and Little. The islands in this group are small, as close together as kin, and except for Great Gott, which still has a summer community, mostly tree-covered. The trees, dark and heavy conifers, are not old. These islands were long ago clear-cut for firewood. The grazing of sheep kept them bare until about sixty years ago.

Placentia wasn't always as pleasant as it seems today. The name may have been meant ironically, or perhaps optimistically, as it was once the place the indigents were sent — the strangers who appeared in the Tremont community on Mount Desert Island with no visible means of support. These rejected souls pried a living of sorts from the thin soil, growing what they could, raising a few animals, and cutting down everything that would burn to warm the long winters.

Today no one lives on the island, but its deserted state is recent. Nan Kellam lived there by herself for three years until 1989; before that, she and her husband Arthur had lived there for forty years. They weren't indigents. Arthur was an engineer employed by Lockheed during World War II doing work that was not to be talked about: the company supplied aircraft bodies to the War Department. The couple's desire to keep to themselves and stay close to nature was not a new one. During those war years, they had lived in California, in an isolated cabin up a long canyon. After the war, they bought Placentia and came here to live.

OUR VESSEL, Poor Richard, is a converted Ralph Stanley lobster boat, 36 feet long, broad-bottomed and sturdy. Gussied up with brightwork and chrome — a "lobster yacht," it is called — it is owned and captained by Rick Savage. It can carry twenty-five on excursions, although Rick limits it to twenty for reasons of safety and practicality. There are only nine of us today: seven guests, sitting on the wooden seats that run along the back and sides beneath the chrome railing, and forward, the captain and the single crew. We trail a tender, essential to our undertaking, bobbing behind us like an annoying but persistent child.

It is September. The sky is spotted with clouds, but the air is warm. With mountains behind us and the sails of the regular Saturday racers skimming the bright water ahead, it is the kind of day when the harmony of water, mountains, sunlight, and wind fills one with fluid contentment.

The sea grows rougher as we near the island, the spray drenching the passengers in the back from time to time. The timid among us shift to stand closer to the center of the boat. There is little or no danger. The Poor Richard, beyond its workaday sturdiness, is equipped with a Global Positioning System (GPS) that shows its precise location in the water, a dot in a flashing circle on a screen, moving across a measured and charted sea. It does this by intercepting signals from high-altitude satellites, a system that can position us to within a hundred meters no matter where on the globe we might be. Radar shows grainy pictures of the approaching shore. The days of paper charts are over, says Rick, although he keeps them tucked away on board just in case. Even on this small vessel, we are surrounded and kept safe by modern technology; the dangers inherent in sea travel reduced to a minimum.

We come up behind the island and anchor off a long pebble beach where the currents are docile, and are rowed ashore by Rick's assistant in groups of three. We all have different reasons for coming. Four of us are curious about water and islands, ready for anything; three of us want to see the Kellam house before it meets whatever fate the Nature Conservancy has in store for it — which some suspect is destruction, probably by burning.

A path leads from the beach past the rotten shell of a rowboat the Kellams used to get to Mount Desert Island; both of them at the oars, braving rough seas if Arthur was inconveniently out of cigarettes, accepting a tow from a fishing boat if they got into trouble. A badly weathered flagpole still stands beside the boat. Never used, it was there to signal trouble: an insurance policy of sorts. There was an agreement with their neighbors on nearby Gotts Island that if a flag appeared, help was needed.

When the Kellams first moved to the island, the house was visible from the sea. Now the woods are thick; the trees tall. The trail, no wider than a man, threads in worn permanency among them, the forest floor sometimes strewn with pine needles, sometimes soft with moss, the damp spots built up with stones laid like cobble paving by someone for whom time was not a problem. There is the smell of decaying vegetation and cedar, and there is silence except for our soft footfalls.

We come suddenly upon a clearing. There are several large trees that seem to have been planted by someone — not the sort that just grow here: a walnut, a fruit tree, something else I can't identify, and just past them the gray-shingled house. There is a shed, grayed and tilting, and around what was once a garden, a half-collapsed rail fence.

I am a year too late. The house is still standing, but until a year ago it remained exactly as the Kellams had left it, Rick tells us. None of the island's occasional visitors had touched a thing — not the books and papers, not the tools, not the baskets or the old shaker boxes. Then someone, relatives I am told, took away most of the books and anything else of value and piled what was left in a heap in one corner. Those who want to preserve the Kellam house have warned me that it is a heap that loudly says, "bonfire." There is tension between those who want places to revert completely to unspoiled nature and those who think some signs of an unusual human endeavor — or merely an ordinary one if it is old enough — are worth saving.

