Reader’s ReportOxford, UK, July 2009
This is a manuscript written by a remarkably sharp critic and a fine writer (despite many typos and considerable repetitionas in the first sentence which informs us that “the world’s first passenger railway carried its very first passengers”). Although I dwell on its problems below, this is because I think the author will benefit more from critique than from praise. There is no deficit of intelligence here, and no want of insight. Horowitz offers terrific ideas about progress and change, and much of what he says deserves to be published in some form or other. Unfortunately, in its present state, I do not think the best way to air these ideas is in the form of a book.
The manuscript reads like the effort of an unpractised hand, which is not to suggest that the arguments are sophomoric, only that the construction of the book is inexperienced. To begin, at the risk of falling at once into the Casaubon trap, one might counsel critics of Victorian culture to avoid the claim of presenting “the real, unacknowledged key to understanding” anything, including something as vast and complicated as “the relation between industrialism and Victorian literature” (2). Can there be a key so strong as to unlock the springs which drive the multitude of connections between these two central features of the period? Even ‘progress,’ about which Horowitz writes with much erudition and nuance, is too narrow to bear the burden of this great responsibility. Progress is implicated in many ways of course, but even so, progress is just one type of process, the more neutral and widely embracing term which at least covers a wider area and broadens the scope and scale of discussion. As an argument his claim is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the phenomenaindustrialism and literaturehe sets out to explore, but insofar as he offers his claim as an approach to an enormously unwieldy topic, it successfully introduces us to clarifying moments, primary issues and notable figures in the life and literature of industrial Britain. But the indefinite and porous phraseology leaves him witout a strong argument. It is a problem of smaller magnitude, but a similar difficulty arises with his claim that because industrialism and literature depend on the figural, it is natural to study their conjunction. Put thus baldly the weakness of such a deduction is striking: intersection is not sufficient proof that the two are identical. I agree with Horowitz that a re-evaluation of the relation between industrialism and literature is desirable, but he needs to strengthen the shape of his argument before his work can accomplish the task. It is unclear to me why he chooses to hang progress onto industry at all. Why not just write directly about progress? I may be wrong as to the actual construction of the book, but it reads as if the chapters were written before they were conceived of as a whole. The introductory chapter seems like a desperate attempt to find some umbrella to cover the disparate parts. And to some extent it succeeds. This would be (and probably was) a fine dissertation.
I am less sanguine about what I see as a major difficulty, not in the way he presents his argument, but in the inattentiveness to historical process which he treads over with a light foot in pursuit of the ideology of progress. Horowitz blithely crosses over decades as if they were minutes; he assumes a strikingly ahistorical stance towards the relations between ideas and conditions, the material and the ideological. Progress “was not only a historical preoccupation but a formal one as well” (32); progress, he asserts, is not just idea, it is ideology. Historical contextualization is subordinate to some other concept, always receding as another approach advances. How else can we justify a study that moves from Carlyle to Joyce without so much as a nod to the vast historical differences that make up the density of days and decades? For him, the claim that progress is ideology seems to indicate that change, insofar as it is progress, is suspended in an everlasting movement forward. Historicity, that awareness of living in time, at a specific moment and in particular conditions, this is relatively absent from his study. Although he nods to historical precision in statements like, “The England of 1870 was hardly identical to the England of 1830” (152); his more typical procedure is to affect indifference, as when he refers early on to “a mere two decades” which separate two publications. The point is not to catch him in a contradiction which is easily remedied; the problem is that his subject is historical but his method is not primarily or consistently so. The main consequence is, as I’ve indicated, an absence of historical contextualization. But there are formal consequences as well, the most damaging of which is an arbitrary ordering of chapters. Each chapter is fully realized on its own but fairly indifferent as part of a whole. Why move from Carlyle toTennyson, Baudelaire, Eliot and Morris (etc.)? And why begin the chapter on Eliot with “It is time to turn back”? There is nothing in the argument which makes this the proper moment for a consideration of Eliot. Chapter breaks should not stand in lieu of argumentative transitions. It is not always that such transitions can’t be found. For example, there is a good transition to be made from Eliot to utopian fiction of the last two decades in the century, but he makes no remark at all on the movement from Eliot to Morris. On a more local scale comparisons and connections between works would strengthen his argument. For instance, in examining the nature of the rest procured in “Locksley Hall” and “The Lotus Eaters,” Horowitz notes that the ease depends on the hard labor and comforts denied to others. These, of course, are fit images for industrial relations, and they could be connected to the analysis he provides for utopic literature in the last full chapter. In short, each chapter relates to progress, but there are few attempts (too few) to tie them to one another. In fact, the chapters would be equally compelling read in any number of sequences, and while this speaks to the integrity of each, it makes for a rather sloppy whole.
