Historian examines how three 19th-century authors recoiled from technology

October 17, 2013 by Peter Dizikes

In 1890, living in Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson sent a letter to his fellow writer Henry James, explaining a momentous decision on his part: Disillusioned with a rapidly changing, technologically driven world, Stevenson intended to remain in "exile" on the island, never to return to his native Britain.

"I was never fond of towns, houses, society or (it seems) civilisation," Stevenson wrote, explaining his choice. Indeed, he died in Samoa four years later.

But how exactly did Stevenson, who grew up in a well-off family of Scottish civil engineers, wind up lamenting technological progress and its social effects from a remote island in the South Pacific? And how should we understand this kind of uneasy response to technological advancement more generally?

Those are among the questions MIT historian Rosalind Williams addresses in her new book, "The Triumph of Human Empire," just published by the University of Chicago Press. It is a study of three famous authors—Stevenson, Jules Verne, and William Morris—and their complicated responses to technological and social change: embracing some innovations while lamenting that many changes were diminishing our sense of connection with the natural world and the past, and even creating new social inequities.

Much as the current day is awash in technology-based innovation, so too was the Victorian era: As Verne (1828-1905) noted in an 1891 interview, he had lived through the introduction or popularization of trains, trams, the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, steamship, and commercial electricity.

In the book, Williams analyzes how the works of Verne, Morris (1834-1896), and Stevenson (1850-1894)—while often remembered for their flights of enjoyable fantasy—are actually deeply grounded in this "decisive turning point in the human story," as she writes, when they could see that "human needs, desires, works and actions would more and more dominate the planet" in the future. That also speaks to our world, she believes, as we are confronted with resource scarcity, climate change, dangerous military conflicts, and changes in behavior oriented around technology.

"There is a deep belief in progress of science and technologies that you can see in the 19th century, and is extremely powerful today, but there is also the anxiety that comes from that belief," says Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology in MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS). "This book is intended to explore that paradox."

'They could see over the horizon'

Significantly, none of these writers had a lifelong, reactionary distaste for technology. Stevenson took pride in his family's engineering feats, for instance, while Verne gained renown for his stories about futuristic submarines, moon landings, and even penned a (posthumously discovered) novel about life in Europe under a radically changed climate. They all shared, Williams asserts, a geographic link around the North Sea that made them especially interested in human exploration though water, but they thought about the impact of many technologies.

"What they're writing about science and technology is astoundingly prescient and true," Williams says. "They could see over the horizon." Taking an approach Williams has used throughout her career, "The Triumph of Human Empire" employs fictional works as a window into the human response to rapid social transformation.

"Science and technologies have [created] astonishing accomplishments, and real material changes," Williams says, "but I'm most interested in how they have an effect on people's lived experiences."

Those rapid changes form a recurring tension in Verne's works, in which technology enables previously unimaginable journeys and feats of exploration, yet traps people in its grip. After all, Pierre Arronax, the scientist narrator of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," (1870), is imprisoned by Captain Nemo aboard the Nautilus—privy to remarkable views of life undersea, but unable to escape.

Morris' response to was more explicitly political: Famous for his poetry, in the 1880s he threw himself into left-wing politics, and founded a noted decorative arts company. As a writer, he suddenly started translating Icelandic sagas—as a way, Williams thinks, of aligning himself with a more pristine society than heavily technologized Britain.

"Our civilisation is passing like a blight, daily growing heavier and more poisonous, over the whole face of the country," Morris wrote.

Stevenson's grasp of the global effects of seems to have emerged as he journeyed first to America by steamship and then across the United States by train, in pursuit of his future wife, Fanny, who was then living in California. The trip appears to have been an epiphany for Stevenson, as he realized how many of the world's travelers were not journeying by choice, but as migrants displaced by a rapidly globalizing economy. After a few years in California, he set forth on a sailboat cruise of the South Pacific in search of a healthier climate, new adventures, and new income based on travel writing.

"All of them had to do some sort of pivot," Williams says. "They grew up in one world and had to realize they were living in another one."

"The Triumph of Human Empire" has been praised by colleagues; John Tresch, a historian of at the University of Pennsylvania, has called the book "engaging, highly informative, and entertaining."

The 'rolling apocalypse'

Williams concludes "The Triumph of Human Empire" by observing that Verne, Morris, and Stevenson all seemed to experience technological change not as a clean break from the past, but as a long-term "rolling apocalypse" in which their cherished worlds were erased over time.

"I think this shows two coexisting visions of history," Williams says. "One is history as progress, but there is also this other vision of history as rolling apocalypse. A lot of us are living with that ambiguity today, which is a very ambivalent moment in . You can't just say [changes] are good or bad—but we need to understand their complexity."

This means, Williams says, that we should not regard the tales of Verne, Morris, and Stevenson as sheer escapism; that escapism is telling us something about their times.

"In each of their cases, their personal reinventions were as writers, too," Williams observes. "It just shows how important writing is. Part of the subtext of the book is to take art seriously. That's the first place to go to figure out what's going on in the world."

Explore further: Jules Verne, desperado?

Related Stories

Jules Verne, desperado?

December 15, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Jules Verne (1828-1905) is often remembered as a 19th-century founder of science fiction, whose enthusiasm for invention fills his books — from the spacecraft in From the Earth to the Moon (1865) to the ...

Paralysed with fear: The story of polio

June 19, 2013

Thanks to vaccination, polio has been pushed to the brink of extinction – but can we finish the job? This is one of the big questions which a Bristol academic addresses in his new book, published next week.

Mutations that matter

September 27, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—Identifying the genetic source of a specific trait can be a little like finding a needle in a field full of haystacks. University of Dayton biologist Thomas Williams is working to shrink the number of haystacks.

Recommended for you

Plague likely a Stone Age arrival to central Europe

November 22, 2017

A team of researchers led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has sequenced the first six European genomes of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis dating from the Late Neolithic ...

How to cut your lawn for grasshoppers

November 22, 2017

Picture a grasshopper landing randomly on a lawn of fixed area. If it then jumps a certain distance in a random direction, what shape should the lawn be to maximise the chance that the grasshopper stays on the lawn after ...

Ancient barley took high road to China

November 21, 2017

First domesticated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, wheat and barley took vastly different routes to China, with barley switching from a winter to both a winter and summer crop during a thousand-year ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Oct 18, 2013
In 1890, living in Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson sent a letter to his fellow writer Henry James, explaining a momentous decision on his part: Disillusioned with a rapidly changing, technologically driven world, Stevenson intended to remain in "exile" on the island, never to return to his native Britain.

Read more at: http://phys.org/n...html#jCp

One need not wonder.....

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.