Fueling Creativity

A new approach to literary criticism looks at the history of energy sources. Scott McLemee checks its mileage.

June 29, 2011

In his autobiography, Henry Adams recounts the impact of visiting one part of the Great Exhibition held in Paris in 1900. A friend took Adams to the hall where the new motors were displayed. They were interesting enough, and the prospect of automobiles going 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) per hour certainly worrying to contemplate. But what really absorbed Adams’s attention was the sight of a dynamo.

For his mechanically minded friend, “the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight….” The impact on Adams, by contrast, was something like a religious experience.

Writing about himself in the third person, the historian says: “[T]o Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring….” At the cusp of the 20th century, Adams was becoming aware of new energies being summoned -- radioactivity, electromagnetism, who knows what. “He lost his arithmetic,” Adams writes, “in trying to figure out the equation between the discoveries and the economies of force.”

What part does literature play in our own efforts to reckon with “economies of force” now? In her editor’s column for the new issue of the Modern Language Association’s flagship journal PMLA, Patricia Yeager poses the question as a program for a new sort of cultural analysis. (Or a renewed sort, I suppose, if you grant that Adams was way ahead of things.)

“Instead of divvying up literary works into hundred-year intervals (or elastic variants like the long eighteenth or twentieth century),” asks Yeager, “or categories harnessing the history of ideas (Romanticism, Enlightenment), what happens if we sort texts according to the energy sources that made them possible?”

Here, the expression “energy sources” is not a metaphor for social or psychological factors, but quite literal. Following the opening reflections by Yeager, who is a professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, PMLA runs half a dozen short articles by contributors looking into the fueling of textual machines -- the role of wood and tallow in Shakespeare, for example, or that of coal in any Milton, Zola, and Orwell.

The symposium appears just as gas prices are going down – a development no poet laureate is likely to celebrate, and not just because they are bound to go back up again. The use of fuel seldom comes up, as such, as the central concern of the literary imagination. (A notable exception being Upton Sinclair, whose novels include King Coal and Oil!) References to energy are more often woven into narrative and imagery of a text, rather than foregrounded. Only through close reading do they come into focus as carrying assumptions or implications that may resonate with the more overt concerns of a literary work.

A good example is Caliban’s first line in The Tempest. When summoned by his master Prospero, he responds, with irritation: “There’s wood enough within.” (In other words, "Don't tell me to go fetch wood. I already did and you have plenty.") In a short piece called “Wooden Slavery,” Vin Nardizzi unpacks the implications of this line if we read it as part of the final period of “the age of wood” – an expression from environmental, not literary, history. The age of wood, Nardazzi says “names a swath of time that stretches from prehistory to the second half of the eighteenth century,” after which “coal generally replaced charcoal (an energy source plucked from the ashes of cone-shaped piles of lumber that had been charred) in industrial iron making and fuelwood in homes.”

While critics in the 20th century became very interested in the dynamics between Prospero and Caliban -- reading them as archetypes of the colonizer and the native -- it was also a “power” relationship in another sense. One uses a fuel source necessary for the functioning of everyday life. The other accumulates it. (Caliban’s role as wood-gatherer is also stressed in later scenes.) Furthermore, the seemingly casual references to wood take on greater significance given the energy crisis of Shakespeare’s day. “Prices for this staple good were accelerating when The Tempest was first performed,” writes Nardizzi, “and polemics describing an unremedied shortage predicted ecopolitical collapse. In a pamphlet contemporaneous with the play, Arthur Standish articulates the potential fallout: ‘no wood no Kingdome.’ ”

Apart from its role as fuel, of course, wood was necessary for building, say, theaters and ships. (But not, as you might expect, for papermaking, which mostly involved recycling old rags. It would be another two centuries before wood was used.) This naturally raises the question of how Shakespeare’s audience would have responded to the image of an island in the New World where the resource was plentiful. (A fuel for colonial desire, so to speak.) In an endnote, Nardizzi, an assistant professor of English at the University of British Columbia, mentions that he is at work on a manuscript called “Evergreen Fantasies: Shakespeare’s Theatre in the Age of Wood.”

