Tact: Aesthetic Liberalism and the Essay Form in Nineteenth-Century Britain by David Russell
by David Russell; pp. 200.
Princeton UP, 2018. $38.71 cloth.
It is nice to be reminded of the tactile pleasures of books. Princeton University Press has done an excellent job of the dust jacket to David Russell’s Tact: Aesthetic Liberalism and the Essay Form in Nineteenth-Century Britain—reminding readers of the touch of reading. The jacket has a composite of fingerprint images from Edward Richard Henry’s Classification and Uses of Fingerprints (1900) and is on a raised and textured paper so that it seems as though you can feel the ridges of the fingerprints. It is a lovely way to start a text focused on tact’s relationship to the outside world.
Russell’s book focuses on the essays of six authors to explore tact as the ethical and aesthetic response to modernity. The book provides a varied gendered perspective on the theme and not simply an analysis of the essays of well-known nineteenth-century male essayists from Mill to Pater. Russell starts with an examination of the use of tact, which does not simply reside in the domain of ethics but must be explored in relation to the interpersonal, a focus on the encounter over knowledge. The introduction provides interesting context, noting that Dugald Stewart is credited in the OED for first using tact in 1793 in relation to sociability. The introduction also notes that though tact is often tied to the epistemological, the essayists discussed in the book tend to “describe the promise of tactful unknowing” (3), a form that is distinct from the epistemological.
Each chapter concentrates on tact through the essayist’s lens: Charles Lamb’s social philosophy, John Stuart Mill’s surprising aesthetics, Matthew Arnold’s egalitarianism, George Eliot’s outrage, Walter Pater’s radical liberalism, and Marion Milner’s psychoanalysis. The concept of use haunts each chapter, and Russell urges each reader to make his or her own use of his text. The first chapter, on Lamb and the Essays of Elia, connects the writing of essays in the early nineteenth century to the history of the conduct book. The second chapter, on Mill, takes some time to get to the topic of tact, although it ends with an astute discussion of the refusal of knowledge and the importance of sympathy.
The strongest and most elaborate chapter is the one on Arnold, in which Russell adeptly takes the reader from tact as a tactic in the theory of education to how Arnold’s axiom to “see the object as in itself it really is” offers a critical framework that allows for tactful relations. He also engages in a very convincing discussion of translation as feeling one’s way. This chapter is of interest to anyone working on the theory of education in the nineteenth century as it raises questions concerning the relation of criticism to education, the power dynamics embedded in Victorian pedagogy through interpersonal relations, and the role of the teacher as safeguard of experience. [End Page 152]
Also interesting is the fifth chapter, on Pater and his attention to a fleeting or evasive now. Russell returns the discussion to knowing, or not knowing, and the importance of process in the production of art. Process produces a trust in tact, but it also motivates a philosophical argument concerning the place of tactility in art. Russell argues that “Pater’s tact seeks to clear the way, affectively, for the feelings through which we become susceptible to our own experience” (141), a claim that echoes the epistemological problems highlighted in the introduction.
The fourth chapter, on Eliot, suggests that Eliot’s “tactless essays open the way to tactful novels” (98) in that both her essays and novels share a commitment to describing the world that allows for a new relationship to the world. The Eliot chapter is one of the shortest chapters of the book and leaves the reader wanting more, although the discussion of Adam Bede as Eliot’s translation from essay to novel is an effective conclusion to the chapter.
The final chapter, on Milner, though meant to show how the concept of tact informed the later development of British psychoanalysis, felt like an unnecessary add-on to the text. There is, however, certainly a lot in Russell’s book for those who are studying the genre of the essay in the nineteenth century or are working on larger epistemological or ethical questions of tact.