Thoughts for a darkened century Author's words from past ring eerily true in present.

August 25, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff

I was wondering recently if history would say the 20th century stumbled backward as much as it stepped forward.

It was vacation-time musing in Maine, and, it turned out, unoriginal. In a used bookstore, I found a little brown book published in 1886 by a forgotten Englishman, Frederic Harrison, who pondered the same things about his 19th century.

"What do we all gain if in covering our land with factories and steam engines," he asked, "we are covering it also with want and wretchedness?"

Our 20th century started with Teddy Roosevelt and ends with Madonna. It produced airplanes, jets, computers, the Internet, space travel, sulfa and other miracle drugs, vitamins, the end of smallpox and polio, the spread of democracy and rights, radio, television, radar, jazz, rock 'n' roll, ballpoint pens and nuclear power.

It produced two world wars and many other armed conflicts, the Holocaust and other genocides, the Depression, the population explosion, massive drug addiction, fatherless families, the growing gap between rich and poor, worldwide pollution, the death of many species, the invention and use of nuclear weapons, the birth of AIDS and other diseases.

Harrison (1831-1923) was a Victorian author who wrote longer than Queen Victoria reigned (64 years) and dropped from sight far quicker. His century opened with Napoleon and ended with Oscar Wilde.

The 19th century in the Western World was partly shaped by revolutions, imperialism, the explosion of modern industry and provocative ideas like the Darwinian theory of evolution. It gave birth to technological marvels like Bessemer steel, sewing machines, electric telegraph, steam railroads, telephones, electric lights, phonographs, steamships, ether, photography, electric motors, dynamite, machine guns, rubber tires and typewriters.

The bookstore in Maine discarded Harrison in a "free books" box by the door. I took his boring title, "The Choice of Books and Other Literary Pieces", because the volume was well-preserved and felt good. It was made of 19th-century rags, rather than 20th-century acid.

Harrison's last chapter caught the eye: "A Few Words About the 19th Century."

His words were eerie in their similarity to those of observers of other centuries.

"Surely no century in all human history was ever so much praised to its face for its wonderful achievements, its wealth and its power, its unparalleled ingenuity and its miraculous capacity for making itself comfortable and generally enjoying life. ... What have we done to deserve this perpetual cataract of congratulations?"

Very little, Harrison thought, certainly less than claimed by newspapers and politicians.

"Let us hail the triumphs of steam and electricity and gas and iron, the railways, the commerce, the industry, the appliances and conveniences of our age. They are all destined to do good service to humanity. But still it is worth asking if the good they do is quite so vast, quite so unmixed, quite so immediate as the chamberlains and the chorus (of the adoring press) make out in their perpetual cantata to the nineteenth century?

"Are we so vastly, so enormously the wiser, the nobler, the happier? Is the advance in real civilization at all to be compared to the incredible leaps and bounds of material improvement?

"What is the use of electric lamps and telephones and telegraphs and newspapers by millions, letters by billions, if seamstresses stitching their fingers to the bone can hardly earn fourpence by making a shirt and many a man and woman is glad of a shilling for twelve hours' work?"

Who was this Harrison chap?

A reference volume, "British Authors of the Nineteenth Century," reports he was critic, historian, essayist and "a strange combination" of republican, free-thinker, classicist and Positivist whose "pragmatic philosophy was based on science and non-theological ethics."

But mainly, he wrote like crazy. Harrison the writer turned on the spigot and, for decades, out poured rivers of books, essays, speeches on all the world's topics, from "Byzantine History in the Early Middle Ages" to "The German Peril" urging England to war in 1914.

He sensed the comic about himself. An adoring fan told him he had read all of Harrison's books and Harrison said, "That is impossible. I couldn't read all of them myself."

The reference work noted, "He was a painfully voluminous writer during most of his 91 years and very little of his work is likely to survive."

Somehow this book did. Good. The book whose chapter questioned the cost of technological and industrial advances was read at least nine separate times in the Depression years by users of the Mercantile Library of Philadelphia. Interestingly, that institution served the business community before being temporarily closed six years ago because of asbestos problems.

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