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Monday, January 23, 2012

Matthew Arnold and American Culture

Matthew Arnold: Critic

Book Review
Matthew Arnold and American Culture
by John Henry Raleigh
p. 1957
University of California Press

  You could say that Matthew Arnold invented modern literary criticism.   He was also the greatest of Victorian critics.  His work is a conduit directly between the philosophy of the 18th century and the academia and journalism of today.   Arnold is not an author who is read by many today, but his influence on journalists and professors is so profound that it's hard to distinguish any kind of modern literary or artistic criticism that is descended directly- albeit in bastardized form- the intellectual equivalent of cave men living in a post-apocalyptic hell hole trying to piece together theater from a blasted copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare.

  That's all modern artistic criticism is- a bunch of monkeys clacking away on typewriters.   Arnold was the first critic to castigate a group he called "philistines" but who in later times would be called Babbits, bourgeois, etc: the unlettered middle class and would be middle class.  Arnold is also the first English critic to embrace the French style.  Considering the direct dominance that Arnoldian disciples had in the literature departments of American private and public universities from their inception, it is not difficult to trace a direct line from Arnold himself and the French theorizing that infected the American academy in disciplines like Literature and Sociology up until the present.

  In short, Arnold is as important figure in our current understanding of literature, and the role of literature, and of the significance and importance in Art in life, as exists.

  Matthew Arnold and American Culture actually documents the transmission of Arnold's idea to American writers and Professors from about 1850's into the 1950s.  The main line of transmission is Henry James, to T.S. Eliot to Lionel Trilling.   The main punching bag for the "American Arnoldians" is Edgar Allen Poe and H.L. Mencken.  Another favorite target is Emerson- himself a contemporary and fan of Arnold.

  Matthew Arnold was a bridge between Classic, Romantic and Modernist thought about Art, Artists, Audiences and their relationships with one another.

  It's kind of like... he laid the dinner table and put the food out on the table for modern Artistic criticism, but he wasn't a modern critic himself.  In that way, he has little appeal for non-specialists, thought I think critics should at least understand what the phrase "philistine" means as used by Matthew Arnold, and how his ideas about aesthetics combine Classical and Romantic ideas in a way that pre-sages Modern thoughts about aesthetics.

  One thing that Arnold doesn't discuss is the economics of Art and Art Production- in that way he is friendlier to the non-economically inclined aesthetes in a way that is utterly charming.   Arnold worshipped Beauty and despised the Market. 

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