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  • “Horn-Handed and Pig-Headed”: British Reception of The Poets and Poetry of America

An almost ideal case study of what happens when an assertion of status meets an act of symbolic violence, the publication of Rufus Griswold’s The Poets and Poetry of America and its review by John Forster in the Foreign Quarterly Review also reveals some of the heuristic limitations of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction. Due, in part, to key historical and cultural differences between 1960s France and 1840s Anglo-America, Bourdieu’s overdetermined materialism fully accounts for neither the complex of motives perceptible in Forster’s response to Griswold nor the epistemological uncertainty of class, status, and culture in Victorian England.

Before he became infamous for character assassination disguised as literary executorship, Rufus W. Griswold established his reputation in America as a critic and early literary anthologist. In 1842, Griswold released the first edition of his massive Poets and Poetry of America with prominent Philadelphia publisher Carey and Hart. At nearly five hundred royal octavo pages—complete with elaborate frontispiece; ornamental title page with an etching by George Hewitt Cushman after Thomas Creswick; twelve-page, double-columned “historical introduction”; authorial headnotes; and selections of verse from more than one hundred poets active in the roughly seventy years since American independence—Griswold’s volume was not only the most comprehensive anthology of American poetry produced to date but also a palimpsestic declaration of status. [End Page 319]

As a critic, Griswold’s status was confirmed by his breadth of reading, his ability to secure reprint permission, his choice of publisher, and the space he allotted to himself for the volume’s various paratexts. As poets, Griswold’s authors had their status enhanced by their inclusion in his volume, whether featured in the frontispiece or represented by reprinted poems on the subsequent pages. And last, but not least, as a nation, Griswold’s United States accrued intellectual status by virtue of counting among its citizens such a diversely talented ensemble of critic, publisher, and writers. In apparent confirmation of its multivalent aspirations, The Poets and Poetry of America was even picked up, along with a small number of single-author books of poetry, for review in the January 1844 issue of the Foreign Quarterly Review, regarded as London’s “most successful and generally the most moderate, most perceptive, and best informed British interpreter of foreign literature and foreign attitudes.”1

At this point the wheels on Griswold’s status vehicle began to come off. The writer for the FQR was its previous editor, John Forster, himself to become the literary biographer and executor of novelist Charles Dickens. Dickens had just returned from his first reading tour of America, an experience he savagely represented in Martin Chuzzlewit, which was in its thirteenth monthly installment in January 1844. Forster channeled a good deal of his friend’s hostility into his evaluation of Griswold’s volume and the claims to poetic, intellectual, and cultural status that it made on behalf of its editor, authors, and home country. Paying almost vicious attention to the full conceptual range of Griswold’s claims, Forster’s review quickly escalates to an act of symbolic violence that repudiates all of Griswold’s pretentions. America, Forster judges in part on the basis of its poetry, holds a people “accustomed to contemplate without emotion the vicissitudes of a semi-barbarous mode of society,”2 and is, as a nation, entirely deficient in cultural capital.

As is evident from my choice of vocabulary, I find the theoretical system elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction exceptionally productive for understanding the series of claims and counterclaims advanced by Griswold and Forster. In this essay I trace the ultimately quite nasty contest for status occasioned by The Poets and Poetry of America, which offers the rare chance to track how the publication and subsequent review of a single book can provide the opportunity to judge an entire nation. After briefly summarizing the contours of Bourdieu’s argument in Distinction, I then deploy his conceptual framework to analyze Griswold’s affirmative assertions of his own and his national literature’s “cultural nobility,” followed by Forster’s point-by-point repudiation of the same.3 [End Page 320] I also use the Griswold-Forster dialectic to examine the limitations of Bourdieu’s ideas for explaining such status collisions in a Victorian context. I conclude by enumerating some of the meaning lost by a materially overdetermined strategy of reading, including in this case the ways in which individual agency, in the form of personal antipathy, interfered with the furtherance of a common cause in which Griswold and Forster were centrally interested.


As announced by its subtitle and explained in its preface, Bourdieu’s Distinction offers a materialist challenge to Kant’s third Critique that is also “an endeavour to rethink Max Weber’s opposition between class and Stand [status]” (D, p. xii). Grounded in empirical evidence gathered from statistical surveys and ethnographic observations of 1,217 “Parisians and provincials” between 1963 and 1968, the text argues that “taste,” in all senses of the word—from aesthetic judgment to gustatory preference, and everything in between—is inextricably bound up with class (p. 505).4 For Bourdieu, class is a matter of capital, “understood as the set of actually usable resources and powers—economic capital, cultural capital and also social capital,” all of which are mobilized into practices designed to express available degrees of distinction through consumption (p. 114). Arranged vertically by their relative distance from economic necessity, classes are subdividable horizontally into fractions according to their members’ differentiated distributions of types of capital. These fractions struggle constantly with one another for dominance, with each seeking legitimacy through and for its habitus, defined by Bourdieu as “necessity internalized and converted into a disposition that generates meaningful practices and meaning-giving perceptions; it is a general transposable disposition which carries out a systematic, universal application” (p. 170). Because “the work of art is the objectification of a relationship of distinction,” fractions of the dominant class tend to contest with one another most visibly over the meaning, value, and appropriation of aesthetic objects (p. 227).

