GREAT BRITAIN AND THE UNITED STATES, 1865–1900

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

This course is designed to focus on “Transatlantic” literature from 1865 to 1945. The “Transatlantic” focus will primarily mean that both British and American literature will be considered, rather than the practice, common in American English departments for many decades, of treating British and American literature as if they were two entirely separate phenomena. Irish literature will prominently figure in the mix as well, partly because so much important literature produced during this period was Irish and partly because Ireland serves as a sort of natural point of connection between Britain and America. Ireland, after all, was a British colony during most of the time period covered by this course, while mass emigration from Ireland to America during this period meant that, by 1945 there were far more people of Irish extraction living in America than in America itself. Indeed, as a nation of immigrants, the United States has many such connections with all of Europe, not to mention Africa and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, because of the vast extent of the British Empire, Britain had even more connections around the globe. We will keep such global connections in mind during this course, even as our core subject matter will focus on literature produced by writers in or from Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States.

1865 was not a magic break point at which British and American literature suddenly changed. It is, however, a reasonable starting point for a course such as ours. 1865, after all, marked the end of the American Civil War and of the centuries-long institution of slavery in the American South. It thus marked the beginning of a new era in American history, especially in the South, where the project of Reconstruction (roughly 1865–1877) attempted to build a new and more just society but was fraught with many difficulties and met with fierce resistance on the part of white supremacist elements in the population. 1865 marked a less obvious break point in British and Irish history, though it is roughly contemporaneous with a number of key turning points in the second half of the nineteenth century. For example, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845–1852 caused widespread starvation in Ireland, triggering a mass exodus of Irish emigration, mostly to America. This event led to the beginning of a special connection between Ireland and America that has lasted until this day.

In 1848, Britain was essentially untouched by the wave of working-class revolutions that failed to break the power of the bourgeoisie (now allied with the aristocracy, their old enemies) in continental Europe. However, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 radically shook public confidence in the invincibility of the British Empire, redefining Britain’s relationship with what, by then, had become its most important (and most profitable) colony. Redefinition of colonial relationships was soon underway elsewhere, as well. In 1867, Britain united most of its remaining North American territories into a single unit (Canada), which it granted a significant amount of autonomy, though Canada did not have an independent military and foreign policy until 1931. Meanwhile, official British participation in the Chinese opium trade reaped huge profits but became for some in Britain a major scandal. And the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 ushered in a new era of British colonial expansion, especially in Africa.

Of course, the events of the late nineteenth century were themselves predated by long histories. Indeed, the late nineteenth century in a sense marked the culmination of what one might see as the first phase in the historical development of capitalism as the dominant force in the Western world. This culmination then set the stage for the rise of consumer capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, ultimately leading to today’s world of capitalist globalization.

It is important to note, however, that the first phase of capitalist modernization did not end on a high note. A collapsing economy, falling quality of life, and never-ending string of crises in the colonies contributed to a growing sense of anxiety in Britain as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Perhaps, some began to wonder, the Enlightenment vision of uninterrupted progress toward a better and better world was not as pre-ordained as the people of most Western European nations had originally thought.

Some also began to wonder whether the entire project of colonialism was ethically and morally justifiable, opening up old doubts that had surrounded the rise of capitalism from the very beginning. After all, the rise of capitalism in Europe from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries was fueled largely by resources acquired via the colonization of the Americas, a phenomenon that involved the mass displacement (and often mass extermination) of Native Americans, as well as the importation of vast numbers of Africans to employ as cheap slave labor. But the resources acquired from the Americas were vast, and the European bourgeoisie were able to use them to emerge as the new ruling class in Europe, even in places (such as Britain) that were still ostensibly ruled by a monarch, thus bringing the Middle Ages to a definitive end.

In those Middle Ages, of course, the merchant class from which the bourgeoisie evolved had been the most despised class of all, thanks to a medieval Catholic suspicion of commerce that essentially saw all profit-making as Satanic. Once in power, then, the bourgeoisie had to overcome both this medieval legacy and the shadows that genocide and slavery cast over their conquest of the Americas. In order to justify their new status, the bourgeoisie undertook a number of projects, perhaps the most important of which was the development of a new “scientific” model of history, beginning with Edward Gibbon’s (1737–1794) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1789. Gibbon’s monumental work was the first history that attempted to explain, based on primary sources, the fundamental root causes of historical change, rather than simply to construct a chronological recounting of events. It was also the first work clearly to depict the Middle Ages as a decline from the former glories of the Roman Empire, glories to which the bourgeois world was now returning. Via this model, the bourgeois rise to power was not only desirable, but inevitable.

