Crash! Bang! Reflect

English professor Nancy Bentley probes the artistic dimensions of shock and awe.
February 1, 2010

In September of 1896, more than 40,000 people came to Waco, Texas, to watch a new kind of public entertainment: the full-throttled, head-on collision of two steam locomotives. (The sensation was augmented by flying chunks of metal from exploding boilers that killed three spectators.) The staged train wreck drew crowds far greater than the audiences that typically go to libraries, museums and concert halls. Writers and intellectuals were naturally critical of the trend and the poor taste exhibited by the masses.

"But what exactly was the spectacle of a train wreck if not culture?" asks English Professor Nancy Bentley in her new book Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture, 1870 – 1920. "Authorities could not count a railway crash as a species of art, but they knew a rival when they saw one."

As a literary scholar, Bentley explores the role of the imagination as an active component of the social realm. She also teaches and publishes in the areas of law and literature, African-American literature and modern social theory. Her books include The Ethnography of Manners and High Literary Forms and Mass Culture, which was published as volume three of the Cambridge History of American Literature. She is completing another study titled Kinship and Wayward Affiliation in the American Novel, 1850-1913.

"But what exactly was the spectacle of a train wreck if not culture?" – Nancy Bentley

High-speed train wrecks and car crashes were featured regularly in cinematic shorts by 1905. Americans were flocking to all kinds of thrilling amusements and reading scintillating dime novels and racy tabloids in growing numbers. "Mass culture seemed to offer only novelty and sensation rather than reflection," Bentley says. "It valued profit over refinement or learning. And the American population was far more interested in these new kinds of mass entertainment than in serious literature." In Frantic Panoramas, she looks at how American literary culture responded to the ascendancy of popular taste.

Bentley discovers that traditional literary authors came to recognize that mass culture had somehow tapped into "new kinds of human experience." These more "serious" writers, even while criticizing low- and middle-brow consumer culture, nevertheless borrowed from its "energies of shock and speed" for their literary work. "Highbrow writers like Henry James, Edith Wharton and W.E.B. DuBois started to incorporate images such as Wild West shows, disasters and train wrecks into their works," Bentley says. "Often this very cerebral literature shared a surprising resemblance to the 'aesthetics of astonishment' that characterized vaudeville and tabloid news. They discovered that mass culture might actually offer clues and insights about modern society that literary culture had not yet detected."

If the loss of influence by literary culture was a crisis, Bentley argues, it was also an opportunity for literary artists to revitalize the art forms they drew on as well as their understanding of modern society beyond the high and low divide.

"Today our digital culture seems to be pushing print culture to the margins," Bentley observes. "The history I examine suggests that digital culture could be an opportunity for literature: digital literacy still relies on language and reading practices, so it might well generate new reading habits and exciting literary forms. And the new literature might circulate far more widely. But will these new reading practices still be critical, still a means of rational reflection? That is a lot harder to predict, because our whole idea of what 'critical' thinking is has been defined in and through a world created by print."