The robust philosophical discourse on aesthetics represented synecdochically by Kant’s Critique of Judgment evinces the durability of this struggle for what Bourdieu labels “misrecognition.” From a materialist perspective, the “dialectic of conditions and habitus is the basis of an alchemy which transforms the distribution of capital, the balance-sheet of a power relation, into a system of perceived differences, distinctive [End Page 321] properties, that is, a distribution of symbolic capital, legitimate capital, whose objective truth is misrecognized” (D, p. 172). Misrecognition remains possible because taste, the primary term of the underlying contest for social power, remains largely “below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by the will” (p. 466). Acknowledging his debt to Weber, Bourdieu does briefly allow for the agency of charismatic individuals, those with the power “to impose their own self-image as the objective and collective image of their body and being; to persuade others, as in love or faith, to abdicate their generic power of objectification and delegate it to the person who should be its object, who thereby becomes an absolute subject, without an exterior (being his own Other), fully justified in existing, legitimated” (p. 208).

However, it is far more typical in Distinction for agency to be attributed to the class, class fraction, or habitus itself.5 Individual artists or intellectuals may approach an individual work of art with great self-consciousness and theoretical acuity, but for Bourdieu they almost always remain unaware of the “past and present material conditions of existence which are the precondition of both” their “constitution and . . . application” of the “aesthetic disposition” (p. 53). In other words, class always underwrites Stand, even in apparently “pure” aesthetic struggles between charismatic individuals over objects of art that are markers of status.


Griswold’s efforts to secure his own status as critical editor begin with the form of The Poets and Poetry of America as a material object. Recognizing early on Bourdieu’s more recently articulated proposition, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier,” Griswold advertises his own taste for legitimate culture through his choice of poets to represent in his volume’s multipanel frontispiece (D, p. 6). Featured in bust portraits, arranged from top to bottom and left to right, are Richard Henry Dana Sr.—Harvard graduate, lawyer, descendant of Anne Bradstreet, literary critic, member of Boston’s Anthology Club, and a founder of the North American Review; William Cullen Bryant—Williams College student, also a lawyer, descendant of the original Mayflower passengers, and editor-in-chief of the New-York Evening Post; Fitz-Greene Halleck—noted member of New York’s Knickerbocker Group, private secretary to John Jacob Astor, one the original trustees of the Astor Library, popularly known as [End Page 322] “America’s Byron”; Charles Sprague—another descendant of America’s founding fathers, recipient of an honorary M.A. from Harvard College, and noted author of numerous occasional poems written for major public events in his native Boston; and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard College, and generally recognized as America’s foremost living poet by midcentury. Charged with cultural, social, and educational capital, this collection of distinguished portraits transforms individuals already invested with honor into works of art that further “enable the production of distinctions ad infinitum by playing on divisions and sub-divisions into genres, periods, styles, authors, etc.” (p. 16).6

Partly built on his unerring taste for classification, Griswold’s status also rests upon his grasp of Romantic ideals of poetry, as well as the self-advertised breadth and assiduity of his reading. Offering a brief definition-cum-defense of poetry that partakes equally of Burke’s notion of the sublime, Wordsworth’s appreciation for metrical form, and Shelley’s breathless faith in the transformative power of verse, Griswold proclaims early on,

The elements of power in all sublime sights and heavenly harmonies should live in the poet’s song, to which they can be transferred only by him who possesses the creative faculty. The sense of beauty, next to the miraculous divine suasion, is the means through which the human character is purified and elevated. The creation of beauty, the manifestation of the real by the ideal, “in words that move in metrical array,” is poetry.7

Elsewhere in his opening statement “To the Reader,” Griswold acknowledges that “the judicious critic will be more likely to censure me for the wide range of my selections than for any omission he may discover”; he has, he explains, searched high and low for “poems of much merit, scattered in magazines and other periodicals,” identified their often anonymous authors, and thereby performed the Herculean labor of presenting “as much good verse as possible that is new and inaccessible to the general reader” (PPA, p. vi). Similarly, almost the entirety of his “Historical Introduction” is dedicated to showing Griswold’s command of the obscure biographical and poetic details of America’s colonial-era literary history.

This enumeration of pre-independence poets swiftly escalates to often-pejorative judgment, as Griswold seeks to perform his authority as critic even as he secures the cultural capital of his anthologized writers [End Page 323] through a repudiation of their predecessors. His survey of American poetic history begins with the admission that colonial-era poets’ “elaborate metrical compositions are forgotten by all save the antiquary, and by him are regarded as among the least valuable of the relics of the first era of civilization in America” (PPA, p. xiii). Curiously, after going out of his way to discount the poetic merit of all American poetry prior to independence, Griswold then offers copious and often lengthy quotations from such colonial dross, accompanied by short biographical sketches of their authors, where known.

