Mechanization and Nationalism in "Chiefly about War Matters"
The University of Minnesota Duluth
"Henceforth there must come up a race of enginemen and smoke-blacked cannoniers":
Mechanization and Nationalism in "Chiefly about War Matters"
Since its publication, "Chiefly About War Matters" has excited a great deal
of controversy. Most recently, Brenda Wineapple has argued that his engagement
with the issues of the Civil War betray an indifference to racism and a "chilling
cynicism" that was unable to comprehend the complexity of the War. While I have
no intention of maintaining that Hawthorne expressed any new appreciation for
racial issues in this text, I would like to argue that his descriptions of the
nature of the Civil War, the Union between the States, and the evolution of
warfare in "Chiefly About War Matters" can be understood as reiterating and
expanding upon his earlier depictions of encroaching mechanization within American
culture. Through its engagement with these issues, moreover, "War Matters" can
be seen as anticipating later similar treatments of issues of mechanization
and its potential for profound subjective and social realignments, such as Herman
Melville's Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, Mark Twain's Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Henry Adams' Education of Henry Adams.
Throughout his career, in novels such as The Scarlet Letter, The
House of the Seven Gables, and especially The Blithedale Romance,
and numerous short stories, such as "The Celestial Railway," "Earth's Holocaust,"
"The Great Stone Face," "The Man of Adamant," "Rappaccini's Daughter," "The
Christmas Banquet" and "The Hall of Fantasy," Hawthorne represents attempts
at social amelioration and the pursuit of an earthly paradise as invariably
corrupting both the reformers and their projects. For Hawthorne, the danger
posed by these endeavors derives from the fact that they are all predicated
on establishing false unions, which reorient characters' subjectivities: such
forms of association quickly become tyrannies, in which they become locked into
relationships of domination and submission. Through this subordination, characters
become alienated from true sympathetic fellowship, which, Hawthorne asserts,
is alone capable of giving them access to what he calls "the divine, the life-giving
touch," and "opening the chambers of our common nature," to connect the individual
to the "magnetic chain of humanity."
The Blithedale Romance provides a prime illustration of this process.
Here, Hollingsworth, as Coverdale notes, has surrendered himself to an "an over-ruling
purpose" and this has made him "not altogether human"(70). In a key passage,
Coverdale, reflecting Hawthorne's own view of the dangers of reform, elaborates
upon how this sense of purpose comes to corrupt those who labor under it. Their
cause, he argues,
does not so much impel them from without, nor even operate as a motive power within, but grows incorporate with all that they think and feel, and finally converts them into little else save that one principle. . . . They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. . . . They have an idol, to which they consecrate themselves high-priest, . . . and never once seem to suspect--so cunning has the Devil been with them--that this false deity . . . is but a spectrum of the very priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness. (70-71)
Such individuals become, as Coverdale fears Hollingsworth has, "steel engine[s] of the Devil's contrivance" (71), as Zenobia accuses Hollingsworth at the end of the novel, "'self-beginning and self-ending piece[s] of mechanism!'" (218). They lose all awareness of larger spiritual realities, and instead become fixated on the particularities of their schemes.
Those who fall under the influence of such characters suffer similar diminution.
Ethan Brand, who exerts a similar influence over characters, is described as
"converting man and woman to be his puppets, and pulling the wires that moved
them to such degrees of crime as were demanded for his study" (98-99). Again
in The Blithedale Romance, Coverdale, who escapes Hollingsworth's influence,
notes that he "saw in [Hollingsworth's] scheme of philanthropy nothing but what
was odious. A loathsomeness that was to be forever in [his] daily work!" (134).
Systems such as that of Hollingsworth cannot, in Hawthorne's view, foster commonality
or fellowship because individuals are assigned specific and limited tasks; so
constrained, they relate not to one another but to the organization itself.
In these circumstances they would, he asserts, inevitably become alienated from
each other and psychically warp fit requirements of the system in which they
have been imprisoned.
In "War Matters," Hawthorne applies this analysis to the conflict between
the North and the South. His guarded apology for the Southern secessionists
and his general suspicion of the Union accordingly can be seen as being motivated
by his distrust of any large organization that extends beyond the scope of an
individual's power of comprehension and interferes with natural loyalties. In
this text Hawthorne notes that "[t]here never existed any other government against
which treason was so easy, and could defend itself by such plausible arguments,
as against that of the United States" (416). This is because the nation is "too
vast by far to be taken into one small human heart," and individuals naturally
limit "that sentiment of physical love for the soil" to "[their] own State,
or, at farthest, to [their] own section" (416-417). Hawthorne represents his
own sense of loyalty as primarily to his own region and as based more on its
natural geography than on any overarching national allegiance. In a letter to
Horatio Bridge he wrote that "The States are too various and too extended to
form really one country. New England is quite as much as my heart can take in"
(Letters, 1857-1864 8) and in another to Henry Bright he states that,
regardless of the outcome of the conflict, "New England will still have her
rocks and ice" (355). Here too he argues that the Southerners were a distinct
people, and should not be yoked together with New Englanders, and that the old
union itself was "unnatural, a scheme of man, not an ordinance of God" (355).
