Industrialism as Progress
Introduction – Revisiting Industrialism
A generation has now passed without a thorough reexamination of the relationship between industrialism and literature.1 Indeed, the whole issue is taken as more or less settledan old story of classes and factories, specialization and alienation, steam-engines, spinning jennies, and novels by Disraeli and Gaskell. There are, however, two fundamental problems with this old story. First, it no longer comports with what we know about the history of industrial change. And second, it never did justice to literature’s many, and varied, engagements with industrialism itself. How could it? Is it really possible that an event which historians have long recognized to be among the greatest social and economics transformations in millennia found its surest literary reflection in the minor subgenre we call the industrial novel? That, truly, would be a damning indictment of literature, a sign that the whole enterprise was overwhelmingly unfit for its own most pressing historical context.
A number of writers have, indeed, tried to pursue this indictment, arguing that not even the greatest literary figures of the 19th century could vie with the energy of industrial change. Here, for instance is the future poet laureate Alfred Austin, speaking in 1869:
How do we note the past ages? We speak of the age of Homer, the age of Dante, the age of Shakespeare. Can anybody in his senses imagine posterity speaking of our age as the age of Tennyson? Posterity will be too kind to do anything so sardonic. It will speak of it as the age of Railways, the age of Destructive Criticism, or the age of Penny Papers. (Tennyson, Hallam 146.)
For Austin, nineteenth-century literature has lost its status as the embodiment of the age and become a kind of secondary, if not atavistic, product. All of the real energies of the moment are bound, instead, to railways and mass journalism: new technologies on the one hand, and new modes of discourse on the other. A few years earlier, J. A. Froude penned a subtler version:
From the England of Fielding and Richardson to the England of Miss Austenfrom the England of Miss Austen to the England of Railways and Free-trade, how vast the change. (rpt in Briggs 3)
Where the 18th century is “the England of Fielding and Richardson,” and the turn of the 19th still “the England of Miss Austen,” the Victorian age is once again not “the England of Tennyson.” It is instead “the England of Railways and Free-trade,” as if such developments had left the resources of literature far behind. Once upon a time (as Austin and Froude might say), writers provided the clearest expression of their historical moment; but then, with the coming of the railways, all that changed. Literature found itself unable to reckon with the speed and power of the industrial world.
There is some truth to this, but it is a shallow truth, built on a mistaken idea about the relationship between literature and industrialism. Despite the fact that literature did, to some extent, keep its distance from the machinery of industrysuch descriptions being concentrated in those few famous subgenresits deepest engagement lay elsewhere, having less to do with railways, free-trade, and penny papers and more to do with the acceleration of economic history. Ultimately, that is, industrialism means something more than the “age of machinery” or the “England of railways and free trade”; it names a kind of economic tipping point, before which there had been virtually no change and after which there might be endless improvement. Not only did industrialism alter the mode of production; it inaugurated a new era of advancement, an era defined by the thrilling but still ambivalent experience of moving violently towards a rich but uncertain future. And it was here that literature found its hold. The basic argument of this book is that: 1) industrialism made economic growth possible; 2) the experience of growth inspiredas its closest ideological partnera new, more haunted conception of progress, and; 3) this haunted idea gave writers their greatest purchase on the strains of industrial change. In short, it was the new caste of progressrather than the machinery of industrywhich enabled literature’s broadest engagement with the great though conflicting energies of industrial life.
The prevailing approach to these questions has been the one pioneered by Williams and Gallagher, where attention to the social implications of industrial change (the rise of class, the factory system, the reduction of all human relations to cash-relations) is matched by a sharp focus on those few literary works which explicitly feature them. Those works which are well classified as industrial novels, or social problem novels.2
In Williams’ pathbreaking book, Culture and Society, the list of such works is in some ways quite broad. It includes not only the canonical industrial novelistsGaskell (Mary Barton, North and South), Dickens (Hard Times), Disraeli (Sybil), Kingsley (Alton Locke), or Eliot Felix Holtbut also essayists like Burke, Mill, and Ruskin. Anyone whose work could be said to sustain aspects of the old, pre-industrial way of being (or structure of feeling, to use Williams’ famous phrase) against the merely transactional relationships that increasingly governed social life under industrial capitalism.3. At the same time, though, the choice of texts depends on an extremely literal mode of reading. For an essay to count as a response to industrialism, it needs to deal explicitly with economics or industry; if it’s a work of literature it should be a novel and it should include a factory. Little space is made for other kinds of figural engagement.
I don’t mean to dismiss the enduring power of Williams’ work (not to mention its impact on my own); I only want to suggest that it has left us with a kind of tunnel vision. When thinking about the relation between industrialism and literature, we dutifully reach for industrial novels; and when we seek to expand our inquiry, we incorporate a range of other, non-literary works. But what of the rest of literature? Novels without factories? Poetry?
Catherine Gallagher’s seminal book, The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form introduced a whole new way of thinking about the shifting dynamics of industrial life (beyond Williams’ culture/society divide). But what it did not donot even attempt to dowas expand the scope of industrial literature. As Gallagher herself put it, “The works most immediately affected were those we now call the ‘industrial novels,’ Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South, Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, and George Eliot’s Felix Holt” (xi). 4
And as I say, those critics who have sought to look beyond such works have done so chiefly by incorporating non-literary materials. Mary Poovey’s Making a Social Body treats novels alongside sanitary reports and the writings of government reform advocates. Joseph Bizup’s Manufacturing Culture brings together writings from William Babbage, Edward Baines, Henry Cole and others to reveal a forgotten facet of 19th century culture, a “a new proindustrial rhetoric that crystallized in the second quarter of the nineteenth century around the specific and defining goals of aestheticizing automatic manufacture …” (13-4).
Despite their wide orbits, neither of these can be said to expand our understanding of the relation between industrialism and imaginative literature. They are after something different, something more like culture than literature. Which leaves us with a kind of missing middle. Great work has indeed been done tracking industrialism’s narrow impact on the industrial novel and, from the other side, its diffuse effect on culture at large. But what of its importance for the specific cultural practice that is imaginative literature, with its poems and stories and romances and realist novels.
This issue almost never arises, and when it doesas in Carolyn Lesjak’s Genealogy of the Victorian Novelit is quickly winnowed down. As Lesjak knows: “Domestic fiction, the Bildungsroman, Victorian aestheticism: traditionally these genres and cultural movements have not been viewed with an eye toward industrial labor” (2). But even this framing implies a kind of narrowing, from industrialism in general to just that last quoted word, labor. That is where Lesjak focuses her attentionon “the presence of new forms of labor under industrial capitalism” (1). And the cost is any real effort to match the epochal changes wrought by industrialism with an equal change in the writing of imaginative literature.
Recent years have seen a new approach to some of these old questions, under the loose heading of new economic criticism. Its ambit is actually far broader than anything like industry or industrialism, but it is worth discussing because it offers a new lens through which to view the interaction of economics and culture in the 19th century.5 And, what is more, it has carried with it a number of our leading voices, including those of Gallagher and Poovey.
Poovey’s more recent Genres of the Credit Economy emphasizes what she calls “the breakup in the continuum of writing” (3). Prior to the 18th century, she argues, there was no rigid distinction between economic writing and literary writing; they participated equally in the effort to understand the creation and circulation of value (economic, social, or otherwise). Over time, however, these two modes became increasingly differentiatedeven opposedwhich has helped to mask their deep and important affinities. As she says, it “has erased the historical relationship between these two sets of genres; it has effaced the common function that once linked them and the historical process by which they were differentiated and ranked” (4).
The aim of Poovey’s bookand indeed one of the central aims of new economic criticism more generallyis to denaturalize this difference. To place economics and literature side by side as genres of writing, and in that way to make visible a dense network of mutual influence. It is an idea that has issued in a number of important studies, among them Regenia Gagnier’s The Insatiability of Human Wants, Philip Connell’s Romanticism, Economics, and the Question of ‘Culture’, Kathleen Blake’s Pleasures of Benthamism, and Catharine Gallagher’s The Body Economic. I am going to discuss all of these, at various points in the course of this book, but for now I want to focus on the Gallaghernot just for continuity’s sake but because she, too, treats the industrial era.
“How,” Gallagher asks in her opening sentence, “did political economy come to have such a bad odor among the most prominent literary figures of the early nineteenth century?” And odor is a nice metaphor here, because even bad odors are hard to keep out, and part of Gallagher’s point is that political economy found its influence despite every distaste. Especially so in the case of the mid-Victorian novel. What is peculiar, though, is the ease with which Gallagher covers this historical terrain. On the economic side, her most prominent figures are Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Malthus, one the father of what Gallagher calls somaeconomics (the economics of work, pain, pleasure and happiness), the other of bioeconomics (the economics of life, death, fertility, and population). On the literary side, meanwhile, her chief figures are Dickens and Eliot (each the subject of two chapters.) Yet, there is a great disconnect here. Some 50-70 years separates these pairs of writers. Dickens and Eliot belong to the middle of the nineteenth century. Bentham and Malthus to its beginning. Indeed, the problem is not just that these two early-century economists might as easily be made the great, forgotten fathers of Romantic literature; it is that they are so crowned, in Connell’s Romanticism, Economics, and the Question of ‘Culture’.
And really the issue is more pressing than that, because the years that separate Bentham and Malthus from Dickens and Eliot are not just any years. They are the very years of intensest industrial change. To be fair, it’s not that Gallagher wholly ignores the developments of these intervening decades. She talks about Ricardo and Mill, and later Jennings and Jevons, but the whole structure of her book depends on this idea that Romantic-era economic theory set the parameters for Victorian literature. Here, for instance, is how she concludes her account of the economic debates of the period before 1830: “Even the seemingly intractable controversies we’ve been examining over the competing varieties of ‘organicism’ helped establish its ubiquity and laid the basis for many of the distinctive traits of Victorian literary realism and social science” (34). What Gallagher argues, in other words, is that the economic preoccupations of the Victorian novel were shaped chiefly by early-century economic theory. As if this story could be told without reference to the industrial transformations which accelerated in-between.