He begins by quoting in full what he judges—and what most subsequent readers are likely to find—a really terrible anonymous poem, circa 1630, that uses hackneyed couplets to depict the threadbare clothing and poor foodstuffs of colonial life; and follows that with an unflattering description of “the first book published in British America,” a literal translation of the Psalms, which he dismisses for possessing “but little poetical merit” (PPA, pp. xiii, xiv). Anne Bradstreet receives significant attention, in the form of the full text of “Contemplations,” which is metrically much more complex and reliant upon figurative language than the earlier anonymous poem, and by way of praise offered secondhand from her contemporaries. By contrast, Cotton Mather is described slightingly—“he had too little genius to comprehend great truths; and his attainments, curious rather than valuable, made him resemble a complicate machine . . . nothing original, or valuable to the modern scholar. . . . His style abounds with puerilities, puns, and grotesque conceits. . . . He was wholly destitute of any high religious principles, and was ambitious, intriguing, and unscrupulous. . . . His works are not superior to those of many of his contemporaries”—even as Griswold quotes twenty-six lines of his “Remarks on the Bright and the Dark Side of That American Pillar, the Reverend Mr. William Thomson” (p. xvii). Similarly, Benjamin Coleman is damned with the faint praise that “though his diction was more elegant than that of most of his contemporaries, he had less originality,” while James Ralph, the “only American immortalized in ‘The Dunciad’ . . . attempted to repay the debt he owed to Pope” in “Sawney,” but the poem is “but an abusive tirade against the poet and his friends” (pp. xix, xx).

Griswold pronounces John Mayhew’s “Gallie Perfidy” and “Conquest of Louisburg” “smoothly versified but very dull compositions,” and Thomas Godfrey’s “The Prince of Parthia, a Tragedy” possessed of “a few vigorous passages, but not enough to save it from condemnation as the most worthless composition in the dramatic form that has been [End Page 324] printed in America” (PPA, p. xx). More positively, Mather Byles receives a full page of attention, including four quotations. About Joseph Green, Griswold writes, “His epigrams are the best written in this country before the Revolution” (p. xxiii). By contrast, regarding James Allen, “The world lost nothing by ‘his neglect of fame,’” and William Livingston’s “Philosophie Solitude,” the opening ten lines of which are quoted, is condemned as “a specimen of elegant mediocrity” (p. xxiii).

For Griswold, as the American Revolution approaches, poetry generally begins to improve, such that “Doctor Prime,” writing during the conflict, displays “unusual taste and care,” especially in his “A Song for the Sons of Liberty in New York,” which Griswold finds “superior to any patriotic lyric up to that time written in this country” (PPA, p. xxiv). On the whole, the taste displayed in the “Historical Introduction” relies as much upon nationalistic as aesthetic criteria, and seems designed less to provide an education in literary prehistory than to legitimize the selection of poets and authors to come in the main text of Poets and Poetry of America.

Griswold’s severance with the past serves at least two additional purposes. First, in largely rejecting his chosen poets’ pre-Revolution predecessors, he replicates a central generic feature of the literary manifesto, with Wordsworth’s diminution of the “poetic diction” of eighteenth-century giants like Pope (in the preface to Lyric Ballads) serving as a recent Romantic example.8 His rather sweeping dismissal of colonial poetry thus seeks to accrue cultural capital through rhetorical emulation: “From this account of the ‘poets and poetry’ of our ante-revolutionary period, it will be seen that until the spirit of freedom began to influence the national character, very little verse worthy of preservation was produced in America. The POETRY OF THE COLONIES was without originality, energy, feeling, or correctness of diction” (PPA, p. xxiv).

At the same time, Griswold may also be playing a somewhat subtler game here. As Bourdieu explains, the “embodied cultural capital of the previous generations functions as a sort of advance,” enabling those who inherit it to enjoy a substantial advantage even over otherwise better-capitalized contemporaries (D, p. 70). By discounting the worth of poetry written in America prior to 1776, Griswold may be seeking to cancel altogether the “advance” provided by a lengthy poetic pedigree, thereby evening the contest between nineteenth-century American poets, who had relatively sparse aesthetic genealogies, and their Victorian British counterparts, who enjoyed a more illustrious poetic inheritance. [End Page 325]

More directly edifying to eighty-six of the writers featured in Poets and Poetry of America are Griswold’s authorial headnotes. Somewhat ironically, the entry for Edgar Allan Poe is typical both in focusing on his familial connections to the American Revolution—we learn, for instance, that Poe’s paternal grandfather was “the intimate friend of LAFAYETTE”—his youthful (mis)adventures, and his present place within the literary world of legitimate culture, represented by Poe’s past efforts at the Southern Literary Messenger and the New York Review and his present connection “with a popular monthly magazine” (PPA, p. 387); the headnote also notably refrains from qualitative pronouncements about the poems selected for inclusion. In Bourdieu’s terms, recognizing that “the exchange rate of the different kinds of capital is one of the fundamental stakes in the struggles between class fractions,” Griswold attempts a reconversion of social capital into cultural capital in this and other headnotes (D, p. 125).

