Technological Progress Helped Create Cosmopolitan Europe

(p. C7) Cultural history is frequently written as if circumscribed by national borders, with each country laying claim to a discrete social and intellectual way of life. Dismayed at this tendency, Orlando Figes, a noted historian of Russia, found himself wondering whether the forces of transnational integration weren’t at least as decisive as those that would drive cultures apart. In his new study “The Europeans” he aims “to approach Europe as a space of cultural transfers, translations and exchanges crossing national boundaries, out of which a ‘European culture’—an international synthesis of artistic forms, ideas and styles—would come into existence and distinguish Europe from the broader world.

. . .

His monumental work is the product of thorough and extensive research, largely in archival sources and in several languages. The author has a remarkable capacity to keep a huge quantity of factual material present in mind, and to bind it moreover into a coherent story. Woven through the biographical narrative is a detailed account of the transformations in technology, mores and law that created the new cosmopolitanism.

Chief among these was the rapid construction of railways, such that in France alone, for example, well more than 8,000 miles of track were laid down between 1850 and 1870. Railway travel gave people the time and comfort to read newspapers and fiction, which they could procure in the dozens of station bookstalls set up by merchants like W.H. Smith. “The train,” Mr. Figes notes, “was smoother than a horse-drawn carriage on a bumpy road, enabling passengers to read a book more easily.” Literacy had increased dramatically, and the rotary press, invented in 1843, facilitated the production of a vast quantity of printed matter, distribution of which deep into the provinces was in turn driven by the ramifying network of trains.

. . .

The spread of gas lighting, invented in the 1790s, made it possible for people to read comfortably in the evening. It also enabled them to play the piano at home, and of course piano technology had kept pace: The instruments became easier to play, and cheaper as well. In 1845, by the author’s estimation, 100,000 people in Paris were playing the piano, of which there were 60,000 in a city of about one million people.

For the full review, see:

Dan Hofstadter. “Engines of Progress.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, October 19, 2019): C7 & C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 18, 2019, and has the title “‘The Europeans’ Review: Engines of Progress.”)

The book under review in the passages quoted above is:

Figes, Orlando. The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019.

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