Towards a Popular Culture: Andrew Lang's Anthropological and Literary Criticism
Michalski, Robert, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
In the introduction to his immensely influential The American Novel and Its Tradition, Richard Chase contrasts the "freer, more daring, more brilliant fiction" of the American "romance-novel" with "the solid moral inclusiveness and massive equability of the English novel" (viii). Unlike the English novel, contends Chase, the American novel at its best is characteristically marked by such elements of romance as "the picturesque and the heroic, an assumed freedom from the ordinary novelistic requirements of verisimilitude, development, and continuity"; "a tendency to plunge into the underside of consciousness," and "a willingness to abandon moral questions or to ignore the spectacle of man in society" (ix). Whether or not the English and American novelist traditions can be usefully played off against each in these starkly polar terms, it is doubtless the case that American critics since World War II have been far more attracted by this simple schema, and disposed to celebrate the virtues of the romance-novel, than have their British counterparts. Yet this has not always been so, as is demonstrated by one of the most important literary debates in Britain during the late 19th century. In this debate, Chase's alignment of the American novel with the romance and the British novel with realism was reversed. Largely prompted by critical interventions of the Americans William Dean Howells and Henry James on behalf of realism in the constitution of the "art of fiction," British (or, more specifically, Scottish) partisans of the adventure romance like Robert Louis Stevenson and Andrew Lang championed the popular swashbuckling tales of Stevenson and Rider Haggard against what Lang perceived as the pretentious ends and degrading means of the realistic and naturalistic novel.
In this debate, realism in fiction clearly stood as the marker of High Culture in novelistic practice while the romance was equated with popular tastes. Lang's preference for Stevenson and Haggard "against all that was most vital in the fiction, English, European, and American of the later nineteenth century" (Maurer 170) has led contemporary commentators on Lang to agree with James's assessment of Lang as a critic who "writes the intellect of our race too low" and who "uses his beautiful thin facility to write everything down to the lowest level of Philistine twaddle--the view of the old lady round the corner or the clever person at the dinner party" (Green 156). Lang's reputation, therefore, currently stands as that of a talented but ultimately disappointing critic who, while attempting "to reunite the artist with a public that had already ceased to listen" (Weintraub 11), had paradoxically helped "to widen the split between the general reader and the serious or experimental artist in fiction" (Maurer 170).
Bad taste alone, however, cannot explain Lang's preference for the romance, a predilection he shared not only with Stevenson but with an unquestionably canonical novelist like Joseph Conrad. Rather than seeking to evaluate (and perhaps condemn) Lang's aesthetic judgment or his inability to pick the literary winners of his day, we need to explore the reasons why one of the most powerful literary arbiters in the last decades of the 19th century found the popular romance a more vibrant narrative form than the realistic novel. In doing so, I propose an investigation of Lang's literary criticism in the context of his career as an anthropologist and folklorist, a field in which Lang's reputation remains untarnished. Lang's dual role as a prominent late-19th-century anthropologist and literary critic, in fact, argues for a more serious look at him by those modern cultural critics who are interested in the confluence of anthropology and literary criticism.
One such area of interest and intersection between anthropological and aesthetic criticism has focused on questioning what James Clifford has described as "transcendent regime
of authenticity" (10), whether embodied in the elitist canons of High Culture or in the "endangered authenticities" of anthropological cultures (5). …