- The Education of Taste. A review of English Literature during the Last Half-Century, by J. W. Cunliffe
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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60 ] The Education of Taste1 A review of English Literature during the Last Half-Century by J. W. Cunliffe New York: Macmillan, 1919. Pp. viii + 315. The Athenaeum, 4652 (27 June 1919) 520-21 America outstrips the world in the development of the text-book; America has carried the text-book into conquests elsewhere unaspired to by that humble vehicle of instruction; in America every serious work threatens eventually to conform to the text-book decorum, and to wear the textbook uniform of bibliography and guide to Further Reading; in America instruction is a manifest of seriousness. Professor Cunliffe avows that he has “encouraged young people who are preparing themselves for the writer ’s task to make themselves acquainted with the works of the nearer, as well as of the more remote past,” and adds in justification of his book that “it seems reasonable that he should afford them what help he can”; and further that he intends to provide “guidance for firsthand study” [vii]. On perusing the volume with the author’s intention clearly in mind, we are thrown into bemusement over the discord between this intention and even the plan upon which the work is conceived. For clearly the book of such an intention is not to be merely a collection of essays on twelve or fourteen writers. If the young people preparing themselves for the writer’s task are to advance their preparation, they must learn something from the book as a whole; they must be guided to appreciate each novelist or poet for what he is, and they must also be shown that Literature is an historical structure with some coherence. They must not be entertained or stupefied by a circus procession. Here is a problem not only for the tutor of young persons, but also for the literary historian and the critic. Wherever there is to be consideration of any group or number of writers, several activities may come into exercise : there are the feelings, emotions, direct impressions excited by immediatecontactwitheachwriter ;therearethefeelings,emotions,impressions aroused by contrast and comparison of several writers, and there are the theories we may erect accounting for these data. Also, there is the generality, [ 61 The Education of Taste which is usually a substitute for both impression and theory. It is in this last faculty that Professor Cunliffe excels. To communicate impressions is difficult ; to communicate a co-ordinated system of impressions is more difficult ; to theorize demands vast ingenuity, and to avoid theorizing requires vast honesty. But to enunciate a generality is easy, and seldom useful. Professor Cunliffe’s aim is to encourage “systematic study” [vii]. Very well; to emphasize the system he presents an introduction which apparently gives the background for the later 19th-century literature. The jumble of stage properties in this background includes Liberalism, Social Reform, Mr. Sidney Webb, the Cinema, the National Insurance Act, “the establishment of the theory of evolution by natural selection” , Huxley, Biblical criticism, the reaction (“it was agreed that between religion and science there was no necessary antagonism”  ), rapid transition (Manchester, steam-engines); and at the end Mr. Cunliffe advances to the front of the stage and announces that “it is upon the foundation laid by the writers of the last half-century that the present generation has built and must continue to build” . The Victorian Age was a very complex period; to show how these economic phenomena moulded or affected literature would be a labour of very great pains and infinite critical subtlety and skill, a labour demanding the most heroic abstentions from generalizing. The fact is that Mr. Cunliffe does not try; he has got the background “off his chest”; and he ceases to bother his head with it. He proceeds informatively from one writer to another almost as if each were the sole occupant of an island of his own. The young person who has begun his literary training with this confusing summary of a difficult period must, if he has any native sense, discover its futility when he proceeds to the first essay on Meredith.2 Here he will perceive that his wrestling with one generality does not assist him in conquering the next. For he is abruptly informed that Meredith’s “success in intellectualizing the novel had far-reaching influence” . He knows by this time that there was a National Insurance Act,3 but he cannot be assumed to know what a novel is, or how it can be and why it...