Thursday, January 8, 2009

Promethean generation (1844-53)

"There are things done today in electrical science which would have been deemed unholy by the very men who discovered electricity — who would themselves not so long before have been burned as wizards." So opines Van Helsing, in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Like other Gothic novelists of the 1844-53 cohort (e.g., Robert Louis Stevenson, honorary member Oscar Wilde), Stoker recognized that the post-Enlightenment world of the late 19th century, with its settled dichotomies — "real"/"unreal," "natural"/"supernatural," material/transcendent — was an all-too unstable one. He exploited contemporary readers' inchoate anxieties about the dialectic of Enlightenment: the over-reaching of scientists and psychologists into dangerous areas of knowledge, modern man's irrational faith that the world is systematic and subject to both reason and human control. Call such anxieties, and this generation: Promethean.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a son of the Titans, who created mankind out of clay, and was punished for stealing fire (understood metaphorically to mean: forbidden knowledge of writing, medicine, science, mathematics, agriculture; or any advanced technology) from Zeus. Because of his defiance and daring (metaphorically, for example in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound: the triumph of intellect over tyrannical church, monarchy, patriarchy), mankind is punished: In Hesiod's version of the story, Zeus requires mankind to labor in order to survive. Hesiod also claims that after Prometheus' theft of fire, Zeus sent Pandora to Prometheus' brother Epimetheus, bearing a box (the original technological "black box"?) full of "evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which give men death."

The defiance and daring of this generation, their scorn for religious, political, and sociocultural tyranny, not to mention the "proper" limits of knowledge, knew no limits. Two of the greatest Prometheans — inventors Edison and Westinghouse — made stealing the fire from the gods not a metaphor but a reality. Nietzsche declared that God was dead; Lautréamont's fictional character, Maldoror, has forsaken God and mankind. Parnell led the movement for Irish self-government; Annie Besant was a women's rights activist, and supporter of Irish and Indian self-rule. Anarchists Albert and Lucy Parsons helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies). The Decadents — in France, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and in England, Oscar Wilde — declared themselves to be "against nature." The James-Younger gang were guerrilla fighters turned outlaw; the anarchistic playwright Strindberg's first play was titled The Outlaw.

Other members of this generation — Zeus-like — reacted violently against the Promethean tendencies of the era: Tsar Alexander III was a particularly retrograde monarch. Max Nordau's Degeneration was an influential attack on so-called degenerate art, as well as a polemic against the effects of various social phenomena of the period, such as rapid urbanization. The term "comstockery," meaning "censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality", is named after a Promethean; while Carrie Nation claimed a divine ordination to promote temperance by smashing up bars.

Like the mother of modern SF, Mary Shelley, who subtitled Frankenstein (1818), "The Modern Prometheus," SF writers of the 1844-53 cohort question whether it's wise for humankind to approach ever more closely the omniscience and omnipotence of God or Nature. Their fictions mirror contemporary anxieties about whether modern science and technology, from the actual (electrical devices) to the merely possible (robots), will ultimately prove helpful or harmful.


I've identified the following 19th- and 20th-century European and American generational cohorts, each of which gave us important Radium-Age SF authors: Prometheans (1844-53) | Plutonians (1854-63) | Anarcho-Symbolists (1864-73) | Psychonauts (1874-83) | New Kids (1884-93) | Hardboileds (1894-1903) | Partisans (1904-13). I've also reinvented more recent generational cohorts: New Gods (1914-23) | Postmoderns (1924-33) | Anti-Anti-Utopians (1934-43) | Baby Boomers (1944-53) | OGXers (Original Generation X) (1954-63) | PCers (1964-73) | Netters (1974-83) | Millennials (1984-93)


Promethean SF writers:

* Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
* Bram Stoker (Dracula)
* Robert Grant (All the King's Men: A Tale of To-Morrow — with coauthors)
* Julian Hawthorne ("June, 1993," The Cosmic Courtship)
* Godfrey Sweven (Riallaro, Limanora)
* Garrett P. Serviss (A Columbus of Space, The Second Deluge)
* Anatole France ("Through the Horn or the Ivory Gate," The White Stone)
* George Haven Putnam (published Radium-Age SF; wrote The Artificial Mother: A Marital Fantasy)
* E.P. Mitchell ("The Man Without A Body," "The Ablest Man in the World," "The Story of the Deluge")


1844: Friedrich Nietzsche (Philosopher, incredibly influential on subsequent generations), Paul Verlaine (Poet, leader of symbolist poetry movement), Abdu'l-Bahá (Baha'i leader), Karl Benz (invented the automobile), Sarah Bernhardt (French theatre actress, international sensation), Anthony Comstock (New York Society for the Suppression of Vice), Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (painted dogs playing poker), Anatole France (French novelist), Henry J. Heinz (founder of Heinz Foods), Gerard Manley Hopkins (Poet), Henri Rousseau (French painter of the exotic), Aaron Montgomery Ward (founded Montgomery Ward), Cole Younger (the brains of the James-Younger Gang). Honorary members of preceding generation: TBD

1845: Tsar Alexander III (Tsar of Russia, 1881-94), Georg Cantor (Mathematician, founder of set theory), Walter Crane (British children's illustrator), Ludwig II (Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, 1864-86), Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (Physicist, discovered X-Rays)