The opening sentence of the prefatory “To the Reader” proclaims that Griswold’s volume “is designed to exhibit the progress and condition of Poetry in the United States,” a subject about which, “considering the youth of the country, and the many circumstances which have had a tendency to retard the advancement of letters, it speaks well for the past and present, and cheeringly for the future” (PPA, p. v). The Poets and Poetry of America, then, bolsters not just its editor’s and authors’ literary status but also its nation’s claims to cultural capital. According to Griswold, these national claims to poetic glory enjoy considerable provenance, since “from the landing of the pilgrims at Plymouth there was at no period a lack of candidates for the poetic laurel. Many of the early colonists were men of erudition, deeply versed in scholastic theology, and familiar with the best ancient literature” (p. xiii). Leavening this praise somewhat in anticipation of the largely unedifying poetic evidence he will, himself, provide throughout the “Historical Introduction,” Griswold shifts rhetorical registers to describe these colonial predecessors as “like the labourers of an architect; they planted deep and strong in religious virtue and useful science the foundations of an edifice, not dreaming how great and magnificent it was to be. They did well their part; it was not meet for them to fashion the capitals and adorn the arches of the temple” (p. xiii). Such decorative work is now possible thanks to the present levels of literacy among the “native inhabitant[s] of Saxon origin” and the “universal prevalence of intelligence, and that self-respect which is imparted by the democratic principle” (p. vi). Griswold even implies that the culture of America is more legitimate than [End Page 326] that of England—still “the holy land to which our spirit turns”—since in America writers are “free from that vassalage of opinion and style” that binds “the subjects of kings” (p. v). Just as modern American poets are superior to their predecessors for having passed through the crucible of independence, so too are they preferable to their contemporaries in England, who remain constrained by their deference to an outmoded form of government.


Griswold’s rhetoric of poetic preference may have played well at home, but it was not designed to foster good will across the pond. As Bourdieu notes, “In matters of taste, more than anywhere else, all determination is negation; and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (‘sick-making’) of the tastes of others” (D, p. 49). Forster is, in fact, disgusted, and registers his distaste through a systematic negation of every status claim advanced in The Poets and Poetry of America. Advertising his own breadth of reading, Forster explains that he has “collected all the publications containing American poetry we could procure,” including “books and ephemera which could not possibly interest” readers of the FQR (“AP,” p. 297). Among these publications is “a huge anthology collected by Mr. Griswold—the most conspicuous act of martyrdom yet committed in the service of the transatlantic muses” (p. 297). The syntax here leaves unclear whether Griswold’s act of anthologizing or Forster’s own act of reading constitutes “the conspicuous act of martyrdom” alluded to in the passage.

Subsequent comments suggest it is the latter, as Forster pillories Griswold for everything from poor selection criteria to candid stupidity to incorrect grammar. For instance, discounting the obvious labor that went into the “Historical Introduction,” Forster writes, “Mr. Griswold reminds his readers that the early age of American colonization was not poetical—a piece of information he might have spared himself the trouble of communicating” (“AP,” p. 301). He goes on to quote the “labourers of an architect” passage, then criticizes its basic command of English: “If they ‘planted deep and strong,’ they did something which was not warranted by English grammar” (p. 302). Putting further interpretive pressure upon Griswold’s building metaphor, Forster reveals how it inverts the literary history of every other poetic nation: “In all other countries poetry appeared first and utility afterwards, the slow fruit of necessity and experience. Mr. Griswold admits that in America utility [End Page 327] was all in all at the beginning, and poetry nothing; but in the stupidity of his candour cannot see how fatally, by that simple admission, he compromises the whole question at issue” (p. 302). Finally, Forster cites Griswold’s final summative judgment on colonial poetry, explains that though this “is meant to convey a severe sarcasm upon England,” it in fact cuts “the ground from under his own countrymen,” and judges that Griswold’s criticism, “unfortunately for the argument it is meant to insinuate, applies with too much accuracy to nearly all the poetry that has been produced in America ever since. The independent manufacture is scarcely a shade better than the colonial article” (p. 302). This aesthetic pejorative appears all the more dismissive for its invocation of commercial language.

