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«All Scientific Stuff: Science, Expertise, and Everyday Reality in 1926 by Brian S. Matzke A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»

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All Scientific Stuff:

Science, Expertise, and Everyday Reality in 1926


Brian S. Matzke

A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

(English Language and Literature)

in The University of Michigan

Doctoral Committee:

Professor Eric S. Rabkin, Chair

Professor John S. Carson

Professor June M. Howard

Professor Alan M. Wald

Copyright © Brian S. Matzke

Dedication To my parents, Charles Matzke and Janice Beecher, who taught me to read, to write, to think, and to question.

ii Acknowledgements Many scholars have mentored and advised me over the years, and I am grateful to all of them for the insights that they have provided and the knowledge that they have imparted. This project began as a paper in John Whittier-Ferguson’s graduate seminar on modernism, and from that beginning, numerous professors’ influences have shaped this book. I would like to thank George Bornstein, John Carson, Gregg Crane, Paul Edwards, Gabrielle Hecht, June Howard, Steve Jackson, Howard Markel, Susan Parrish, Eric Rabkin, Paddy Scannell, Derek Vaillant, Alan Wald, and Patricia Yaeger.

In addition to the faculty at the University of Michigan, I received tremendous insights and support from my colleagues both at Michigan and other institutions. Their comments on drafts and their recommendations at every stage of the writing process were invaluable to me. I am grateful to Alex Beringer, Geremy Carnes, MicKenzie Fasteland, Molly Hatcher, Korey Jackson, Chung-Hao Ku, Konstantina Karageorgos, Corinne Martin, Karen McConnell, Nathaniel Mills, Daniel Mintz, and Michael Tondre.

Some ideas from the chapter on Amazing Stories have their basis in my work with the Genre Evolution Project, and I am thankful to the members of the project for their inspiration, in particular, Eric Rabkin, Carl Simon, Rebecca Adams, Zach Wright, Meg Hixon, and Dayna Smith. While working on the chapter on Black Mask, the publisher Keith Alan Deutsch provided valuable insights into the history of the magazine, while librarian Octavio Olvera helped me with my research into their archives at UCLA, and Chelsea Weathers helped me obtain Dashiell iii Hammett’s letter to the magazine from the Harry Ransom Center. CurtisMatzke helped me assemble the images. I am thankful to all of them.

I am deeply grateful to Paula Teichholtz for her friendship, intelligence, and spirit.

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From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) onward, a widespread view has been of science as cold and isolating and scientists as potentially “mad.” This is one of the oldest stories

we tell ourselves about science. But if we think more about it, other narratives come to mind:

myths of inventors tinkering in their garages, hoping to strike it rich; mysteries in which forensic analysts catch murderers; medical dramas featuring hard-working doctors. The contrast between Frankenstein and these stories is not only between a vision of science as bad and a vision of science as good, but also between a vision of science as extraordinary and a vision of science as ordinary.

Victor Frankenstein’s scientific work is both bad and extraordinary, and the novel suggests that those two features are correlated, but they need not be. When Lord Byron praises Sir Isaac Newton as “the sole mortal who could grapple, / Since Adam—with a fall—or with an apple” he presents an image of the scientist as superhero that is as old as the image of the mad scientist. Conversely, when, on the TV show Breaking Bad, the chemist Walter White becomes a murderous drug dealer, his descent is instigated by a desire to provide for his family, not by the corrupting or alienating influence of his scientific education. These two features—the relative goodness of a scientist and the relative ordinariness of scientific practice—do not parallel one another; rather, they are orthogonal variables in the construction of stories about science.

Many cultural critics have commented on the dual visions of science as bad and science as good,1 but the contrast between conceptions of science as extraordinary and science as

–  –  –

emerged over time in the popular imagination, but the former gained prominence earlier than the latter, at a time when science itself was relatively young and alien. Popular conceptions of everyday science came to prominence more gradually and more recently. Examples of texts that evince this conception can be found in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and around 1926 it is clearly visible in several different literary contexts at once. This is not to say that 1926 is a watershed, but rather that the year epitomizes the movement of science into everyday life in the popular imagination. By examining how popular conceptions of science emerged at this time, we can understand explicitly the unspoken but ubiquitous notions of science that run throughout our culture today.

Stories of everyday science gained popularity because more and more nonscientists became aware of how science was relevant to them. Many new technologies helped shape America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—electric lights and wireless radios, Model T’s and telephones, aspirins and airplanes, mimeographs and mustard gas. These technologies, explicitly framed as products of science, transformed work, leisure, and warfare.

At the same time, developments in evolutionary biology, medicine, and the social sciences meant that humans could increasingly be objects of scientific study. More and more aspects of people’s lives could be understood scientifically, from how they worked to how they dreamed to how they had sex. By 1926, even people with little scientific expertise had a strong appreciation for the significant degree to which science helped construct the material reality of their everyday lives as well as their concept of that reality. And with that appreciation came new ways of being in and talking about the world. This book explores key texts that reveal how those ways grew to be pervasive in our culture.

–  –  –

Figure 4. Covers of Black Mask, (clockwise from top left) August 1925, November 111 1925, February 1926, April 1925.

Artist unknown.

Figure 5. Illustration of Sherlock Holmes accompanying A Study in Scarlet, originally 112 published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in November 1987, by D.

H. Friston.

Figure 6. Advertisement for blank cartridge pistol in Black Mask, February 1929.

