The Long Nineteenth Century (1789-1914)

I’d like to discuss a concept this week which some of my readers might be familiar with. This is the concept of the “long 19th century.” If you haven’t heard of it, this might sound a little strange: every century is 100 years, no more, no less. It’s long compared to a decade, and short compared to a millennium, but it can’t be long or short compared to any other century. Strictly speaking, that’s true.

But, about fifty years ago, a historian named Eric Hobsbawm suggested we think about the nineteenth century (normally 1801-1900) in a new way. He said that the turning point was 1789, the French Revolution, and that old standards of the eighteenth century were swept away, followed by a long stretch in which a balance of power prevented large-scale change until the First World War, beginning in 1914.

So, here’s where that’s interesting, from the point of view of my century films project. It means that basically all of the films I’ve reviewed up to now can be seen as “nineteenth century” movies. And they do seem to have a certain Victorianism. Women’s dresses are long and unrevealing. Men seem to get agitated about ankles. We’ve seen lots of railroad trains, but relatively few cars and no airplanes at all. Depictions of soldiers and war seem to be un-self-consciously patriotic. European male dominance is taken largely for granted; anything “other” is shown as exotic.

But, I have some problems with the “long-nineteenth century” idea. As a historical tool, it is useful, but also limiting. It can quickly become a sort of “meme,” or slogan, which is used uncritically and blinds one to the different ways in which change and continuity exist side-by-side. So, before we get too attached to it, I’d like to mention some of my criticisms.

The first problem is that it is powerfully Euro-centric. It’s true that during the period under discussion, European economic-military-political power meant that Europe had a disproportionate effect on the rest of the world, but it wasn’t the whole world. A lot of people weren’t even living in the nineteenth century by European standards, whether long or short. I think this derives from the fact that Hobsbawm was a Marxist. For him, Europe’s economic power meant it was the driving force of “progress” in the world, and all other forms of history (intellectual, cultural, etc) would be subservient to economic necessity.

That’s the key to my second criticism, which is that it privileges certain kinds of history over others. From a women’s history point of view, maybe the “long nineteenth century” ended when women got the vote, which would be different years in different places (1893 in New Zealand, 1918 in the UK, 1945 in France, 1984 in Liechtenstein, and 2005 in Kuwait). From a labor history point of view, maybe it ends when collective bargaining becomes an accepted practice (harder to date).

Since we’re dealing with film, an aspect of cultural history, I’d like to suggest a different outlook: The advent of motion pictures is the start of the twentieth century for our purposes. Look at how rapidly things change in the 25-year-span of the movies I’ve reviewed. We go from simple experiments in showing motion to epic feature films in just that time. Imagine working in an industry in which standards and expectations are shifting so fast. Actually, you probably don’t have to imagine it, because it’s completely normal, now. Everyone who can remember working twenty five years ago remembers land lines, typewriters, and print encyclopedias (and probably smoking at work). That kind of change had already started, at least for people in the cultural industry of film, one hundred years ago today.