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THE OLD HISTORICISM (MOSTLY) AND THE NEW (MAYBE) Carl Woodring. Nature Into Art: Cultural Transformations in Nineteenth Century Britain. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989. xvin + 326. $30.00 US (cloth). John R. Reed. Victorian Will. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1989. xvi + 493. $39.95 US (cloth). K. J. M. Smith. James Fitzjames Stephen: Portrait of a Victorian Rationahst. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. xii + 338. $49.50 US (cloth). Thomas Boyle. Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism. New York: Viking, 1989. xiv + 273. $19.95 US (cloth). Victorian reviewers were notorious for listing several disparate book titles at the head of an article, and then ostentatiously ignoring them, riding off in pursuit of their own particular concerns. This Victorian Reviewer faces a similar temptation, but wiU attempt to resist it, mainly by insisting that the books under review here share his concerns. At the risk of incurring Nietzsche ' s jibe that seeing similarities is the mark of weak eyes, I will proceed under the sign of the same. Historicism is enjoying a considerable vogue at the moment in Uterary studies. As a historian I naturaUy find this commendable, though that it should ever be a hostage to fashion dismays me. The current "new historicism" seems much preoccupied with asserting its newness, and scrutinizing its consciousness. It also seems to engage in much competitive theory-revving, but rarely lets the clutch out and actually takes us somewhere. These remarks apply to none of the books under review, however, for although the historical dimension is central to their concern, in three of them historicism is simply taken for granted: the word is not even mentioned. Tacitly, this is the old historicism, traditionaUy distrustful of methodological self-consciousness and overt theorizing as hindrances to getting the job done. This approach is vulnerable to charges of text evasion and epistemológica! naivety, charges not always unwarranted, 50Victorian Review though the absence of expUcit and extensive methodological disclosure is not necessarily self-incriminating. It may also be an economy—space and time being short—grounded on the assumption that author and reader are in general agreement about how to proceed, and the book will adhere to the general conventions of the genre. The fourth book, Thomas Boyles ' s, suffers from a sort of identity crisis which gives it a particular interest apart from its subject matter. But your reviewer claims to be a sympathetic reader of all four books reviewed here, though one who beUeves that a modicum of self- and theory-consciousness is less harmful to the practice of history than many historians fear. In discussing them I will ignore much of their content and interest, for all are rich and wideranging , to concentrate on certain issues which concern them all: theory, methodology, and the construction of reality. Carl Woodring comes first on grounds of seniority, breadth of ambition, and theoretical elusiveness; Nature Into Art, Cultural Transformations in Nineteenth-Century Britain is fairly labelled. It could be placed in that spacious pigeon-hole marked cultural histoiy—high culture, that is—though Woodring is a cagy old hand: "Like the art critic Etienne-Jean Delécluze (1783-1863), who wrote in 1835 that he had lived clean shaven through the Etruscan beards of 1799, and the Gothic beards of 1832, 1 leave to others pertinent discourse on the hermeneutical circle that Umits the sort of history attempted" (x). His preface suggests a promising plot outline: at the beginning of the nineteenth century, nature is newly and romantically cohabiting with art. But the relationship sours as art's infatuation turns to unhealthy imitation, resulting in realism. Then nature's secret is uncovered, somewhat reluctantly, by Darwin. Nature is a gambler, addicted to chance. Art comes to realize that nature is unworthy of imitation, severs the relationship, and goes off to live happily alone, while nature, disconsolate, takes to imitating art in the vain hope of restoring their relationship. However Woodring does not follow through in the text, although the story has a lot ofpotential, including role reversals and gender confusions, such as why does mother nature become "red in tooth and claw?" and what is art's sex? Instead of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 49-60
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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