Thomas Eakins and Robert Frost: To Be a Natural Man in a Man-Made World

By Wakefield, Richard | The Midwest Quarterly, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Thomas Eakins and Robert Frost: To Be a Natural Man in a Man-Made World


Wakefield, Richard, The Midwest Quarterly


THE PAINTINGS OF Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and the poems of Robert Frost (1874-1963) tell us what American men gained and lost in the period of industrialization between the Civil War and World War I. Four works in particular show us how the specialization and self-consciousness of the man-made world turned men from nature, both within and without.

In the span of the fifty years in which these works were created, men became specialists, participants in a fragmented world, and even a man who remained on the farm had to specialize in a single crop for cash rather than on a variety of crops for subsistence. A man in the city got a living by doing one thing over and over because he was told to do it, not because the task itself meant anything to him. Men lost the feeling that their work was part of themselves, expressive of themselves; they lost the work that corresponded to an inner, natural need. They felt no innate connection with their new work, and they performed it at pace prescribed by someone else. Women would feel the alienated, mechanical pace of life, of course, but at second-hand, through their fathers, husbands, brothers. Their full induction into the world of timeclocks lay decades in the future.

Looking back to an earlier time, men thought they saw a now-vanished kinship with nature, a lost world where the rhythm of life came from within and found a matching rhythm in nature: days and seasons, not hours and weeks; the beat of the heart, not the clanking of a machine. No doubt the nostalgic art, literature, music, and drama that pervaded popular culture had less to do with remembering than with forgetting the reality of the past, yet it arose in response to a sense of loss. Men weighted their present dissatisfactions more heavily than the old discomforts, and while few or none would have returned, they chafed at their new regimentation and yearned for something different.

Men became newly self-conscious as well. Specialization is ignorance of all the skills that lie outside the specialty, so the wheelwright judged the apothecary on appearance, as he was judged in turn. Reputation still mattered, but a society that is mobile geographically and economically is a society of strangers. In taking another's appearance as substance, a man knew his own would likewise be taken as substance.

The new specialization and self-consciousness profoundly changed the way life felt. A man faced the contradictory tasks of standing out and fitting in. Where his father and his grandfathers had labored with and against nature, he now labored in a man-made world in which the very rhythm of his work was artificial. He had to conform to that artificial pace--be in the right place at the right time, do his work in such a way as to fit seamlessly into a process involving many other men. Even on the farm, which was likely to be mortgaged, a man was beholden to other men, as Hamlin Garland's story "Under the Lion's Paw" dramatized in 1889, as a couple labor to meet their mortgage payments:

   Haskins worked like a fiend, and his wife, like the heroic woman that she
   was, bore also uncomplainingly the most terrible burdens. They rose early
   and toiled without intermission till the darkness fell on the plain, then
   tumbled into bed, every bond and muscle aching with fatigue, to rise with
   the sun next morning to the same round of the same ferocity of labor. (231)

Leaving the land became more attractive, but in moving into the world of business a man chose among roles that came ready-made, as his clothes did, but that often didn't fit as well. "The Egg," by Sherwood Anderson, is about such a choice. "My father was, I am sure, intended by nature to be a cheerful, kindly man," the story begins, and then:

   It was in the spring of his thirty-fifth year that father married mother,
   then a country school-teacher, and in the following spring I came wriggling
   and crying into the world. … 

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