University Press #5, Second Reader

Second ReaderPalo Alto, California, August 2011

This is a very smart and distinctive project, which returns to a long-standing (and, one might have thought, moribund) topic in a provocative way. I don’t know of anything quite like it—but the author could give the reader more help in locating the project (as noted below). My worry is that is likely to be discounted, because it not only is very traditional in its mode of address but eccentric in its central formulations and somewhat unsteady in its larger argument. It is disappointingly thin in its engagement with other criticism (which tends to be relegated to passing, sweeping mention in footnotes), particularly work of broadly theoretical orientation. Partly as a result, it is not very clear about the large ambitions of its argument, or its own contributions to literary history—beyond the opening insistence that literary critics have misunderstood industrialism. A firmer sense of the argument as a whole also would address a familiar weakness of first books, inadequate signposting of the connections among chapters, which leaves them seeming (despite the wealth of implicit continuities) disjunctive, beads on a wire more than episodes in a history or stages in an argument.

But I do think that a very rich and engaging intelligence is at work here, and that this might turn into a very good book. There are incisive, suggestive observations studded throughout; the chapters on Baudelaire and Joyce in particular seemed to me revelatory, and their very presence reflects a welcome ambition to press against familiar boundaries of literary period and nationality. The length of my comments reflects my respect for the intelligence here, and I hope will offer useful suggestions for a fairly substantial revision.

Beginning with the title. This is not really a book about industrialism; it is concerned with literary constructions of “progress,” broadly construed, and the forms of possibility and anxiety bound up with that protean idea in a variety of incarnations. Industrialism is relevant as it “inaugurated a new era of progress,” as H puts it: “the arrival of real, distributed economic growth” allowed populations of industrial societies to be freed from “the Malthusian trap” (4ff). But to conflate industrialism and progress, as the title does, seems to me to muddy more than it clarifies. To begin with, it doesn’t adequately acknowledge a pre-history to the idea of progress (subject of J.B. Bury’s magisterial survey, noted only in a footnote). The introduction devotes a couple of pages to this (17-18), but these principally claim that earlier notions of progress competed with other views of history, which doesn’t much help to distinguish the peculiar contours of “the transition to Victorianism” (19). Indeed, if industrialism takes off somewhere around the beginning of the century, “Victorianism” may be a misleading term to apply to the central formations here. No doubt the understanding of progress was crucially inflected by the rise of industrial production, but we can’t see how unless industrialism and progress are distinct categories.

Second, effacing that distinction confuses the relation of this study to existing scholarship. Nearly every bit of scholarship involving literary engagements with industrialism (which includes some very distinguished studies, such as those of Williams and Gallagher) is arraigned here for being grounded in a “misperception”: that “industrialism meant, above all, industry” (11). But this is indeed what Victorian writers most emphasized in their representations of industrialism: the nature of industrial labor and its historical novelty, its effects on workers, its impact on geography (explosive growth of northern towns and stresses on urban environment), the forms of social mobility it enabled, the volatility of an industrial economy, the values enshrined in a political economy organized around industrial production, etc. etc. That the long view from the early 21st century also emphasizes escape from the Malthusian trap doesn’t somehow vitiate these preoccupations, nor the insights of scholarship devoted to them.

The introduction needs to more carefully delineate, then, what is distinctive about nineteenth-century “progress” and its relations to industrialism—and in the process to clarify both the argument as a whole and the relation of this study to existing work. How does this study add to, or quarrel with, for example, the work of Jerome Buckley (now some 40 years old?) cited on 15 as “by far, the best account of the Victorian conception of progress.” (It’s a recurrent weakness of the MS that important works tend to be merely mentioned in passing, their particular claims rarely engaged.) To say that Victorian accounts of progress were “specially crafted to capture the potency and peril of industrialism” (15) doesn’t really bring things into focus—indeed, if we’re being true to the title, it’s merely stating a tautology, since industrialism is progress, right? The ubiquity of confidence in progress (14-15) is not news; witness the long-standing prominence of Macaulay in accounts of early-Victorian history. Nor is “the shadowing of optimism by anxiety” (19): although this section of the introduction helps to bring the larger interests into focus, I still want to hear what’s new here. Even the point that “progress creates pain as part of its necessary work” has been acknowledged in most studies of political economy: to civilize a savage, Mill famously remarks, one must first inspire him with new desires, which in turn presumably will goad him into labor more consistent with the rigors of political economy (rigors perhaps most vividly rehearsed in “Locksley Hall,” to which I’ll return). Might there be some place to broach the very large topic of how models of progress are bound up with shifting understandings of human agency? This would seem to be central to the topic, and implicit in a great deal of the analysis throughout, but it is rarely made explicit (the latter part of the chapter on George Eliot is one exception).