Forster also diminishes the cultural legitimacy of Griswold’s anthologized authors and, through them, of American poetry more broadly. Hypothesizing “some enthusiastic Griswold on this side of the water” allows Forster to compare the quality of the writers featured in The Poets and Poetry of America with those who would be included in an imaginary English version. Even a collection of only the minor poets culled from English magazines and annuals of the past seventy or eighty years, Forster judges, “would immeasurably transcend in freshness and intellectual vigour . . . [Griswold’s] euphonious brood of American jinglers” (“AP,” p. 298). He then proceeds to critique many individual writers. Thus, Joseph Drake makes “heavy demands on the vocabulary of chivalry, at the manifest risk of the most ludicrous association of ideas,” whereas Lydia Sigourney displays “feeble verbosity” that takes “liberties with language” (pp. 308, 311). Even more problematic is Charles Fenno Hoffman: “‘No American,’ says Mr. Griswold, ‘is comparable to him [Hoffman] as a song-writer.’ We are not surprised at the fact, considering the magnitude of his obligations to Moore. Hoffman is Moore hocused for the American market. His songs are rifaciamentos. The turns of the melody, the flooding of the images, the scintillating conceits—are all Moore. Sometimes he steals his very words” (p. 323).9 According to Forster’s subsequent commentary, Hoffman provides only the most egregious example of widespread American poetic plagiarism, a claim which, if true, not only exposes American poets as aesthetic thieves but also undermines Griswold’s claims that his countrymen are “free from vassalage of opinion and style” to England.

The only American poets that Forster finds rise above the standard of “elegant mediocrity” introduced by Griswold in his “Historical Introduction” are Emerson, Halleck, Bryant, and, supremely, Longfellow, [End Page 328] but their very exceptionality allows Forster to generalize about the dismal state of American poetry in toto: “Of the score, or so, of poets we have now run through—the previous picking of the multitude—it will be seen that we have not yet found one who rises above the level of ‘elegant mediocrity’ already referred to. Mr. Griswold himself admits that there are very few who have written for posterity. We are happy at last to be in a fair way of coming to these few, having cleared the audience of the rabble. That the select circle of these choice spirits should be so small is to us matter of great and sincere regret” (“AP,” p. 311). Forster’s comments about the members of this “select circle” are largely unblemished by the kind of backhanded praise that Griswold frequently showers upon colonial poets. Admitting that Emerson has yet “written too little to ensure him a great reputation”—Poems would not appear until 1847—Forster nevertheless finds that “what he has written is quaint and peculiar, and native to his own genius” (p. 311). Halleck is “distinguished by a refined taste and cultivated judgment” with “a knowledge as complete, as it is rare amongst his contemporaries, of the musical mysteries of his art” (pp. 312, 313); and of Bryant, Forster writes, “Nature made him a poet, and the accident of birth has placed him amongst the forests of America. Out of this national inspiration he draws universal sympathies” (p. 314). Forster reserves his most ful-some praise for Longfellow, “the most accomplished of the brotherhood,” whose talent, European education, and “height of refinement far above the taste of his countrymen” generate “some doubts whether he can be fairly considered an indigenous specimen” (pp. 315–16). To pronounce Longfellow an un-American American poet is the highest praise he can offer.

Summing up his “martyrdom”—consumption of Griswold’s euphonious brood, as well as the unnamed books Forster read for his review but does not mention—Forster offers a final summative critique of American poetry generally:

The result upon the whole examination may be thus briefly summed up:—that American poetry is deficient in originality; that it is not even based upon the best examples; that it is wanting in strength of thought, in grace and refinement; and errs largely on the side of false taste and frothy exuberance. The classical acquirements of the American poets are loudly insisted upon by their critics; but no such influence is visible in their works—Longfellow and three or four more excepted. It might rather be predicated that they are utterly ignorant of the principle of art, or that they hold all principles in contempt. . . . Their poetry is emphatically [End Page 329] provincial, even to its diction, which often stands in as much need of a glossary as one of our dialects. They not only employ words obsolete long ago in England, but use current words in new senses, frequently converting substantives into verbs, adjectives into adverbs, and shuffling and cutting all the parts of speech to suit their purposes.

(“AP,” pp. 323–24)

No doubt intentionally, this passage self-consciously echoes both the form and the substance of Griswold’s own dismissal of colonial-era American poetry, thereby compounding what Bourdieu would label the passage’s “symbolic violence” through rhetorical parody.

The most vitriolic of Forster’s comments are reserved for his dismantling of the pretentions to cultural status made by Griswold and numerous others on behalf of America as a nation. “As yet,” Forster writes, “the American is horn-handed and pig-headed, hard, persevering, unscrupulous, carnivorous, ready for all weathers, with an incredible genius for lying, a vanity elastic beyond comprehension, the hide of a buffalo, and the shriek of a steam-engine; ‘a real nine-foot breast of a fellow, steel twisted, and made of horse-shoe nails, the rest of him being cast iron with steel springs’” (“AP,” p. 292).10 Not only is the individual American lacking refinement and honesty but America itself has few ancestors to brag about, having been originally settled by “adventurers of all classes and casts” and “consistently replenished ever since by the dregs and outcasts of all other countries. Spaniards, Portuguese, French, and English, Irish, Welsh, and Scotch . . . Catholics, Unitarians, Calvinists, and Infidels, were indiscriminately mixed up in this work of violent seizure and riotous colonization” (“AP,” p. 292). Griswold’s headnotes, then, are summarily, if implicitly, dismissed beneath this immigrant tide of undesirables. Downplaying his personal judgments, Forster even cites a recognized American authority to bolster his claims: “If any body can imagine that literature could be nourished in a frame like this, we would refer him for final satisfaction to Dr. Channing, whose testimony is indisputable where the honour of his country is concerned” (“AP,” p. 292).11

