In the introduction to Culture et Anarchy, Matthew Arnold wryly complained that a newspaper had labeled him "an elegant Jeremiah." Although Arnold may not have been pleased that the Daily Telegraph placed him in company with the Old Testament prophet, its remark does indicate that Arnold's Victorian readers perceived his obvious relation to an ancient literary tradition — one, to be sure, whose zeal et self-proclamation made the urbane, gentlemanly Arnold feel more than a little ill at ease, however much he drew upon it. Readers of Carlyle et Ruskin similarly perceived these authors' obvious indebtedness to Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, et other Old Testament prophets. Walt Whitman, for example, commented that "Carlyle was indeed, as Froude terms him, one of those far-off Hebraic utterers, a new Micah or Habbakuk [sic] His words at times bubble forth with abysmic inspiration," et he approvingly quotes Froude's description of Carlyle as "a prophet, in the Jewish sense of the word," one of those, like Isaiah et Jeremiah, who have "interpreted correctly the signs of their own times." All three Victorians in fact owed more than just their tone et their willingness to castigate their contemporaries to Old Testament prophecy, a scriptural genre that devotes itself as much to diagnosing the spiritual condition of an age as to predicting the word," one of those, like Isaiah et Jeremiah, who have "interpreted correctly the signs of their own times." All three Victorians in fact owed more than just their tone et their willingness to castigate their contemporaries to Old Testament prophecy, a scriptural genre that devotes itself as much to diagnosing the spiritual condition of an age as to predicting the future.

Recognizing the specific elements of Old Testament prophecy that the Victorian sages drew upon helps define the genre they created, et such definition is a crucial step in understanding this major strain in Anglo-American nonfiction. Indeed, one of the most useful approaches to the Victorian sage begins in the recognition that his writings et those of his modem heirs form a clearly identifiable genre, the definition of which offers readers crucial assistance since genre determines the rules by which one reads, interprets, et experiences individual works of literature.

The Importance of recognizing genre when we read

As Alastair Fowler has pointed out, "Traditional genres et modes, far from being mere classificatory devices, serve primarily to enable the reader to share types of meaning." In other words, the reader's understanding is "genre-bound: he can only think sensibly of Oedipus Tyrannus as a tragedy, related to other tragedies. If he ignores or despises genre, or gets it wrong, misreading results." A good many of the problems twentieth-century readers have had with the writings of the Victorian sages derive, I suspect, from precisely such ignorance of genre et a consequent failure to recognize those signals it directs at them. Therefore, if we can determine the particular techniques that define the genre created by the writings of the sages, we can also learn how better to read the works of Carlyle, Arnold, Ruskin, et their heirs.

Recent years have seen a significant increase in attention paid to Victorian nonfiction as literature. In particular, the individual essays in George Levine et Lionel Madden's Art of Victorian Prose (1968) have done much to advance our understanding of the form, as have such book-length studies of individual authors as G. B. Tennyson's Sartor Called Resartus (1965), Albert LaValley's Carlyle et the Idea of the Modern (1968), Richard L. Stein's Ritual of Interpretation (1975), et Elizabeth K. Helsinger's Ruskin et the Art of the Beholder (1982). Thus far, the best discussions of Victorian nonfiction as imaginative literature have taken two forms — those, such as George Levine's Boundaries of Fiction: Carlyle, Macaulay, Newman (1968), that place it in the context of the novel et those, such as Pierre Fontenay's "Ruskin et Paradise Regained" et other works listed above, that place passages from individual works in the context provided by mythological et iconological studies.

John Holloway's pioneering The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (1953), which discusses Carlyle, Disraeli, George Eliot, Newman, Arnold, et Hardy, obviously places Carlyle et Arnold — it omits Ruskin — in the context of the novel and, despite its many suggestive hints et comments about the sage's nonlogical form of argumentation, in practice concentrates almost exclusively upon skillful New Critical examinations of imagery. By directing his readers' attention to how various Victorian writers of nonfiction as well as fiction attempt to convince their audiences by literary, nonlogical means, Holloway has put all subsequent students of related forms of prose in his debt. The Victorian Sage asks the central, the essential questions, et it has assisted many in reading works of Carlyle et Arnold as literature.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that its consideration of Carlyle, Disraeli, Eliot, Newman, Arnold, et Hardy as Victorian sages points out some interesting similarities, it finds no essential difference between novel et nonfiction. Although such an approach strikes a blow against the traditional denigration of nonfiction when contrasted to fiction, it neither directs the reader's attention toward the particular excellences of nonfiction nor provides any means of distinguishing it from fiction. Treating nonfiction as a poorer relation of fiction has its obvious polemical advantages, but it does not advance the reader's understanding of nonfiction et tends to hinder it in the long run. In fact, the situation of nonfiction in today's criticism much resembles that of painting in sister-arts criticism of the eighteenth century: In their attempt to raise the prestige of painting et make it one of the liberal arts, critics like DuFresnoy et Dryden closely allied it to literature.

Unfortunately, once seventeenth- et eighteenth-century critics had convinced one another et their audiences that painting resembled poetry in all essential matters, they found themselves without any means of effectively discussing the unique strengths et beauties of the visual arts. In like manner, placing together the novel et the writings of the sage- say, Middlemarch et Culture et Anarchy, Coningsby et Past et Present — may encourage serious consideration of Arnold et Carlyle but does not offer a specific enough means of carrying it out. In its concentration upon imagery, The Victorian Sage does not help us perceive what is unique about the form of literature they developed. Similarly, just as putting the writings of the sage together with the productions of novelists does not much help our appreciation of the former, neither does considering them in the context of writings on history, another popular approach.