The bigger problem with Gallagher’s argument, though, is that it leaves material history out altogether. There is virtually no reference to industry or industrialism, and no account of changing labor conditions or shifting social structures. Instead, there are accounts of accounts of such things. Interpretation of various writers’ views of economic life, rather than interpretations of economic life itself. Which has its value, to be sure, but which is ultimately inadequate to the task of understanding industrial literature. Not least because there’s no guarantee that the writers’ views of economic life bear any relationship to the reality. Indeed, part of what I’m going to be arguing moving forward is precisely that they don’t. That the economic theories of the era (whether of Bentham and Malthus, or Smith and Ricardo) were actually quite far removed from the underlying conditions of industrial life. Which of course means that they can’t be taken as proxies.
Part of the appeal of new economic criticism is its intimation of a shortcut around the old Marxist problem of base and superstructure, its suggestion that the complex relation between economic life and cultural expression might be understood in terms of the simpler relations between economic thought and cultural expression. But this simplification will not do. Or, it would only do if economic thought were in fact the direct or intimate reflection of economic lifeand it is not. It is distorted in the same way as all other ideological expressions. One more of those “phantoms” in the human brain which are really “sublimates of their material life-process” (Marx-Engels Reader 118).
What this means, for new economic criticism of the sort that Gallagher offers, is that while it can provide much useful information about the hidden relation between economic and literary writing (and it does); it can’t bring us much closer to understanding the cultural impact of real economic changes, including those revolutionary changes wrought by industrialism.
The only way to appreciate the full, literary impact of industrialism is to face it head on, to revisit the realities of the era and shake off that timeworn story which Arnold Toynbee first told in his 1884 lectures and which still shapes even sophisticated cultural criticism like Elaine Freedgood’s Factory Production in Nineteenth-Century Britain:
Toynbee’s description of the main components of this “revolution” has held up very well. He notes first of all a sudden upsurge in population growth in the mid-eighteenth century, followed by improvements in equipment used in the manufacture of cotton, the development of better and safer steam engines, and the expansion of communication and transportation networks, especially railroads. …Factories employed a newly enormous number of workers, including women and children. Technological innovation occurred at a quickened pace, and new developmentsthe spinning jenny, the power loom, the puddling of iron, improvements in the steam enginemade for greater productivity, and often greater social unrest, as they caused waves of unemployment, underemployment or changes of employment.
If this account has “held up very well,” it is mostly because of inertia. Not that it is entirely wrongpopulation growth, factory expansion, technological innovation, and structural unemployment were all quite realbut because it is extremely partial. These things are aspects of what we might call the “revolution in industry.” But among economic historians, the phrase “industrial revolution” has come to mean something different, something both more dramatic and less tangible. Not just a change in the mode of production but a new dynamic of economic life. The term industrialism, in other words, actually comprises two very different phenomena: the revolution in industry (strongly associated with the factory system and ably described in Toynbee’s) and also the arrival of real, distributed economic growth. And though these two things have come to share a name, they are far from identical. In fact, they don’t even seem to have taken place at the same time. While virtually all of the technologies associated with the factory system were developed in the late 18th centuryincluding the steam engine, the water frame, the large-scale division of labor, and of course the organization of the factory itselfwidespread economic growth didn’t begin until the first half of the 19th century.
More to the point, it is this second, later aspect of industrialism which was, ultimately, the more revolutionary. As the economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it: “The ‘classical’ Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century was not an altogether novel phenomenon. In contrast, the second and third waves in the nineteenth century, which made continuous technological progress the centerpiece of sustainable economic growth, were something that had never before been witnessed and that constituted a sea change in economic history like few other phenomena ever had” (84). No one doubts that the 18th-century saw remarkable innovations and increasingly efficient practices of production. But the real “sea change” happened well after. And if we want to understand what, exactly, it entailedif we want to know what most distinguished the industrial world from the pre-industrial world, and nineteenth-century England from every other nation on the globewe need to look away from industry and focus instead on the new dynamic of economic growth.
As an index for just how revolutionary industrial growth really was, here is the opening diagram from Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, plotting per capita income against three thousand years of world history.
For 2800 years, there was basically no change in the welfare of average people. Pre-industrial Englishmen earned, essentially, the same income as 15th-century Frenchmen and 2nd-century Romans. As Clark says “even according to the broadest measures of material life, average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800. The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band” (2). 6
The name economists have given to that millennia-long stagnation is the Malthusian trap, in homage to Thomas Malthus, whose extremely influential Essay on the Principle of Population first demonstrated this awful paradox: that economic growth was a boon to no one. Whatever gains were wrested from the earth or the factory would be used, instead, to feed an ever-growing population. Which is not to say that there would be no gains. As Malthus well knew, there had been tremendous technical advancement over the centuries; the windmill, the printing press, the mechanical clock and numberless other innovations appeared in the time between the ancient Babylonian world and the 18th-century European one, and each made possible new efficiencies and new levels of productivity. What Malthus suggestedand what Clark more rigorously demonstratesis that none of these managed to change per capita income or increase the welfare of human beings. In each case, all of the gains were absorbed by demographics. Technological change did spur economic growth, but that in turn spurred population growth, which swiftly negated any improvements in human welfare. To cite the ready shorthand form adapted from Ecclesiastes: “if riches increase, they are increased that eat them” (Froude, Eclectic).
At least, that was true until around 1800. At which point, everything changed. Per capita income exploded upwards, breaking free from its long Malthusian sleep and inaugurating a new era of economic possibility that forever altered humanity’s relation to its environment. The arrow that Clark labels “Industrial Revolution” points to the very moment when economic history turned and “incomes per person began to undergo sustained growth” (Clark 2). From 1819-1851, the real wages of working class Britons increased by nearly two percent per year, as opposed to the zero percent annual increase over the previous half-century (Williamson 688). And in those same years, the population grew by over fifty percent (Mokyr 281). Under Malthusian conditions, that surge of people would have nullified any real gains, but in the new world of industrial growth, even this exploding populace felt the benefit. What followed is a cascade of effects so familiar as to seem cliché: the rise of class, massive urbanization, a growing division of labor, new gender relations structured around the divide between public and private, etc.
It must be said that Clark’s version of the story is among the more optimistic, but even so the space for pessimism has shrunk considerably in the face of recent data. There is contrary evidence, for instance, to suggest that the first part of the 19th century involved what Robert Allen calls “Engel’s Pause,” a period of increasing inequality, as wages stagnated and wealth accrued mostly to the already-wealthy. But even Allen concedes that by mid-century this pause had ended, making possible both rising incomes and increasing wages for virtually every class of people, from the disreputable poor to the disreputable rich.
Which is not to say that industrialism was somehow all sweetness and light. There were harrowing declines in public healthlife expectancy in the city could be as low as 25-27 years (Mokyr 455)–and there were also those many, less tangible losses of person and place that Karl Polanyi taught us to recognize. These things are real, and they can’t be waved away with talk of economic growth. Neither, however, can they be allowed to hedge into a general argument about industrial immiseration. Because whatever else it wasalienating, dehumanizing, dislocating, etc.industrialism was not immiserating. It was economically emancipating. Talk of the “desperation of the masses” (vi), “starving-in-the-midst-of-plenty” (vi), or “the reduction of hundreds of thousands of workers to pauperism” (v) is no longer tenable. Not because those things didn’t happenthey did, and these phrases which I draw from Richard Altick’s description of the hungry 40s are perfectly justbut because they don’t effectively capture the arc of the whole. Overall, industrialism made starvation and pauperism less acute, and wages more sustaining.
Despite ongoing disagreements about timing, then (with optimists preferring some date around 1800 and pessimists some time closer to 1850), most every scholar now acknowledges that industrialism not only introduced a wholly new economic dynamic but enabledfor the first time in historyreal, population-wide gains in social welfare. That was its revolution.
What is more, it was a British revolution. Not only, in other words, was industrialism a dramatic moment in world history, it was a dramatic moment in British history. Industrialism may have become, over time, a global phenomenon, but it was first native to England and parts of southern Scotland. Right up to the end of the 19th century, only Britain achieved a velocity sufficient to escape from the Malthusian trap.7 And this simple fact has enormous implications for how we think about the movement of literary history. In particular, it gives Victorian literature a strange kind of priority, as the first moment when writers had to grapple with the economic system which would eventually span the globe.
The question of why England was first is still the subject of a great deal of investigation and debate. Does it have to do with political institutions? Natural resources? Free trade? Colonialism? Cultural evolution? Conflicting arguments have been made for each of these factorsand othersbut one thing they share is a growing recognition that there is more to industrialism than the rise of industry. There were many factories in France, and ample machinery in the United Statesnot to mention the far earlier technological achievements of China and India. And even if England’s industrial sector was larger than most, it was hardly pervasive. England was still a predominantly rural country until 1850, and at that late point one in four Englishmen over twenty years of age worked in agriculture (Thompson 26, Mingay 1). Even in textiles, one of the most machine-intensive industries, less than half of all laborers actually worked in factories (Valenze 98).
