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Clockwork Nation: Modern Time, Moral Perfectionism and American Identity in Catharine Beecher and Henry Thoreau

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 April 2005

Department of English at the University of Richmond, Richmond, VA 23173, USA.


The economy of time, and our obligation to spend every hour for some useful end, are what few minds properly realize. Catharine Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841)

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (1854)

In his seminal 1967 essay “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” E. P. Thompson codified the theory that modern life, characterized by capitalism and industry, would not be possible without the regulating, organizing, and disciplining power of the clock. The theory of clock time's importance to modernity, first proposed by Georg Simmel around the turn of the twentieth century and later adopted by Lewis Mumford, became conventional wisdom among social and economic historians writing after Thompson's brilliant exposition. The introduction of mechanical clocks into factories in England, Thompson argues, resulted in a “restructuring of working habits” and a concomitant change in the “inward notation of time” that led individuals to accept the industrial revolution's basic premises of quantifiable wage labor and systematic production. According to Thompson's successors, historians such as David Landes, the relationship between clocks and other forms of modernization has been recursive; advances in technology have made it possible to measure time more accurately, and this greater accuracy has in turn facilitated greater productivity, more efficient transportation networks (think of railroad timetables), and the punctuality so important to modern business. Moreover, political theorists have argued that the ubiquitous experience of precisely measured time has been fundamental to linking individuals into self-consciously modern national groups, “imagined communities” in Benedict Anderson's terms, moving forward together through a shared historical simultaneity. The result of temporal modernization, this very diverse group of thinkers agrees, has been a world made over both economically and politically to suit the clockwork rationality of the capitalist market.

Research Article
© 2005 Cambridge University Press

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