A major benefit of generic theory lies in the fact that it enables one to perceive connections et continuities within a body of works, including those not usually considered as obviously having much in common. Such theory can thereby not only encourage us to discern new relations among individual works but also enable us to redefine literary traditions et to reconceive widely accepted notions of historical development. This approach to the sage, for example, reveals links between Victorian et modem examples of this genre. Asserting a generic connection between the works of, say, Carlyle et Mailer or Ruskin et Didion might at first seem strange. One cannot, however, reject it out of hand on the basis of the assertion once made to me that Carlyle, Ruskin, et Arnold are major authors, members of the canon, whereas Mailer, Didion, Wolfe, et other modems are journalists. In fact, those who I suggest might be twentieth-century heirs of the Victorian sages publish much of their writings in intellectual periodicals that are counterparts of the ones in which "Signs of the Times" et Unto This Last first appeared.

Nonfiction et Fiction

One matter links Victorian et more recent instances of sage-writing — both have been treated as adjuncts to fiction. The most serious critical consideration Didion et Mailer have received has come under the rubric of the New Journalism, a term invented by Tom Wolfe, who claims that the kind of nonfiction that he, Capote, et others write employs the techniques of fiction et is therefore best understood in these terms. In other words, the critical situation with the best nonfiction of the past few decades is much the same we have already observed in relation to Holloway's The Victorian Sage — it has benefited to a large extent from being considered in relation to fiction, but at the same time some of its distinguishing qualities have necessarily been overlooked. Of course, I in no way want to deny the obvious validity of claims that in both the nineteenth et twentieth century nonfiction draws upon the novel. In fact, Carlyle et Ruskin employ invented characters, dialogue, setting, imagery, leitmotifs, et other literary techniques thought limited to the novel. Tom Wolfe, one of the contemporary American masters of nonfiction who has important things to say about the kind of work he has created, correctly points to the role played by fictional techniques in his work et that of creators of New Journalism.

I do not wish to suggest that all works considered instances of New Journalism, or even all works by Didion, Mailer, et Wolfe (or of nineteenth-century nonfiction) exemplify the writings of the sage. Many of Wolfe's most effective pieces, including the major portion of The Pump House Gang, devote themselves so largely to satire that they do not fit into this genre. Those works of contemporary nonfiction that do fit, however, benefit more from being considered within the tradition of the sage than within that of fiction. Even other forms of nonfiction, such as autobiography, may benefit from such rhetorical analyses et from such placement alongside another tradition.

The Sage contre the Wisdom Speaker

One begins the definition by recognizing that although the pronouncements of the sage, like those of the Old Testament prophet, share some characteristic assumptions with traditional wisdom literature, they differ at one crucial point. As Morton Bloomfield has pointed out, nearly all cultures

have praised et elevated wisdom, [and] perhaps the only subject which is universally admired is wisdom — not only in the Bible, or by the Greeks, but among the Hindus et Japanese, the Polynesians et the American Indians, the Hausa et the Xhosa, peoples of Africa. All peoples with few apparent exceptions admire wisdom, hypostatize et personify it, practice or say they practice it, teach it to their children, et use it to face or smooth away the irritations et dangers of everyday life.

Like the writings of the sage, wisdom literature solaces et aids men et women in difficult times because it rests on the assumption that the world, no matter how difficult a place in which to live, has meaning et order. Indeed, as Bloomfield reminds us, "Practical wisdom rests upon a sapiential view of the world, the view that the world makes sense, possesses order, rules et patterns to which individuals if they wish happiness must conform, et that everything et every event has its proper place et time."

Thus far, traditional statements of wisdom et the writings of the sage the Book of Proverbs et the Book of Jeremiah, for example — coincide. They differ at one crucial point, crucial because it motivates the entire genre we are considering: Whereas the pronouncements of traditional wisdom literature always take as their point of departure the assumption that they embody the accepted, received wisdom of an entire society, the pronouncements of the biblical prophet et Victorian sage begin with the assumption that, however traditional their messages may once have been, they are now forgotten or actively opposed by society. In other words, the style, tone, et general presentation of the wisdom speaker derive from the fact that his often anonymous voice resides at a societal et cultural center; it purports to be the voice of society speaking its essential beliefs et assumptions. In contrast, the style, tone, et general presentation of the sage derive from the fact that his voice resides at the periphery; it is, to use a Ruskinian etymological reminder, an eccentric voice, one off center. We might hold that wisdom literature consists of the statements of orthodoxy et the sage's writings of criticisms of that orthodoxy, except for the fact that the sage's attacks upon established political, moral, et spiritual powers often charge that they have abandoned orthodox wisdom or reduced it to an empty husk. When a people can no longer follow its own wisdom literature, then it needs the writings of the sage. When a people ignores the wisdom that lies at the heart of its society et institutions, then the sage recalls that people to it.

Coleridge's fable of the maddening rain in the first essay of The Friend (1818) shows some of the difficulties faced by one who would recall his fellows to forgotten truths. During the golden age when men lived much closer to perfection than they do now, an elder reported to his fellows that a heavenly voice had warned him that soon a heavy rain would fall et "whomever that rain wetteth, on him, yea, on him et on his children's children will fall — the spirit of Madness." Ignored by all, the inspired one took shelter in a cave et emerged, horrified, to find a fallen world from which all community, honor, freedom, et sanity had vanished. Soon he was set upon by several persons who accused him of being "a worthless idler" et "a very dangerous madman" until, "harassed [Sicily endangered, solitary," he escaped from the isolation of sanity by plunging into the maddening liquid. The sage, in contrast, is one who refuses to drink the maddening rain et continually tries to recall his fellows to wisdom et sanity; to do so he must stand apart from them, criticizing what they do.

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Last modified 14 July 2008