The American press serves as a particularly shameful barometer for America’s lack of distinction.12 Suffering from moral depravity and an absence of professionalism born of readers’ “frightful eagerness of the appetite for grossness and indecency,” American journalists, “echoing back in frantic exultation this universal drunkenness of the people, openly glory in their profanities and perjuries, and in their having cast off every semblance of order, control, and moral responsibility. This is [End Page 330] the crowning evidence of that depravity which rots like a canker at the core of American society” (“AP,” p. 295). By implication, Forster’s own readiness to write the truth, however uncomfortable, in his “American Poetry” review in the FQR, stands as a point of contrast with American journalistic practices every bit as much in England’s favor as the unquestionable superiority of Tennyson to his American poetic imitator, Poe.13

Fundamentally, Forster suggests, Americans have no business aspiring after literary status or cultural capital, because they have chosen to subscribe to an entirely different standard of value. As “there must be an aristocracy everywhere of some sort, of blood, or talent, or titles,” Forster writes, “so America has made her election, and set up her aristocracy of dollars—the basest of all” (“AP,” p. 296). Not only base, but also pursued to the exclusion of all else, this aristocracy of naked economic capital, “no matter how acquired—utter indifference to the honesty of the means of acquisition giving additional impetus to the naked passion for gain—is worth a dozen poets in America” (“AP,” p. 297). As proof of his analysis of America’s deficiency in cultural capital, Forster notes the scandalous treatment accorded to literary lions when they travel in the United States: “A bag of dollars is a surer introduction to the ‘best society’ in America than the highest literary reputation. A famous author will be stared at, and jostled about, and asked questions, and have his privacy scared and broken in upon by impertinent curiosity; but a rich man moves in an atmosphere of awe and servility, and commands every thing that is to be had in the way of precedence, and pomp, and circle-worship” (“AP,” p. 296). This is, almost certainly, an account derived from Dickens’s 1842 reading tour, about which Forster received ample news through personal correspondence.14


It would be possible to account for Forster’s final, rhetorical repudiation of Griswold entirely within the rubric of Distinction.15 Forster, the representative of the dominated intellectual/artistic fraction of the dominant class in Britain, invokes the ideology inherent in the aesthetic disposition to discredit the competitive effort of Griswold, the representative of the same dominated fraction of the dominant class in the United States, to secure recognition for himself and his national literature within the more prestigious (and ultimately more lucrative) field of British publishing and reviewing. Forster’s conclusive “bag of dollars” passage is designed to arouse his readers’ disgust—“the paradoxical experience [End Page 331] of enjoyment extorted by violence, an enjoyment which arouses horror” (D, p. 488)—at the differential composition of capital mobilized by Griswold and his fellow Americans, who do not deserve the distinction they claim to crave but fail to value even when it is embodied for them by a charismatic virtuoso like Dickens. And thus the struggle enacted on the pages of The Poets and Poetry of America and the Foreign Quarterly Review is fully analogous to the weekly clash of right- and left-bank critics to which Bourdieu alludes so knowingly.

There are, however, a number of reasons to resist this too-neat collapse of temporal and national differences. In fact, Bourdieu himself, albeit somewhat indirectly and only briefly, advises against it. Although confident that his explanatory model is “valid beyond the particular French case and, no doubt, for every stratified society,” he does acknowledge that “the system of distinctive features which express or reveal economic and social differences (themselves variable in scale and structure) varies considerably from one period, and one society, to another” (D, p. xii). More forcefully repudiating synchronicity later, Bourdieu cautions that “a true comparative study would have to take account of the specific forms that the struggle and the themes in which it is expressed take on when the objective relations between the class fractions change” (D, p. 73). Perhaps most pressing among the “distinctive features” and “specific forms” of the Victorian period is the radical unfixity of classes and class fractions in nineteenth-century Britain. Bourdieu may be able to speak with considerable confidence about the bourgeoisie, trusting that his readers share his epistemological certainty about this social stratum, but the Victorians were noticeably uncomfortable naming their own increasingly dominant constituency as anything other than a nonspecific plurality, i.e., “the middling classes.”

In some ways, this amorphous Victorian middle was much closer in self-consciousness and aspirational trajectory to those whom Bourdieu labels petit bourgeois. Describing these upwardly mobile members of relatively new or renovated occupations in 1960s France as equidistant “from the two extreme poles of the field of the social classes, at a neutral point where the forces of attraction and repulsion are evenly balanced,” Bourdieu explains that “the petite bourgeois are constantly faced with ethical, aesthetic or political dilemmas forcing them to bring the most ordinary operations of existence to the level of consciousness and strategic choice” (D, p. 345). This indeterminacy places acute pressure on his account of systems of classification that operate below consciousness and absent introspection, but the petit bourgeois ultimately do not imperil [End Page 332] his theory because they remain dominated and because he posits that their strategic choices are all directed toward assuming the habitus of their social superiors.