Still in the Intro, H quotes Mill’s famous prophecy of epochal historical transformation in “Spirit of the Age” (13), but fails to note that the context of the remark was the Reform Bill debate that engulfed Britain in 1830. The “revolution” Mill heralded was not one of economic progress, but of political representation. Of course industrialism had an impact on that transformation, as on the Benthamite rationality that underwrote Mill’s faith (and which he saw as the key engine of progress), but to offer that essay as a comment on industrialism again muddies the waters. To conjoin Darwin with Spenser as “theorists of progress” (26) blurs the basic meaning of the term. As the later treatment of Darwin more clearly concedes, Darwinian evolution is not a theory or narrative of progress; it is a theory of change and adaptation, without any form of secure telos; that’s what made it so unsettling. Species are “better fitted” in a strenuously relativistic sense, in terms of their relation to the immediate environment, within which “selection” may be fatal more often than it is adaptive. Spenser, by contrast, is a theorist of progress, whose appropriation of Darwin had a very large political impact; insisting on that distinction would clarify the central concept. The concept is similarly elastic in the reference to George Eliot as “a committed progressive” (44); this is clearly not true politically, but then what does “progressive” mean in this context?

My second large suggestion involves the chapter on Carlyle, which is the only one in the body of the essay that I found misleading. The focus on Sartor Resartus as the best index of Carlyle’s reflections on industry and progress is a mistake. It leads to the peculiar claim that for Carlyle, “False production means, above all, factory production,” (55) and that the way forward lies in “machine-destruction” (72). I think these claims will stagger most readers familiar with perhaps the most famous coinage in all of Carlyle, “Captains of Industry”: this phrase first appears in Past and Present, where Carlyle exhorts industrialists to envision themselves as leaders of a well-drilled army of workers, who will be bound to their “captains” by mutual respect and devotion to a common cause, not merely by the impersonal, amoral claims of contract and the “cash nexus.” This vision (which like the book as a whole explicitly responds to the crises of unemployment during the “Hungry Forties”) doesn’t make much sense as a celebration of the traditional artisan, which is what H discovers in Sartor. Certainly the stress on “creative destruction” in Sartor (ca 67) is an important feature of Carlylean understandings of history (witness The French Revolution) but I think it’s a profound distortion to see industrialism as Carlyle’s target. The main adversary, as always, is the aristocratic dandy and the gospel of dilettantism, which, unlike the worshipper of Mammon, is irredeemable.

So the Carlyle chapter needs a major overhaul, I think. (Shifting away from Sartor also would do away with the large, problematic claims about Carlyle’s notoriously rebarbative style: if one is going to claim (77) that there is a fundamental disjunction between that style and his historical vision, one really needs to engage the many studies that argue the contrary, most notably the standard book-length treatment of Sartor by G.B. Tennyson. Otherwise it’s mere hand-waiving.)

Noting the alignment of Carlylean progress with visions of martial leadership and community would in turn set up important continuities with subsequent chapters, particularly that on Tennyson. That chapter is engaging, particularly in its emphasis on the peculiar inflections of temporality in Tennyson’s narratives, “the future as he knew it in the past” (ca 85), and in the very nice discovery of a sort of surrogate family in “Ulysses”—which is a telling point of contact (though of course not noted as such) with Past and Present, and would be strengthened in turn by noting that the speaker of “Locksley Hall” revisits his past in the company of fellow soldiers. But the nexus of “Locksley Hall,” “Ulysses,” and “Lotos-Eaters” is well-nigh inescapable in studies of Tennyson, and again we need a clearer over-arching claim as to how this chapter adjusts or rethinks that familiar constellation. I think this could be managed by clearer connection to what precedes it (beyond the nice use of the Huskisson anecdote to get things rolling).