The other major strategy through which the bourgeoisie sought to justify their new status and power was through development of new forms of literature that could portray their practical, scientific, capitalistic vision of the world as the only one that made sense. Chief among these new forms was the realist novel, which not only conveyed bourgeois ideology in its style and content but also became the first literary form to be mass produced and sold as a commodity. By 1865, the realist novel was thoroughly established as the dominant literary form in Britain, though the story in America (still seeking to develop a national identity independent of Britain) was somewhat different.

British Literature, 1865–1900

Most literary histories locate eighteenth-century Britain as the birthplace of the rise of the realist novel as the most important literary phenomenon in Western culture. Typically, such accounts tie the rise of the novel to the rise of the bourgeoisie as the new dominant class in Britain, transforming a society once ruled by the aristocracy (though the aristocracy, especially the monarchy, still retained considerable power)[1]. The first half of the nineteenth century saw the bourgeoisie further solidify their power, while it also saw the continued maturation of the English realist novel, culminating in the work of such illustrious figures as Charles Dickens (1812–1870) and George Eliot (1819–1880). Most of the work of Dickens—highlighted by such novels as Oliver Twist (1839), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1861)—had been published by 1865. Eliot was already well established by 1865 as well, though her greatest work (and perhaps the greatest nineteenth-century British novel), Middlemarch, was not published until 1871–1872.

Middlemarch is an accomplished work that illustrates realism at its best. In many ways, however, it is something of a throwback. In general, the British realist novel was somewhat in decline after 1865, with the greatest late-Victorian novelist probably being Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), whose work, while bemoaning the passing of traditional British cultures in novels such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895), looks forward to the sense of crisis that pervades literary modernism. It also shows the influence of the French naturalist novels of Émile Zola (1840–1902), themselves often seen as markers of the decline of French realism. Hardy’s novels were all published between 1871 and 1895, though they are set at various times throughout the nineteenth century. Moreover, while Hardy abandoned the novel form after Jude the Obscure in 1895 (possibly influenced partly by the harsh criticism this novel received from some circles), he continued writing important poetry essentially until the end of his life. He thus has the unusual distinction of being one of England’s greatest nineteenth-century novelists, while also being one of England’s greatest twentieth-century poets.

If Hardy’s work thus provides a sort of coda to the peak years of Victorian realism, it should also be noted that the most important new developments in British fiction in the late-Victorian years were probably not in realism at all, but in the various new forms of popular fiction that began to arise in order to take advantage of growing literacy rates (and thus larger audiences for such fiction). Dickens himself was at the forefront of the development of detective fiction, for example, and his own Bleak House (1853)) is a sort of detective novel, while Wilkie Collins (1824–1889) firmly established the detective novel in the English literary market with the success of The Moonstone (1868). Collins was a protegé of Dickens, the latter of whom published detective stories of his own (as well as by other authors) in his magazine Household Words. Later, the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) became some of the best-known works of detective fiction of all time, beginning with A Study in Scarlet in 1887. The Holmes stories, like Frankenstein, have remained relevant and well-known, largely because of their pop cultural adaptations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including the extremely popular BBC television series Sherlock (running since 2010) and its American counterpart, Elementary (running since 2012).

Science fiction and horror also emerged as distinct forms by the 1890s (even though the term “science fiction” would not be adopted until later, in America), with the early novels of H. G. Wells (1866–1946) leading the way, and with Dracula (1897), by the Anglo-Irish writer Bram Stoker (1847–1912), ultimately becoming the most important horror novel of all time—again partly due to its popularity as a source for film and television adaptations, as well as its immense influence on the vampire subgenre as a whole. Meanwhile, the popular genre that had the most commercial success in Victorian England was the colonial adventure story, which featured the high-action exploits of British heroes in various colonial settings throughout the British Empire. And the most successful of the writers of colonial adventures was H. Rider Haggard (1856–1925). Especially well-known for his contributions to the “Lost World” genre (in which adventurers in remote colonial locales discovered previously unknown worlds populated by strange, exotic people and weird animals, previously unknown or thought to be extinct). Typically, the people and the animals in these lost worlds are quite primitive, having been cut off from the flow of history and evolution. With much of Africa still largely unexplored, this genre was particularly well suited for African settings, as in Haggard’s hugely popular King Solomon’s Mines (1885), the founding work of the genre (and the first English adventure novel set in Africa). Haggard’s African adventure She (1887), meanwhile, was even more popular, selling 83 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books of all time.

