Mechanization, Materialism, and Modernism in Faulkner's Flags in the Dust

By Davis, David A. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Mechanization, Materialism, and Modernism in Faulkner's Flags in the Dust


Davis, David A., The Mississippi Quarterly


AFTER WORLD WAR I, THE FACTORIES THAT HAD PRODUCED TANKS AND machine guns for the trenches of Europe began producing tractors and cultivators for the farms of the United States. These advances in mechanical technology between World War I and World War II led to a protracted revolution in the Southern economy. Clarence Cason in 90[degrees] in the Shade (1935) describes the South during this period as "the machine's last frontier," a place trapped between manual agriculture and mechanical agriculture and struggling either to discover or to retain its identity as a region (133). In spite of the laments of the Southern Agrarians in I'll Take My Stand (1930), mechanization infiltrated the South and disrupted the region's traditional way of life. The process of adapting to mechanical technology destabilized Southern economic practices, and led to major shifts in the region's culture that culminated in the emergence of Southern modernism. William Faulkner's first novel set in Jefferson, Mississippi, Flags in the Dust (1973), (1) by dramatizing the South's post-World War I transition from pre-mechanized agriculture to agricultural mechanization demonstrates the materialization of modernism in the South.

Scholars generally agree both that between World War I and World War II modernism emerged in the literature of the US South and that advances in mechanical technology changed many aspects of modern American life, but not many scholars see the two developments as directly related. In The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945, for example, Daniel Joseph Singal describes the emergence of modernism in the South as the result of a disintegrating world view: where Victorian Southerners saw unity, modernist Southerners saw fragmentation (5-7). His perspective, which treats modernism as an intellectual phenomenon, is fairly typical of most treatments of Southern modernism. (2) There are, however, some critical works that investigate the connection between mechanization and American modernism. In Shitting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America, Cecelia Tichi explores the relationship between mechanization and modernist aesthetics, but she does not explicitly argue for a causal connection between mechanization and modernism. In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal, Leo Marx examines the tension between images of nature and images of machines in American literature. He argues that American writers have consistently invoked the image of the pastoral--a landscape of humans working in harmony with nature--as symbolic of America, but he recognizes that mechanization makes that form of symbolism problematic for modernist writers, who, Marx explains, "acknowledge the power of a counterforce, a machine or some other symbol of the forces which have stripped the old ideal of most, if not all, of its meaning" (362-63). Mechanization, in other words, is antithetical to the pastoral image of America, so, when modernist writers portray mechanization, they figuratively represent a social revolution in America, a revolution much more prominent in the agricultural South and Midwest than in the relatively industrial Northeast. Marx, I think, makes an excellent point when he describes the antagonism between pastoral and mechanical, but he uses these terms to describe nationalist metaphors. The terms gain more traction when they refer to economic systems but, in order for that to be the case, a causal link between mechanization and modernism must be established.

In Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture, Marvin Harris, a cultural anthropologist influenced by Karl Marx, proposes the theory of infrastructural determinism, which demonstrates a link between mechanization and modernism. (3) Building on a common set of anthropological principles, he defines three sociocultural categories: infrastructure, structure, and superstructure. Infrastructure refers to material objects that influence human relationships, such as technology and physical environment; structure refers to human relationships based on intangible factors, such as family, community, or nationality; and superstructure refers to human relationships based on abstractions, such as art, science, and other forms of intellectual production. …

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