In this story about industrialism, industry is only one player among many. Clark himself has gone so far as to say that “there is nothing inherently industrial about the industrial revolution” (193), and though this construction may sound perversely counterintuitive, as we will see it turns out to be vital to our attempt to recognize the full scope of industrial literature. For now, though, the important thing to recognize is that industrialism does not simply mean “the rise of industry” or “the rise of the factory system.” It refersalso and perhaps more fundamentallyto the emergence of a new economic order characterized by rapid growth, open-ended development, and new possibilities of social organization and social welfare. This is not to say that industry itself was irrelevant to the emergence of a post-Malthusian world. It was a key, contributing factor. It helped make industrial growth possible, and it deserves a prominent place on any list of the most important preconditions, alongside England’s liberal political structure and the cheap resources from colonial exploitation. But it can no longer remain the object of greatest attention. What was most revolutionary about industrialismwhat made it a truly unprecedented historical occurrencewas something other than this new mode of production. It was the new horizon of economic and social life outside of the Malthusian trap. Plenty of 19th-century societies made use of machines and the division of labor, but only England had crossed that Rubicon.
To some, this may seem like a reason to drop the word industrialism altogether. Why speak of industrialism if we are no longer speaking of industry? If our real interest is the shift from Malthusian to post-Malthusian economics what reason is there to think that industrialism is the best term available? Surely there are other candidatesor, if not, perhaps it is time to invent one. I’m sympathetic to this critique, not least because I recognize the obvious difficulty of trying to strip the word industrialism of its many-lettered connection to industry, but I also know that it has another, equally deep connection with the experience of radical change. From the beginning, that is, the word industrialism has been used to describe a specific, widespread, economically-driven and society-wrenching revolution. And the reason I choose to keep the word is precisely because I am still speaking of that same revolution. My subject, here and throughout, is not some recently-discovered historical pattern; it is that widely-recognized and obsessively-investigated transformation in economic life which unfolded in the 19th century.
Even if I’m wrong about this, however, I don’t think it affects the broader argument. Let’s say industrialism is not the right word. That it bespeaks, too clearly, its identification with the rise of industry and is thus ill-suited to any reappropriation. We still have to deal with this unnamed event, this eruption of growth that marks the most dramatic change in millenia of human life. Call it what you will, we still need to understand the specifically literary ramifications of this eruption of economic growth.
Before we can move from industrialism to literature, we need to return to an issue that I raised earlier, namely the issue of ideology. We have to do what I said the new economic criticism refused to do: try to untangle the relation between material history and perceptual history. We need to know something more than what industrialism entailed (namely, the breaking of the Malthusian trap and the arrival of modern growth); we also need to know how it was understood by those living through it. After all, literature is shaped by both of these things: the material conditions of its production and the way writers and readers understand those conditions.
And the writers of the 19th century couldn’t have understood industrialism in the way I’ve described (things are more complicated for the modernists, but we have to build up to that). They didn’t have access to these graphs or statistics; they didn’t know how fast earlier societies had grown, nor how quickly their own economy was expanding. They had, it is true, their own powerful, popular, and fast-developing discourse of political economy, but as I suggested before, in some ways 19th century economists were especially insensible to the changes around them. As the Cambridge geographer Tony Wrigley puts it:
The most fundamental defining feature of the industrial revolution was that it made possible exponential economic growthgrowth at a speed that implied the doubling of output every half-century or less. This in turn radically transformed living standards. Each generation came to have a confident expectation that they would be substantially better off than their parents or grandparents. Yet, remarkably, the best informed and most perspicacious of contemporaries were not merely unconscious of the implications of the changes which were taking place around them but firmly dismissed the possibility of such a transformation.
When revolution happens, expertise becomes a kind of liabilitybecause the rules of the past don’t apply (or, better, because it’s impossible to know which old rules are still sound and which have been swept away). The bounds that classical economists had learned to accept (Wrigley refers specifically of “Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo”) were no longer applicable. But the only people who could see this were the non-specialists, those who had no reason to disbelieve their own experience. Ordinary men and women recognized the improvements taking place all around them, and they came to expect that these improvements would continue. Meanwhile, the political economists”the best informed and most perspicacious of contemporaries”denied such improvements because they were incompatible with their well-wrought models
Malthus’s model of economic stasis (where all growth is absorbed by a growing population) we have already touched on. Smith and Ricardo saw things differently, to be sure, but they too thought there was a wealth-limit, beyond which no further growth would be possible. Smith argued that for each country there existed a maximum state of development, a “full complement of riches which the nature of its soil and climate, and its situation with respect to other countries, allowed it to acquire.”8 Such a country could simply “advance no further.” Ricardo, for his part, foresaw a kind of profit death-spiral, which worked in the following way: over time, as more and more of the land was cultivated to feed a growing population, the premium on land would increase, driving profits down and blunting the kind of investment which is necessary for real growth. “This,” as he says, “will necessarily be rendered permanent by the laws of nature, which have limited the productive powers of the land” (126).
These economists were indeed among “the best informed and most perspicacious of contemporaries,” and their theories among the most sophisticated and elaborate of the time. But they were calibrated to explain the world that had always been, the life of Malthusian entrapment that had governed all settled societies. And because they trusted these models, they couldn’t seeor couldn’t believethe new world of growth that was developing around them. Regenia Gagnier has argued, convincingly, that it was the later theorists of marginal utilityJevons and Menger above allwho altered economic theory to fit the contours of the advancing, industrial world. That, however, was in the 1870s, not just well after the onset of industrialism but well after the reality of industrial growth had been recognized in other domains (not least of all, in literature).9
Which is not to say that, elsewhere, the new reality of industrial growth was immediately recognized and understood. No, it came to consciousness slowly, beginning in the early Victorian period. And even then it was indirect and distorted, as much felt as known.
For instance, one thing the Victorians clearly felt is that they were living on the far side of a great, historical divide, that theirs was a unique and unprecedented historical moment. As John Stuart Mill put it: “The conviction is already not far from being universal, that the times are pregnant with change; and that the nineteenth century will be known to posterity as the era of one of the greatest revolutions of which history has preserved the remembrance, in the human mind, and in the whole constitution of human society.” Now, it is true that Mill was thinking more immediately about political reform, and not industrial growth, but the point of his essay is to express the sensemore general than any one event or occasionthat he and his contemporaries live in the land of the new. That their times are “distinguished in a very remarkable manner from the times which preceded them.”
Thomas Carlyle, himself a great contributor to the genre of Victorian self-diagnosis, summarized the situation with a near-perfect quip: “works of that sort are a characteristic of our era” (Kaplan 297). It was, in other words, characteristic of the era to be consumed with characterizing itself. And the most basic reason for this was that the Victorians really did stand alone at the far side of a historical dividethe one wrought by industrialism and the collapse of the Malthusian trap. They may not have had the statistical details that we have today, nor known the exact cause of their distinction, but they rightly understood themselves to be separated, in some fundamental way, both from the other nations of the world and from their own past.
Even more cannily, they understood that all this change was somehow moving them forward: that it was improving people’s lives and increasing the opportunities for human fulfillment. Sometimes, this feeling expressed itself in grand hyperbole, as in Macaulay’s claim that “the history of England is emphatically the history of progress” (rpt in Spadafora 405). Other times the statements were more cautious, as when Mill argued that “the general tendency is, and will continue to be, saving occasional and temporary exceptions, one of improvement” (Mill 379). But however the particular formulations may have varied, the general consensus was that theirs was an era of progressthat society had moved, was moving, and would continue to move in a desirable direction. “At the present moment, we may certainly pronounce the contest is virtually decided. Progress is King;” So said Chambers’s Journal in 1861. In his own comments “On Progress,” just a few years later, Froude seconded that judgment: “Amidst the varied reflections which the nineteenth century is in the habit of making on its condition and its prospects, there is one common opinion in which all parties coincidethat we live in an era of progress” (671).10
These quotes may sound, at first, like willful overstatementthe kind of thing Victorian liberals were wont to say about their own beliefs. But in this case it is difficult to find competing views even well outside the liberal fold. The leading critics of Victorian societythe Engelses and Morrises, like the Chadwicks and Mayhewsmay have sought to redirect progress in one way or another, but they too imagined the future as a place of greater happiness. (The keepers of nostalgia, like Ruskin and Carlyle, might seem a more problematic case, but one of the things I show in the chapters that follow is that, for the Victorians, even nostalgia was recast to serve progress.) Here, for instance, is William Lovett, describing the many benefits of the people’s charter: “it will afford the people general and superior means of instruction; it will awaken and concentrate human intellect to remove the evils of social life; and it will compel the representatives of the people to redress grievances, improve laws, and provide means of happiness in proportion to the enlightened desires of public opinion” (13). As thorough and grandiose, in its own way, as anything Macaulay could imagine, Lovett’s vision of the future includes a better-educated populace, more responsive governance, and a brand of happiness fully equal to “enlightened desires.” What distinguishes Lovett, and the other great social critics, is that they felt some dramatic action was necessary, today, in order to reach that glorious future, but for them, as for the more whiggish, there was always a grand historical trajectory just waiting to usher society into a wildly-improved future.
Surprisingly little attention has been paid to these Victorian visions of progress. The last major study was Jerome Buckley’s 1966 book, The Triumph of Time, which included a chapter on “The Idea of Progress” and another on “The Recession of Progress.”11 Not surprisingly, Buckley’s study bears the hallmarks of its age: a general indifference to material conditions, a tripping cadence through intellectual history, an over-narrow confidence in the integrity and impermeability of the Victorianif also an inhumanly broad knowledge of Victorian characters, and their competing thoughts. The greater problem, though, is the arc of Buckley’s story: “By the time of the Exhibition faith in a Macaulayan progress had engendered a confident complacency, which was to persist in some quarters, though more and more seriously challenged to the end of the century and even beyond” (36). In other words, his is the old story of rise and fall: at the beginning of the period, faith in progress soared; by the end, it had soured. And this isn’t really rightat least not in any obvious way. Early Victorians, like Mill or Tennyson, were believers in progressto be surebut they were also uncomfortable with their belief, and quite far from “confident complacency.”
