The Draw of 19th Century America, by The Technologists Author Matthew Pearl
The Technologists is a thriller revolving around the very first class at M.I.T. It is my fourth novel and my third set in Boston of the nineteenth century. I'm sometimes asked what it is about that time and place that appeals to me. I might need some psychoanalysis to answer. Like many other things in the creative process, I was drawn to the setting as much by accident and instinct as by a deliberate process. The first story I conceived as a novel, which would become The Dante Club, brought me to 1865 through historical fact – that was the year that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gathered some friends together to help him finish his groundbreaking translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, and that was the subject matter I wanted to pair with a mysterious story.
Though I came to it by chance, I found I enjoyed writing and researching about the nineteenth century. The more I immersed myself in it, the more I wrote in it, leading into more novels.
Though I had not planned to become such a long-running tourist to the nineteenth century, I recognize some specific elements that keep me there. I've always been fascinated by origins. What it was like to be the first at something. In The Technologists, the first students at M.I.T. were pioneers striving against suspicion and ridicule for this experimental new college. I even thought of calling the novel The First Class (until those X-Men stole the idea for the prequel movie about a very different school). In general, much of our modern culture and society took recognizable form in the nineteenth century, and Boston was often at the forefront. With all of those origins swirling around, there's an endless amount of material.
The origin could be in the form of a person – in The Poe Shadow, I follow the first mega-fan of Edgar Allan Poe. In The Last Dickens, my third novel, I included a climactic scene involving the first passenger elevator in Boston. I envisioned this as the slowest chase scene in literature! The elevator in 1870 was more of a parlor, with a chandelier and benches to sit on while taking the very slow ride. The controls were very complicated and operated by a trained employee, usually a boy.
The other natural connection I feel to the nineteenth century is how conscious some people were becoming then of ushering in our future. This is what was so interesting to me about The Technologists. The characters are very aware that the scientific innovations that they seek will change the world, which is why they are feared by others. That tension animated much of the plot.
Despite my interest, I wouldn't want to live in the nineteenth century – that's a question I'm also asked. Still, it would be nice to visit.
Want more from Matthew Pearl? Check out his eShort, The Professor's Assassin.