Reader’s ReportCharlottesville, Virginia, September 2010
Evan Horowitz has chosen to undertake the most ambitious sort of critical project, a reconsideration of a small group of major canonical writers. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a group of authors more important than those on whom Horowitz focuses. Horowitz promises to fundamentally reorient our understanding of these landmark figures and the period they represent. Unfortunately, I do not believe the manuscript delivers on this promise, and therefore I cannot recommend its publication, at least in its current form. I am, however, impressed with Horowitz’s critical skills, and I believe that with some reshaping, the manuscript could make a significant contribution to the field.
Scholarship and contribution to the field: One of the manuscript’s shortcomings is evident in the first sentences of the introduction. Horowitz asserts, “A generation has now passed without a thorough reexamination of the relationship between industrialism and literature. Indeed, the whole issue is taken as more or less settlednothing more than the old story of classes and factories, specialization and alienation, steam-engines, spinning jennies, and novels by Disraeli and Gaskell” (4). In the footnote accompanying the first of these sentences, he paints a barren scholarly landscape indeed, noting that Catherine Gallagher’s The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction appeared nearly a quarter century ago and Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society a quarter century before that. I understand the opening gambit, the ritual gesture of clearing space for one’s own argument. But in this particular case, the gesture is too bald. Unless one places tremendous weight on the qualifier “thorough,” the opening sentence is simply falseespecially given Horowitz’s broad understanding of “industrialism.” I would suggest that the case is less that the relationship between industrialism and literature has gone unexamined than that it has been integrated into the very fabric of the scholarship in the field. I could grant Horowitz’s assertion if by scholarship on industrialism he meant treatment of representations of factories and machines, or even of industrial novels and the Condition of England question. But he doesn’t mean that. As he explains later in his introduction, “industrialism” for him means “the changing dynamics of economic growth” in the early nineteenth century that allowed the Victorians to escape “the Malthusian trap.” Given this expansive understanding of the term, I can imagine a great deal of work that could be characterized as scholarship on “the relationship between industrialism and literature.” What about the line of work focused on Victorian commodity culture, extending from Thomas Richards’s The Commodity Culture of Victorian England (1991) and Andrew Miller’s Novels Behind Plate-Glass (1995) to Elaine Freedgood’s The Ideas in Things (2006)? If the conditions of life outside the Malthusian trap are characterized by urbanization and increased material abundance, then the scholarship on commodity culture is highly relevant. Another line of work that would seem to have some relevance, especially given Horowitz’s concern with differentiating Victorian literature from the literature of high modernism, is the array of work on technology, the body, and modernity. Here I would mention Tim Armstrong’s Modernism, Technology, and the Body (1998), Erin O’Connor’s Raw Materials: Producing Pathology in Victorian Literature (2000), and John Ulrich’s Signs of Their Times: History, Labor, and the Body in Cobbett, Caryle, and Disraeli (2002). Neither of the first two of these books, to be sure, is specifically on the relationship between literature and industrialism, but they both bear in different ways on Horowitz’s larger project. The third of these books would serve as an interesting foil for Horowitz, because it is a recent articulation of the standing view of the literary response to industrialism, which he rejects. Horowitz does cite Regenia Gagnier’s The Insatiability of Human Wants (2000) and Catherine Gallagher’s The Body Economic (2006), but he engages these only in passing. My purpose in putting pressure on these opening sentences of the introduction is not to hold Horowitz responsible for acknowledging every last work of relevance to his project. It is, rather, to suggest that the scholarly conversation Horowitz wishes to enter is already far richer than he supposesor at least represents it to be. It is to suggest that if Horowitz were to more fully situate his own strong readings in relation to this, hi sown argument would be sharper and more compelling. Horowitz’s thesis is essentially revisionist: Victorian writers conventionally understood to be fundamentally anti-industrial in their outlook in fact accepted or even championed industrialism and industrial progress. This revisionist argument would have more impact if Horowitz were to show (as he could) that the views he is revising are still in circulation.
A fuller engagement with the scholarship could also help to sharpen his readings at the local level. Consider, for example, Horowitz’s explication of the block quotation on sham wares from Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (71-72). As it is, the explication simply summarizes the passage. Had he engaged with the scholarship on commodity culture, his explication could have been far more probing. Carlyle’s condemnation of sham wares is not generically Victorian. At a minimum, it belongs to the first half rather than the last half of the century. Some engagement with the scholarship on Victorian commodity culture would have allowed Horowitz to historicize Carlyle’s stance toward manufactured things more fully than he does. There are reasons that Carlyle, writing in the 1840s, holds the views that he does; there are reasons this passage could not have been written in, say, the 1880s. Some of these reasons have to do with Carlyle’s individual perspectives, but others have to do with the history of manufactured objects and their reception. Again, I am not asking for a pedantic bibliographic rehearsal. But I do think there is work out there that could help Horowitz sharpen his arguments.