At the risk of getting ahead of myself, let me say that this discomfort was constitutive: part of what made Victorian ideas of progress distinctive, and one of the clues that these ideas were profoundly shaped by industrialism. What I’m going to be arguing, in fact, is that progress was the screen through which the Victorians came to understand, and negotiate, the new reality of accelerating, industrial growth. It gathered its shape and gained its newfound ideological resonance from the material fact that industrialism was, for the first time, making economic growth possible.
Of course, belief in progress was hardly unique to the Victoriansthough neither was it especially pedigreed. Earlier societies had certainly been interested in the metaphysics of change (think of Heraclitus), the complexity of movement (consider Zeno), the structure of becoming (see Augustine), and the possibilities of self-improvement (so central to early Protestantism). But progress is something different from these, at once more expansive and more specific. Its clearest definition is still the one that J. B. Bury offered in his 1920 The Idea of Progress, namely the belief that society “has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction” (2).12
The virtue of this definition is that it it manages to be broad without losing focus. For Bury, progress is about movement, and more than that it is about directed movement. Wandering does not count, only movement towards the “desirable.” Though it must be added that the term “desirable” is left entirely open. That, itself might seem like a problem. What, after all, makes a state of society more or less desirable? Or, more to the point, who decides what qualifies as desirable or undesirable? Is it more desirable to have increased incomes or increased freedom? Greater access to work or more time for play? One way to deal with these sorts of conflicts would be to distinguish between various types of progresse.g. economic, scientific, moral, or politicaland in that way to develop more precise definitions of the desirable. Bury certainly doesn’t do that; he prefers to leave his definition vague, an approach which has its risks but also its virtues. The vague term, “desirable,” captures something that no more precise term could, namely the vague promise of progress itself. Progress attracts adherents by offering them everything and specifying nothing, allowing them to project their own particular fantasies into its indefinite ideal. Ultimately, that is, the idea of progress is more like a grab-bag of awkwardly related hopes than a precise philosophical concept, and part of the strength of Bury’s definition is its ability to reflect that imprecision.
His only other qualification is that progress is a social phenomenon, not a personal one. It’s about social improvement, not self-improvement. And these things have to be kept separate. Not because they are entirely distinctI myself am going to make use of their connection at certain key moments, as in my reading of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”but because they have separate histories and because they do different kinds of cultural work. There are narratives of self-improvement whose interest in progress is mostly occasional, as for instance Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress. And there are stories of self-improvement which predate belief in progress by centuries, if not millenia.13
What Bury’s definition establishes,then, is a baseline, a minimal test for an idea of progress: it must involve some notion of directed, social movement. And vague though this may seem, there are staggeringly few examples before the 18th century. Depictions of change, improvement, and becoming can be traced to antiquity, but the community-wide, upward-stretching movement we call progress is far more rare and far more modern. Only in the last few centuries did people begin to conceive of history as the unfolding of ever-more-desirable conditions of collective life.
And yet even in these few recent centuries, there has been a great deal of variation. A host of competing visions of social progress, whose differences can be traced not only to the politics or temperament of individual thinkers but to the historical context more broadly, in ways that make enlightenment visions of progress recognizably distinct from Victorian ones, and those from modernist incarnations. This doesn’t mean that every era produces one, and only one, defining Idea of progress, but it does mean that at any given historical moment ideas of progress are likely to have common features. And the reason is that progress is something more than an idea; it is an ideology, the distorted image of real, material phenomena.14 As those historical materials slide beneath, so too does the image shift above, and though the lines of influence may be complex, they are nonetheless essential.
One reason that the notion of progress took such deep root in the 18th century was because of the unmistakable advance of scientific understanding in those years. Real, reproducible and patentable innovations inspired a grand belief in the measureless advance of society as a whole. And, more to the point, that grand belief had a decidedly scientistic tint. Speaking of posterity, the great English enlightenment champion of progress, Joseph Priestley, argued that “there is the greatest certainty that they will be wiser, and therefore the fairest presumption that they will be better than we are” (302). And in the same vein, his French counterpart, the Marquis de Condorcet, asked: “may it not be expected that the human race will be meliorated by new discoveries in the sciences and the arts, and, as an unavoidable consequence, in the means of individual and general prosperity” (211). For both, progress was essentially a matter of knowledge; it was propelled, above all, by growing “wisdom” and new “discoveries” which flowed outward along some elaborate causal matrix to produce “general prosperity” and a “better” humanity.15
In some ways, this scientistic 18th-century notion of progress was brighter and more vigorous than the Victorian versions. “The unfettered progress of truth is always salutary,” wrote William Godwin. “Its advances are gradual, and each step prepares the general mind for that which is to follow” (138). And no less an expert on decline than Edward Gibbon saw the same genial process: “We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased and still increases the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race” (410). These views of progress involve no trade-offs; reason, happiness, knowledge and virtue all walk hand-in-hand into the future. Which is not to say that enlightenment philosophy was unreservedly optimistic. It certainly was not. Malthus’s own essay testifies to the strength of anti-progressive thought, as the full title makes abundantly clear: “An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers.” The Malthusian trap was conceived, explicitly, as a critique of enlightenment progress, a salvo for the same skeptical attitude that inspired Voltaire’s Candide.
All through the 18th and early 19th century, in fact, progress was just one of a number of competing philosophies of history.16 Indeed, it is fair to say that the reason enlightenment thinkers tended to envision progress in such benign terms was because there were many other ways that anxieties about the future could find philosophical expression:
- There were those, like Rousseau, who thought that history was not advancing, but declining. They mourned the loss of a more primitive purity which had been sullied by the corruption and luxury of modern life. For support, they drew on either the Christian idea of a fall from paradise or the classical lost golden age.17
- There were others, like Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke who accepted that society was progressing, but who thought such progress was temporary and would eventually be undone. They invoked Machiavelli or the fall of Rome to argue for an endless cycle of change “from barbarity to civility, and from civility to barbarity” (Spadafora 14).18
- As we’ve already seen, in the case of Smith and Ricardo, it was even possible to accept that society was advancing, disclaim any notion of historical cycles, and still deny that progress would continue. It might offer some gains today, but soon enough it would lead you to a maximal state. And far from considering this maximal state Utopian, Smith himself thought wages would be “barely sufficient to keep up the number of labourers” and “the ordinary profit as low as possible” (197).
These are just a few of the many anti-progressive positions in the lively enlightenment debate about the future of human society.
With the transition to Victorianism, however, this debate simply dissolved. All of the various elaborate and well-established alternatives to progress were absorbed into the progressive world view, which became not only the dominant but practically the only Weltanschauungthe “King,” to quote again from Chambers’s Journal.19 For the Victorians, progress certainly was king, and virtually unchallenged in its reign.
Which is not to say that all Victorians conceived of progress in the same way. Not at all. As we will see, there were any number of competing visions of the improving future. Some thinkers, such as Herbert Spencer, thought progress virtually inevitable. Others, like Carlyle and Lovett, imagined it as fragile and uncertain. Samuel Smiles and the champions of self-improvement spoke of it as a grand, human undertaking, while Dickens, J. R. McCulloch, and others feared it might be serving a different master altogether. Victorian conceptions of progress differed widely, and in another context it might be useful to chart such differences across the various axes of Victorian life: gender, class, age, political affiliation, and otherwise.20
The trouble is that these divisions obscure as much as they reveal. The most distinctive feature of these Victorian ideas of progress is not their internal divisions but their general ascendancy. Why, at this moment, should all philosophies of history be narrowed to philosophies of progress? What happened to stem the force of rigorous pessimism? Or shake the ancient hold of stoic conceptions of fortune and stasis? That is what must be explained, and understood.
That, and one thing more. It is strange and distinctive enough that expectations of this sort should be so widely distributedas I say, it is unlike any other moment in the history of progressbut there is something else that distinguishes Victorian ideas of progress, something else that makes them recognizable artifacts of their moment. Beneath their many surface differences there is a striking consistency of perspective, a kind of common ground which girded even the most discrete accounts. We can think of it as a shared structure of imagination, a core pattern of thought, which takes the form of a shadowingunique to the Victoriansof optimism by anxiety. All of the fears and doubts that had fueled the anti-progressive voices of the 18th and early 19th Century moved inside of progress itself, never quite undermining its optimism but leaving it far less benign and far more troubled. Unlike Condorcet’s notion of progress, or for that matter Godwin’s or Priestley’s, Victorian ideas of progress were darker and somehow haunted, as if weighed down from the inside.21 They still deserved the name progress, because they still met Bury’s basic criteria: that general belief that society has moved, is moving, and will continue to move in a desirable direction. Only now they included a second, distinctively Victorian criteria: that the great improvements of tomorrow would came entangled with new requirements of sacrifice and suffering.22
There’s a kind of analogy, here, with one of the more intractable issues in Victorian political economy: namely whether the desire for happiness could be reconciled with the need to work. According to utilitarian principles, happiness was the ultimate measure of the value of human activity; but there was always a tension between this celebration of happiness and the need to store up happiness for the future. If everyone took, at one time, all the opportunities for satisfaction stored up throughout the economyall the tea and silver and train ridesthere would be much less satisfaction available tomorrow. Perversely, that is, our future happiness depends in large part on our willingness to forgo happiness today. Toil now, enjoy tomorrow: that is the infinitely recursive demand at the heart of this political economy. And one way to think of Victorian ideas of progress is as amplifications of this same demand. They elevated deferred gratification from a problem of economic life to the engine of world history.
