Posted by Ginny on May 6th, 2010 (All posts by Ginny)
The first review of my husband’s book, Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics is out. He’s published a lot on Matthew Arnold, Victorian autobiographies, the Czechs, but this is his first full-length critical work using Darwinian criticism. This isn’t exactly a literary blog, but Tod Williams (who, in good peer review fashion we don’t know, but appers friendly to this methodology) reminds me of the way literature used to be approached.
My husband was attracted to this method: he argues it was growing up on a farm and reading Tennyson in the truck on the way to the feed store that made it natural. On another plane, of course, as the reviewer notes: “It should come as no surprise that an established Matthew Arnold scholar would approach literature with a concern for universal human truths or that one with such interests would turn to literary Darwinism for a methodology.” He examines that popular (but now seldom read) Victorian genre – the “long poem.” “Machann maintains in his introduction that the issue of masculinity is not only central to the four long poems he treats but to ‘our understanding of Victorian literature: its major themes, its idealism and social criticism, its perplexities and uncertainties’” (1) The Victorians restrained masculine violence in many ways, but the ideal of chivalry and “manliness” was also expressed in adventuring (both geographically and intellectually).
The book began years ago with Clint’s essay on Tennyson’s Idylls; as the reviewer notes: “Machann’s reading of the Idylls reflects a constant tension in the text between the value of culture, civilization, and order, and primal elements of biology, including male violence associated with competition, dominance, and reproduction. Machann demonstrates how these tensions reflect Tennyson’s own doubts about prominent, idealized Victorian gender constructions, while he maintained hope against the primary destructive instincts of humans.” The work examines Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Clough’s Amours de Voyage, before concluding with Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book.
Those of you who have noted my return again and again to human nature in posts and comments will recognize the assumptions at our house, as Williams accurately summarizes the book’s purpose: to shape “a cultural criticism tempered by the acceptance of an underlying human nature—an acceptance shared, as he demonstrates, by the four authors he treats.” That this opinion is not shared by many in the social sciences and, indeed, by many in literature departments may be true. That they are, in large part, wrong, is also true. Williams concludes:
Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics proves provocative in its rejection of the status quo of gender studies. Certainly, there are those within literary studies who would reject a biologically based treatment of gender and maintain that any such attempts at “essentialism” are merely based on cultural constructs that, in many cases, can have negative social consequences. However, Machann’s focus on tensions between the cultural and the universal implies that culture and civilization can have a positive effect on negative primal impulses. He is not using the idea of “human nature” to justify barbaric, violent, or oppressive behavior. Rather, by acknowledging primal human nature, he points to the potential for a deeper understanding of our selves that could lead to greater social justice. Furthermore, Machann adds to our understanding of Victorian culture, its epic tradition, and the poets who engaged in that tradition. He offers refreshing readings of each of these four Victorian epics with an approach that is likely representative of an oncoming sea-change in contemporary literary studies.
The “sea-change” may be optimistic -the Darwinists have long been discouraged from panels at the annual MLA conventions, have been marginalized in terms of literary theory. But the number of strong voices (Joseph Carroll, Brian Boyd, Denis Dutton) and the energy and broad, creative insight of Pinker have cut a path through what seems like the bewildering mass of overgrown and overhyped modern theory. For someone that grew up where a statue of William Jennings Bryan remained an important tribute but one of the most admired alumni was Loren Eiseley, the shadows of that old argument remain poignant. And, in the end, I suspect Bryan would accept the Victorian’s understanding of human nature and Eiseley would find his own brand of transcendence. Both knew a culture that didn’t respect the power of the primal was not likely to transcend it.
Those of you interested in this period or Darwinian criticism might look at the long review. Better yet, you might buy the book – although even the Kindle version does not invite the casual reader. Of course, few profit from scholarly books except in promotions & raises. As luck would have it, merit raises were frozen this year (which weight a book like this more heavily than other kinds of work). Still, it gives great pleasure to my husband and, let’s face it, professor’s lives are ridiculously cushy in terms of kind and quantity of work; sure we aren’t going to get rich, but we aren’t by the side of the road with a cardboard sign and any calluses come from the affection he retains for gardening. Anyone with such a job is in no position in the current (and future) economy to complain.