Professor Nancy Bentley holds a Ph.D. in American literature and culture from Harvard University and chairs the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She has published two books: Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture 1870-1920 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) and The Ethnography of Manners (Cambridge University Press, 1995 and 2007). She is also the co-author of Volume Three of the Cambridge History of American Literature as well as the Bedford Cultural Edition of Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition. She serves on the Editorial Board of PMLA, ALH, and Nineteenth-Century Literature; has received fellowships from Yale, Penn, Dartmouth, and Boston University; and has been honored with the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.
We recently asked her about her second book, Frantic Panoramas.
What attracted you to the topic of literature and mass culture at the turn of the twentieth century?
In retrospect, I think my interest was sparked by current discussions about the crisis in the humanities. Literature scholars have been grappling with the digital revolution. Do long novels and centuries-old poems still matter in the age of the internet? In our image-saturated world, are the textual worlds created in Moby-Dick or To the Lighthouse obsolete? At a certain point, I realized that the anxieties and euphoria fueling these discussions (are digital media tapping unforeseen human capacities? Are they damaging our ability to think and feel deeply?) were uncannily familiar.
I knew from earlier research that there was the same sense of crisis a hundred years ago, when the advent of mass culture – dime novels, early cinema, tabloid papers, mass entertainment – made for a similar kind of cultural disorientation. Media scholars talk about the “industrialization of communication” in the late nineteenth century and show how it upended virtually every domain of public discourse. I came to see the mass culture of this period as kind of prehistory to our own digital era, and I wanted to explore what that history suggests for the value of literature and literary study.
I think the history I tell may hold clues to our own crisis as humanists – some of them discouraging but others quite hopeful. I’m convinced that humanities disciplines have unique capacities for understanding the current media revolution and its global effects. Literature in the traditional sense is now at the margins of public culture, but literary analysis – modes of thinking that are not just numerical but historical and critical – remains a powerful kind of disciplinary thought. And a relevant one, too – perhaps now more than ever.
What inspired you to write Frantic Panoramas?
The germ was a paper I wrote about car crashes in the fiction of Edith Wharton. Wharton almost never included sensational plot turns or catastrophes in her novels; the sledding accident in Ethan Frome is the closest she comes to making a story hinge on an irruption of literal violence. But I noticed that, throughout her fiction she returns again and again to the metaphor of the train wreck or car crash. In some novels, the trope appears up to four or five different times. It began to seem like a tic, a kind of compulsion.
Why this recurrence to such an unlikely image? I found it doubly intriguing because Wharton was writing her novels at precisely the moment when the early filmmakers discovered the glamour of cinematic crashes. The head-on collision of two trains, the dynamite blast of a wall, the wreck of an automobile or a barn wall – these and other crash scenes were among the earliest short films in cinema, and they were an instant hit with filmgoers. Interestingly, Wharton herself despised movies. She thought they pandered to a lowbrow taste for sheer sensation, and she declared that radio and cinema were “two worldwide enemies of the imagination.” What could it mean, then, that she relied on the same cinematic energies of speed, risk, and violence to tell stories about the social lives of rich people?
This puzzle prompted me to think about how some of the authors often written off as “genteel” or culturally conservative – Wharton, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Henry Adams among others – had actually imported into a highbrow literature much of the same “aesthetics of astonishment” (as one film scholar has dubbed it) that you could find in cinema and the popular press. Scholars already recognized that African-American writers like W.E.B DuBois had combined a refined literary style with an aesthetics attuned to the violence of modernity; what of the similar conjunctions discernable in the work of other literary intellectuals in this era like Adams or James?
I was intrigued by this convergence of opposites; it seemed like a compelling thread I could follow to see where it would lead. My hunch was that this sensationalist aesthetics could help me tell a different kind of cultural history. I became less satisfied with the standard explanation that said this era was the beginning of a “great divide” between high culture and mass entertainment. I wanted instead to think about the way both literary writers and mass culture producers were obsessed with very unliterary energies: velocity, shock, novelty sensations, and spectacles, and what Henry James called “the imagination of disaster.” Eventually, I became convinced that writers’ encounters with mass media and culture – hostile though they often were – in fact allowed for an acute literary analysis of new kinds of experience and meaning in modernity.
Explain the “high literary culture” and its “self-appointed task of analyzing mass culture.” Why was this so?