To the left of the entrance, the front porch — its roof sagging, its supports leaning, grass growing between the stones of its floor — still holds up a sturdy, homemade swing. On the terrace are two wheelbarrows. A small stoop just in front of the door is laid of rough island stones. Tacked to the door frame, just inside and protected from the weather, are two notes: one says, "In the bandstand, Nan," and the other, written in a heavy pen on a piece of curling birch bark, "Back Soon."

The front door opens easily. Inside, in the tiny entrance hall, there is a stairway leading straight up to a small bedroom. To the right there is a step down into what was the workshop with its now missing tools, although there are still the worn brooms and on a hook an old straw hat. To the left is a step down into the living room, piled now with debris, the detritus of two lives. Behind a narrow door just to the right is a tiny bathroom complete with shower and flush toilet, water furnished by a push-pull pump that used pressure to fill a tank. Off the sitting area is a one-person-sized kitchen with rough pine cupboards and, in the sink, a single tap.

There is no electricity, no telephone, no signs of more than rudimentary conveniences, no solar panels, no windmill. In the pile of things to be discarded are several kerosene lamps. The heat came from the wood-fired stove in the corner, old and battered and inefficient; a stove that needed feeding several times a night, a friend of theirs tells me. Perishables were kept cool by lowering them into the well in a bucket. The Kellams wanted no machinery that would require fuel beyond the kerosene and gas lamps. On the cold cement floor is a worn Oriental carpet.

We paw with a kind of reverential timidity through what is left — the dusty boxes, the old file folders — looking at a letter here, a receipt there, postcards from friends in the 1940s and 1950s; picking up the books thought too worthless to take: an airplane design manual; a series entitled Finding One's Place in Life: The Foundation Stones of Success, printed in 1917 by the Howard Severance Co.; Marius the Epicurean by Walter Pater, MacMillan and Co., Limited, London, 1924. An essayist, critic, and scholar, Pater was a leading figure in the Victorian aesthetic movement.

Inside Pater's book, on a yellowed order blank for the Atlantic Monthly, there is a pencil notation: "Pt.4-Chapter 20 p. 244." I am looking now for clues to what made them come here, what kept them here, what ideas or principles shaped their lives. I turn to the page, anticipating a revelation, and read:

A highly refined modification of the acroama — a musical performance during supper for the diversion of the guests — was presently heard hovering round the place, soothingly, and so unobtrusively that the company could not guess, and did not like to ask, whether or not it had been designed by their entertainer. They inclined on the whole to think it some wonderful peasant music peculiar to that wild neighborhood, turning, as it did now and then, to a solitary reed-note, like a bird's, while it wandered into the distance. It wandered quite away at last, as darkness with a bolder lamplight came on, and made way for another sort of entertainment. An odd, rapid, phantasmal glitter, advancing from the garden by torchlight, defined itself, as it came nearer, into a dance of young men in armour.

What does it mean? What did they need from that passage?

Here they lived; on this small island where they vowed not to cut a living tree or harm an animal, and so used only the trees the wind had blown down for firewood, letting the deer roam free and posting signs against poachers. Here they lived. In this tiny cramped space. The two of them. Winter and summer. Day after day. On peanuts and sardines, if their rubbish is to be believed, and on what they grew in the garden — although I am told that they did not like gardening or fighting the deer for their produce and eventually gave it up, relying on canned goods and the bread Nan made as Arthur read to her.

Their allegiance to frugality was impressive. A friend tells me of metal measuring spoons that were mended and remended with solder and small rivets; of the bedspread that wore patches on patches, as did their clothing. Nothing wasted. Scavenging the harvest of the sea on the stone beaches. Reshaping found objects for their use.

They were not unsociable. They welcomed the visitors they knew. They asked that someone come ahead of the party so that, forewarned, they could change into better clothing. From time to time friends brought ice cream, or chocolate, which they loved. Then they were alone again. Alone with the books they read over and over; with Walter Pater's solitary reed-note, like a bird's, phantasmal glitter in the garden by torchlight and the impression of young men in armor; and with each other. Alone with the memories of the things Arthur had done in the war that he couldn't or wouldn't talk about. Alone here, and in the bandstand.

Rick promises to show it to us as we leave. A friend brought them a primitive sawmill, and from fallen logs they fashioned the boards from which it is built. They used it for picnics and allowed intrepid visitors to sleep there from time to time. It is best seen, he says, from the water.

