Industrialism as Progress


To get a sense for the argument, the style, or the approach, there is really no substitute for actually reading Industrialism as Progress. But if you need a quick and dirty summary, here you go…

If we want to see the full impact that industrialism had on literature, we have to look past the distracting facade of railways, factories, and class conflict. That is the core argument of Industrialism as Progress. What I show, instead, is: 1) that industrialism is best defined not as a new mode of production but as the break from a long period of economic stasis into a new era of economic growth; 2) that this new era of growth inspired a powerful new idea of progress; and 3) that it was by working through this new idea of progress that literature—especially Victorian literature—articulated its fullest response to industrial change.

I mention Victorian literature, in particular, because for over half a century all industrial literature was Victorian literature. Over time, industrialism may have become a globalized phenomenon, but it began as a British phenomenon, and in the period from 1830 to the fin-de-siècle, Britain was the only country to have escaped the Malthusian trap and crossed the industrial divide. Industrialism as Progress thus envisions the Victorian not only as a unique era in British history but as a unique era in world history: the dilated moment when what would be global was still local. To capture the full national and international sweep, I look both at those (Victorian) writers on the inside—Tennyson, Carlyle, Eliot, and Morris—who were building, from scratch, fictive tools for coping with unprecedented social and economic acceleration, as well as those (Modernist) writers on the outside—Baudelaire and Joyce—who found themselves struggling to respond to a change they could recognize but had not experienced.

The very fact, moreover, that these modernist writers found themselves outside the orbit of industrialism tells us that modernism cannot be understood as the cultural expression of industrial modernity. That is the second major argument of the book. The Victorians experienced industrialism well before their modernist counterparts, and yet their writing lacks virtually all the modernist hallmarks. Which means that modernism must have drawn its spiraling energy from a different source, not from the mere experience of industrial capitalism but from its new, international character.