In the introduction to Culture and 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 and self-proclamation made the urbane, gentlemanly Arnold feel more than a little ill at ease, however much he drew upon it. Readers of Carlyle and Ruskin similarly perceived these authors' obvious indebtedness to Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, and 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," and he approvingly quotes Froude's description of Carlyle as "a prophet, in the Jewish sense of the word," one of those, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who have "interpreted correctly the signs of their own times." All three Victorians in fact owed more than just their tone and 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 and Jeremiah, who have "interpreted correctly the signs of their own times." All three Victorians in fact owed more than just their tone and 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, and 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 and 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, and experiences individual works of literature.

The Importance of recognizing genre when we read

As Alastair Fowler has pointed out, "Traditional genres and 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 and 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, and 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 and 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 and the Idea of the Modern (1968), Richard L. Stein's Ritual of Interpretation (1975), and Elizabeth K. Helsinger's Ruskin and 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 and those, such as Pierre Fontenay's "Ruskin and Paradise Regained" and other works listed above, that place passages from individual works in the context provided by mythological and iconological studies.

John Holloway's pioneering The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (1953), which discusses Carlyle, Disraeli, George Eliot, Newman, Arnold, and Hardy, obviously places Carlyle and Arnold — it omits Ruskin — in the context of the novel and, despite its many suggestive hints and 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, and it has assisted many in reading works of Carlyle and Arnold as literature.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that its consideration of Carlyle, Disraeli, Eliot, Newman, Arnold, and Hardy as Victorian sages points out some interesting similarities, it finds no essential difference between novel and 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 and 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 and make it one of the liberal arts, critics like DuFresnoy and Dryden closely allied it to literature.

Unfortunately, once seventeenth- and eighteenth-century critics had convinced one another and their audiences that painting resembled poetry in all essential matters, they found themselves without any means of effectively discussing the unique strengths and beauties of the visual arts. In like manner, placing together the novel and the writings of the sage- say, Middlemarch and Culture and Anarchy, Coningsby and Past and Present — may encourage serious consideration of Arnold and 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 and 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 and to reconceive widely accepted notions of historical development. This approach to the sage, for example, reveals links between Victorian and modem examples of this genre. Asserting a generic connection between the works of, say, Carlyle and Mailer or Ruskin and 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, and Arnold are major authors, members of the canon, whereas Mailer, Didion, Wolfe, and 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" and Unto This Last first appeared.

Nonfiction and Fiction

One matter links Victorian and more recent instances of sage-writing — both have been treated as adjuncts to fiction. The most serious critical consideration Didion and 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, and others write employs the techniques of fiction and 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 and twentieth century nonfiction draws upon the novel. In fact, Carlyle and Ruskin employ invented characters, dialogue, setting, imagery, leitmotifs, and 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 and 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, and 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 and from such placement alongside another tradition.

The Sage versus 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 and 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 and Japanese, the Polynesians and the American Indians, the Hausa and the Xhosa, peoples of Africa. All peoples with few apparent exceptions admire wisdom, hypostatize and personify it, practice or say they practice it, teach it to their children, and use it to face or smooth away the irritations and dangers of everyday life.

Like the writings of the sage, wisdom literature solaces and aids men and 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 and 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 and patterns to which individuals if they wish happiness must conform, and that everything and every event has its proper place and time."

Thus far, traditional statements of wisdom and the writings of the sage the Book of Proverbs and 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 and 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, and general presentation of the wisdom speaker derive from the fact that his often anonymous voice resides at a societal and cultural center; it purports to be the voice of society speaking its essential beliefs and assumptions. In contrast, the style, tone, and 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 and the sage's writings of criticisms of that orthodoxy, except for the fact that the sage's attacks upon established political, moral, and 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 and 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 and "whomever that rain wetteth, on him, yea, on him and on his children's children will fall — the spirit of Madness." Ignored by all, the inspired one took shelter in a cave and emerged, horrified, to find a fallen world from which all community, honor, freedom, and sanity had vanished. Soon he was set upon by several persons who accused him of being "a worthless idler" and "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 and continually tries to recall his fellows to wisdom and sanity; to do so he must stand apart from them, criticizing what they do.


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Last modified 14 July 2008