He defines progress as ceaseless and agitated movement, and then proceeds to find it in a variety of works. So what? The description is excellent; his interpretation of individual pieces is often original and provoking and always lively and engaging. But there is no adequate analysis of the relations between industry and literature apart from the general comments covered in the introductory chapter. Once he substitutes progress for industry, he doesn’t examine the permutations which occur in the perception of industry as they unfold in the works of particular authors, or as they transpire in the technical, social and economic realms of culture. Finally, in this regard, he speaks of an “instinct for progress” (97), without realizing the implication of such designation. If progress is not only an external process, if the desire for it refers not only to an internalized psychic mechanism, but also to a biological phenomenon, then how do the British distinguish their fervent pursuit of it from the ‘laziness’ they identify in other races? And if there is an “instinct” for progress, how is it that we can analyse it historically as an effect of the Victorian period and the industrial revolution?
Somewhere in that first chapter there needs to be discussion about why he has chosen these authors to represent the way Victorian literature responded to industry. Perhaps his intent is to make this clear in the body of each chapter, but if so, this isn’t enough. Sometimes it seems as if a particular author is chosen because s/he is representative of many others who hold similar perspectives, while at other times it seems as if the selection is based on some peculiarity which reveals aspects we might not have noted had another, more typical author been chosen. Finally, selection might depend on the type or degree of influence an author’s works wielded over the minds of others. Is it some or all of the above? Then tell us so. I am particularly puzzled by the inclusion of Baudelaire. Much as I enjoy the chapter, the turn to Baudelaire seems anachronistic and eccentric. Only in the Afterward, when the subject of modernism arises again in prominent fashion, does the precedent seem necessary. Otherwise, he does not adequately explain why the status of Baudelaire’s modernity is of such issue in this study. Furthermore, if he is going to turn to the continent, why not mention others, like Nietzsche, whose views also influence many of the English writers? Again we face the compelling need first to establish reason for choosing these authors, and next to explain their inter-relationship. What guides movement from one author to the next? Where is the argument that connects them? There needs to be a larger connection besides that of how each integrates a vision of progress within the creative work. A reader should meet each chapter with recognition’ah yes’not surprise’who next?’ Finally, in this review of the overall form, one should note that although he is interested in generic representation, there is little comparison of the different genres. Does he mean to suggest that some differences in attitude and depiction of progress derive from sensibility, while others derive from the form in which they are expressed?
Separate from the question of selection of author is the question of selection of text. The decision to focus each chapter largely on a single work is fraught, especially in the chapters on Carlyle and George Eliot. This is because in both authors the attitudes are complex and changing, and the works are various. I will say something about Eliot in a moment, but already in the first chapter on Carlyle the pattern for bending the record to suit the claim is set. Sartor Resartus may be a representative Victorian text, but it is not wholly representative of Carlyle’s view of history and progress. Horowitz acknowledges that like “so many Victorians,” Carlyle felt that “progress was always dangerously mixed” (60). Progress is mixed, but no more so than Carlyle’s attitudes towards it, and while Sartor Resartus offers a fine partial representation , it does not provide a full sample of Carlyle’s attitudes towards history or progress as he articulated them over the next three decades of writing. For example, the claim that for Carlyle, history is “a long, episodic, destructive, and violent process of improvement” fits nicely with the image of industrial progress Horowitz elucidates, but although it is a fair assessment of Carlyle’s position in Sartor Resartus (1833-4), it hardly captures the nuances of his historical perspective in the fifties or again, in the sixties. Carlyle wrote too prolifically and variously about historyits processes, figures, cycles, and linear developmentfor Horowitz to use this one early text as an adequate sample of the rest.