It’s long been known that more elite writers looked on with dismay as mass fiction, tabloid newspapers, and advertising began to dominate the culture. But I became intrigued at how often writers expressed an almost visceral sense of bewilderment at this change, as if experiencing a kind of vertigo. One editor confessed that “at the mere sight of a row of paperbacks, I am conscious of a feeling of nausea.” Howells said he experienced “impossible stress from the Sunday newspaper with its scare-headings, and artfully-wrought sensations.” For Wharton, viewing close-up shots in movies was akin to having a suffocating “nightmare.”
In short, the same novel sensations and heart-racing topics that delighted popular audiences produced something closer to queasy panic for these literary writers. But this wasn’t because these intellectuals were simply too fastidious to enjoy these novelties. It was something more fundamental. They recognized that the world of letters was no longer the foundation for the public sphere. Since at least the eighteenth century, the shared tastes and habits of mind cultivated by a literary education had defined public reason and governed public debates. But suddenly the authority of letters was clearly eroding. Jürgen Habermas and others have shown how the late nineteenth century was in effect the twilight of the world of letters, the beginning of a “postliterary” age. Profit-driven publicity had far more influence than cultural criticism. Mass opinion mattered more than reflective deliberation. Howells complained that literature had become just one more product in the entertainment market: “if you don’t amuse your reader, practically, you cease to exist.”
To be sure, then, there was a new divide between literary culture and mass culture. Literature and art had become more cerebral and reflective – realist painters and writers were dubbed “the analytic school,” for instance – while mass culture ushered in new sorts of sensational experience, from amusement park thrills to the zany chases of Keystone Kops. At the same time, however, writers did more than just lament this state of affairs; they also turned their analytic gaze on this dizzying new media environment. I think we have largely missed the way writers were able to combine analytic thought and the unruly sensory experience they found in mass culture. So in Frantic Panoramas, I reposition literary writers not as mere reactionaries but as the first media theorists – the first intellectuals to try to think through the implications of the industrialization of print and image.
Edith Wharton and Henry James figure prominently in your study.
Both writers were Europhiles. Both were intellectuals and believed that highbrow literary traditions carried a kind of cultural authority that was being eroded by mass culture. But these same facts also made them highly curious and critically alert to the way mass media and commercial culture were transforming everything – language and letters, taste, even subjectivity. James (quoting the word recently coined by French intellectuals) distilled these transformations as the function of “‘modernity,’ with its terrible power of working its will.” This disposition made them critics of modernity in a double sense: they were critical of its “terrible power,” but they were astute observers of both the possibilities and risks that power entailed. (Their Europhilia, however, also made them blind to much of what modern imperial power was doing around the globe.)
Wharton, as I have suggested, was keenly attuned to the changes in human subjectivity brought on by the new speeds and shocks of modernity. People first began noticing these changes with the advent of railway travel. For the first time, passengers were subjected to a stream of intense stimuli: unpredictable low-level shocks, the whizzing by of objects in one’s field of vision, a constant awareness of physical risk. These physiological changes created what historians call an “industrialized consciousness” – a new kind of mental orientation to the world, and one that spreads throughout populations as agricultural societies become “risk societies.”
Wharton was skeptical and more than a little anxious about these changes. In her mind, they were degrading the more reflective sensibilities concentrated in literature and high culture. The characters she skewers most savagely are usually those addicted to high-speed travel and mindless stimulation; for the vapid nouveau riche, she writes, “life whizzed on with a deafening rattle and roar.” It’s not surprising, then, that the first industrial art form, cinema, struck her as akin to an obscenity of overstimulation, a bombardment of the senses. As Walter Benjamin observed, cinema was the first art form to make shock a formal principle of artistic production. At the same time, though, Wharton’s discomfort with the conditions of an emergent “risk society” is also the basis of a searing social critique. She knew that modern risk, while by definition a matter of chance, is not distributed evenly. In her fiction, the greatest damage from modernity falls on two particular groups: vulnerable women and neglected children – those who, even within the most affluent classes, are the most expendable, the most easily cut off from the protections of wealth and position.
