Narratives and Spaces: Technology and the Construction of American Culture. – Review

Narratives and Spaces: Technology and the Construction of American Culture. – Review – book review

Linda Biggs

Narratives and Spaces: Technology and the Construction of American Culture. By David E. Nye. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv, 224. $17.50.)

The essays collected here offer an intriguing look at technology and the American landscape. In this volume, the author combines his American Studies approach to history of technology with a kind of gentle deconstructionism to tell ten stories: the creation of Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon as tourist sites, electricity as the real pioneer that opened the American West, a meditation on a rural household through photography, four different perspectives of New Deal electrification, energy narratives from the nineteenth century to the present, E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair as autobiography, electricity at world’s fairs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Europe at the 1939 World’s Fair, the perceptions of the Apollo space program, and the computer in society. It is an impressive list.

The first two essays strike this reviewer as pieces that might become hallmarks of social and cultural history of technology. “Constructing Nature: Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon” looks at those two magnificent natural sites and their history as tourist destinations and at public opinion as influenced by technology. Railroad promoters encouraged sightseeing in several ways. They offered low fares to certain destinations and cultivated an interest in those sites by distributing calendars with views of the cities and scenery along their lines. David Nye describes the growing importance of the “distinct view-points” in the appreciation of the landscape. Railroad travel changed the way people saw the landscape by eliminating the small-scale local features, “thus, railroad travel inculcated a taste for the picturesque view” (15). Niagara Falls was converted into a series of viewpoints that became known to the public through photography. Eventually travelers sought the falls, not for the entire experience, but to see specific views. The Grand Canyon became a tourist attraction in much the same way, though decades later than Niagara.

The second essay, “Electrifying the West: 1880-1940” is this reviewer’s favorite. Here, Nye destroys the myth of the rugged pioneer and cowboy developing the West with pure American grit. Instead, modern technologies (the railroad and electricity) preceded almost all white settlement, which leads Nye to the conclusion that “electricity and the railroad are more useful to the understanding of the region’s history than the Turner thesis” (26). A persuasive example is the mining industry, which drew more people than the promise of open land. Western mines, Nye tells us, were quick to import new technology from the East. In 1879, a year and a half before Edison demonstrated the incandescent light, electric arc lighting was installed in a mine in Nevada and mines adopted electric power long before it was used in eastern factories. Western cities showed similar readiness to electrify; San Francisco had one of the first electrical utilities in the world and the first extensive cable-car system. Finally, he overturns the belief that agriculture made the West; instead, he argues that “the western plow followed eastern technology” (36).

These essays were written over the course of ten years and published in European journals. As in any collection of essays written over a long time period and for different purposes, the pieces form a somewhat awkward whole. The introduction and conclusion argue for consistency of theme in the essays, but the consistency argument and the range of other topics (technological determinism, post-modernism, deconstruction, Hayden White’s theory of narrative, and more) are unsatisfying and not up to Nye’s usual clear style. These are minor criticisms; this is a book well worth reading. American historians unfamiliar with some of these themes will find this a good introduction to history of technology. Historians of technology will find it one more of Nye’s accomplishments.

Linda Biggs Auburn University

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