The colonial adventure was appropriate for the Victorian era, when the British Empire was rapidly expanding. The genre then predictably declined in importance in conjunction with the twentieth-century decline of the empire, though novels such as She and King Solomon’s Mines have had their own twentieth-century film adaptations. Meanwhile, nostalgia for the glory days of empire helped to fuel a mutated form of colonial adventure in the novels and films of the James Bond franchise. Haggard’s influence has been felt in other ways as well. For example, his novels were an important inspiration for the Tarzan novels of American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, some of the most successful examples of the emergent popular literature of the early twentieth century and the works—together with their film adaptations—that stand as the best-known examples of American colonial adventure stories (though the protagonist of the stories is British in origin). In addition, Allan Quartermain, the protagonist of King Solomon’s Mines, was reportedly the model for Indiana Jones, one of the most popular film characters of all time, providing a key example of transatlantic cultural flow in the modern era.

The colonial adventure story exercised a strong influence on the early work of Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), culminating in the serial publication, in 1899, of Heart of Darkness, perhaps the single most important work of late-Victorian literature in terms of its lasting impact on modern culture. A slim text, Heart of Darkness nevertheless captures many of the fears and anxieties that were prominent in Britain at the turn of the century, especially with regard to the colonial project. Heart of Darkness, like late-Victorian Britain itself, is filled with contradictions. Conrad hoped that it would become a best-seller, somewhat like the works of Haggard, but its aesthetic complexity and the intellectual seriousness with which it addresses various issues lacked broad appeal. Conrad was dedicated to exploring new modes of literary expression that could adequately reflect his sense of living in a rapidly changing world. In this sense, he had less in common with Haggard than with the literary modernists who came after him and with whom he is typically associated in literary histories.

British poetry in the period 1865–1900 was typically marked by a certain conservatism and traditionalism, as the British literary establishment was still attempting to incorporate the dramatic innovations of the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. The most widely admired British poet of the late nineteenth century was Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), who served as the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1850 until his death. His poems (often expressing strong support for the idea of empire) remain central to the British canon to this day. Tennyson, though, actually rose to prominence as early as the 1830s and most of his best-known poems were written before 1865. By the time of his death, his poems already had something of an old-fashioned feel.

There were, however, a number of other important late-Victorian poets who looked forward more than backward in their poetry. Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), for example, wrote a number of important poems, of which “Dover Beach” (1867) is probably the best-known today. This poem is often considered a precursor of modernism, especially in its sense of a breakdown of old verities in the face of a changing world. However, Arnold was not an experimental artist in the modernist vein. He was, instead, something of a public intellectual who used his poetry as a venue through which to express his ideas and concerns about his contemporary world.

Perhaps the two late-Victorian poets whose work most directly anticipated the later development of literary modernism were A. E. Housman (1859–1936) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889). Hopkins’ poetry was not published during his lifetime. However, when it did begin to appear (in 1918), its innovative techniques exercised a direct effect on many modernist poets. Housman, meanwhile, would continue writing poetry well into the twentieth century, but his most important contribution to British poetry came in the early collection A Shropshire Lad (1896), which consists mostly of rather old-fashioned pastoral poems, but also includes its own, rather modern, parody of that style in Housman’s best-known poem, “Terence, this is stupid stuff.”

American Literature, 1865–1900

Coming out of the Civil War, America was a nation still seeking a cultural identity and was thus in a very different position than Britain, which already had a very strong sense of cultural identity. Important American writers had emerged and important works had been produced, though many of these would not be fully appreciated until the twentieth century. And no strong, consistent, representative American literary form (comparable to the realist novel of Britain) had evolved. In the novel, this situation would remain true until the development of a distinctive strain of American literary naturalism at the end of the nineteenth century.

Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds (1942), one of the founding works of the emerging American studies movement of the 1940s, discusses the problematic history of American realism. Kazin argues that, by the time American realism finally arrived at the end of the nineteenth century, it was belated and prematurely decadent, delayed by the romantic tendencies of the better part of the nineteenth century and overwhelmed by the turn to naturalism and then modernism before it ever really got started. As Kazin puts it, “realism in America, which struggled so arduously to make itself heard and understood, had no true battleground, as it had no intellectual history, few models, virtually no theory, and no unity” (13–14). Thus, he goes on, “there was something dim, groping, unrealized in American realism even when it found its master in Dreiser, and long before Dreiser (himself so perfect a symbol of the crudity and emotional depths of American realism) it foundered on a dozen religious and moral taboos” (16).

The central figure in Kazin’s discussion of American realism is William Dean Howells, whose career in a sense encapsulates the belated rise and premature fall of American realism. Howells is still best known for The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), a late entry in the early phase of Howells’s career. This novel bemoans the tawdriness of post–Civil War American capitalism, but from a solidly middle-class perspective that envisions no alternative to capitalist corruption and ruthlessness other than an old-fashioned personal rectitude that Howells himself suspects has no real place in modern America. Lapham’s final retreat into the values of the past signals Howell’s unwillingness to admit that history only moves forward, however unfortunate that movement might be. Howells’s novels after Silas Lapham then take a darker turn as Howells, partly due to his horror at the summary trials and executions of the Haymarket anarchists in Chicago in 1886–1887, becomes ever more critical of American capitalism. In this phase, Howells vaguely flirts with the notion of socialism as a potential alternative but can recover a utopian dimension only by exiting the realism he had so long championed and turning to utopian romance, somewhat in the mode of Edward Bellamy’s influential Looking Backward (1888), a hugely influential late-nineteenth-century American novel that triggered a flurry of utopian novels. But even works such as A Traveler from Altruria (1894), Howells’s most successful utopian novel, have a bitter satirical edge that makes them more complaints about the evils of the present than legitimate attempts to imagine a better future.

Surely the most important late-nineteenth-century American novel was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), by Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910, writing as “Mark Twain”). Clemens was a hugely important figure in American culture of the time, both popular and prolific. Much of his work is still studied and even read for pleasure, but it is surely Huckleberry Finn on which his reputation as a literary artist rests most firmly. Written in a vernacular style that was completely new in Anglophone literature, this novel found a distinctive new and very American voice. It also addressed very American issues (such as the evils of slavery) in ways that had never been done before.

However, while Huckleberry Finn has had many imitators, it established no true literary movement and still stands in a rather unique position in American literary history. The first true “movement” in the American novel would not arise until the end of the century, when a flurry of novels established American naturalism as a genuine literary phenomenon (though one that was strongly influenced by Zola and French naturalism). Key novels in this group include The Red Badge of Courage (1895), by Stephen Crane (1871–1900); McTeague (1899), by Frank Norris (1870–1902); and Sister Carrie (1900), by Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945). However, the early deaths of Crane and Norris, along with the evolution of Dreiser into a more realist novelist, meant that even this movement was short-lived[2].

American poetry of the late nineteenth-century was also lacking in true schools or movements. Initially, relatively conventional poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) were the most popular poets of the day, valued for their straightforward style and somewhat sentimental insights, filtered through a particularly American version of Romanticism. Eventually, however, twentieth-century reassessments would make two very distinctive (and much more complex) figures the dominant poets of the late-nineteenth-century American canon. Walt Whitman (1819–1892), often thought of as the father of free verse, pursued an eccentric and experimental style that was a clear forerunner of modernism, while his avowed individualism was also distinctively American. Whitman became well known during his lifetime, beginning with the self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855, a landmark poetry collection that he would continue to revise and republish until his death. His series of poems in response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 marked not only his own maturation beyond the Romanticism of his youth, but also the beginning of a new phase for American poetry as a whole.

Unlike the very public man Whitman, Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) was something of a recluse, little known as a writer during her lifetime, during which she published very little. As her poetry, most of which was discovered only after her death, gradually began to be published (starting with her first collection in 1890, two years before the last edition of Leaves of Grass), she attracted more and more critical appreciation, a process that has continued until this day. Viewed from our perspective today, Whitman and Dickinson can be regarded as the most important founding figures of modern American poetry.

WORKS CITED

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. 1942. Harcourt, Brace, 1995.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. University of California Press, 1957.

NOTES

[1] Ian Watt’s study of this process, now more than half a century old, is still the best and most concise.

[2] Kazin’s designation of Theodore Dreiser as the pinnacle of American realism reflects the influence of later work, especially An American Tragedy (1925), which is indeed more realist than naturalist.