So Wharton knew the distribution of risk is not random but socially patterned. And she captures the social vulnerability of figures like Lily Bart in The House of Mirth by describing her as living always on the verge of a “possible crash.” Today we have the almost bureaucratic phrase of populations “at risk”; Wharton began tracing fault-lines in modern risk almost a century ago. And she did so by drawing on stylized figures of violent accidents and potential crashes that filmmakers were exploring as well. In this way, she anticipates the long line of novelists who developed a “crash culture” aesthetics, from Fitzgerald (an admirer of Wharton who has the working-class woman killed by a speeding car in The Great Gatsby) to J.G. Ballard (whose erotic dystopia Crash features marginalized characters seeking sexual gratification through observing or experiencing car wrecks). I find it striking that in the last decade or so, a brand of social critique like Wharton’s and early cinema’s infatuation with violent accidents have come together in films like David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s Crash and the Paul Haggis movie of the same name that won an Academy Award.
For his part, Henry James was most fixated on the popular press: the tabloid papers and the “flood of books” produced for mass sale. James complained that US culture, unlike Europe, was dominated by the commercial imperative of publicity – the constant push to display, to sell, and to court the masses. He linked this “pestilent modern fashion of publicity” with mass education and what he called America’s “newspapered democracy.” So there was certainly an anti-populist strain to his fixation. He admitted to feeling “lettered anguish” at these changes.
At the same time, however, his lament about commercial publicity has other dimensions to it. He recognized what Jürgen Habermas, a leftist, has described as “the disintegration of the public in the sphere of letters” that occurred in this period. This was a process whereby market-driven publicity began to crowd out the kind of public discussions and reasoned debates conducted in “high literacy” publications. Long before Habermas, then, James worried about the way the mass press could manipulate public opinion for private ends. The “mechanical reverberation” of war lust in the press troubled him in particular. (Sounds familiar, no?). And he realized that the omnivorous nature of publicity (“publicity as a condition, as a doom”) was dissolving the boundary between high art and popular culture, thus putting literary value up for grabs. Once writers, readers, and presses conspired to make literature a mere “article of commerce,” there is no way to define the literary as such. As he put it, “all this depends on what we take it into our heads to call literature.”
And yet this same insight – that, finally, literature is simply whatever we call literature – also gave James a measure of hope. It certainly gave him a far-reaching sense of what the future of literature might turn out to be. He wrote a fantastic essay called “The Question of the Opportunities” in which he meditated on how mass culture, for all that it was destroying, was also sure to offer new kinds of literary value, new sorts of cultural forms and communities. He grasped, for instance, that the public sphere was becoming less like a single open forum and more like a chessboard, with many different “publics” created from different sorts of appeal and access. And he also anticipated that, given such “colossal” mass production, the sheer volume would give rise to exciting new kinds of art that would burst through narrow rules and restrictive conventions. In that sense, James predicted both the achievements of high modernism and our current explosion of new media.
I can mention two examples where this forward-looking side of James emerges in his own work. One of his lesser known novellas, In The Cage, is a story about a young working-class telegraph operator in London. His interest in this figure anticipates the genre of “railroad thrillers” in early cinema, such as The Grit of the Girl Telegrapher and D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator. After being kept outside of public discourse, women were suddenly insiders; literally, they had their finger on the switch. While filmmakers exploited this fact to display a beautiful young woman’s “grit” in a crisis, James’s telegrapher turns out to have an extraordinary talent for interpreting coded social messages. She manages to decipher – and eventually, to become a participant in – the covert communication between a pair of aristocratic lovers. The story shows James’s fascination with the way mass media had the capacity for creating new languages and social relations.
Another example of James’s openness is his interest in the place of Native American life. In his remarkable book The American Scene, he speculates at key moments about what modern America must look like to the Natives displaced by railroads and cities. But, even more significantly, he describes an encounter he had with “a trio of Indian braves” touring Washington, D.C. What strikes him most is the way these men are not the Indians represented in literature; as he puts it, they defy “a mind fed betimes on the Leatherstocking Tales.” They are instead fully present subjects of modern history. They wear bowler hats and carry tobacco and photographs like countless other Washington visitors. For James, the closest comparison is not Cooper’s Indians but “Japanese celebrities,” an analogy that suggests images from the mass press. These Indians have survived the “bloody footsteps of history” and stride boldly on what James calls the “printless pavements of the state.” In this moment, then, he shares the same fascination with the sight of Indians that made Geronimo an international celebrity. But here James uses mass culture iconicity to try to grasp the present and future place of Native Americans in their long, vexed relation to the US state. Literary history has to be jettisoned while mass culture offers him resources.
