The loss of innocence: 1880-1914
Brian Lee and Robert Reinders
Forces of change: The machine and the city
Innocence, it could be argued, is a state of mind which prefigures dual feelings of loss and guilt. Thus childhood is a period of innocence; to become adult is to sin and lose innocence. Primitives are often considered innocents dwelling in a pre-lapsarian Eden close to the divinity of Nature, but Western man with his sense of collective guilt can only yearn for and never attain the innocence of the primitive. There is, however, another sense of loss of innocence that arises in many people when the values, mores, even physical qualities of the lives they have inherited and take for granted appear to collapse in a world undergoing change with a rapidity that to many signifies chaos and catastrophe. The thirty-seven years after 1880 produced deep changes in the quality of American life which seriously tested older value systems and behavioural patterns. These changes - chiefly associated with industrialization and urbanization - required new disciplines, new goals and a new kind of consciousness from a predominantly rural folk. The value system based on the existential realities of an agrarian society had to be adapted and partly transformed to meet the new realities. As relations between people and their surroundings altered, new methods of description and new forms of observation had to be devised. Of course, old ways of living, thinking and seeing persisted, or at best were reluctantly accepted, and to some the new times were times of crisis and despair. But after 1900 there are indications that some elements in American society saw in the new urban-industrial structures the potential for a society which was logically ordered and humanely satisfying. If one speaks of a loss of innocence in this period it may be measured - assuming one can quantify a feeling as tenuous as innocence - in selected statistics which, underneath the cold numbers and percentages, reveal a society undergoing a process of industrialization and urbanization unprecedented in American history. If, in Wilbur Cash's words, `Men who, as children, had heard the war-whoops of the Cherokee in the Carolina backwoods lived to hear the guns at Vicksburg', then the teenage Illinois soldier who faced Confederate artillery at Chancellorsville would live to see the miracle of man's flight, and his Cook County corn fields consumed by the steel furnaces, stockyards and apartment houses of Chicago, and A midnight hounded by the bright carnival of the
boulevards and the dark girders of the El.
Where once the marshland came to flower.
Where once the deer came down to water.1
Industry had begun in America long before 1880, and technological principles had been governing many areas of American society from well before the Civil War - a war that further accelerated industrialization and commerce, and was followed by a period of massive entrepreneurial activity. Yet the presence of the open frontier still helped sustain an image of a rural, agrarian, unmechanical America. However, once the Depression of the 1870s had ended, the United States entered on a period of unprecedented technological expansion. The indices of growth from the end of the 1870s to the advent of the Great War were unparalleled. Gross national production (in five-year averages) far outstripped population increases, and more than tripled between 1882-86 ($11.3 billion) and 1912-16 ($38.9 billion).2 Capital in manufacturing industries (in 1929 dollars) rose from 2.7 billion in 1879 to 20.8 billion in 1914. The goods turned out by industry increased at the same level: the index of manufacturing production (1899 = 100) rose from 42 in 1880 to 192 in 1914. America was now competing with the great industrial nations, Britain and Germany, and was outstripping both combined. The result was a change in the landscape, a change in the direction of American energy, and a change in consciousness....
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