To appreciate just how different the Victorian conception of progress really was, it is worth comparing Shelley’s 1819 poem “Julian and Maddalo: a Conversation” with Tennyson’s “The Two Voices,” written just two decades later. In Shelley’s poem, the argument between progressive and anti-progressive is still vital. Shelley’s speaker, Julian, is brimming with optimism and eager to take his stand “against despondency” (48). Humanity need not be burdened by poverty and suffering, he argues. “We might be all / We dream of happy, high, majestical” (172-3). His friend Maddalo, however, is casually unmoved. “You talk Utopia” (179) is his dismissive response. Perhaps we could be high and happy, he goes on, “if we were not weak” (177), but unfortunately we are and so we are barred from any real improvement. With some derision, Julian calls that “the darker side” of the argument, but for Maddalo it has the minor virtue of being true.23
Tennyson’s speaker, like Julian before him, is eager to believe that progress will make humanity better. “Each month,” he says, “is various to present / The world with some development” (74-5) But there is no skeptical Maddalo in Tennyson’s poem, no one who would reject progress in the name of human weakness, original sin, or historical cycles. The second voice in Tennyson’s poem is as certain of progress as the first; it is just that he thinks it is as much a curse as a blessing. After all, he says, if the world is forever improving, then we must always be disappointed by our inability to see the great change that lies, forever, beyond the horizon:
‘Will thirty seasons render plain
Those lonely lights that still remain,
Just breaking over land and main?
‘Or make that morn, from his cold crown
And crystal silence creeping down,
Flood with full daylight glebe and town? (82-7)
The “lonely lights” that seem, today, to be breaking into “full daylight” will seem precisely the same tomorrow and every day for decades to come. Progress never ends, never stops, and never rests. It works ceaselessly to breed further progress, ensuring that there will always be new lonely lights, new promises of knowledge and happiness flickering seductively in the distance. The problem in Tennyson’s poem is not that progress is untrue, but rather that it is unsatisfying. At every step, its achievements are outrun by its allure, which keeps us looking ahead towards a future we can never reach.24 This is not an anti-progressive ideain the way that Malthus’s fertility trap certainly is. It accepts that progress is only too real, so seductive and so limitless that it makes people endlessly hopeful and therefore endlessly restless. Where Shelley’s poem encapsulates in dialog the 18th and 19th century debate over progress, Tennyson’s reflects the new, and characteristically Victorian, ambivalence. For the Victorians, there truly was no alternative, no vital counter-model. But there was still ample room for unease, anxiety, and peril.
Confidence, flanked by disquiet. That is the structure of Victorian progress, and you can see it, just as clearly, in the following passage from Mill:
Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes. They have increased the comforts of the middle classes. But they have not yet begun to effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish. (Principles 469)
What makes this passage so arresting is its sudden and unexpected pivot from radical critique to confident encomium. Industrialism, Mill begins, has done nothing to ease the burdens of working class life; it has only increased the number of people that must endure them. And therefore, he concludes, we need to be patient and keep waiting. He might have concludedwith at least an equal claim to logicthat we should therefore resist industrialism: sabotage those “mechanical inventions” and rethink the whole economic system. But of course he doesn’t, and the reason he doesn’t is because for him the promise of industrial progress still outweighs the “drudgery and imprisonment” of industrial life. There is suffering all around him, but that suffering is not a reason to doubt the work of progress; it is simply the cost which must be borneat least until “futurity” arrives with its “great changes in human destiny.” Progress creates pain as part of its necessary work.
This ambivalencein Mill, Tennyson, and beyondwas a reflection, in its distorted way, of industrialism itself: it captured something of the excitement that came with industrial growth and also something of the unease wrought by growing pains. For there were growing pains, even in this story of industrial progress. Not that there is anything exactly tragic about economic growth. For the first time in thousands of years, it was possible for the economy to expand and for each individual to benefit from that expansion, just as it was possible for the population to expand without the risk of plague or starvation. That surely counts as a good. But as the innovations and expansions of industrialism began to accrue, a strange kind of problem arosea worry that they would go on accruing, even perhaps indefinitely. Where, one had to ask, was industrialism driving us? Would it eventually lighten the “drudgery and imprisonment” that Mill saw all around him? Or did it have its own, different designs? Could we lead it where we wanted? And what if we decided we had had enough? Would it ever be possible to stop growing, and just rest? Add to these the widespread feeling among Victorians that their experience had no precedent and it is easy to understand why those 19th-century Britons who found themselves churning through the new, industrial landscape were both riveted by the signs of improvement and still deeply concerned by the lack of stability and the uncharted nature of their industrial future.
The surest proof, then, that the new, darkling idea of progress was inspired by the advent of industrialism comes not just from their historical coincidence (their near-simultaneous arrival), nor indeed their geographic coincidence (the fact that the new, ambivalent idea of progress was as unique to England as industrialism itself), nor even from the fact that they were habitually spoken of in the same breath. It comes from their remarkable homologies, the specific ways that the ideological shape of Victorian progress was distorted to reflect the material ground beneath. This is what I mean when I speak of “industrial progress”as I will, throughoutI mean this vision of progress which girded the Victorian era and which was, in fact, the distorted, ideological image of industrialism itself.
A sequence from Dickens’ Dombey and Son shows the full, tortured path from industrialism to progress and then to disquiet. We begin with a description of Staggs’s Gardens, a London neighborhood in the throes of industrial turmoil:
The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighborhood to its center. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. …In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilization and improvement. (78-9)
What had been (one is invited to presume) a poor but still orderly community becomes a chaos of mangled and indifferent fragments: demolished houses, broken streets, jumbled carts, and “enormous heaps of earth.” A new railway line is the apparent cause, but coming upon the scene at this moment, the effect of destruction seems so overwhelming that it is hard to read the phrase “mighty course of civilization and improvement” with anything but the heaviest irony. Until, that is, some six years and 150 pages later, when Dombey and Son returns to the once-ruinous construction site:
The miserable waste ground, where the refuse-matter had been heaped of yore, was swallowed up and gone; and in its frowsy stead were tiers of warehouses, crammed with rich goods and costly merchandise. The old by-streets now swarmed with passengers and vehicles of every kind: the new streets that had stopped disheartened in the mud and waggon-ruts, formed towns within themselves, originating wholesome comforts and conveniences belonging to themselves, and never tried nor thought of until they sprung into existence. Bridges that had led to nothing, led to villas, gardens, churches, healthy public walks. (244-5)
In this light, the great changes at Staggs’s Gardens do seem to reflect a “mighty course of civilization and improvement.” To be sure, this new landscape is not without its problems, most notable among them the excessive concentrations of wealth implied by “villas,” “rich goods” and “costly merchandise.” But there are also “wholesome comforts and conveniences,” along with “gardens,” and “healthy public walks.” Progress, in the form of those real, material benefits that industrialism made possible. With the railway comes not only a “great earthquake” of disruption, but a host of improvements in economic efficiency and social opportunity.
As ever with industrial progress, however, these real improvements invite a new set of concernshaving once again to do with the fear of endlessness, a concern that even this beneficial change will cause us to suffer under a restless drive for further change and unyielding progress:
Crowds of people and mountains of goods, departing and arriving scores upon scores of times in every four-and-twenty hours, produced a fermentation in the place that was always in action. The very houses seemed disposed to pack up and take trips …Night and day the conquering engines rumbled at their distant work, or, advancing smoothly to their journey’s end, and gliding like tame dragons into the allotted corners grooved out to the inch for their reception, stood bubbling and trembling there, making the walls quake, as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers yet unsuspected in them, and strong purposes not yet achieved. (245-6)
The railway has remade everything in its own image. Not only do the trains rush to and fro, but so too do the “crowds of people”even the houses seem inclined to follow. There is no stopping this fermentation, and no telling what its ultimate byproduct will be. That, at least, is what the railway-dragons of the last lines would suggest. If they dilate with the “secret knowledge of great powers yet unsuspected in them” it is because they know, only too well, that someday they will cease to be railways and metamorphose into automobiles or airplanes or rockets or spacecrafts. Something faster, more powerful, and ever-more-promising. At that point, a new phase of fermentation will begin, as we follow those faster vehicles on more rapid trips along shifting routes until it has become utterly impossible to stop, rest, or find even a moment of calm. Industrialism doesn’t just remake neighborhoods, in other words, it remakes people, leaving them addicted to the perpetually unsatisfying arrival of the new and the ever-newer.
In each of these examplesfrom Dickens, Tennyson, and Millprogress is at once beneficial and disconcerting. There is no choosing between these possibilities, and no need to deny the gains of industrialism in order to be troubled. One could admit the gains (as virtually everyone did) and still worry that they were coming too quickly or too haphazardly, that they might stop, or that they might never stop. In fact, this ambivalence is one of the hallmarks of Victorian ideas of progress, one of the things that separates them from all previous ideas of progress and bespeaks their entanglement with the uneven unfolding of industrialism itself.
Not surprisingly, then, the same ambivalence also filtered into the work of Herbert Spencer, who devoted several of his early works to expounding what he called the fundamental “law” of progresswhich for him meant the expansion of complexity (Illustrations 1). The more intricate something was, the more complex it was, and the more complex the more advanced. Progress was the process by which systems developed “from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity, to a definite coherent heterogeneity,” taking unformed stuff and elaborating it into ever-more sophisticated arrangements (First Principles 396).25 For Spencer, this kind of progress was not just possible but inevitable, the result of a fact so basic that its power had never been properly recognized: “every cause produces more than one effect” (Illustrations 32). The engine of progress was nothing more complicated than that. Each single cause has multiple effects; those effects then become causes which produce their own, multiple effects, and the resulting cascade contributes to the growing complexity of all aspects of life. Now there are obvious problems with this definition. Even if it is true that individual causes produce multiple effects, why should those effects be intricately arranged, rather than random? And how, more particularly, could such a process explain the especially rapid economic progress of one particular island nation? But the important thing to notice is just how abstract this vision of progress really is. It has no predetermined endpoint, no ethical bearing, and no strong relation to the workings of human life. It transforms thingscells, cities, ecosystemswithout any regard for the integrity or specificity of those things. Indeed, it is essentially blind to all considerations except one, complexity, which it generates with a resistless single-mindedness. If it merits the term progress at all, it is not because it promises future happiness or future virtue but only because it guarantees that things will be more intricately arranged.
