The Absolute All-american Civilizer


Not long ago I received a very angry letter from an old friend. It was a response to my suggestion that liberal arts colleges might give students some instruction in technology; that is, give them some feeling for how the world they are living in works. My friend’s argument was that from the Love Canal to Three Mile Island, and from the grid locks of Manhattan to the boeuf bourguignon on the plastic airline trays, the technological world was not working very well and never would. To explain its necessary malfunctions to the young would do no more than contaminate the view of things put forward in the Platonic Dialogues, Restoration comedies, and whatever other subjects undergraduates were studying these days. The fact was, so the argument ran, that while technological advance increased the Gross National Product and created a glut of creature comforts, it worked inevitably against decency and our saving graces. The thing to do was to stay as far away from it as possible.

My friend is not alone and, in the diagnosis, may even be right. For instance, much of our social intercourse does seem as temporary and meretricious as the plastic surroundings in which it takes place. And the dialyzer and the CAT-scan do seem to drive out the need for the indispensable TLC that supplied so much of the therapeutic energy in the days when medicine couldn’t offer much else. And so on and on.

This is not a contemporary finding. Ancestral voices from Plato to Orwell have been saying much the same thing, pointing out, one way or another, that, as Matthew Arnold said directly, coal, iron, and railroads do not produce much sweetness and light.

They may all be right, and at times it certainly seems so. Yet it is hard to believe that the fault eroding our better selves lies, if not in our stars, at least in our satellites and their supporting technology. But it seems equally hard to believe, as some of my other friends assure me is the case, that the way to an improved quality of life is simply through more and better engineering. If the choice has to be between walking away from the machinery we now have or the finer tuning of some new instrumentation, it may be time to look for another way out.

A place to start, I would suggest, is in the smoking compartments of the old Pullman cars. I came to know them well during my boyhood trips between the LaSalle Street Station in Chicago and the South Station in Boston. It was in these compartments, as some will remember, that the male passengers prepared themselves to face the day.

They came in, bearing over their left arms their suit coats, shirts, and ties; these they carefully hung on the rows of surrounding hooks. They then sat down on the benches to await the availability of the water closet and of those shining bowls and mirrors that lined the walls. On this occasion there was none of the continuing anecdote and exchange of confidential information that filled the air later in the day. It was early on, serious business was going forward, and it was a time for patience. When their turn came, they took their place, swaying slightly with the movement of the car, in undershirts, suspenders dangling from the trouser waist, and started on their ablutions. First the brush, the shaving soap, the straight-edged razor taken from the small, neat, leather boxes. Then the shaving, the swabbing of the face, arms, and armpits, the washing of the hands and the cleaning of the nails. And then the application of unguents and facial tonics with deft strokes and exhilarating slaps. Finally, as my father had told me must be done, the wiping out, before disposing of the towel, of the shining metal bowl, and the drying off of the surrounding counter space in preparation for the next in line.


To one for whom, at the time, a simple splash of cold water would serve the needs of the next twenty-four hours, the whole procedure was an altogether astonishing performance. And to one who later spent time in the plumbing facilities of locker rooms, dormitories, naval indoctrination schools, and airports, it remains the demonstration of a singular order and decorum.

I have begun at the homely end of things. There is the larger topic of the car itself. Taken as an engineering construction, it was, first, an assembly of wheels, journal boxes, air brakes, couplings, pipes, wires, and steel plates to do work. Second, it was a masterful organization of spaces to fit the nature of the work required—the transportation of people from here to there by day and by night. Third, the space was filled with devices and appointments that made the work go forward with efficiency and convenience—the section that provided expeditious conversion of seats to beds, the circulating fans, the well-placed lights, the ladder to the upper berth, the little hammocks for small clothes and sundries, and those tough, green baize curtains that shrouded the made-up berths. Here was a structure that, in general scheme and in detail, satisfied equally the requirements for mechanical efficiencies, the claims of creature comforts, and the rights of passengers to a reasonable privacy.