Personal Plug: The Victorians, Darwin & Lit Crit

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.

7 thoughts on “Personal Plug: The Victorians, Darwin & Lit Crit”

  1. The link to the review is broken (extra “http”)

    Literary Darwinism: Does this refer to the impact of Darwin’s theories on literature, or something else?

    [Links are fixed – Jonathan]

  2. Something else. The very use of “Darwin” in such descriptions is criticized by Boyd and may indeed fall away in the future. Boyd uses the term “evocriticism.” This school examines literature in terms of “evolutionary pychology.” In his groundbreaking works, Joseph Carroll uses the term “literary Darwinism”; although Carroll, too, began as an Arnold scholar, his earliest significant work in this thread was on Jane Austen, Boyd works with the classics including Homer. While some of my colleagues (and some of his) see this as applying a simplified, Spenserian determinism, these critics are actually freeing critical analysis from the harsh & simplified box of cultural determinism (“social construction”) that has dominated such analysis in the last twenty to thirty years and returning to the assumptions that traditionally guided literary criticism – the sense of the universal and eternal that is essential to human nature, guided and restrained as it may be by cultural currents and transcended as it may be by the human will. If to non-academics this would appear the logical way to approach literature, the theory can bring good modern science to bear and, well, it brings more tools to the argument than the weight of tradition, truncated and forgotten in the last third of the twentieth century.

  3. Indeed, it’s interesting that at the same time period that Darwin’s ideas were becoming broadly accepted, along with a strictly materialist view of man, the blank-slate theory of human nature was also becoming broadly accepted…even though the latter might be considered as contradictory to the former.

  4. These two theories broadly applied and unreconciled have resulted in cognitive dissonance within certain fields of study – as Pinker notes in The Blank Slate.

    Linguists see this interplay (all humans use language – universal nature; we speak the language of our surroundings – nurture; the words we use are willed and unique to us – will. Scholars of the Victorian era can not forget how strong the restraints, expectations, rituals and institutions of the Victorians were (nurture) but the nature of narrative, of our understandings & passion for narrative are eternal (Austen is at heart boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl) and universal. And, in the end, of course, no one else puts the words together with the wit & wisdom of Jane Austen, George Eliot. To say all is biology or all is social construct can be cop outs from the responsibility that third pressure, our will, brings to bear; to consider only one – nature or nurture – means that any understanding is likely to be trivial and incomplete.

  5. I could not get my daughter to read The Blank Slate when it came out. She was deeply into anthropology and Stephen Jay Gould at the time. Now she is deeply into library science and Arabic manuscripts and I may try her again. Biology has entered another era where it is so exciting that I have trouble understanding why everyone isn’t studying molecular biology but the variety of interests is what makes society. What would we talk about if we were all studying the same thing?

    She and I are off to Madrid in two weeks for a conference she tells me is only held every ten years so she has to go. I will wander around Madrid while she indulges in her present obsession. It is about the Arabic manuscripts from the time of the Moorish occupation of Spain.

    My interests are more with organisms that live in sulfur hot springs at 100 degrees C and make sulfuric acid out of iron sulfide. One hundred years ago, you could estimate the gross domestic product of a country by the tons of sulfuric acid it produced. Now we have an organism that produces it.

    Sorry to be so concrete on a literary thread.

  6. “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” is not a universal. It is only relevant in those cultures where the boys and girls have some say in the matter of who gets whom, which is by no means all of them.

  7. Jim Bennett,

    Of course, cultures express this in different ways; the moment of consciousness is dramatically different as Oedipus realizes his great mistakes than when Elizabeth stands with the letter in front of her or tears come to the eyes of Emma. This can simplify. And any examples of mine will inevitably are likely to be from my provincial background. Others are broader. Boyd, for example, in his huge new work moves from the Greeks to Dr. Seuss, ranging quite widely.

    Patrick Hogan has analyzed common narrative forms. Summarized here:
    “Specifically, the three prototype story structures isolated by Hogan are romantic, heroic, and sacrificial tragi-comedy. All three have complex structures. But, basically, romantic plots concern the separation and re-union of lovers. Heroic plots concern the displacement of the hero from his/her rightful social position, a threat to the hero’s society, and the hero’s defense of that society against the threat. Sacrificial plots concern the devastation of a society and the restoration of communal well-being through sacrifice.”
    Hogan’s book is The Mind and Its Stories. It is also available online, where he explains his purpose in greater detail on p. 32.

    Some cultural differences that seem small may loom large in certain contexts. Last week Paul Wilson, the great Havel translator, was at Austin & gave a talk on the problems of translation. He noted how points of difficulty in translation usually point to cultural differences hard to bridge. The Czechs, for instance, use an English borrowing (I think it is hepiending – or at least roughly that) for that foreign concept – but certainly The Bartered Bride, the national Czech opera, has an ending that may seem too easily happy, but is also a classic of the simple romantic plot, as the hero manipulates expectations in a society which retains the rituals of matchmaking and bride bartering. That Havel’s newest play had a hero without that great moment of recognition Wilson observed made it unlike traditional drama (he was thinking of Shakespeare, but obviously that is an Aristotelian criteria). And perhaps I’m a sucker for what may be a narrower tradition – I’ve got to admit despite long exposure to that aesthetic, I seldom leave a Czech work feeling satisfied emotionally.

    Nonetheless, I suspect there are certainties if we dig far enough. Some of the assumptions are not unlike the old ones of archetypal criticism – which may seem to simplify but can also be enriching. Perhaps more to the point, this kind of analysis is often paired with new understandings from the cognitive sciences. And it shares assumptions about the nature of languag/thought/structuring reality with the linguistically perceptive (if politically not) Chomsky.

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