Historicizing explicit references to fuel in a text is one way to thinking about literature and energy. Another is to consider how abundance is taken for granted. In her column, Yeager notes that she became interested in the topic while reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, that classic American novel of picaresque cross-country adventure in the age of big cars and low gas mileage.

Thirty years since reading it, my recollection is that Kerouac’s characters were preoccupied with getting high and getting laid, rather than with getting a fill-up. Fuel, at least, was easy to come by. This is one of many things about the book that make it look less like a challenge to the postwar American cultural mainstream than its hepped-up underside. “Certainly Kerouac’s characters are gasoholics,” writes Yeager. “Oil dependency created their world; each city, suburb, truck stop, and bite of pie depends on Standard Oil, Shell, Mobilgas, or Phillips 66.”

But the novel also contains images of plentiful resources turning into pollution, as when Kerouac’s narrator evokes “the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent; somewhere far across [which], gloomy, crazy New York was throwing up its cloud of dust and brown steam.” Encountering an abandoned filling station while on an empty tank is no source of wild kicks. “Is there an energy unconscious at work in this text?” the critic asks. “Are the gas station’s empty pumps a premonitory metaphor for resource anxiety….[o]r is an empty gas station just am empty gas station -- the halted traveler’s bad luck, the writer’s reality effect?”

At the end of her column, Yeager calls for essays and proposals for “a book on literature, energy, and the ways in which thinking about energy sources might transform our notions of literary periods.” She is editing with Imre Szeman, a professor of English and film studies at the University of Alberta. The symposium in PMLA is intended as something of a catalyst.

The whole enterprise intrigued me -- for one, as a reader of Henry Adams, as well as his brother Brooks Adams, who developed his own distinctive analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations as a matter of the concentration and diffusion of energy. It also seems in keeping with the spirit of the American thinker Kenneth Burke (a pioneer of ecocriticism) who defined literature as one form of “equipment for living.” I prefer to think of literary texts as motors plugged into a power grid, rather than as “monuments of unaging intellect.”

Unable to reach Yeager after reading the symposium, I did have a discussion by e-mail with Szeman. They don’t have a publisher for the book lined up, but he doesn’t seem unduly worried about finding one.

The main thing I wondered was how serious they were about using energy sources as a basis for cultural periodization. It might work as an initial, more or less heuristic approach to rethinking how we look at the embeddedness of the literary imagination in society. One book on Shakespeare and the Age of Wood might be interesting, but two would probably represent an unfortunate trend.

For some reason, I kept imagining future sessions at the MLA convention full of people like you sometimes run into at the Library of Congress snack bar -- the ones clutching notebooks full of evidence that the Cold War was about the control of potassium deposits. Critical pluralism is a fine thing, but you do worry sometimes.

“I think we're more interested in the thematization of energy in literature and culture than in periodization,” wrote Szeman in reply. “When we use centuries, periods defined by monarchies, national divisions, etc., we make a claim on what we imagine organizes and shapes cultural expression. Our question: if, in the last instance, the kinds of forms of energy to which human communities have access shape cultural expression, and if our literary analysis was therefore organized around energy, how would this change how (and why) we analyze literary expression?”

Reading the spontaneous human combustion of Mr. Krook in Bleak House as part of the Age of Tallow -- as Laurie Shannon does in her PMLA essay -- would be an example of what Szeman calls “a thought-experiment on an alternate way of organizing literary analysis in order to challenge existing presumptions about periods and to point to what might be missing in the (still) accepted temporal and spatial taxonomies.”

The whole enterprise is also a byproduct of a kind of reversal. Henry Adams strained to imagine the incredible expansion of the “economies of force” about to overtake the world. He could hardly foresee the growth of appetite for that energy -- let alone, as we must, the prospect of exhausting it.

I am writing this article, and you are reading it, on streams of electricity. Most of us think about electricity only when the circuit goes dead. The rest of the time, it is an invisible necessity -- increasingly presupposed by literary culture itself, at least in what is sometimes called the world’s “overdeveloped” economies. And in a way, this may be the next step for the critical project of analyzing literature’s “energy unconscious”: thinking about what happens to reading when the written word itself depends on raw power.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top