After the Machine: Visual Arts and the Erasing of Cultural by Miles Orvell

By Miles Orvell

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And commuter rails had extended the city beyond its 19th century core to expanded metropolitan regions, embracing suburban communities that became bedrooms to the city's commercial districts (Jackson). After 1900, the automobileone of the major products of America's manufacturing systemwas rolling off the assembly lines in ever increasing numbers: from 4,000 in 1900, to 181,000 in 1910, to nearly two million in 1920 and over four million in 1929. During these same years, surfaced roads increased from 150,000 miles in 1904 to nearly 700,000 miles in 1930 (Rosenberg 114; 115).

Whitman would become one of the cornerstones of the "usable past" that the first generation of American modernists were looking for, and he was treated accordingly by Van Wyck Brooks in his 1915 volume, America's Coming of Age. Looking for a synthesis in American culture of the opposite poles of theory and action, idealism and business, Brooks found it in the all-synthesizing Whitman: "In him the hitherto incompatible extremes of the American temperament were fused" (79). But it is important to see exactly how Whitman was being used at this time.

This opened the way for American artists, in turn, to look at the new subject matter of the city and the machine and to see how the new vision of cubism could be joined to technology and still be consonant with American values and traditions. The American response was not simply a wholehearted embrace of the new (as it was for the Italian Futurists); it was significantly tempered by an effort to connect the new age of the machine with some cultural tradition that would give it sanction. It was a characteristic of American modernism generally that the search for the new was accompanied by a backward look, a retrospective yearning to identify with the romanticized past; one finds it in Cather, Eliot, Faulkner, Williams, Fitzgerald, and in the intellectuals peripheral to the Precisionist movement, Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford.

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