Literary critics have long regarded the rejection of technology as a distinguishing feature of American Romanticism. Yet as Klaus Benesch shows in this insightful study, the attitude of antebellum writers toward the advent of the machine age was far more complicated than often supposed. Although fraught with tension, the relationship between professional authorship and evolving technology reflected a pattern of adjustment rather than opposition, as writers sought to redefine their place within a culture that increasingly valued the engineer and the scientist.
According to Benesch, major writers such as Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman, and Rebecca Harding Davis recognized technology as a powerful engine of social change—a driving force that threatened to subordinate their creative faculties to the inexorable dictates of industrial production. In response, they conjured up "cybernetic" self-representations that attempted to preserve the autonomy of the individual author in the face of ongoing technological encroachment. These biomechanical images helped writers construct a hybrid identity that reconciled new modes of technological production with older, more organic models of professional writing.
In the end, Benesch argues, Romantic literary discourse is marked as much by admiration for the technological as by strains of resentment and cultural anxiety about its negative effects. As such, it prefigures in important and previously unacknowledged ways the modernist and postmodernist sensibilities that would follow.