The problem of a single text emerges also in the chapter on George Eliot, in which Middlemarch serves as the exemplary text. Here the problem is not that Eliot changed her mind over time, but that the method she employs in her fictions set in times past is not substantively different from that she employs for contemporary times. There is a contradiction at a clinching moment of the Eliot chapter. Horowitz makes a good case for associating the success of Eliot’s realism with the density of her fictional world. And, although he is slightly ambiguous about her relation to the past, he is convincing when he argues that Eliot selects images of successful communities forged in times past as guidance for advance (progress) in the future. The difficulty is that Eliot’s capacity to render fully a picture of the past is not commensurate with the actual past. Thick description and full rendition cannot be equated with a “complete” picture, and he accepts this when he acknowledges the defect in Kebbel’s assumption that if Eliot left out the degradations of impoverishment, such conditions must not have been prevalent. Indeed, we might go so far as to readjust his claims in order to capture more precisely Eliot’s historical appreciation and her artistic method. Eliot has a “preference” (147) not for the past, but for the imagined past, which she depicts realistically. The picture should not be confused with the actual past. It is the past embellished by her imagination, memory and research. And it is endowed with consistency never, or at least almost never, found outside of art. He even acknowledges earlier that this embellishment is precisely what lends it that ‘supra’ quality, indicated by intensity and vividness. It is no more ‘actual’ than anything else written in the realistic mode as it was practised in the nineteenth century. His suggestion that Eliot writes about the past in such a way that it appears “more real” than reality because she can see it more clearly than anyone can see the present coincides with the naive point of view that realism and reality share a closer relation than other literary modes do in their relations to the world. Is Eliot’s depiction of contemporary times in Daniel Deronda any less dense or richly imagined than her depiction of the past in any of the other novels? Her depiction of the future in that novel is less realized, and deliberately so, but the present is as thick as is the picture of England on the verge of the first reform bill in Middlemarch.
The inattentiveness to history results in some interpretive manipulation. For example, he rightly points out Eliot’s placement of Dorothea within a spiritual context, but he wrongly assumes that this should be associated with some notion of an aristocratic past, the presence of which appears only in “its belated after-image, a few still-aspiring souls left to toil in the world of the crowd” (170). Surely omission of representation of the idealized aristocratic past would be a severe oddity in an author whose hope for the future derives from this moment in the past. He produces no evidence for thiswhy should spirit be equated with aristocratic? Certainly this is not an association which would have been current either in the 1820s and 30s or in the late 1860s and early 70s. Furthermore, such an idea would have been anathema to Eliot’s project, in which the aristocracy appears in the important but minor role of the Chettams and their relations. Dorothea is associated with the realm of the ideal, which has no exact counterpart within either a feudal or a class system; we should not assume her gifts are aristocratic or elitist. In fact, Dorothea is not a creature whose time has passed so much as a creature whose time has not yet arrived. She is one of those who mark the indefinite future, within the reach of ‘progress,’ but at its horizon. If he is looking for a creature of the past, he should look to the Garth. Mr. Garth, like Mr. Farebrother, is drawn from the realm of nostalgia, while Mary hovers on the boundaries between past, present and future. Mary will carry Fred successfully into the present just as Dorothea will carry Will into the future (although maybe his time still has not arrived). He proposes to substitute his notion of ‘nostalgic realism’ for tragedy or hopelessness as a way of appreciating Eliot’s affirmation rather than recording her despondence about the present. But this insistence on her backward looking is overdone to the extent that it fails to capture her belief, her profound belief, in the science of adaptation, the political analogue of which is reform. If one reform fails, another will succeed, and over time, over long periods of time, there will gradually come into being new forms for social, political and interpersonal relations. He never mentions the word reform in discussing this novel in which it is directly associated with the haphazard way in which progress occurs. In fact, reform may be the best way to reconcile nostalgia with progress. It may be the missing step which weakens the argument as it now stands. If Eliot has returned to the period just before the first Reform Bill as she writes just after passage of the Second Reform Bill, it is not necessarily out of disillusionment (as sometimes is claimed) so much as it is an attempt to offer another scenario. Something similar might be said of Felix Holt as well. If particular reforms fail, Eliot does not fault the process so much as the execution or the specific shape given to the attempt.