114 Figure 7. Advertisement for Earle Liederman’s “Muscular Development” in Black 148 Mask, February 1929.

Figure 8. Advertisement for Coyne Electrical School in Black Mask, February 1929.


–  –  –

This dissertation explores a key period in the development of science as an everyday thing as reflected in the important cultures of letters containing the pulp magazines Amazing Stories and Black Mask and the novel Arrowsmith, respectively science fiction, hardboiled detective fiction, and the realist novel. These genres’ cultural (re)formation during this period reflects contesting claims as to what constitutes realism and the role of science in realistic fiction and in everyday life. These cultures can be understood as a dialectic, with Amazing Stories implying that science can improve everyday reality; Black Mask implying that science is insufficient to reliably understand everyday reality; and Arrowsmith problematizing the competing visions of science in everyday reality. Analyzing each of these works in the context of the others shows that realism, the everyday, and scientific expertise are all variable concepts that take on different meanings in different cultural contexts.

Amazing Stories names and crystalizes science fiction, the low culture genre that, according to the magazine’s vision, underscores the relevance of scientific discoveries to readers’ everyday lives. The magazine encourages readers to familiarize themselves with science as an avenue for individual and social betterment.

Black Mask provides a contrasting, hardboiled vision of science’s role in everyday life, portraying scientific detection, both in fiction and in reality, as an uncertain representation of an everyday reality that science is insufficient to handle. The hardboiled detective is a nonexpert who resists scientific authority as opposed to embracing it as do the nonexperts in science fiction.

–  –  –

as a component of everyday life, depicts the life and career of a medical-doctor-turned-researchscientist in such a way as to question the norms and institutions by which expert authority is constructed. Lewis clarifies the cultural importance of this skepticism in his letter rejecting the Pulitzer Prize. In this respect, the novel encompasses both sides of the dialectic represented by the magazines, venerating the possibility of advancement through scientific discovery while also emphasizing the importance of placing critical pressure on expert authority.

–  –  –

This book is about how science as a way of thinking and understanding the world became available in everyday life. The chapters in this book take as their starting points three events that took place in the year 1926. On March 10, Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of Amazing Stories, the first magazine specializing in “scientifiction,” later redubbed science fiction. On April 23, Sinclair Lewis received the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, Arrowsmith, the first realist novel to feature a scientist as a protagonist (Lewis declined the prize). And in October, Joseph T.

Shaw took over as the editor of Black Mask and proceeded to transform it into a magazine specializing in hardboiled detective stories, in contrast to the “scientific” detective stories that had been popular at the time. These contemporaneous events signal a change in how popular fiction depicted science. This is not to say that 1926 marked the beginning of a new era the way that Ezra Pound asserted that the publications of Ulysses and The Wasteland in 1922 marked the beginning of a new era. Gernsback, Lewis, and Shaw all made claims to that effect, but a history of cultural attitudes about science cannot be divided up quite so discretely. Consequently, my purpose here is not “reading 1926” in the style of Michael North’s Reading 1922. North called 1922 a “generational dividing line” and a “watershed” (4, 173), but the view of science that I am analyzing here trickled out in the works of earlier generations. 1926 is not a watershed, but it is a breaking dam, a time when a once uncommon perspective became pervasive. This book starts with the events of 1926 so as to look both forward and backward in time and interpret different literary-cultural approaches to science in the lives of ordinary readers and ordinary Americans.

The second chapter focuses on Amazing Stories and considers early science fiction’s efforts to familiarize readers with the workings of science. The third chapter focuses on Black Mask and analyzes hardboiled detective fiction’s critiques of forensic science. The fourth chapter focuses on Arrowsmith and examines how Lewis explores the virtues and limitations of an extended understanding of the scientific concept of an experimental “control.” But first this chapter will provide some background information on how literature has depicted science and on the key concepts that are at play in that depiction. This chapter is divided

into sections:

The Great Gatsby serves as a case study that suggests how science was perceived by • well-off nonscientists in the 1920s.

The early history of how literature depicted science is marked by two dominant • narratives, the tragic and the utopian, which over time developed into “romantic” or “ivory tower” images of science. These early stories almost all share a sense that science is uncommon or extraordinary in one way or another.

Then, beginning in the late nineteenth century, there emerged a sense that science could • be an everyday thing—something relevant and accessible to anyone at any time.

Of course, if science is relevant and accessible to anyone at any time, that has • ramifications for the concept of expertise. Generally speaking, there are four ways in which a character can be construed vis-à-vis scientific expertise: as a scientific expert, a lay expert, an expert in a related field, or a nonexpert.

As awareness of scientific discoveries and innovations spread, they alter popular • understanding of reality. This has consequences for literary realism/vraisemblance.

Different genres make different appeals to vraisemblance, and individual works may • participate in multiple genres. In the 1920s, different but interconnected cultures of letters coalesced around the popular genres that were emerging in magazines and novels

–  –  –

In a context where science helps construct the material and conceptual reality of everyday life, how does an understanding of science function as a form of cultural capital? What makes someone a scientific expert in contexts where non-experts have a stake in scientific practice?

How do the particular arenas in which scientific knowledge is engaged shape the contest for scientific authority? The magazines and novels under investigation here depict experiences and activities that were familiar components of contemporary readers’ everyday reality—the invention and popularization of new technologies, the investigation of crime, the treatment of illness—but they do so with a heightened sense that these experiences and activities are informed by modern science. These works all imply that science is a significant component of everyday reality, and this role has consequences both for how we understand science and for how we understand everyday reality.

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