The Industrial Age 1865 To 1917

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In 1800 the United States was an underdeveloped nation of just over 5 million people. It was a society shaped by immigration, but immigrants from one country, Great Britain, made up around half the population. Although some pioneers had moved west of the Appalachian Mountains, America was preeminently a seacoast settlement. A prosperous nation, it still lagged far behind England, which was industrializing furiously. And with only 10 percent of its people living in towns and cities, it was thoroughly agrarian.

All this was about to change, and the change was sudden, explosive, and deeply disorienting. In the next century, immigration, capitalism, and machine technology would reshape the character, culture, and landscape of the young nation. In 1900 more than 77 million Americans lived in a continental empire that was a melting pot for more than 30 nationalities. Sixty percent of Americans still worked on farms, but nearly 40 percent now lived in cities, and the United States had surpassed England as the leading industrial nation on earth. “It is … in things of iron and steel that the national genius most freely speaks,” wrote William Dean Howells.

The Industrial Revolution was, and still is, the greatest engine of change in the history of humankind. Not surprisingly, it has spawned a literature of interpretation, celebration, and indignation that is a feast for the general reader.

With its far-spreading, factorylike environment, nineteenth-century Chicago was a place where writers went to see the machine-age future in all its splendor and squalor. Chicago was the international capital of meatpacking, and in its sprawling stockyards district it was inventing a new way of making things—assembly-line production—that would transform the world. The young socialist Upton Sinclair spent only seven weeks there, but the novel he published in 1906, The Jungle (many editions), is the most powerful account we have of the new world of industrialized production. On the bloodsoaked floors of these gigantic meat mills, and in the vile slums that rimmed them, immigrants fresh from the fields of Lithuania and Poland were reduced almost to the condition of the animals they were paid to kill and cut. (The novel also contains a spectacular account of the work inside a modern steel mill.)

Sinclair was a Protestant Prohibitionist, and the novel suffers from his narrowly moralistic treatment of immigrant life, his failure to appreciate the roles that the Catholic Church and the neighborhood saloon played in ethnic advancement. In places the book is preachy and bombastic, and many of its characters fail to come to life. Yet it can still be read today as a devastatingly accurate indictment of the failure of America’s buccaneering capitalists to treat their workers as part of the human race.

Chicago’s nineteenth-century capitalists were inventing a new type of city as well as a new type of work. Rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago’s downtown was a technological wonder, its streets lit by electricity, serviced by swift streetcars, lined by solid rows of skyscrapers, and graced by palatial department stores. In Sister Carrie (1900; many editions), the Indiana-born Theodore Dreiser brilliantly captures the vitality and velocity of this new technological city, along with the consumption culture that department-store magnates like Marshall Field were bringing into being. In the second half of the novel the action shifts to New York City, a bigger, more powerful, and vastly more impersonal place than Chicago. Dreiser’s New York is a city of amplitude and opportunity, but it is also an unforgiving force of nature that ruins as many lives as it elevates, an image evoked by Carrie Meeber and her doomed lover, Hurstwood, one made by the city, the other undone by it. Sister Carrie is America’s Tale of Two Cities, and Dreiser is our Dickens, a wide-awake traveler to what was then an absolutely new world, the turbulent industrial city, its culture nothing short of revolutionary.

While young Dreiser was walking the streets of Chicago collecting material for his first novel, a lean, laconic Norwegian-American was hired as an economics instructor at the newly founded University of Chicago. In 1899 Thorstein Veblen published his first and finest book, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of the Evolution of Institutions (many editions), a caustic dissection of the customs and conventions of America’s new capitalist conquistadors. Like Karl Marx, Veblen exposed the wasteful, self-indulgent lives of a new class of status-driven plutocrats who were fashioning a metropolitan culture of “conspicuous leisure.” But, unlike Marx, he did it with wit and irony and without Marx’s tiresome historical determinism. The Theory of the Leisure Class is Swiftian satire raised to the level of judicious scholarship, a work read enthusiastically by reformers of the time and still a useful guide to the deep-lying motivation of those who spend and display selfindulgently and extravagantly.