It may be worth pausing for a moment because we have stretched the notion of industrial progress quite far and I want to make perfectly clear that it has not broken. That Spencer belongs with Mill and Dickens and Tennyson in this same, central category. In the first place, his ideas still fit the basic definition of progress that we took from J. B. Bury; they still involve a notion of broad, social (indeed planetary) movement towards a more desirable destination (a world of greater complexity). They also, however, show the same persistent shadowing, itself the sign of industrial influence. Living through an era of material growth, Spencer envisioned progress in terms of base, material transformations, a blind relentless force which might increase the welfare of society, but which was utterly indifferent to that society’s own interests.
It’s in this last sense that Darwin, too, deserves to be counted among the great theorists of Victorian progress. Admittedly, Darwin himself was loath to use the word progress; he understood, better than most, that evolution was about fitness, rather than improvement (a point we will come back to in the chapter on Morris).26 Survival, alone, was no proof that a species was better, only that it was better fitted. And the many species that didn’t survive couldn’t be explained away by reference to an overarching Telos; because of course there was none. In another era, these would be reasons to drop the term progress altogether, but they are precisely what makes Darwin’s theory of evolution such a prototypically Victorian theory of progress. A dark progress, which might speed the world towards ever-more-desirable states (in this case, with ever-better-fitted species) but which is really just a weakly serendipitous arrangement of accidents, violence, and stark physical lawsfar removed from the transcendent power of Reason or Providence. The suggests a rather different way to think about the oft-discussed relation between Malthus and Darwin: where Malthus saw a bioeconomic trap that precluded all progress, Darwin saw one that made progress strangely inevitable.
Darwinian evolution is a universal, ineluctable force that increases the richness of the natural world without any regard for the welfare of its inhabitants. Spencer’s progress is a merciless fact that increases the complexity of human life without even distinguishing the human from the cellular. Both evince that same structure of imagination that we have been tracing through Victorian ideas of progress. That imbalance between one great hope and many smaller fears: the one hope of an evolving future cast against the fears of moving too quickly, of having no control, of being subject to an abstract and merciless agent, of trusting too completely to an empty future. And, as ever, the many fearsthough manyare all slightly outweighed by the one hope. (Working in the other direction, I argue in my last two chapters that the degenerationist clamor of the fin-de-siècle, and the emergence of modernism depend precisely on the dissolution of this uneasy balance).
Perhaps the clearest account of this new, imbalanced vision comes not from Tennyson, Spencer, or Darwin, but from a lesser public intellectual, Frederic Harrison, who is today remembered chiefly as the leading British positivist but who spread his interest across the fields of economics, politics, law, history, philosophy, and literature. All of the elements we have been tracingabout the speed of progress, its abstract inhumanity, its lack of direction, and its uncertain futurecame together in an 1882 public lecture he delivered, with the modest title “A Few Words About the Nineteenth Century.”
Heterodox though he was in some ways, Harrison did not attempt to deny the advances of industrialism; in fact, he insisted that “the last hundred years have seen in England the most sudden change in our material and external life that is perhaps recorded in history” (415):
For twenty thousand years every fabric in use has been twisted into thread by human fingers, and woven into stuff by the human hand. Machines and steam-engines now make 10,000 shirts in the time that was formerly occupied in making one. For twenty thousand years man has got no better light than what was given in pitch, tallow, or oil. He now has gas and electricity, each light of which is equal to hundreds and thousands of candles. Where there used to be a few hundred books there are now 100,000; and the London newspapers of a single year consume, I dare say, more type and paper than the printing presses of the whole world produced from the days of Gutenberg to the French Revolution. (414)
This is just a sample of what amounts to a page-long encomium to the achievements of the 19th century, from railways and steam-ships to telegraphs, cities, and the general affordability of all manner of commodities. Each, on its own, is a triumph, and together they reveal the undeniable fruits of what he calls “the mechanical glories of the last hundred years” (413).
There was, however, another side to the ledger, and certain as Harrison was of the many gains of industrialism, he was equally certain of its costs, beginning with the plague of poverty:
What is the good of carrying millions of people through the bowels of the earth, and at fifty miles an hour, if millions of working people are forced to live in dreary, black suburbs …? What is the use of electric lamps, and telephones and telegraphs, newspapers by millions, letters by billions, if sempstresses stitching their fingers to the bone can hardly earn fourpence by making a shift, and many a man and woman is glad of a shilling for twelve hours’ work? …And what if we can make a shirt for a penny and a coat for sixpence, and bring bread from every market on the planet, what do we gain if they who make the coat and the shirt lead the lives of galley slaves, and eat their bread in tears and despair, disease and filth?” (423)
There is a kind of bleak symmetry in Harrison’s account: for every railway, a dreary suburb; for every appliance, a starving seamstress; for every coat or shirt, an industrial slave. Each triumph of the industrial world finds its partner in poverty, despair, disease, and filth.
Yet, for Harrison as for so many Victorians, the most troubling aspect of industrial growth was not the poverty but the inhuman speed. Newness and bigness seemed to spread at a rate far faster than at any previous time, and too fast to be readily assimilated to the human experience:
Science, philosophy, education, become smothered with the volume of materials before they have learned to use them, bewildered by the very multitude of their opportunities. Art, manners, culture, taste, suffer by the harassing rapidity into which life is whirled on from old to new fashion, from old to new interest, until the nervous system of the race itself is agitated and weakened by the never-ending rattle …Rest and fixity are essential to thought, to social life, to beauty; and a growing series of mechanical inventions making life a string of dissolving views is a bar to rest and fixity of any sort. (424)
You can hear something of the anxiety of Tennyson’s “The Two Voices” and Dickens’s Dombey and Son in Harrison’s description. Industrialism seems to be driving so insistently towards the new and the newer that it bewilders thought and prohibits rest. Ever-new fashions and ever-new interests surface continually in a whirling process that strains the nerves nearly to the point of breaking. And behindhand, all the bits of accumulating knowledge pile up faster than we can master them. There may be more science, more knowledge, and more culture than ever before, but there is no way to organize the whole and nothing to give meaning to this growing mass of materials. Harrison, himself, would have counseled rest, except that rest was exactly what progress would not permit.
In the end, however, Harrison was no skeptic, and his was hardly a Benjaminian critique of the expanding chaos of life under progress. Even though he thought that industrialism had deepened poverty and even though he worried that it might damage the “the nervous system of the race,” he still believed in its promise of future advancement. That, in sum, is what makes Harrison’s talk such a revealing document. It shows the strange willingness of Victorian intellectuals to embrace those same forces which they knew had “dehumanized members of society” (426) and driven the whole “dancing mad” (425).
The railways, the factories, the telegraphs, the gas, the electric wonders of all kinds, are here. No latter-day sermons or societies of St. George can get rid of them, or persuade men to give up what they find so enormously convenient. Nay, the case is far stronger than this. These things are amongst the most precious achievements of the human race, or rather, they will be, when we have learned how to use them without all the evils they bring with them. (425)
Harrison is actually making several different claims in defense of industrialismand they fit together rather awkwardly. It is fruitless, Harrison says at first, to try to erase what is already done; industrialism has happened, and it can’t be made to un-happen. Fortunately for us, he also thinks that we needn’t try to make it un-happen, because in fact it has brought great benefits. “The railways, the factories, the telegraph,” he continuesthese things either are “amongst the most precious achievements of the human race” or they will be. The sentence is designed to imply both of these things, and to make it difficult to distinguish between them: industrialism is precious, and industrialism will be precious. Or, more accurately: industrialism is precious because progress will one day make it precious. It is the promise of industrialism, rather than the accomplishments, which is paramount, and it is the association of industrialism with progress which makes it valuable. Despite the dreary black suburbs and the endless restlessness, Harrison holds to the idea that society has moved, is moving, and will continue to move in a desirable directioneven as he acknowledges the terrible costs (material and psychological). Both were crucial to the notion of industrial progress, and always in this same, imbalanced way. For the Victorians, progress may have been an ambivalent idea but it was still a minimally trustworthy one, a resistless force which needn’t be resisted. Pain and progress were inseparable partners, but they were never equals.
We are now, finally, in a position to say why, precisely, the notion of progress is so crucial for understanding industrial literature. First, because it was reshaped, in the 19th-century, to match the mixed experience of industrial growth. Second, because Victorian literatureand then modernism tooseized on this epiphenomenon in order to grapple with the underlying changes of industrialism itself.
We might be tempted to ask, at this point, why writers took this approachwhy they preferred to view industrialism through the lens of progress rather than in some more direct fashion, but the first response to this must be to say that their approach was, in fact, quite direct. Industrialism, remember, means something more than the intensification of industry. It refers also to a break in economic history, when the long Malthusian sleep was finally ended and real, distributed growth first became possible. And it follows, as a kind of literary corollary, that writing about industry is not the surest way to write about industrialism. Scenes of factories and labor riots do not an industrial novel make, because such sequences do not in fact touch upon the most revolutionary aspect of industrial life. That requires something else: a far broader engagement with the radically new possibilities of growth and, beyond that, with the promise of progress that came smuggled alongside. The first reason, in other words, that writers approached industrialism through the medium of progress was because progress brought them closer to the heart of industrial change than any direct representation of class or railways ever could.