I also think the account could be tightened by noting that “LH” and “Lotos-Eaters” both enact the peculiar psychological burdens of industrialized progress as a discipline of wayward desire; when the speaker of “LH” entertains and then repudiates his fantasy of a tropical saturnalia, he in effect performs the very burden of psychic regulation that political economy stipulates as the ground of productive labor. To say “There are a number of problems with this mild Utopia” (87) is a confusing mode of address, which distorts the fundamental structure of the poem. It’s not an essay in social theory (or a “poem about progress,” to use the phrase applied in the next chapter, 140); it’s a monologue rehearsing the psychic upheaval of a young man recalling a frustrated love affair, within which visions of progress become a kind of therapy—although not entirely successful, since at the end of the poem he is still very bitter, savoring the prospect that the house might be altogether destroyed. In this light, I don’t understand why the monologue—as distinct from an unqualified hymn to progress—has “need for an ending that is also a culmination”. Again, the poem is not trying to argue that progress exists, or to define its features, it’s trying to suggest the psychic burdens and rewards that might be bound up with such a scheme, how such a scheme might be useful or painful to a mind in distress. The culminating reference to monologue as “a form Tennyson was essentially inventing” (ca 111) of course overlooks the work of one Robert Browning (“Porphyria’s Lover” dates from 1833) as well as long-standing attention to the ways in which the emergence of the form foregrounds increasing worries about the relation between poet and audience (subject of JS Mill’s precisely contemporary “What Is Poetry?”)

The Baudelaire chapter brings out all the strengths of the project as a whole; it illuminates a major figure by pushing against clichés of literary history, and the constraints of nationality, by asking what it means to call Baudelaire the first modern poet, and what that might have to do with the modernity of industrialism. In the process, H offers a very probing reading of Benjamin’s account of Baudelaire (too often an object of mere genuflection), of Baudelaire’s lyric borrowings as a means of evoking “a secret fraternity of the estranged” (130-31) and in a very strong conclusion (ca 150), which stresses Baudelaire’s sense of affinity with British and American poets as similarly estranged from modern progress.

The Eliot chapter is also strong, offering a shrewd and suggestive account of the “competing temporalities” of her realism, and in particular how her novels managed to refit nostalgia for a world of progress. (I’ve just been reviewing the critical reception of her works, in another context, and the place of the past in her novels is a central preoccupation of early reviewers, especially of the later novels.) The reading of Middlemarch offers a nice account of Dorothea and Rosamond as embodiments of different social orders, as well as a more general contrast between “souls” and “crowds” (168-69), in which Dorothea and Lydgate are set apart from the rest of the characters. Surely this would be a point of contact with Baudelaire and the “secret fraternity of the estranged”?

This also is one of the few occasions in the project that squarely addresses what one would think would be a central concern of this body of literature, as of the idea of progress: what becomes of individual agency in such a world? Surely Tennyson’s poetry is obsessed with this, but it’s not foregrounded, or in any way framed in a manner that would anticipate Eliot’s concerns.

The chapter on Degeneration has a nicely pointed focus, in which late-century utopias turn on the question of whether it is worth trading psychic complexity for happiness (202). As usual, the claim could be more securely located through a fuller engagement with existing scholarship. There is also a danger here of drift into a rather old-fashioned intellectual history, in which literary form is entirely subordinated to what authors did or didn’t believe (as in account of Morris on 204). It’s notable that the chapter offers (ca 198) a more careful account of the relation between evolution and progress than what we encounter in the Intro. There’s a very strong implicit link throughout with “The Lotos-Eaters,” which could be developed to underscore the larger arc of the project as a whole.

The chapter on Joyce is another wonderful effort, in which relations between universal and particular in Ulysses (nicely evoked through contemporary reception) are anchored in the relations between Dublin and industrialism, which is in turn focused in the lack of modern plumbing. The brilliantly suggestive reframing of the toilet not merely in Ulysses but in Dublin and modernity would stand on its own as a fine article. (“This is what it means to laugh at progress,” on 244, is an especially rich tag.) The project as a whole could use a good deal more of the sort of sustained critical engagement that H devotes to Eagleton (236). But the chapter opens with an extraordinarily strong claim that progress is not merely the leading attribute of industrialism but also the driving force of Victorian literary form; this is implausible at best, and certainly has not been established by the preceding chapters. On the other hand, there certainly is neglected potential for recapitulation in the motif of Ulysses himself, a figure (or mythos) that in many ways presides over the study as a whole, though he’s never presented thus.

Finally, the study needs a formal Conclusion, which would further address those issues of over-arching structure and connection in the argument, as well as its relation to other scholarship.

In sum, then: I don’t think this is ready to go yet, but I think this will turn into a very good book, with the sorts of revision I’ve suggested. I don’t think it requires any further research; it’s not that the author has missed anything important, but that he isn’t engaging relevant scholarship in a way that would sharpen the claims and enrich the resonance of his own argument. I don’t know that revision along those lines will stir up the level of theoretical reflection I tend to associate with Stanford books, but the chapters on Baudelaire and Joyce in particular reflect a truly independent and adventurous mind, which generates a good deal of insight by trusting to its own lights. It’s a study geared primarily to literary scholars, though I think it would appeal to historians.