1846: Comte de Lautréamont (Poet, Les Chants de Maldoror was a major influence on the Surrealists and Situationists), George Westinghouse (Inventor, Edison's chief rival), Charles Stewart Parnell (Irish Nationalist leader), F. H. Bradley (Philosopher, Appearance and Reality), Buffalo Bill (Wild West showman), Jack Daniel (Moonshine magnate), Karl Faberge (Maker of jewelry and gem eggs), Julian Hawthorne (Author), Godfrey Sweven (Author), Kate Greenaway (British illustrator), Wilhelm Maybach (designed the Mercedes), Carrie Nation (Temperance crusader), Henryk Sienkiewicz (Author, Quo Vadis?)

1847: Thomas Edison (Inventor, major influence on SF), Alexander Graham Bell (Inventor of the telephone), Bram Stoker (Author, Dracula), Annie Besant (Theosophist & Social Activist; her brother-in-law, Walter, wrote SF), John Bates Clark (Economist, Philosophy of Wealth), Adolph Coors (Founder of Coors Brewery), Galileo Ferraris (Physicist, invented the induction motor), Jesse James (Bank robber, with James Gang), Joseph Pulitzer (Pulitzer Prize), Albert Pinkham Ryder (idyllic American painter), Paul von Hindenburg (Namesake of doomed zeppelin)

1848: Joris-Karl Huysmans (Decadent author, À Rebours), Brooks Adams (Historian, The Law of Civilization and Decay), Arthur Balfour (UK Prime Minister, 1902-05), Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), Paul Gauguin (French post-impressionist painter), Joel Chandler Harris (Novelist, Uncle Remus), Albert Parsons (Anarchist, Haymarket Martyr), Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Leading 19th c. American sculptor), Louis Comfort Tiffany (Stained glassmaker, jewelry designer)

1849: Max Nordau (Zionist and cultural critic, Degeneration), Ivan Pavlov (Scientist, studied conditioned reflexes), Jacob A. Riis (Journalist, How the Other Half Lives), Charles F. Brush (Inventor, electrical pioneer), Luther Burbank (Botanist and plant breeder), Frances Hodgson Burnett (Novelist, Little Lord Fauntleroy), John Ambrose Fleming (Engineer, invented the vacuum tube), Henry Clay Frick (Robber baron, Johnstown flood), Sarah Orne Jewett (Author), Emma Lazarus (Poet), William Osler (Doctor, father of psychosomatic medicine), James Whitcomb Riley (Poet), August Strindberg (Playwright), Alfred von Tirpitz (German admiral, pushed U-boats), John William Waterhouse (British Pre-Raphaelite painter)

1850: Robert Louis Stevenson (Novelist, Treasure Island), Ferdinand Braun (Physicist, early developer of radio), St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (Missionaries of the Sacred Heart), Pat Garrett (Killed Billy the Kid), Eugen Goldstein (Physicist, cathode rays), Samuel Gompers (First President of the AFL), Lafcadio Hearn (Author), Henry Cabot Lodge (US Senator from Massachusetts, 1893-1924), Tomas Masaryk (Czech President 1920-35), Guy de Maupassant (French short story writer), Octave Mirbeau (Novelist, Le Jardin des supplices), Charles Richet
Scientist, studied anaphylaxis and ectoplasm), Augusto Righi (Physicist, electromagnetic waves)

1851: Kate Chopin (Novelist), Garrett P. Serviss (Astronomy popularizer, SF author), Melvil Dewey (Creator of Dewey Decimal System), Charles Dow (Journalist, Dow of Dow Jones), Ferdinand Foch (Allied Supreme Commander WWI), Ernest Howard Griffiths (Physicist, The Thermal Measurement of Energy), Charles Hires (Root beer), Doc Holliday (Wyatt Earp's reliable friend)

1852: Henri Becquerel (Physicist, discoverer of radioactivity), Lady Gregory (Playwright), Edwin Abbey (American artist in London), Herbert Henry Asquith (UK Prime Minister 1908-16), Antoni Gaudi (Architect), Robert Grant (Novelist, Unleavened Bread), Calamity Jane (Performance Artist, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show), John Harvey Kellogg (Doctor, Battle Creek Sanitarium), Emperor Meiji (Emperor of Japan, 1867-1912), Albert A. Michelson (Physicist, calculated the speed of light), F. W. Woolworth (Five and dime magnate), E.P. Mitchell (newspaper editor, SF writer)

1853: Henri Alexandre Deslandres (Astronomer, spectroheliograph), Hendrik Lorentz (Physicist, theory of EM radiation), Bat Masterson (frontier peace officer), Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (Physicist, discovered superconductivity), Lucy Parsons (Anarchist labor organizer), Howard Pyle (Art Nouveau children's book illustrator), Elihu Thomson (Inventor, electric welding and A/C motors). Honorary Plutonians: Cecil Rhodes (De Beers), possibly Vincent van Gogh (Post- or Neo-Impressionist painter).


HONORARY MEMBERS OF THE PROMETHEAN GENERATION: Oscar Wilde (1854). Not sure about 1834-43 generation yet.



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