Politicians and Prose: An Introduction

By Powell, John | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

Politicians and Prose: An Introduction


Powell, John, Nineteenth-Century Prose


The study of prose these days inclines toward authors who are commonly thought to have produced works of enduring value. If it is unnecessary to say that such an approach is useful to the present, it is rather more important to observe that frequently it obscures the past. No one would deny that the work of Darwin or Nietzsche has dramatically affected Western thought, but what of a host of authors who actually exercised greater daily influence in their own age. The writings of politicians generally fall into this category. For every article on Feargus O'Connor or George Cornewall Lewis, there will be twenty or more on Matthew Arnold. Fair enough in one sense, for Arnold's relevance over time is echoed in the obligatory references found in every social critique current in the Western world. But it is not at all clear that Arnold, Carlyle and Mill, Tocqueville and Spencer, exercised quite the preponderance of intellectual influence they have been accorded. If Arnold, or, say, Edward Carpenter, is frequently studied today, it says as much and sometimes more about the late twentieth as the late nineteenth century. That the editors of Nineteenth-Century Prose have chosen to devote a special number to authors whose literary lights are today so relatively dim is indicative of a commitment to the integrity of the past. Just as James Bryce, in writing The American Commonwealth, felt the need to supplement Tocqueville's "somewhat speculative views of democracy" with a more concrete observation of America, (1) scholars still face the struggle for balance between fact and theory which is inherent in the attempt to understand enormously complex human and social dynamics. For those primarily interested in the realities of the nineteenth century, prose studies must be broadened to provide a more representative sense of the Victorian intellectual battleground.

Intellectual theorizing, whether political, social, or psychological, was inimical to the individualism so highly prized in Great Britain and the United States during the last century, and thus was viewed with considerable scepticism. A rigorously developed theory might be accepted, as in the case of Darwin, with plenty of caveats. But general doubts about systematic explanations which seemed to confound common sense afforded other characteristics of prose writing a generous intellectual footing during the Victorian era. As an example, in the debate over the relevance and application of the doctrines of Political Economy, the public was duly impressed by John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy (1848). However, political and economic pundits multiplied during the 1860s. As the years passed, Mill's works became for many the dusty Bible on the shelf. As Henry Sidgwick recalled in 1885, it was an "exaggeration" to say that the bankers knew no Political Economy: "I think they read Mill some time ago and look at him from time to time on Sundays." (2) Walter Bagehot, as editor of the Economist (1860-1877), was considerably less systematic in the treatment of Political Economy than the great Mill. But many trusted his intuition more than Mill's logic. An observor wrote a characteristic assessment of his "genius":

   There was something Shakespearian in the way in which he
   instinctively knew what was going on in the minds of all sorts of
   men, and he brought to bear upon this knowledge a judgment at once
   so firm and so clear that one felt irresistibly impelled to take
   his conclusions as final, when he came to definite conclusions.
   When he did not--and his wisdom often held him back from doing
   so--he equally satisfied one's mind--(3)

Whether or not Bagehot actually had this instinctive power is immaterial. While the originality of Mill's thought was almost universally recognized, his failure as a Member of Parliament confirmed lingering suspicions among many that doctrines led to disaster. Bagehot may in his intuitive and careful prose have done more in the short term to reinforce the predilections of Englishmen than Mill did to shake them. …

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