Industrialism as Progress


In the earliest stages, I had thought of calling this book The Carlyle Era—partly because Carlyle blasts its keynote and partly to express my allegiance to the best of old-fashioned criticism, like that of Hugh Kenner.

While writing, it seemed more like The Tennyson Era; his poems—not Carlyle’s prose—became the real touchstone for my thinking about literature, industrialism, and progress.

Now, after editing and revising, it occurs to me that the figure who really presides over this book is not Tennyson or Carlyle but Ulysses.

Every age, Kenner argues, creates its own Homer. “Invented Homers,” as he says, “range through three millennia” (49). Kenner himself was interested in the modernists’ Homer, the Homer of Joyce and Pound. As he saw it, the defining feature of that Homer was his historical presence. No longer an outsized, mythical bard, the modernists’ Homer was a real person who had lived in a real world (one currently being unearthed by archaeologists.) And being a real person gave his work a new purchase on reality. “The Homer of this new Renaissance could concentrate all that one knew of the real” (45).

The other thing Kenner finds striking about the modernists’ Homer is that he is, first and foremost, the author of Ulysses. “Homer in most times has been the poet of the Iliad. That Odyssey decade was an historical anomaly” (44).

Except that it wasn’t, not if we listen to Tennyson and company. For them, too, The Odyssey was the most resonant Homeric text.1 And the reason has nothing to do with archeology. They turned to The Odyssey because it spoke to them, because it expressed something of their own experience. Specifically their experience of industrial progress: both the excitement and the restlessness, the freedom and the homesickness, the ever-expanding pull of desire and the growing demand for finality.

This is not to say that Homer’s epic was about industrialism (what would that even mean?), but like a glass which comes to vibrating life when the right note is struck, Ulysses responded to the call. It opened itself to relevant reimaginings.

Tennyson’s poem is very much a reimagining: not an invocation or an allusion but a new version. It gives us an invented Ulysses to put beside Kenner’s invented Homers. And part of what is new about this invented Ulysses is that—finally—he is a captain with a crew who matter. Because of course in Homer, the crew do not matter. They all die along the way, without so much as a nod towards the kind of felicific calculus which would compare these many deaths against a single homecoming and judge the book a tragedy. In Homer, only one fate matters, and it’s the fate of Odysseus, whose Nostos is a resolute triumph.

In Tennyson, things are different. The crew do matter. In “The Lotus-Eaters” they actually get to speak and even in “Ulysses,” where their voices are still stifled, they are important enough to be raised from the dead.

Nor is this only true of Tennyson. It follows wherever his work reaches. To Carlyle, for instance, who quoted from Tennyson’s poem as part of an impassioned letter he wrote to the author.

And so I say let us all rejoice somewhat. And so let us all smite rhythmically, all in concert, “the sounding furrows”; and sail forward with new cheer, “beyond the sunset,” whither we are bound–

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down,
It may be we shall touch the happy Isles
And see the great Achilles whom we knew! (I.83)

Carlyle doesn’t even mention Ulysses, here. He uses him, and uses Tennyson’s poem, to mount an appeal for concerted, collective action. As if Tennyson’s poem was about this “we”—or even more broadly the thrice-repeated “all”— rather than any particular individual.

And though the figure of Ulysses is certainly more distant in Eliot, this question of how to value the work of the crew, the crowd, the many—when there are some heroic individuals whose lives would seem to be more meaningful—is absolutely central. Her answer is the same: the once-unhistoric are now profoundly important.

This is an effect of industrial progress, a consequence of the realization (grounded in economic reality) that improvements in economic welfare were now possible, and that they could be widely shared. No longer was there a Malthusian trap waiting to cut down those many lives made dispensable by the old laws of economics. Finally the bounty of growth belonged to all: captains and crewmen, masters and laborers, the long-significant few and the once-insignificant multitude. The Victorian Ulysses made room for this new perspective, ceding space and voice to those who “toiled and wrought and thought” with him.

The modernist Ulysses was something different. He carried a different burden and he struck a different balance with his fellow-travelers. You can see it in Baudelaire’s hollow “nous,” this speaking voice which grew out of Tennyson but which belongs neither to the grand captain nor his devoted crew (even as it hints at both). And there is a similar ambiguity in Joyce. Leopold Bloom is manifestly not Ulysses, but he is also not a crewmember. He is neither and both. A typical, world-historical, ordinary, remarkable, trivial and tremendous character. All at once. That is Joyce’s modernist solution: to make the epic ordinary and the ordinary epic, without having to worry about who should lead and who must cede.

But if these modernist solutions look different than the Victorian ones, that’s not because they are more advanced. It’s because they come from elsewhere, from someplace just outside the world of industrial progress: someplace distant (in Baudelaire’s case) or someplace belated (in Joyce’s). Their Ulysses is not a descendant of Tennyson’s; he is a twin, or an alterego.

And the same could be said of Victorian literature and modernism more broadly. There is no easy chronology which can take us from Sartor Resartus to Ulysses. What there is, instead, is a complex geography of time and place, a collection of perspectives—some looking in, some out, some ahead, some back—which, sewn together, shows us how industrialism was understood, how it became partnered with progress, and how that troubled partnership shaped 19th and early 20th century literature.

Also, it shows us how industrialism reinvented Ulysses.

1 I haven’t discussed it, but Morris translated The Odyssey , and not The Iliad .