At precisely these points, however, the similarity between 1960s France and 1840s England breaks down, since those occupying the middle strata of Victorian society experienced increasing success in making their particular standards of taste universal and normative. With the divisions between classes and class fractions in flux and the normative standards of judgment increasingly emerging from the social middle, the overlap between class and status informing and emerging from Bourdieu’s Distinction may itself need to be rethought with respect to nineteenth-century England. The fact that culture, in what Bourdieu calls “the restricted, normative sense of ordinary usage,” was being separated in this period from culture in “the broad anthropological sense” (and even the pastoral sense) lends special urgency to this imperative (D, p. 99).


Acknowledging these differences of time and place leaves room in the struggle between Griswold and Forster over the idea of poetry as culture and the legitimate way of relating to it for considerations beyond exclusively class interests. One might, for example, take seriously the possibility that American and English nationalism—already in evidence during the 1838–39 Maine-Canadian border dispute—and subsequent tension over the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty, ought to be factored into both the enthusiasm of Griswold’s claims on behalf of American poetry since the Revolution and Forster’s dismissal of the same as “emphatically provincial.”16 Such international competition, conducted by a multitude of otherwise contradictory voices on both sides of the Atlantic, does not sort neatly according to laws of economic determinism and class interest. Ethics, too, plays a part in Forster’s review—in his condemnation of U.S treatment of Native Americans, who have been “hunted, cheated, demoralized, and extirpated in the sheer fury of hunger and fraudulent aggrandizement” (“AP,” p. 292); in his disgust at the mendacity of U.S. newspapers;17 in his revelations of American poetic plagiarism—and it seems particularly ungenerous to reduce Forster’s principled disinterestedness to economic necessity.

Formally, although the substitutive logic informing Bourdieu’s class-constituting binary oppositions does apply at points to Forster’s review—as in his explicit preference for statesmen over politicians, [End Page 333] judges over “popular clamour,” law over legislators, state law over lynch law, justice over revenge, and legislation over intimidation—it does not sufficiently describe Forster’s rhetoric at other, crucial moments (“AP,” p. 294).18 During his repudiation of America’s “aristocracy of dollars,” for instance, Forster lists an apparently unranked set of alternative bases for aristocracy (blood, talent, titles) and appears to trust his readers to form their own opinions on the basis of his primary negation. I argue that such negative affirmations of value—i.e., the valuation of a person or practice because it is not traceable to noble birth or material wealth or majority opinion—is a consistent if heretofore underappreciated component of how the Victorian middling classes sought to articulate their ideas about legitimacy.

Finally, individual agency, warts and all, surely deserves consideration in this instance, especially since Forster’s personal relationship with Dickens, and resulting antipathy toward Griswold, actively frustrates his ability to work with the American editor on an intellectual property issue with clear class benefits for both. Overall American forwardness and money-grubbing aside, the point at which Dickens’s reading tour really began to go sideways was when he brought up, at a dinner in Boston and a week later at a public address in Hartford, the absence of an international copyright agreement between Britain and the United States.19 The “depravity” of American journalism that Forster asserts probably owes much to the vociferousness with which U.S. newspapers, magazines, and book publishers responded to this unexpected topic of conversation. Ironically, the substance of Dickens’s argument reappears in Griswold’s remarks “To the Reader”: American literature will never attain cultural independence and assume a national character, Griswold asserts, “until, by an honest and politic system of RECIPROCAL COPYRIGHT, such PROTECTION is given to the native mind as will enable men of the first order of genius to devote themselves to authorship” (PPA, p. v). He even goes further, equating literature with wealth in its capacity to add “to a nation’s happiness and greatness,” and therefore equally as deserving of government support as agricultural improvement and manufacturing expansion.

Forster concludes his review of “American Poetry” with nearly identical sentiments. Once again, copyright’s primary purpose would not be the financial protection of individual British authors but instead the “effectual encouragement for native talent” in America (“AP,” p. 324). According to Forster, the absence of copyright means that the development of an American national literature “can never be accomplished” [End Page 334] and the dignity of American institutions can never be consolidated (p. 324). Copyright appears as the sole doorway to cultural capital, taste, and aesthetic legitimacy. Unfortunately, the prolonged struggle over status played out in The Poets and Poetry of America and its review in the Foreign Quarterly Review prevented Griswold from acknowledging British support for the extension of international copyright, and Forster from recognizing that on this practical and legal point, at least, he had something in common with Griswold. Not until 1891, when both men were long dead, did the United States finally agree to respect the copyrights of Britain and other nations. Surely the intervening half-century suggests that, during this period at least, class and status were, at best, only imperfectly aligned.

Albert D. Pionke
University of Alabama


1. Walter E. Houghton and Jean Harris Slingerland, eds., The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824–1900, vol. 2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), p. 137.

