Do Machines Make History? Technological Determinism in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Man That Was Used Up’

Citation metadata

Author: Klaus Benesch
Editor: Catherine C. DiMercurio
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 261. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,241 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

[(essay date 1998) In the following essay, Benesch argues that “The Man That Was Used Up” is not only an anti-Jacksonian lampoon but also an exposé of history as a construction that is controlled and artificial, much like the general’s body.]

The inventions in mechanic arts, the discoveries in natural philosophy, navigation, and commerce, and the advancement of civilization and humanity, have occasioned changes in the condition of the world and the human character which would have astonished the most refined nations of antiquity.(John Adams)1

If history, as numerous postmodern critics and historians have repeatedly argued, is socially constructed, then we are hard pressed to admit that one of the basic factors of that process of construction is closely related to myth. Myths, as Richard Slotkin has pointed out, can be described as stories or narratives “that have acquired through usage over many generations a symbolizing function central to the culture of the society that produces them.” Geared to a nation’s political, cultural and socio-psychological needs, these narratives, according to Slotkin, produce and, at the same time, reinforce existing “archetypical patterns of growth and decay, salvation and damnation, death and rebirth” (Slotkin, 1986, 70). What is more, as fictionalization of systems of beliefs, values, and institutional power relations they tend to historicize the ideological foundations of cultural behavior thus providing the necessary continuity for the establishment of what we call national identity.

One of the most powerful myths pertinent to the construction of American national identity is the notion that technology represents progress and that the advancement of the sciences and their subsequent practical application correspond to an advancement in history.2 As historians have noted, the coupling of technology and political idealizations of the Republic is in fact almost as old as American society itself.3 For the Founding Fathers, though apprehensive of the negative impact of the machine on communal life (especially in regard to urbanization and the establishment of an impoverished, morally loose proletariat), technological expertise was essential not only as a means to serve the needs of the individual citizen but to promote the Republic’s higher humanitarian goals. Even Jefferson, who promulgated in his Notes on Virginia (1785) the ideal of a pastoral America that would have no need for the corrupt practices inherent in large-scale, industrial production, eventually conceded the importance of technology as a major ingredient of historical progress.4 To Robert Fulton, who had just successfully invented a new steamboat, he wrote in 1810: “I am not afraid of new inventions or improvements, nor bigoted to the practices of our forefathers. It is that bigotry which keeps the Indians in a state of barbarism in the midst of the arts” (Meier, 21).

The negative description of Native Americans as superstitious and, therefore, out of sync with historical development is particularly revealing. In contrast to the native population, the Founding Fathers defined themselves as historical executors of the Enlightenment and they believed that the construction of the Republic and the violence associated with...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420125458