Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882-1952

Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882-1952

by Jennifer L. Lieberman

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Overview

How electricity became a metaphor for modernity in the United States, inspiring authors from Mark Twain to Ralph Ellison.

At the turn of the twentieth century, electricity emerged as a metaphor for modernity. Writers from Mark Twain to Ralph Ellison grappled with the idea of electricity as both life force (illumination) and death spark (electrocution). The idea that electrification created exclusively modern experiences took hold of Americans' imaginations, whether they welcomed or feared its adoption. In Power Lines, Jennifer Lieberman examines the apparently incompatible notions of electricity that coexisted in the American imagination, tracing how electricity became a common (though multifarious) symbol for modern life.

Lieberman examines a series of moments of technical change when electricity accrued new social meanings, plotting both power lines and the power of narrative lines in American life and literature. While discussing the social construction of electrical systems, she offers a new interpretation of Twain's use of electricity as an organizing metaphor in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, describes the rhetoric surrounding the invention of electric execution, analyzes Charlotte Perkins Gilman's call for human connection in her utopian writing and in her little-known Human Work, considers the theme of electrical interconnection in Jack London's work, and shows how Ralph Ellison and Louis Mumford continued the literary tradition of electrical metaphor.

Electrical power was a distinctive concept in American literary, cultural, and technological histories. For this reason, narratives about electricity were particularly evocative. Bridging the realistic and the romantic, the historical and the fantastic, these stories guide us to ask new questions about our enduring fascination with electricity and all it came to represent.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262340809
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 07/14/2017
Series: Inside Technology
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jennifer L. Lieberman is Assistant Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Florida.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1 Mark Twain and the Technological Fallacy 17

2 Shock and Sensibility: The Rhetorics of Electric Execution 51

3 Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Human Storage Battery and Other Fantasies of Interconnection 91

4 The Call of the Wires: Jack London and the Interpretive Flexibility of Electrical Power 129

5 Ralph Ellison's and Lewis Mumford's Electrifying Humanism 167

Conclusion 211

Notes 221

References 247

Index 265

What People are Saying About This

David E. Nye

Power Lines provides a fascinating study of how electricity defined modernity in American fiction from 1880 to 1950. In this model interdisciplinary work, Jennifer Lieberman demonstrates how authors define technologies through a provocative communicative process that continues long after the initial act of invention.

Endorsement

In this innovative, insightful, and lucid new book, Jennifer Lieberman reframes our understanding of electricity's symbolic and cultural meanings at the end of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. Power Lines conducts us through an ambitious retelling of the cultural and technological development of electricity, enlightening readers about how electricity's symbolic potential both obscured and revealed its imbrication in socioeconomic networks of power and revealing the undeveloped, alternative paths still possibly available for imagining and using technology in more progressive ways.

Paul Gilmore, Rutgers University, author of Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism

From the Publisher

Power Lines provides a fascinating study of how electricity defined modernity in American fiction from 1880 to 1950. In this model interdisciplinary work, Jennifer Lieberman demonstrates how authors define technologies through a provocative communicative process that continues long after the initial act of invention.

David E. Nye, author of Electrifying America

In this innovative, insightful, and lucid new book, Jennifer Lieberman reframes our understanding of electricity's symbolic and cultural meanings at the end of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. Power Lines conducts us through an ambitious retelling of the cultural and technological development of electricity, enlightening readers about how electricity's symbolic potential both obscured and revealed its imbrication in socioeconomic networks of power and revealing the undeveloped, alternative paths still possibly available for imagining and using technology in more progressive ways.

Paul Gilmore, Rutgers University, author of Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism

Paul Gilmore

In this innovative, insightful, and lucid new book, Jennifer Lieberman reframes our understanding of electricity's symbolic and cultural meanings at the end of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. Power Lines conducts us through an ambitious retelling of the cultural and technological development of electricity, enlightening readers about how electricity's symbolic potential both obscured and revealed its imbrication in socioeconomic networks of power and revealing the undeveloped, alternative paths still possibly available for imagining and using technology in more progressive ways.

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