2. [John Forster], “American Poetry,” Foreign Quarterly Review 32, no. 64 (January 1844): 291–324 (301); hereafter abbreviated “AP.”

3. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 2; hereafter abbreviated D.

4. Bourdieu amplifies this point elsewhere: “taste in the sense of the ‘faculty of immediately and intuitively judging aesthetic values’ is inseparable from taste in the sense of the capacity to discern the flavours of food which implies a preference for some of them” (D, p. 99).

5. Bourdieu’s preference for language expressing collective, as opposed to individual, agency appears most strained in his discussion of the petite bourgeoisie, a point to which I shall return.

6. Griswold’s dedication page is similarly charged with cultural capital, and features Washington Allston, author of The Sylphs of the Seasons, with Other Poems (1813) and Monaldi: A Tale (1841), friend to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and influential American landscape painter.

7. Rufus W. Griswold, ed., The Poets and Poetry of America (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1842), p. vi; hereafter abbreviated PPA.

8. On the generic “family resemblances” that characterize the manifesto, both literary and political, see Janet Lyon, Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 12–16. [End Page 335]

9. Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779–1852) was author of “The Last Rose of Summer” and one of the men responsible for burning Lord Byron’s memoirs after his death; rifaciamento, also rifacimento, means “remake” in Italian.

10. The quotation featured in this passage is taken from “Orson Dobbs the Hittite” by Joseph C. Neal, a Philadelphia short-story writer specializing in vulgar, urban types.

11. The reference here is to Rev. William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), author of “Remarks on National Literature” (1830).

12. Forster’s comments on the American press in “American Poetry” echo his earlier, much more substantial condemnation of American journalism in “The Newspaper Literature of America,” Foreign Quarterly Review 30, no. 59 (October 1842): 197–222; hereafter abbreviated “NLA”; and “The Answer of the American Press,” Foreign Quarterly Review 31, no. 62 (April 1843): 250–81, hereafter abbreviated “AAP.” In the former, he judges that “the very root and living nourishment of all this frightful restlessness and active hatred, which with every thing good and enduring wages continual war, we find to be these Newspapers” (“NLA,” p. 213); and in the latter he laments, “Power, founded on the junction of literary incompetency with moral indecency, and deriving its means of support from nothing save scandal, slander, wretched ribaldry, and ruffianly abuse, is the humiliating antagonist against which we enter the field” (“AAP,” p. 250).

13. “Poe is a capital artist after the manner of Tennyson; and approaches the spirit of his original more closely than any of” Forster’s previously cited examples of imitation bordering on plagiarism of modern writers. Quoting the details of Poe’s biographical headnote, Forster concludes, “All this has a strong Tennysonian tinge—we mean of course poetically; for there is none of this unhinging and rebellion in the blood or actions of the true Tennyson” (“AP,” p. 321).

14. See, for instance, Dickens’s letter to Forster of February 24, 1842, in The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson, vol. 3, 1842–1843 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), pp. 81–90.

15. Two moments of perfect correspondence between Bourdieu’s theory and Forster’s rhetoric demand mention: first, acknowledging the truth of Bourdieu’s assertion that “the surest way to devalue a title of nobility is to purchase it as a commoner” (D, p. 161), Forster dismisses as “an irresistibly ludicrous association of ideas” and “motley fool’s costume” the American habit of assigning “titles of honour borrowed from the old world” for “the meanest callings in the new,” such that one can find a plethora of “generals and colonels keeping whiskey stores and boarding-houses” (“AP,” pp. 296–97); second, capitalizing upon the conflation of aesthetic and alimentary tastes that is one of the primary claims of Distinction, Forster, during his poetic dismissal of Robert Paine as America’s “most remarkable writer” of the “cock-a-doodle-doo style of warlike ballads,” reveals that this author “is said to have ruined himself by his love of the ‘wine-cup’—which is American for mint-julep and gin-sling” (“AP,” p. 304).

16. On the significance of the Maine-Canadian border dispute for Dickens’s reading tour, see the editors’ preface to Dickens’s Letters (vol. 3, p. viii). [End Page 336]

17. Forster’s disgust was likely prompted by the publication, in the August 11, 1842, edition of the New York Evening Tatler, of a forged letter, purportedly from Dickens to the Morning Chronicle, expressing his ingratitude toward and contempt for his recent American hosts. For earlier examples of such forgeries, see the preface to Dickens’s Letters (vol. 3, p. xiii n2).

18. Bourdieu maps these most succinctly in his conclusion, where he identifies oppositions “between high (sublime, elevated, pure) and low (vulgar, low, modest), spiritual and material, fine (refined, elegant) and coarse (heavy, fat, crude, brutal),” etc. (D, p. 468).

19. These speeches are reprinted in The Speeches of Charles Dickens: A Complete Edition, ed. K. J. Fielding (Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988), pp. 17–26 (esp. pp. 21, 25). [End Page 337]

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