In this sense, the nation itself, when understood as an idea that transcends
individual and natural loyalties, threatens to become an example of the kind
of system that, by enforcing a particular ideology and demanding complete adherence,
denies people the enlarging sense of sympathy that, Hawthorne insists, is necessary
for true union.
Just as Hawthorne rejected the idea of a mystical union as antithetical to
true fellowship, the new kind of power that was emerging and which was associated
with the nation seemed to him more a cause for concern than celebration. This
is especially apparent when he discusses the Monitor, one of the ironclad,
steam-powered battleships that were then being built. The ironclads represented
a profound change in naval warfare, and their use made conventional wooden vessels
obsolete. In his descriptions of The Monitor , its battle with the Virginia
and the submarines that were then being constructed, Hawthorne can be seen as
forecasting the emergence of a new kind of power that possesses the potential
to radically reorient human subjectivity. While these ships anticipated the
emergence of modern naval warfare, Hawthorne represents them as constituting
a continuation of the increased mechanization of life he had documented through
the whole span of his career:
the millennium is certainly approaching, because human strife is to be transferred from the heart and personality of man into cunning contrivances of machinery, which, by-and-by, will fight our wars with only the clank and smash of iron, strewing the field with broken engines, but damaging nobody's little finger except by accident. (437-438)
Hawthorne's account anticipates the mechanization of warfare in the twentieth century, and for him, this new kind of combat is part of the process whereby humans themselves become distanced from the reality of their actions. The crews of such vessels "hermetically seal themselves," and their struggles go on in a "submerged iron fortress" which prevents them any contact with or knowledge of the larger world. He notes that "a storm of cannon-shot damages them no more than a handful of dried peas" (436). In this state, the crew cannot have any real sense of the significance of their actions, or how they are participating in the larger whole. The shift in consciousness this constitutes is expressed in his description of the kinds of sailors that must emerge to man the submarines that were then in design:
Henceforth, there must come up a race of engine-men and smoke-blackened cannoniers, who will hammer away at their enemies under the direction of a single pair of eyes; and even heroism-so deadly a gripe is science laying on our noble possibilities-will become a quality of very minor importance, when its possessor cannot break through the iron crust of his own armament and give the world a glimpse of it. (434-435)
The fact that these sailors cannot themselves see, but must take their directions from a single individual, is characteristic of the kind of suspension of individual reflection that distinguishes Hawthorne's descriptions of domination in his earlier writing; that the conflict occurs beneath the sea also suggests a new degree of isolation that causes individuals to become further estranged from each other. So segregated and directed, they can know nothing but their specific function, and this again makes natural sympathy and fellowship impossible.
Hawthorne typically represents mechanization of the subject as deriving from
characters' deliberate disregard of their innate heart knowledge, usually because
of their monomaniacal commitment to particular schemes for social betterment.
The isolation of the cannoniers in this way can be seen as metaphoric for the
kind of alienation that is inherent the world they are bringing into being,
one in which, as he describes elsewhere, individuals become "so many wheels
of one great machine--and . . . have no more love or sympathy for one another
than if [they] were made of wood, brass, or iron, like the wheels of other pieces
of complicated machinery" (Letters, 1813-1843 330). Although in the concluding
paragraph Hawthorne holds out the hope for a "truer union in another generation"
("Chiefly about War Matters" 442), the nature of what this resolution may be
remains open, and he also notes the possibility that the Northern states might
in fact function better without the South: as he states, "Heaven was Heaven
still, . . . after . . . a third of the angels had seceded from its golden palaces"
Scholars have stressed Hawthorne's isolation during the Civil War-that he
had no party and was not able to find any support for his views. His emphasis
on mechanization in "War Matters" and the dangers of the new national power
that was emerging, however, nonetheless can be seen as anticipating later treatments
of this theme. For example, Herman Melville's Battle-Pieces and Aspects of
the War also deals with similar issues and moves towards an analogous conclusion.
It too can be read as constituting a warning regarding the new technological
power and its capacity to diminish the individual freedoms. Here he describes
the Monitor and the changes in warfare its success implied in three poems:
"In the Turret," "The Temeraire" and "A Utilitarian View of the Monitor's Fight."