- Other books on the subject: Horowitz is right that little has been published recently narrowly on the relationship between Victorian literature and industrialism. But as I have suggested above, my sense is that this is because that question is now distributed, at least implicitly, throughout much current work in Victorian studies. Much of the work on questions of culture would seem to be relevant to Horowitz’s project.
Manuscript’s style and organization: Horowitz has an engaging voice, and the argument unfolds at a reasonable pace. One minor reservation about Horowitz’s styleand I will acknowledge that this is a matter of tasteis that I occasionally found him too glib. I don’t regard this aspect of his style as a major fault, but I did notice it and was at times bothered by it. I also noticed occasional moments of anachronism, such as when Horowitz refers to Darwin’s concern with “genetics” (of which Darwin had no knowledge), or his treatment of the pengun as a kind of actual gun (the OED dates the earliest use of the work in this sense to the early twentieth century).
The book’s organization is certainly coherent: six chapters on single authors arranged chronologically. This coherence, however, comes at a price. The chapters sometimes read like individual studies, and Horowitz occasionally labors to hold them in relation to one another. I most enjoyed the sections of the book in which Horowitz was making connections among multiple texts. The discussion of Baudelaire’s debt to English-language poets comes to mind, as does the discussion of utopian literature in the chapter on Morris. I would have welcomed more such moments.
Improvements: I have a number of suggestions for revising this manuscript. I hope these will be helpful.
First, as I read the manuscript, I found myself wondering whether “industrialism” might be the wrong governing concept. Horowitz’s argument, as I understand it, is that Victorian literature is characterized by its engagement with a specific concept of progress and that this engagement differentiates the literature of the Victorian period from the high modernist literature that followed it. Industrialism is certainly in the background, but it isn’t the focus. Progress is the focus. The problem with Horowitz’s formulation, expressed in his title phrase industrialism as progress, is that it requires him to attribute a complex, abstract concept (progress) to a single cause (industrialism). Horowitz, however, is too smart to make such a deterministic argument, and so he expands the concept of industrialism to the point that it loses any functional specificity. It comes to mean anything and everything that contributed to the conditions of economic growth that allowed Britain to escape the “Malthusian trap.” Consequently, Horowitz is led to make such statements as the following: “The belief in progress . . . gained its newfound ideological resonance from the material fact that industrialism was, for the first time, making economic progress possible” (20). If we understand industrialism narrowly as particular system of production, this statement makes sense; if we understand industrialism more expansively, as, say, “the arrival of real, distributed economic growth” (7), the statement becomes tautological: economic growth begets economic progress. On the other hand, I find Horowitz’s contention that Victorian literature is characterized by a “minimal excess of faith over fear” quite provocative. His individual chapters make this point well, through compelling close readings. But I was not convinced that the various treatments of progress he discusses were, ultimately, ways of getting purchase on specifically industrial change. (That is to say, I buy parts 1 and 2 of the basic argument he outlines on page 6, but not part 3.)
What would be lost by letting go of “industrialism” as a single, prime mover? Why not, as Martin Wiener does in English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980, simply acknowledge the constellation of forces that contributed to the ideology of progress: not only industrialism, but also technology, capitalism, and urbanization? Such an acknowledgement wouldn’t change Horowitz’s argument, because he subsumes technology, capitalism, and urbanization into industrialism. Wiener’s formulation, however, seems far less forced. Or if a single term is wanted, why not adopt one that subsumes all of these forces, such as Marshall Berman’s “modernization,” which Horowitz notices in passing late in the manuscript (301)?
Second, Horowitz has a tendency to imagine literary history as a succession of monolithic movements, which inevitably leads him to offer generalizations that are at best partial, at worst distortions. For instance, discussing Sterling’s review of Tennyson, Horowitz notes that in Tennyson’s verse, “[n]othing remains . . . of the old, Romantic celebration of tranquility, stability, and calm” (104). Romanticism was about more than tranquility and calm. Likewise, he identifies high modernism with certain formal traits, such as collage and fragmentation. That also is true, but it would not hurt to acknowledge the various strains within modernism. At one point in his introduction, Horowitz even seems to refer to “Victorianism” as a literary movement, which is an odd anachronism (20).
