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Victorian Studies 43.4 (2001) 634-637

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Book Review

Matthew Arnold: The Critical Legacy

Matthew Arnold: The Critical Legacy, by Laurence W. Mazzeno; pp. xvi + 170. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 1999, $55.00, £35.00.

After reading Laurence Mazzeno's helpful if rather tendentious book, one cannot easily shake the impression that Arnold scholarship is as riven today as it was when The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems garnered mixed reviews in 1849. Few writers have elicited such extreme reactions on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet, as Mazzeno reminds us, Arnold seemed to delight in goading his critics, insisting that much of his task "as a reformer in poetical matters" was to "shake the present methods till they go down" (qtd. ix). Although Arnold was surely exaggerating here, Matthew Arnold: The Critical Legacy can partly be viewed as a testament to his ongoing success.

Charting Arnold's critical reputation from 1849 until 1999, Mazzeno's book differs from related bibliographical projects by arranging Arnold scholarship in chronological rather than thematic ways. The result is revelatory, approximating a scaled-down history of the fates of philology and English studies--what Mazzeno, with pardonable hyperbole, calls "a century-long civil war among literary scholars" (i). Former editor-in- chief of The Arnoldian and author of annotated bibliographies of Victorian poetry and the eighteenth-century novel, Mazzeno offers pellucid, informative, and witty accounts of Arnold's critics. For instance, he remarks dryly that the Victorian W. E. Henley "considers the 'unique and unapproached' Balder Dead the best of [Arnold's] poetry--a judgment not held by many then or since" (3).

By focusing on successive periods of literary criticism, Mazzeno demonstrates that Arnold's writings are a cultural and interpretive "barometer," signaling the way scholarly [End Page 634] preoccupations have changed over time (xiii). As Mazzeno observes, "[v]irtually every major critic in England and America has formulated a theory of criticism in alignment with, or in reaction to, Arnold's strictures" (91). He shows that critics returning relentlessly--perhaps obsessively--to Arnold's famous dicta in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (1864) and Culture and Anarchy (1867-68; 1869) confirm Arnold's relevance even when hoping to displace it.

Our love-hate relationship with Arnold, then, shows no sign of abating. When David DeLaura reviewed Clinton Machann's Essential Matthew Arnold: An Annotated Bibliography of Major Modern Studies (1993), a project with an impetus similar to Mazzeno's book, he noted that "Arnold has become a sort of ideological football or touchstone--almost 'talismanic,' as he might have said--in the successive waves of the culture wars, especially since the 1960s" (Analytical and Enumerative Bibliography 8.2 [1994] 141). DeLaura's remark captures perfectly the strange futility of rival scholarly camps using Arnold only in this way.

To the charges of elitism, idealism, and irrelevance that are now leveled at Arnold's work--especially since 1983, when Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction and Chris Baldick's Social Mission of English Criticism 1848-1932 appeared, the latter more skeptical of Arnold's critical methods than Mazzeno seems to realize--we have Mazzeno's account of Victorians who faulted Arnold for his "lack of emotional involvement in his subjects and his overreliance on his critical faculty in shaping the content of his verse" (7). Although complaints about Arnold's "academic" poetry have recurred since the early 1870s, especially in E. C. Stedman's Victorian Poets (1876), many today would applaud this quality in a host of other writers. Regarding Arnold's liberal politics, Mazzeno reasserts Raymond Williams's argument in Culture and Society (1958) that "Arnold's principal contribution was his insistence that the attainment of culture comes from the exercise of the State to promote the common good, rather than from individuals' attainment of knowledge" (48). Partly turning Williams's insight against him, Mazzeno counters: "Arnold's support of the State as an instrument of change fits well into Williams's own political agenda" as a "founder and proponent of the British New Left" (48).

While the terms have clearly shifted...