Were there any surprises during your research and writing?
From the first, I knew I would examine the role of race; early popular forms like minstrelsy and plays about Indians provided the DNA, as it were, for American mass culture. But I was surprised to discover the very complicated, dynamic relationship that Native- and African-American intellectuals of this time had to mass culture.
Bastions of high culture like the American Academy of the Arts, which was founded during this period, excluded people of color (and blackballed white women for a long time as well). High culture was white culture. And yet this was still a time of great innovation for native and black intellectuals. In 1897, a group of writers and educators founded the American Negro Academy, attracting leading figures such as DuBois and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to join this scholarly society. Some years later, a group of Native-American writers and activists founded the Society of American Indians, the first pan-Indian organization to publish journals and hold conferences.
These writers were just as wary of mass culture as people like Wharton and James – more so, in some respects, since they saw far more keenly how mass entertainment often fed on dehumanizing racist stereotypes. At the same time, however, they also saw commercial culture in a different light than their white counterparts. They knew that, because artists and actors of color were excluded from the mainstream, lowbrow entertainment such as musical theater and early cinema were among the only places that African American and Indian performers and artists could pursue their work. As a result, these intellectuals recognized that commercial culture – for all its racist energies – was still a sector that was far more open to the innovative styles of black and Indian writers and performers than the literary establishment was.
I was fascinated to learn that Dunbar, the first black American poet of real renown, had written musicals with all-black casts for the off-Broadway stage in New York. One of his productions toured the country in 1898 and set off an international dance craze. Similarly, the writer James Weldon Johnson gave up his career as an educator and lawyer to write plays for black musical theater. Both writers won recognition from the white establishment for their literary works; but they still found that these early forms of mass culture – popular music and dance – allowed for the kind of innovation and creativity bubbling up from what Johnson called “Negro bohemia” or urban street life. Like the emergence of jazz in this period, Dunbar’s novel The Sport of the Gods and Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man are fueled by the unruly, wildly creative energies of working-class black life that was beginning to find expression in mass culture.
In a similar vein, a number of Native-American intellectuals from this period saw Wild West shows and early cinema as venues that offered a chance for cultural expression and even the possibility for political agency. The writer Luther Standing Bear complained loudly about the way many early filmmakers produced distorted portraits of Native-American life. But he didn’t reject the medium of film itself. Indeed, after his early career as a star in Bill Cody’s Wild West show, he performed in Hollywood westerns alongside actors like Douglas Fairbanks, and he served as a consultant for Hollywood producer Thomas Ince. Charles Eastman, another Native-American writer who was also a founder of the Society of American Indians, took the same position: he saw Indian shows and westerns as “a new line of defense of native Americans.”
How did the book affect your teaching?
During the time I was researching Frantic Panoramas, I taught some graduate seminars that addressed these topics. In designing the seminars, it was easy to select theoretical and historical studies that allowed us to put mass culture in a scholarly context. But I wanted the students to have some first-hand experience searching the archives for their own discoveries. So I invited students to do some digging for little known materials pertaining to turn-of-the-century mass culture.
The results were fascinating. One student discovered a magician from the West Indies who was popular among black American audiences and was featured in one of the first magazines published in the black press, The Colored American Magazine. Others pursued some of the more obscure corners of the Chicago World’s Fair or the archives of early film. In a few cases, I asked the students if I could incorporate their discoveries – fully credited, of course – in the book. In that sense, my students affected the book as much as the book affected my teaching.
What are you working on now?
I’m actually returning to a topic I was working on before I wrote Frantic Panoramas. This next book – my working title is New World Kinship – is about how the genre of the novel was really the only form that grappled honestly with family, kinship, and sex in American history. Official discourses like law and demographics insisted that there were two kinds of family forms in the Americas: proper families on one hand, and on the other the threatening, illegitimate populations – especially populations of color – that had to be closely watched and regulated because they were so different from respectable white families.
The whole point of these state discourses was to conceive these groups in opposition to each other. But novels had the capacity to show how the stark differences between populations were actually created from the same history. I am trying to make the case that, in the nineteenth-century, precisely the virtuality of fiction – the latitude of reference for its characters and plots – made the novel the only form that really tells the truth about American kinship.
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