The second reason is that by approaching industrialism through progressrather than through machinerythese writers were exploiting the native resources of their craft. Progress was something more than a useful idea; it was in some sense a literary idea, an idea perfectly suited to the strengths of literature itself. It made aesthetic and intellectual demands that literature was particularly equipped to fill. One of those demands had to do with figural language, progress’s strange affinity for elaborate metaphors and grandiose images. There are countless examples of this, not least among them Marx’s concise phrase from The Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air.” The power of this line comes precisely from its ability to distill the complex anxiety of progress into a perfectly mixed metaphor, and you can find similarly mixed metaphors throughout Frederic Harrison’s lecture.27 At one point, in three consecutive sentences, Harrison manages to describe his fellow Victorians as “a-tiptoe with hope and confidence,” “on the threshold of a great time,” and certain that “great things are in the air” (415). My point, here, is not to deride these confused phrasings, but to show how considerable was the need for new figural resources when progress was being discussed. The future, industrialism seems to promise, will be better than the present: richer, more complex, happier. But since we have little control over where we are headed, we can know very little about what that future will actually look like, how it will be organized, or who, precisely, will get to live there. Figural language offers the boon of indirect description, gesturing towards the greatness of tomorrow without specifying the details. Progress, in some sense, cries out for figural language, and literaturewhich is so adept at figurationfound it easy to answer.
In addition to this affinity for figural language, there was another aspect of progress that suited it for literary appropriation: its ambivalence, which mirrored literature’s rare ability to hold in suspension a variety of competing ideas and feelings. This talent, which Keats called negative capability and Wolfgang Iser “the simultaneity of the mutually exclusive” (273), is a defining resource of literature in all its forms. And it matched, perfectly, the deep, unsettled ambivalence of industrial progress. With due respect for Harrison’s lecture, it was easier for a poem to do justice to this ambivalence than an essay, and easier for a narrative than a philosophy (the effect is so strong, in fact, that even fierce cultural critics, like Carlyle and Morris, who flirt with anti-progressive positions in their essays still make progress a guiding force of their fictions.) The great Victorian writers, and also the modernists who followed them, learned to exploit literature’s facility with ambivalence in order to fix some compound perspective on the mix of excitement and unease which characterized industrial progress; and they gained, in that way, a kind of representational authority over industrialism itself.
Recognizing thissimply noticing how profoundly the literary response to industrialism was shaped by progressallows us to see the full cultural reach of industrial change, not only its impact on the industrial novel but on genres as diverse lyric, Romance and spiritual autobiography.
Just as important, it helps us answer a crucial, if much-ignored question about modern literature, namely why a roughly similar experience of industrialism should have issued in literary movements as different as Victorian literature and modernism. For in many ways, these movements did share a common context: the context of urban industrial capitalism. And only in one case did the historical experience of shock and alienation produce an aesthetic of shock and alienation. The Victorians found a different path through the wilderness of industrialism, less tortuous and less tangled. And the reason they pursued this other, more even path was not because their experience of industrialism was less intense or less profoundto the contrary, it was in some ways more profound, being first and alone. The reason is that their experience of industrialism was still intimately connected with progress. For the Victorians, industrialism may have had its terrible aspect, but there was always this slight imbalance, the minimal excess of faith over fear.
By the time industrialism slipped England’s shores and crossed into Europe, however, that excess had eroded, worn down by decades of frantic activity and failed promises. The greatest difference between the first, Victorian phase of industrialism and the second, modernist one, in other words, is simply that one was first and the other second. The Victorians had no framework for judgment, no experience they could use to evaluate the changes that were reshaping their lives. The modernists, in contrast, could look back on the full history of Victorian England, and when they did they saw a less than reassuring pattern: urban poverty stubbornly entrenched, a daily pace unsuited to rest or calm, the narrowing of human life into economic life and of man into homo economicus. As a consequence, the once-firm pairing of industrialism with progress came unglued. What looked, even to the Victorians, like a railway driving frantically forward looked, to the modernists, like a railway that had run off the tracks. The great promise that had inspired so much of Victorian literature and culture was simply overwhelmed by the modernists’ greater experience of industrial pain, and one of the consequences was a new approach to literary experimentation and literary politics.
I mention literary politics, in particular, because it is one of the defining differences between modernism and Victorian literature. It is also a difference that becomes immediately comprehensible in light of this change in the status of industrial progress. Modernism’s commitment to formal radicalism as a mode of political radicalismand its insistent effort to make radical art the model for radical changederives precisely from its disenchantment with the kind of sequential, path-dependent improvements that progress entails. By contrast, the Victorian distaste for political and literary radicalism finds its very warrant in the still-ascendant vision of progress as a plodding agent of amelioration. One thing the comparison between modernism and Victorianism reveals, in other words, is that Victorian literature is not only the less political of the two but also less political than is usually imagined or argued. And ultimately, that should not be surprising. Those who trust to progress leave themselves little room for politics; they hold to the hope that progress itself will take care of the future, without any need for active engagement. The characteristic response of Victorian literature was, for that reason, not political but rather fictive. Unlike the modernists, Victorian writers rarely aspired to incarnate a new idea of the subject or a new model of society; they wrote in order to keep alive, in fiction, some treasured ideas that they knew they could not implement and dared not try.
The chapters that follow make these claims concrete and vivid by showing how various authors framed their relation to industrialism around the vanishing point of progress.
- A First Look: Carlyle
- Looking Ahead: Tennyson
- Looking In: Baudelaire
- Looking Back: Eliot
- Looking Out: Morris
- A New Look: Joyce
They are bound together, moreover, by a host of recurring tropes and shared preoccupations. The figure of Ulysses, for instance, which we see in Carlyle, Tennyson, Baudelaire, and Joyce. The feeling of homesickness, so prevalant in Tennyson, Eliot, Joyce, and Morris. And as a first, brief example, the effort to reconcile progress with closure and, even more so, with death.
At some point, each of these writers turns to Death as a resource against the endless openness of progress. Death’s fixity, its finality, its irrevocability helped them to concentrate, in a single image, their sense of progress’ ultimate inhumanity, its indifference to the natural rhythms of human life. For centuries, the rise and fall of civilizations had been metaphorically linked to the growth and decline of individuals, the ages of the world aligned to the ages of man.28 Industrialism disabled that analogy, creating a dismal tension between the endlessly improving world and the inescapable end of each mortal.29 But in this tension, there lay also a bleak kind of comfort, a reminder of the essential needsfor rest, for fulfillment, for ending, for deaththat limitless progress simply could not fulfill.
For the remainder of this introduction, though, the feature of industrial literature I most want to emphasize is not its flirtation with death but its obsession with agency, or rather the enervation of agency in the landscape of industrial progress. Because the simple idea that history itself was driving towards a brighter future had a profound impact on the imagination of human activity. What was left for people to do? Steer? Prepare? Get out of the way? We have already seen some of the ways this problem gets figured: in Huskisson’s resonant death, Spenser’s abstract law, and Dickens’s trembling engines. But these are just a few, and the threat of human impotence is one of the great touchstones of industrial literature.
What follows, then, is not a series of chapter summaries but a selective path through the whole, a first agency-inflected glimpse at the unfamiliar topography of this new industrial literature, with Baudelaire beside Tennyson, and Joyce close to Eliot (George, that is). There are, to be sure, still ways to find the old footing: the Victorianist can begin with the Introduction, move through Carlyle, Tennyson, and Eliot, and then finish with Morris; the Modernist, by contrast, can jump from the introduction to Baudelaire, and again to the Morris before ending with Joyce. There is a certain logic to each of these routes; they correspond, roughly, to two parts of my argument: 1) that the Victorian conception of progress provides a new framework for understanding the relation between industrialism and literature; 2) that this same framework makes the association of modernism with modernity untenable and compels a new approach to modernist style. The trouble, however, is that some of the most interesting questions have, instead, to do with the crossing of these arguments. If the Victorians stood on the shifting ground of industrial modernity, why isn’t their literature more appropriately unstable? Or, from the other direction, why should modernism have Paris as its home if England was always the more modern place? To make it more concrete: why should Baudelaire have sent one of his few presentation copies of the Fleurs du Mal to an English poet he had never met, Alfred Tennyson.
If we are going to answer these kinds of questions, we have to abandon any expectation of easy chronology. Any hope that the discourse of industrial progress might beginin some incipient waywith Carlyle, gather force through the Victorian period, and finally break down into modernism. Not that this is altogether wrong, but neither is it not right enough to do much historical work.
Focusing on agency makes the inadequacy of such an approach immediately clear. Because far from being partial, initial, or in any way preparatory, Carlyle’s call for heroic human action was as strident as anything that followed (just as his prose was as fully fractured as any modernism could wish). He was among the first to recognize the full, systemic nature of industrial change, and the very first to bring the word industrialism into English. But the real reason my first chapter belongs to him is because he was the first to make industrialism a problem for literaturenot just industry, that is, but the full, frightful, and thrilling sweep of industrial growth. It is all there in Carlyle’s one, great work of imaginative fiction, Sartor Resartus. And far from expressing the kind of arch reactionism so often associated with Carlyle, what Sartor offers is a qualified embrace of industrial progress. An embrace that comes with one grand caveat: let us have growth, but only if we can have agency as well. If we can take this engine of creative destruction which has done so much (and promised so much more) and turn it, adapt it, harness it so that it will produce not just material gains but spiritual ones as well. The same energy of improvement, only redirected by noble hands.
Carlyle himself thought Tennyson a kind of partner in this work. “I have just been reading your Poems,” he wrote to Tennyson just after its 1842 publication. “I have read certain of them over again, and mean to read them over and over till they become my poems …Truly it is long since in any English Book, Poetry or Prose, I have felt the pulse of a real man’s heart as I do in this same. A right valiant, true fighting, victorious heart;” (I.82). Coming from Carlyle, this talk of a “real man’s heart” counts as the highest praise. But, in reality, Tennyson was much less strident, less obstreporous, and less self-certain, at least in his poetry. Which is not to say that he was less sensitive to the workings of industrialism. He, too, felt its great promise, and he too worried about its terrible costs. But for Tennyson, the erosion of human agency was not something that could be heroically redeemed; it was instead something that had to be accommodated. Progress was a force too grand to be challengedand too beneficial, in any event. What Tennyson’s early poems offer, instead, is an expressly minimal kind of recompense, a hint of effective community which can serve, when necessary, but which is nonetheless weak and deliberately ineffectual. Not a robust model of collective agency but rather a social salve for collective impotence.
