Progress is often defined as movement in a single direction: forward. However, Carol Sheriff shows in her book The Artificial River that this assumption is not always true. Chapters five and six of the novel focus on the economic, social, and political shifts in early America following the creation of the Erie Canal. Sheriff uses specific examples and descriptive explanations of the new culture created by the Canal to express her point. While the Canal did offer forward movement by expanding business and creating a faster, inexpensive means of travel and shipment, it also forced a negative progress through the creation of a very poor working class and a change for more personal, profit-motivated culture surrounding private business.
Sheriff's purpose was
to show the ways in which the Erie Canal had a negative influence on the
nation. She writes of business owners and the ways in which they
twisted the idea of the “greater good” for their personal gain, but we
hear little about what farmers who were negatively impacted by this
thought on the matter. The loudest voices within these chapters
concerning the working class were the voices of the middle class, even
though much of the focus was on the dirt poor canal workers. The middle
and upper classes viewed the canal workers as vulgar, rugged,
unchristian drunkards. Some people viewed them so poorly that they did
not want them to have Sabbath day away from work because the thought of
them acting freely was so frightening, while others argued that perhaps a
Sunday off would offer a boost in morale and offer a chance for them to
reach enlightenment. While accounts of abuse and the struggle of canal
workers were noted, we never receive the personal point of view from
canal workers themselves.
In class, we
elaborated on what Sheriff detailed in her book. We discussed the means
in which business owners in villages left untouched by the Canal would
approach the Canal Board in hopes of extending it to reach their
business. We also discussed how the Canal brought a change in how
business was viewed from a perspective of helping the country as a whole
to the personal gain of business owners. We talked about how the Canal
industrialized the nation and how around this time, there was a
transition within the state governments to prioritize business for
economic purposes over farmers and the general public.
The class discussed
the lesson of these two chapters and debated on what the paradox of
progress means. We came to the conclusion that progress will always have
both winners and losers. The Erie Canal created a losing class directly
associated with its existence and a negative culture entirely dependent
on the Canal itself.
Even so, we are left
with questions unanswered. How did the canal workers feel about their
image? Why did some of the canal workers assimilate into the culture
surrounding their work that was so frowned upon? How did the general
public feel about business becoming profit-oriented?