University Press #3, Second Reader

Second ReaderBerkeley, California, March 2011

When Victorians thought about industrialism, they thought about factories and railroads, and when literary critics think about industrialism, it’s still factories and railroads they’re thinking of. Industrialism as Progress aims to expand that view. Drawing on recent work by economic historians, Evan Horowitz emphasizes that the rise of the factory system and its associated technologies was only one part of the industrial revolution: the other, more important, part was the advent of distributed economic growth. Before the industrial revolution, economic gains had been entirely absorbed by population growth; during it, real income began to rise. The nineteenth century was thus the first era of increasing prosperity, and, within the nineteenth century, Britain stood alone: other nations also had factory systems, but, for various reasons, they did not enjoy economic growth until the very end of the century. This history, Horowitz claims, gives Victorian literature a “strange kind of priority,” since it was the first literature to be written in an “economic system that would eventually span the globe” (6).

This claim begs the question of whether the Victorians knew that they were living in a new economic era—and if they did, whether they would have characterized that era as one of economic growth. Horowitz tells us very little about how ordinary Victorians experienced the economics of their age, although he does mention, toward the end of the manuscript, that they wrongly took the years between 1873 to 1896 to be a recession (a fact that complicates his general argument, of course, as does the existence of the so-called “hungry forties”). Nor does he tell us anything about how Victorian economists theorized their era (he chooses not to consider the very important work done on this subject by Brantlinger, Gallagher and Poovey, on the odd grounds that their accounts of finance and economics are not relevant to his project because they do not explicitly refer to industrialism). Horowitz does not grapple with what the Victorians actually felt and thought about the economic changes of their era because he believes that they did not experience economic growth as an economic phenomenon: it registered with them not as growth, but as progress. And so we can find their response to this part of the industrial revolution in the period’s many writings about progress, rather than in their writings about economics, much less in their references to railroads and factories. Horowitz makes a good case for this more oblique approach, but his reading of progress as an account of growth would be all the more interesting if it were set against whatever accounts the Victorians were giving of the economics of the period: he should give us these explicit (and wrong) accounts before giving us what he takes to be the implicit (and right) ones.

Connecting progress and economic growth, Horowitz argues that the industrial revolution thus gave the Victorians a new conception of progress. This is a promising line of argument, but Horowitz stumbles twice in making it. First, there is a problem of evidence. Horowitz’s evidence lies in correlation: conceptions of progress began to change, he demonstrates, in the same years that economic growth began. This correlation is indeed striking, but for it to stand as proof of a causal relation, proof that economic growth created new conceptions of progress, he needs to exclude other possible correlations. This was the era of the industrial revolution, yes, but it was also the era of imperialism (which brought Britons into relation with seemingly less-developed societies and might have created a sense of developmental stages through which all societies must progress), as well as the era of social and political reform (which might have shown Britons that it was possible to change the world for the better). Horowitz either needs to argue that these other phenomena had no influence on the emerging idea of progress, or he needs to consider how the industrial revolution might have interacted with reform and imperialism—and, no doubt, a host of other phenomena—to create a distinctively Victorian conception of progress.

Second, there is a problem of definition: what is this distinctively Victorian conception of progress? Horowitz is quite clear about the ways in which progress was understood during the Enlightenment and the Romantic era, but he is much less clear when it comes to the Victorians. He first defines progress as the movement of an entire society in a favorable direction:

Progress is not about movement per se, but about the movement of an entire society. More than that, it is about directed movement. Today’s state of society is not only different than yesterday’s, but in fact better, and tomorrow’s better still. (12)

And he then argues that what distinguished the Victorian conception of progress was its ambivalence:

Victorian ideas of progress were darker and somehow haunted, as if weighted down from the inside. They still deserved the name progress, because they still reflected a general belief that society had moved, was moving, and would continue to move in a desirable direction. Only that movement now included the possibility of great sacrifices and great suffering. (12)

Between these two passages, a precise definition of progress (directed movement of an entire society) give way to less precise emotional response (ambivalence), and it is this weaker, vaguer account of progress that Horowitz carries forward into the chapters that follow. I suspect that he chose this vaguer account because it is capacious enough to include the quite different figures he wants to discuss, but what his argument gains thereby in comprehensiveness, it loses in force. Victorian thinkers, by his own account, conceived of progress in quite different ways: for Darwin and Spenser, there was movement, but not necessarily ‘directed’ and not necessarily in ‘desirable directions’; for Eliot, progress began thousands of years ago and is occurring all around the globe; and so on. Horowitz’s attempt to account for all of these thinkers leads him to a kind of lowest common denominator definition: what he repeatedly refers to as “progress and its pains.” But to talk about the Victorian view of ‘progress and its pains’ is to say little more than the Victorians thought that historical change was both good and bad. If there were several competing conceptions of progress, as Horowitz’s own account would suggest, then he would be better off acknowledging those differences and working with them. I could imagine an excellent book that explored Victorians debates about progress and put these in relation to economic growth—and in relation, perhaps, to other historical phenomena as well.

This is a manuscript with significant strengths. Horowitz writes in an eloquent and easy style, and his introduction, in particular, moves suavely through a number of claims. The readings that follow are sensitive and original, and the chapter on Morris and other utopian writers is worth singling out for its provocative—and ultimately persuasive—claim that degeneration was understood as a form of progress. But this manuscript is also in need of significant revision. Horowitz should 1) acknowledge the differences between Victorian theories of progress, thinking in terms of a debate rather than a single discourse; and 2) make a stronger case for the connection between these theories of progress and the fact of economic growth. These are serious changes, which would extend beyond the introduction and alter each of the subsequent chapters, but if Horowitz were to make them, he would have written a compelling and important book.