Tennyson and Baudelaire were not friends, the way Tennyson and Carlyle were. Indeed, the very suggestion can sound ludicrousthe enfant terrible and the laureate together. But Baudelaire admired Tennyson, and as I’ve already said, he sent Tennyson one of the first presentation copies of Les Fleurs du Mal. More than that, Baudelaire was a devotee of English literature. Indeed, what I argue in this chapter is that it was not Baudelaire’s direct engagement with the experience of 19th-century Paris that made him the first modern poet; it was his distant relation to the literature and life of that more urban, more industrial, and more intensively capitalist place, England. His truest literary partners were English poets, and his allusions and borrowing, in particular, all came from what he considered his secret society of cursed writers toiling away across the channel. One of those whom he read carefullyand imitated freelywas Tennyson. The final poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, “Le Voyage,” is a response to Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” building atop Tennyson’s lines its own answer to the question of how to live without agency: cherish death. Even if we can no longer shape our unfolding lives, at least in death we can escape the compulsive force of progress and accomplish our own most personal destiny.
As compared to Carlyle, Tennyson, or Baudelaire, George Eliot’s response to industrialism was far more oblique. She didn’t scour the shifting present or face the glowing future; she looked to the past. Not for an answeras if we might learn how to act, today, by seeing how it was once donebut as a kind of compensatory memory. Despite the fact that she didn’t think of it as a happier or richer time, for Eliot the past retained a profound imaginative value as the repository of certain ideas and values which could ease our rattling journey into the distant, if still happier future. Middlemarch, in particular, shows us a pre-industrial world dotted with a few, noble actorsthose Dorotheas and Lydgates. But what we see of them, ultimately, is their failure, their tragedy, their inability to accomplish what they had hoped. In that way, Middlemarch fulfills one of the great, paradoxical demands of the time: it provides a single image of agency which can stand both as testament to the nobility of human ideals and as warning against the futility of trying to enact them. This was Eliot’s finely-tuned solution, a form of nostalgia strong enough to remind us of the living dignity industrial England had left behind, but still weak enough to check any more thoroughoing reactionism.
Not even Utopian fiction, in fact, could imagine a more vigorous kind of response. For fin-de-siècle writerslike William Morris, H. G. Wells, W. H. Hudson, and Oscar WildeUtopia no longer seemed vitally connected to action or revolution; instead, it required great foresight, long patience, and an extended period of waiting. What these writers were waiting for, moreover, was something new: not the fulfillment of progress but rather the boon of degeneration. By this point, declining economic conditions, heightened fears of urban-born disease, and the growing discourse of degeneration had blunted the appeal of industrial progress. These Utopian fictions therefore plot a different route into the gleaming future, where what is required is not complexity, but rather simplicity, and decline instead of development; only if humans become lesser beings can they find a richer community. The trouble is that this process takes time, long stretches of time. “Rise up today,” the slogan might be, “and someday in the distant future some people utterly unlike yourselves might be happy.” That attenuated promise is the only justification for radical action in these texts. But, when accepted, it makes Utopia possible and rescues something of the old Victorian ideal of the glorious future.
By the time of the Great War, even this final wager had been given up. As industrialism leapt the bounds of Britain and spread to new areas of the world, Victorian progress lost its force and Victorian England its primacy. My final chapter looks towards the new dynamic of experimental literature, timeworn progress, and international industrialism that drove high modernism. For the modernists, industrialism was still a fearsome fact, and its ability to produce economic growth still very much acknowledged, but the idea that this kind of growth should count as progress now seemed rather dubious, if not fully fatuous. Part of what makes James Joyce’s Ulysses so paradigmatic a modernist text is its easy dismissal of progress and its casual attachment to the not-yet-industrial. Joyce’s Dublin was a city that had been passed over by industrialismonce a leading European capital but long the site of acute economic decline. For Joyce, however, it is precisely decline which makes Dublin such a richly human city, a city of people whose little lives and little acts still matter. Against the entire tradition of Victorian literature and Victorian progress, Ulysses exemplifies a new, modernist vision which makes the trivial tremendous, the petty grand, and each everyday agent a figure of universal significance.
1 Catherine Gallagher’s excellent The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction was published in 1985over 25 years agoand Raymond Williams’ inimitable Culture and Society in 1958, just over 25 years before that. Whether more recent work on commodity culture, credit markets, or urbanization are, in fact, treatments of industrialism by another name is a question we will need to revisit.
2 The basic model for this approach comes from Louis Cazamian’s The Social Novel in England: Dickens, Disraeli, Mrs. Gaskell, Kingsley , published in 1903.
3 For a recent argument about the legacy of this approach, see Collini and Mulhern
4 See also Bodenheimer.
5 The collection by Osteen and Woodmansee provides a rich introduction.
6 For another comparison of pre-industrial agriculture with hunter-gatherer groups, see Diamond.
7 For more detailed accounts, see Clark, Perkin, Jones.
8 It was this strangely parochial view of historical development that piqued Bagehot and inspired his wonderfully damning charge against Smith, namely that his work shows “how from being a savage, man rose to be a scotchman” (rpt. in Almond 39).
9 Mill is a good test case for this, because he was more likely to think in terms of progress when most removed from economic discourse, and most likely to reflect on the possibility of a stationary state when closest.
10 Similar statements appeared in the British Quarterly Review (1851) and Victorian Magazine (1866).
11 Since Buckley, far more work has been done with evolution than with progress, including such major studies as Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots and George Levine’s Darwin and the Novelists . But evolution and progress are not the same thingthough they are certainly related, in ways that I will explore later.
12 Bury actually uses the term “civilization,” rather than society. Other good, if rather sweeping, studies of progress include Passmore, Nisbett, and van Doren. For alternate definitions, see Ruse, Spadafora, Almond.
13 For a much fuller reading of 19th-century self-improvement, see Andrew Miller’s inimitable Burdens of Perfection .
14 The precise definition of ideology is one of the more slippery questions in marxist criticism. Althusser, Eagleton, and Ricoeur all offer rich and interesting accounts.
15 Something of this scientistic vision of Progress can still be found in the Victorian period, as for instance in the work of Babbage and Huxley. For more, see Buckley.
16 Spadafora and Peter Gay have both authored excellent studies on enlightenment theories of progress and its many opponents.
17 Not surprisingly, this view was kept alive by religious thinkers. Newman called progress “a slang term” and Pope Pius IX listed it among the errors in his Sylabus Errorum of 1864 (Buckley 42, 46)
18 Machiavelli imagines this cycle in political terms (democracy gives rise to oligarchy which gives rise to tyranny which then gives rise to democracy) but there was a competing 18th-century view that progress created wealth which lead to luxury, then decadence and decline. For more, see Jack.
19 It should be said that the extent of this collapse was limited to the idea of European and, somewhat more narrowly, British progress. Arguments about the pace and possibility of advancement in the colonies continued to follow the older, enlightenment pattern, where the world was neatly divided into the stages of civilization and advancement from one to the other could only be ensured by proper European oversight. Only at the metropole was progress indisputable and inevitable.
20 One parallel would be Zlotnick’s argument that men and women developed very different ways of relating to the rise of industry. Another would be Buckley’s original work.
21 The connection between progress and providence was vital in the American context as wellall the way through the 19th-century and up until their industrial break. The Merchants Magazine captured the link beautifully, in their 1848 article on the subject. The darker, more fully industrial vision of progress made its full appearance only later, in texts like The Education of Henry Adams .
22 This was not the only distinguishing characteristic of Victorian progress. One could point, with only slightly less emphasis, to its dramatic foreshortening. During the Enlightenment, progress was generally understood to require lifetimes and centuries; the Victorians had a much more quick-working, and much more tumultuous, power in mind.
23 And the poem goes some way to reinforcing this position as it unfolds.
24 To pursue the analogy with political economy, Tennyson’s lines seem to echo a passage from J. R. McCulloch’s Principles of Political Economy , about the spur of endless desire: “When, indeed, the end is compassed, when the object of our exertions has been attained, it may, perhaps, be found not worth the trouble of acquiring; or, though prized at first, the enjoyment may pall upon the sense. But this, instead of discouraging, invariably tempts to new efforts ; so that the pursuit of even imaginary conveniences, of riches, distinctions, and enjoyments that can never be realized, is productive of an intensity of gratification, unknown in the apathy of a fixed or permanent situation” (533).
25 In fact, this was only Spencer’s more mature, and more subdued version. At an earlier stage, he wrote: “The modifications mankind have undergone, and are still undergoing, result from a law underlying the whole organic creation; and provided the human race continues, and the constitution of things remains the same, those modifications must end in completeness. …as surely as there is any meaning in such terms as habit, custom, practice;so surely must the human faculties be moulded into complete fitness for the social state; so surely must evil and immorality disappear; so surely must man become perfect” ( Illustrations 32).
26 Ruse has made a strong argument that evolutionary theory (including Darwin’s) drew a great deal of its force from a very widespread and often unscientific belief in progress. And there is also the evidence of The Origin of Species , which confidently concludes that “as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection” (215).
27 Marshall Berman’s book of the same title is rich with this kind of figural play.
28 Turgot and Condorcet both use this idea (Almond 34-5), as does Comte (Nisbett 25).
29 Gallagher suggests, interestingly, that Malthus had already severed this pairing (albeit in the opposite direction) by making individual improvement a threat to social improvement ( Body Economic 37).