Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Rule, Victoria: An America by Another Name

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Rule, Victoria: An America by Another Name

Article excerpt

In the past generation it has become common to describe a part of the American past as "Victorian." The present essay examines the emergence of that usage, and it seeks to offer at least some partial explanations for this alteration in terminology.

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Periodization comes to the historian's mind naturally, perhaps inevitably. In league with it comes nomenclature, often derived from names of significant persons. Thus, Elizabethan England and Jacksonian America might get considerable disagreement as to attributes and consequences, but nearly all would have a fairly clear idea of the boundaries involved. A matter of nomenclature that has grown considerably in the last generation, and in which a good many seem to have acquiesced, involves the descriptive "Victorian" as applied to the United States. In the year that Jackson ceased being President of the United States, young Victoria became Queen of England. One almost shudders to think what Jackson might have said or done had he been told that, in time, Americans would refer to a part of their history and ancestry as "Victorian." What follows is a brief excursion along the course of this anomalous development, an excursion confined to illustrative and salient moments and writings.

One might begin by focusing for a bit on the centennial moment of the 1870s. Victoria had reigned for some four decades, and a sobriquet deriving from her might have filled a need. The Age of Jefferson and Jackson had clearly ended, though the Democratic party often seemed unaware of the fact. Bitterness bred of the Civil War endured, and a label unrelated to it might have been welcomed in some quarters. The term "Gilded Age" had been put in currency only in 1873, in a book that spent as much time on pre-war America as on post-war America. Over thirty years would pass before George Santayana gave us a label that would help somewhat--"The Genteel Tradition." Over fifty years would pass before Vernon Louis Parrington provided a variant in "The Great Barbecue." So, had Victoria's sway possessed even a part of the motive force it would gain a century later, Henry James might have seen fit to style his centennial story of Christopher Newman, The Victorian. His friend, the rather eminent Victorian James Bryce, might have re-formulated some much-noted passages in The American Commonwealth. It would be left to others to correct their neglect, and to do so by domesticating the descriptive "Victorian." However aptly, it has come to serve as an instrument of broad-gauge disparagement of late nineteenth-century America.

For unmistakable anticipation of what would come at and after the bi-centennial, one can turn to a book that appeared exactly mid-way between the centennial and its twentieth-century successor, in 1926: Herbert S. Gorman's A Victorian American: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, treated essentially one man, and the Victorian theme was out of keeping with better-known works of that decade. (1) Such Americans as Floyd Dell, Joseph Wood Krutch, and Parrington invoked the influence of various English thinkers--aptly called Victorians--upon American thinkers. By and large they did so in terms of influence, not full resemblance or identity of one with the other. (2)

Krutch, for example, frequently used the category "Victorian." In nearly all cases he moved fairly directly from that category to individuals such as Thomas Henry Huxley, Matthew Arnold, and George Eliot, then moving into the more modern outlook by going to Huxley's grandson, Aldous, and to some Americans such as Ernest Hemingway. (3) Of course, both the English and Americans of Victoria's age shared attributes, and Santayana's 1920 publication, Character and Opinion in the United States, gave one of the most compelling depictions of that relationship in the chapter, "English Liberty in America." But in fact, that liberty--that "free co-operation"--served as exception to the rule that the American people "have become curiously different from any kind of European . …

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