Third, Horowitz seems to conflate progress and change. Progress involves change, but it also involves something more, a direction. Progress is a vector. In his introduction, Horowitz calls Spencer and Darwin prophets of progress. That’s certainly true for Spencer; the characterization of Darwin gives me pause. Evolutionary theorists since Darwin have been emphatic that evolution has no teleology. Darwin himself is more ambivalent on the point. While he generally treats natural selection as a process of change only, he does invoke progress at key moments, such as in the paragraph on the “tangled bank” at the end of On the Origin of Species. When Carlyle uses the phrase “all action and no go,” for example, he seems to be challenging rather than affirming an idea of progress. Yet Horowitz writes, “This is industrial progress as Carlyle saw it: aimless, pointless, and utterly ignorant of the real needs of society” (84). Aimless progress would seem to be an oxymoron. It would seem to be mere change. Similarly, Horowitz takes Tennyson’s line about the “ringing grooves of change,” and his statement that “all hath suffered change” (145) to be self-evidently about progress. Horowitz seems to assume that when his figures write about change, they in fact mean progress, and that assumption is inadequate. Can he at least offer some support to taking these terms as synonymous?
Fourth, in the interests of economy, some of the long close readings of single works could be condensed. For example, in my opinion, the reading of Sartor Resartus goes on too long. If this reading were condensed, making room perhaps for some treatment of some of Carlyle’s other writings, that would be an improvement.
Fifth, with any study of this sort, there is always the question of why some writers are in and some out. Ruskin and the Edwardians (e.g., the Wells of Tono Bungay, Arnold Bennett), would be obvious candidates for inclusion. The Edwardians are interesting in light of Horowitz’s argument because they are hybrid figures. They exhibit the loss of faith in progress that Horowitz sees as characteristic of modernism, but they remain committed to the 19th-century realist conventions. (I do not think the manuscript needs a discussion of the Edwardians; I am simply offering this observation for what it’s worth.) I do think the book would benefit from a moderately extended discussion of Ruskin at some point, perhaps in the Carlyle chapter or the Morris chapter. But again, while such a treatment would be an enhancement, it is not a requirement.
Overall, I thought the book got better as it went along. The chapter on Carlyle is in my view the weakest, since it does not deliver on its promise to explore the tension between Carlyle’s ideas about industrialism and his style. Indeed, Carlyle’s style largely disappears as a concern for most of the chapter, resurfacing only in the final two pages. The chapter on Tennyson is better although it is not the most novel of Horowitz’s chapters. The chapters on Baudelaire, Eliot, and Joyce had the freshest ideas. Horowitz’s discussion of Baudelaire’s Englishness made me reconsider the place of this poet in the genealogy of modernism and modernity. His treatment of Eliot’s realism is profoundly insightful and makes an important contribution to our understanding of that genre. The chapter on Joyce brings the book to a pleasurable end, although it would be possible to question the strong identification of the toilet with industrialism. If Dublin is marked as preindustrial by its dearth of lavatories, then what would we say about early-Victorian Manchester? I am not sure what I think about the chapter on Morris. I disagree with its thesis about degenerationthe inhabitants of Morris’s utopia are not degenerate in any conventional or at least physical senseI still found the argument suggestive. t certainly challenges the standard reading of News From Nowhere. Had Horowitz historicized the concept of degeneration more fully, the argument might have been convincing as well as suggestive.
Recommendation for publication: This book is not a book for courses, although I can imagine chapters being used in advanced seminars. This book would be of interest to a moderately broad scholarly audience, essentially anyone working in 19th-century British literature and perhaps also certain historically-minded scholars of modernism.
As I said in my opening paragraph, I cannot recommend this manuscript for publication in its present form. At least two revisions are required. First, I would like to see Horowitz draw more fully on the relevant existing scholarship. He does himself no service by sweeping so much other work aside. To be clear: I am not asking for pedantic acknowledgement of every minimally relevant source. I am suggesting that Horowitz might use the work that has been done on such topics as, say, the commodity or degeneration or even boredom, which each have their histories, to historicize and enhance his own readings. Second, I would like to see Horowitz sort out some of the conceptual issues I addressed in my first recommendation above. I have read this manuscript very carefully, and I am still not certain that I have a handle on what, exactly, is being said about industrialism specifically. I have a much better handle on what Horowitz is saying about Victorian ideas of progress, and I find those ideas interesting.