University Press #3, First Reader

First Reader, First ReportBerkeley, California, July 2010

I should say from the outset that the style of this book is engaging and makes for an interesting and entertaining read. The tone is a bit breezy, but still engaged and compelling. The structure of the chapters are fairly tight, and the arguments themselves follow clearly, if not always persuasively. It truly is a pleasure to read.

That said, I have a few issues with the framing of the overall argument, the structure of the book itself, and the some of the choices made by the author.

Implicit in the title is the dialectical tension that emerges around discourses/ideologies of progress that began to shape themselves rather forcefully in the early years of nineteenth-century in England. The author does a reasonably good job of quickly moving through some of the theories of historical change/development (or decline) that were in play during that period, and also does an adequate job pointing to the ambivalence that accompanied much of the discussions around progress that were taking place, though some of this commentary seems a bit “canned” and overly dependent on other scholars.

However, I do think that for a work that is really very squarely within what used to be called “the history of ideas,” some of the positions (or rather assertions) the author takes are a bit too reductive. For example, early on in the introduction he writes:

The knot of excitement, resistance, blindness, and compulsion which industrial progress made taut found its clearest expression in the medium whose greatest strength was its ability to keep multiple, competing ideas in suspension, namely literature. Ultimately, that is, it was the new idea of progress—rather than the machinery of industry—which enabled Victorian literature’s broadest engagement with the great though conflicting energies of industrial change.

Although very palatable prose, this passage begs an important question that seems to “haunt” this entire book. That is, the author, though determined to underscore the ambivalence of discourses of progress (and he does a very good job of this in several of the chapters), seems to me to be too willing to hang his argument on the proposition that there is indeed “A” new idea of progress. But indeed, the different ways in which “progress” is articulated throughout the century do not all seem to spring from entirely the same seed. Even in his own discussion of various proponents of progressive theories (e.g., Darwin and Spencer), he points to how some ideas of “progress” eschew telos while others embrace it, however vaguely they may define the ameliorative end toward which they believe themselves heading. It seems to me that what we are seeing in much of the discourse of the 19th century is more of an attempt to explain material change—and many of these explanations are optimistic to be sure. Thus in essays like “Signs of the Times” or “The Spirit of the Age” we see Carlyle and Mill, respectively, very cautiously approaching progress, though each is just willing to discuss “change.” Perhaps that is where the ambivalence lies, and why, indeed there are so many competing notions of “progress” during the period. Whether Marx, Darwin, or Macaulay, ideas of how (and, to some extent, why) things changed preoccupied 19c thinkers—to the extent that it became the age of systems (Comte, Darwin, Hegel, Spencer, Marx, Lyle, even Freud). Yet to assume that notions of progress could be boiled down to one shared discourse, I think, does a bit of disservice to the complexity of thought that was taking place during this period. If industrialism is more complex as a discourse (and, it seems, as a form of representation) than rather good theorists have construed it, why is “progress” so easy to distill?

Despite the author’s tendency to paint a Victorian concept of progress as a kind of non-dynamic totality, I do think he does a nice job of tying in the material functions of industrialism into a discourse that asks whether the game is worth the candle. He might have done more with the ways the Victorians often abandoned their Romantic legacy, that is that one facet of progress is the very process of movement itself rather than the results that it delivers. It is the most Romantic of the Victorians, Carlyle, who in “Characteristics” quotes Schiller: “Truth,” he writes, “immer wird, nie ist.” That is, it “never is” but is “always becoming.” But Tennyson (not only in “The Two Voices” but in a much more sustained way in In Memoriam) does indeed suggest that the results of progress are dissatisfying—leaving us always wanting more, always behind where we might be. By the time we get to Arnold in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”(~1850, the year of the publication of In Memoriam), we see the subject bemoaning the loss of “becoming” altogether; indeed wondering if any progress is possible for he is “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.” In the short space of 20 years, the oddly positive point of view of Carlyle shifts to the much more pessimistic (might one say “modern?”) outlook of Arnold. Why? How is industrialism involved in that?

The author’s assertion that “progress, in some sense, cries out for figural language, and literature—which is so adept at figuration—found it easy to answer” is rather convincing, especially when we consider the rise of narrative during this period—even in philosophy. Autobiography, the story of the “progress” of a man or woman, a mind, a civilization, a form of government, a culture, or even, as in Hegel, the disembodied “spirit” became a kind of dominant structure. The importance of the novel in the period bears that out. The alternative title of Oliver Twist is The Parish Boy’s Progress. Similarly, as in the bildungsroman, the very notion of moving through a novel to some kind of positive end is both satisfying and unnerving. Even as late as 1861, Victorians often insisted on an ending that was just and happy, knowing full well the possible alternative: the two endings of Great Expectations bear this out. Yet, by the end of the century, with the unraveling of the imperial skein and the broader understanding of the second law of thermodynamics (and the concept of entropy) there was considerably less optimism about the direction of the world’s movement. The author might have done more with these issues and delved a bit deeper into what it meant for both notions of progress (and notions of industrialism) to have to readjust to new attitudes, and greater skepticism, regarding the “rewards” of always moving forward, getting more, learning more. (Though in fairness, he approaches these topics in the “Morris” chapter. More on that below.) Also, the hubris involved in the notion of being able to control that knowledge (see The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde or even The Picture of Dorian Gray) creates yet another difficulty for the literary reliance on progress as Horowitz describes it.

Despite my misgivings about certain framing notions and a rather insouciant approach to theorizing in this manuscript, I did find the readings of the literary works well done and interesting. I thought the Carlyle and Eliot chapters especially good. I was glad to see the inclusion of Tennyson (the author is right; poetry often gets short shrift in current Victorian scholarship), but I was surprised to see no real discussion of In Memoriam, while the somewhat predictable, and far less rich, choices of “Ulysses” and “Locksley Hall” get pride of place. The Morris chapter is quite good, and I would advocate pursing a bit more the connections with the discourse of degeneration. The antecedents of it are certainly lurking (and not so subtly) in the more ameliorative versions of change that Horowitz discusses in the earlier chapters. Teasing out the dark side of progress more fully would make this chapter more satisfying and, I think, contribute greatly to the overall argument.

I don’t think the Baudelaire chapter works particularly well. The author is quite right—it is jarring and his reasons for including a discussion of Baudelaire are not very persuasive at all. I would recommend excising it. A chapter on Hardy (novels and poetry) would be much more in character with the shape of the argument and the overall trajectory of the book. I do think there might be some room for smaller, side discussions of Baudelaire, but as it stands now, it just doesn’t work for me.

The chapter on Joyce is fine and works as a conclusion.

My recommendation is to ask the author to rethink the inclusion of the Baudelaire chapter; to consider problematizing his conception of progress (perhaps with a bit more rigorous theorizing) and to update his take on what has been written about industrialization and literature in England since Gallagher and Poovey. Theirs were not the last words, after all. I think the book is publishable, but it does need these sorts of revisions if it is going to make any sort of notable contribution. The concept of the book is interesting, if a bit theoretically old-fashioned; the author should deal with that shortcoming (if it is one) straightforwardly. He certainly seems to have the capability to do so with his winning prose style.