His accounts echo Hawthorne's emphasis upon mechanization and similarly express
nostalgia for the ending of the old order symbolized by the defeat of the wooden
vessels, he also registers a sense of the profundity of the change in consciousness
the Monitor represents, and his hopes and fears for the new age that
was coming into being. While Melville places more emphasis on the heroism required
to serve on such vessels than does Hawthorne, he also observes that the changes
consequent to this new kind of battle involve more than the lost grandeur of
the masted ships. In particular, he notes the concentrated, calculated way in
which the action proceeds:
No passion; all went on by crank,
Pivot and screw,
And calculation of caloric (44)
Victory comes from "plain mechanic power / Plied cogently" (44), not from dramatic feats and heroic sacrifice. Such application of pure force is, for Melville, more indicative of the true spirit of war than the romantic descriptions that mask its horror. The ugliness and efficiency of the ironclads make explicit the inherent brutality of war and send "a singe . . . through lace and feather" (45).
Melville acquiesces to this new kind of warfare in Battle-Pieces but,
as the poem's title suggests, only from a utilitarian perspective. In "Conflict
of Convictions" he also entertains the prospect that the "singe" created by
this new power will extend beyond military operations. This poem is set up as
a dialogue between competing voices, each arguing for a different significance
in the War and a different future for America. The positive voice in the poem
still argues for America's millennial dream, but the negative voice rejects
this reading and asserts a darker future. Rather than preparing for the millennial
kingdom, the War is creating the preconditions for a new age of humanity's dispossession:
Power unanointed may come--
Dominion (unsought by the free)
And the Iron Dome,
Stronger for stress and strain,
Fling her huge shadow athwart the main;
But the Founder's dream shall flee. (10)
The iron dome refers to the dome built over the Capitol. It replaced the original low copper dome and significantly changed the appearance of the building: as a critic has noted, it "would substitute papal pomp for the Jeffersonian restraint of the earlier design." As such, it suggested pretentiousness and a glorification of wealth and power that would seem a betrayal of the ideals upon which the nation was founded. The iron dome is an expression of the potential for tyranny implicit in the technology that made such a building possible, and so can be seen as evocative of a new age of iron. The power to come, then, would extend the forces made evident in the Dome's creation to a previously unimagined range, but such power would be consecrated only to its own aggrandizement. The iron dome, painted white to match the building, further implies a falseness, suggesting that, although the new construction attempts to maintain continuity with the past, it is different in both substance and intent. In the way the ironclads singe the lace and feather, however, through time the untenable principles upon which the new nation was founded shall be revealed, as Melville notes, as "rust on the Iron dome" (9).
Although in Battle-Pieces the positive voice is the stronger, and the
collection ends on a hopeful note, with the description of a reinvigorated America
with "Law on her brow and empire in her eyes" ("America" Poems 120),
in his later poetry Melville returns to the darker interpretation of America's
future. In "Bridegroom Dick" he writes:
so spins the whizzing world,
A humming top, aye, for little boy-gods
Flogging it well with their smart little rods,
Tittering at time and the coil uncurled. (Poems 211)
Like the ending of "Conflict of Convictions," there is the suggestion that technology and the political realignments it makes possible have transformed the world into a plaything for uncertain deities.
Similarly, Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee provides a dystopian vision
of the world that the new technology is creating, which again reiterates the
main tropes of Hawthorne's essay. Here, he imagines Hank, a nineteenth-century
manufacturer of weaponry, transmigrated to Arthurian England. Hank introduces
steam, explosives, industrial production, locomotives, the newspaper, the telegraph,
the telephone, electricity, advertising, the stock exchange, and creates a private
army of technocrats who effectively come to rule England. When the nation revolts
from their dominion he and a small group of adherents massacre the forces arrayed
against them with explosives, electrified fences and Gatling guns. The novel
makes explicit the linkage between this technology and power, both through its
demonstrated capacity for mass extermination, as well the way in which it allows
a small groups of individuals to dominate society through money or mechanical
sophistication. By so doing, Twain illustrates an incongruency between democratic
reform and capitalism, and the way in which technology can work to reinforce
and exacerbate economic divisions within society to create a new form of tyranny.
Hawthorne's "War Matters" can be seen as anticipating these later critiques of American industrial society. Although he at no point develops these tropes specifically, they are implicit to his discussion of the cannoniers and the evolving technology of the Civil War. This group of sub aquatic engineers that are expected to emerge with their machinery represents a new human consciousness to match the new power directing society, poised to write on the national stage the narrative of domination and alienation that Hawthorne developed so often in his earlier fiction. Furthermore, the way in which his account redirects emphasis from issues of national unity and racial equality to the effects of mechanization can be seen as establishing the blueprint for conservative treatments of the War throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here, as in other similar treatments, the War is reconceptualized as consisting of a struggle between smaller, "natural" forms of communal organization and an aggressive industrialism that seeks to subsume and shape society to its own ends.
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