There is a kind of logic, untraced, in the way his argument moves from Eliot to the Utopianists, and to Morris in particular. Horowitz describes Morris as looking backwards, and locating his utopia in the imagined simplicities of the communal life in earlier societies. The ‘garden life’ so imagined is just another version of Dorothea’s fantasy of ‘cottage life,’ which Eliot rejects with one hand only to affirm it with the other. Middlemarch (the town) is no agricultural haven, and yet it is no metropolis either. And though Eliot scorns many of the practices of powerful individuals in the community, she nonetheless depicts a thriving town. Finally, both Eliot and Morris could be connected to Carlyle’s fantasy of a similarly past-driven retreat. I disagree with the argument itself, but if he is going to make it, he should at least strengthen it by showing where and how it touches the authors included in his own study. What he says about progress and evolution is fascinating and important, but he leaps too quickly to the subject. Just as in the chapter on Eliot he needs to analyze the relation between progress and reform, in this chapter he needs to consider first the relation between progress, utopia and desire. He sometimes writes as if these are synonyms, and clarification is wanting. He has throughout asserted the connection with regard to progress: progress is defined by its movement “in a desirable direction.” And though he is right to insist on the need for abstraction with regard to the nature of desire (it must be flexible enough to alter according to time, circumstance, individual, etc.), there are even so certain qualities essential to it. We see this notably when one of these qualities is denied, or omitted. For instance, he describes the utopic vision of believers in urban degeneration as “a system that effortlessly harmonizes pleasure with necessity and production with consumption” (189). But this fantasy answers need rather than desire; it is not properly utopic. Desire always involves some degree of superfluity rather than simple necessity (which answers to need), and t utopia is bound to have some encounter with the former and not just the latter. Without greater analysis of this relationship we can’t fully capture Morris’s ambivalence towards his own utopic images. Indeed, Horowitz himself notes the anxiety without giving it the importance it deserves. We have only to recall that the whole of News From Nowhere depends on the desire borne of dissatisfaction, and that in the end the narrator Guest chooses to return to his own conflicted nineteenth century. Many have called News From Nowhere a dystopia for this very reason, and not as Horowitz suggests, because Morris felt unfit to enjoy the benefits of utopic life. Lying in bed and watching the sunbeams satisfies only the desire that disease spawns; it would not satisfy the desire of a healthy, vital and energetic being upon waking up and facing a glorious day. Dorothea and Will may be evolutionary misfits, but William Guest is simply a character who realizes the nature of desire. The reason progress and utopia cannot achieve an end to desire is because each condition generates an impulse for difference, in kind, quality or quantity. Guest can imagine a utopia that addresses his desires, and, if Horowitz is right, his desire is to imagine the kind of life desirable to those who never experienced the divisions and conflicts rife in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In this sense, Guest has fulfilled his desire even though he doesn’t experience the satisfaction he thought would be his. I think this kind of adjustment is necessary to make a more precise case, and thus a stronger and more persuasive argument. And a consideration of desire would lead inevitably towards the connection between utopic narratives and death, with which Horowitz wants to conclude this part of his discussion.
The last thing one wants in an Afterward is a summary of what came before. Horowitz astutely realizes this, and his movement forward leaves us with the feeling that the work of progress has yet to be accomplished. However, in this book, which moves so carelessly from the mid-thirties to the end of the century, the jump into Joyce’s Dublin seems more consistent than it ought to. The problem of history is integral to the progress of ‘progress,’ and Horowitz needs to come to terms with this before his many fine insights will settle into a book. At this point then, I would recommend to him publication as a series of articles, and to the press, a recommendation not to publish this manuscript as a book.