Before leaving the island, we wander to the end of the fine pebble beach. Two currents meet here, forming a sharp line of foam. Beneath the water, white barnacle-covered rocks look like pale apparitions. This land has been pushed, not simply into a geographical point, but into a powerful place where the energy from the currents and the winds meets and the pulse quickens. Off to the left is Great Gott, with its comfortable cluster of white frame cottages — almost within yelling distance, but not quite.

As we pull away, Rick points to a low cliff where an octagonal gazebo sits with a full view of the beach and Great Gott and the island-dotted sea: The Bandstand.

When Arthur was taken seriously ill with pneumonia, Nan thought of the flagpole. For the first time, they needed help. She went to the shore with their flag but couldn't raise it: the mechanism had rusted. She stood helpless, wondering what to do. The captain of the small ferry that delivers goods and mail to Gotts Island looked up on his return trip, saw her there, and radioed for help. A doctor was sent, and Arthur was eased down the path in a wheelbarrow, across the cobbled wet spots, through the moss and the pine needles to the tender; rowed out to the boat; and then, on Mount Desert Island, taken to the hospital where he had a stroke and died almost at once.

Nan stayed on in the house after Arthur's death, but he had taken such care of her that she didn't know even how to replace a flashlight battery. A friend installed a solar panel to give her a light she could switch on. Fishermen ferried supplies. She held out for three years, doing what she had always done. When her mind and body grew undependable, friends took her to a nursing home where she has a view of the sea.

I FIRST HEARD about the Kellams in 1987, when Nan was still by herself on the island. One evening, while I ate a late supper in a neighborhood restaurant, the owner's brother sat down and told me the essence of their story. Of course I was intrigued. The idea of living a simple, solitary life has universal appeal, if only to judge by the enduring popularity of Thoreau's Walden. But few have the courage to take up such a life or the fortitude to stick with it.

I said at once that I would like to talk to her, and he drew back a bit, concerned that he might have said more than he should to a person "from away," as I would likely forever be classified, having moved to Maine only a year earlier. I didn't press, but the story stayed in the back of my mind as one of those strands that just might one day fit somewhere. Almost twelve years would pass before I would visit Placentia.

It would have been so easy to get the story right then. Now, when it was most important, I was reduced to picking at the frayed threads of the Kellam's lives, turning over scraps in a deserted house, foraging for clues in the memories of those who had known them. That was a discovery in itself: finding all their plentiful friends, many of whom did not know the others existed, but all of whom felt close to this unusual couple.

Then I discovered that Nan was still alive. One of my good friends had not only known her for years but took a proprietary interest in her well-being still, and visited her frequently in the nursing home where she now lived.

She created silence around her there, complaining of the television and the intercom announcements and "the white people," named for their uniforms. She would like to leave, I was told. No one who went to see her, and I was discovering almost daily more and more who did so, was quite sure how clear her mind was now. Some days were better than others. I took a chance and made my own visit.

She sat at a table in the dining room, waiting for a meal that would be served in an hour or so, a small, plumpish woman wearing a nondescript sweatshirt I felt could never have been her own choice. Introducing myself and hoping that she would not be frightened, I attempted — total stranger that I was — to engage her in conversation. The results were mixed. Her voice was so low as to be nearly inaudible, but her answers, when she chose to give them, were perfectly reasonable. We spoke of their daily life, of making bread and other things. I came away glad I had made the effort and feeling I had a better — if still imperfect — idea of what their lives had been like.

I discovered that my friend had photographs of Nan and Art and the house in better days. She had visited them on the island a number of times. She invited me over, made tea, and we looked at snapshots.

There was Nan, not the almost bloated woman she seems now, fleshed out from bad food and inactivity, but a tiny woman with the carriage of a dancer and that birdlike, upturned tilt of the head often seen in people who spend their lives looking up. And Art, cigarette between fingers, in a denim jacket that looks like a seventies castoff, has a lean and weathered face and the look of a good mechanic, or one of those infamous American soldiers in wartime Europe who could repair a jeep with a bobby pin.


Excerpted from Against the Machine by Nicols Fox. Copyright © 2002 Nicols Fox. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
CHAPTER ONE - The Kellams and Their Island,
CHAPTER TWO - The Frame Breakers,
CHAPTER THREE - Romantic Inclinations,
CHAPTER FOUR - The Mechanized Hand,
CHAPTER FIVE - Golden Bees, Plain Cottages, and Apple Trees,
CHAPTER SIX - Signs of Life,
CHAPTER SEVEN - The Nature of Dissent,
CHAPTER EIGHT - Going to Ground,
CHAPTER NINE - Writing Against the Machine,
CHAPTER TEN - The Clockwork God,
CHAPTER ELEVEN - Looking for Luddites,
About the Author,

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