Wasteful Words: Visions and Failures of Literary Efficiency in American Fiction, 1885-1910
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This dissertation examines how writers helped scientists and engineers transform “efficiency” from a mathematical tool for assessing machine performance to an organizing principle for society. Historians and literary critics have helpfully sketched this transformation. They have paid particular attention to manifestations of Taylorism and Fordism in modernism, especially in the “kinetic” poetics of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and John Dos Passos. But while scholars have illustrated how modernism pushed efficiency into contexts like labor and politics, they have only begun to consider efficiency’s role in Gilded Age fiction, particularly in the works of utopian thinkers—such as Edward Bellamy and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—and technological cynics—including Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Frank Norris, and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton. I argue that efficiency was a decidedly aesthetic concern in the novels of the Gilded Age, an idea so exciting and anxiety producing that writers felt compelled to scrutinize it in terms of literary form. Indeed, the writers examined in this dissertation developed nuanced rhetorical and narratological programs to explore efficiency’s conceptual possibilities outside the factory, specifically in the domestic sphere, the pastoral places of California, and the writer’s study. Moreover, these writers struggled to make sense of efficiency’s conceptual expansion. Thus, their novels reflect the difficulties of realizing different kinds of social efficiency. The texts I analyze either try but fail to represent the promises of a machine-made society, or they use self-destructive literary forms that call attention to the wastes of industrial capitalism. By attending to the poetics and competing definitions of efficiency advanced by these writers, my dissertation explores how Americans adapted traditional literary structures to promote or challenge the idea of technological progress. This dissertation includes previously published material.