Frank Christianson

Philanthropy in British and American Fiction: Dickens, Hawthorne, Eliot and Howells

Frank Christianson, Philanthropy in British and American Fiction: Dickens, Hawthorne, Eliot and Howells. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 256 pp. ISBN: 0748625089 (hardback). £50 (UK), $90 (USA).

Reviewed by Pamela Corpron Parker, Whitworth University (online, July 2009)

Frank Christianson’s Philanthropy in British and American Fiction examines the constitutive relationship between philanthropy as a cultural practice and literary realism as a dominant aesthetic mode in mid to late nineteenth-century Anglophone literature. As one of the latest contributors to the Edinburgh Studies in Transatlantic Literature Series, Christianson frames his study within the transatlantic context, applying both the associative methods of comparative literature and ‘new economic criticism.’ His central claim is that philanthropy provides a ‘lynchpin concept’ (4) and a ‘site of contestation’ (12) for mediating a variety of Victorian and American moral, aesthetic, and economic concerns. While this scholarly territory has already been forged by recent historians and literary critics (most notably Amanda Claybaugh and Dorice Eliott Williams), Christianson effectively elucidates philanthropy’s contribution to the dominant aesthetic movement of the latter nineteenth century, namely literary realism. As he aptly puts it, ‘Realism is a literary mode with a mission’ (60). That mission, according to Christianson, was to develop an ‘altruistic imagination’ among readers throughout the transatlantic world.

Christianson’s introduction provides a helpful overview of philanthropy’s epistemological roots and traces its development into a prevailing Victorian moral discourse. He swiftly establishes a compelling correlation between philanthropy and literary realism as both simultaneous and mutually reinforcing. Central to his argument is his assertion of the ascendency of altruism over sympathy as an imaginative aesthetic. As Christianson explains, literature (and the novel in particular) encouraged British and American readers to move beyond sentimental and romantic modes of apprehension to one more grounded in the strategies of realism and characterized by detailed depictions of the material conditions of the changing social order, particularly as distilled through the moral philosophies and early economic theories of the Scottish Enlightenment.

In the first of two comparative sections, Christianson focuses on representative British and American works from the mid-nineteenth century, including Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Bleak House, and Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and The Blythedale Romance. In his reading, Scrooge’s rehabilitation from misanthrope to philanthropist unfolds ‘against a backdrop of social and economic theory that attempts to reconcile sentiment with the unfeeling materialism of the commercial sphere’ (79). Likewise, the satiric portraits of Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle found in Bleak House represent Dickens’s purgative impulse ‘to rescue philanthropy’ (87) rather than condemn it. According to Christianson, Hawthorne’s works simultaneously take up Dickens’s revisionary project by undercutting romantic, sentimental modes of narration and offering, instead, a social and aesthetic doctrine that presaged realism’s ascendancy in the second half of the nineteenth century. Christianson is at his best when he’s thinking comparatively between specific British and American texts, as in his very astute analysis of the proprietary gaze of Hawthorne’s fallible philanthropists, Coverdale and Hollingsworth.

In the second half of his study, Christianson turns to later realist works by George Eliot, including Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, and William Dean Howell’s Annie Kilburn and A Hazard of New Fortunes. Christianson could select no better work than Middlemarch to exemplify the convergence of philanthropic discourse and the realist aesthetic. As Christianson’s study reminds us, most of Eliot’s characters are ‘figured, in one form or another, as philanthropists’ (146), and Dorothea Brooke evolves as Eliot’s philanthropic ideal, much as Esther Summerson had for Dickens’s earlier work. Christianson then presents Howell as realism’s culminating American figure. Howell’s articulation of the altruistic imaginary negotiates a complementary (if not utopian) relationship between philanthropy and capitalism that is expressive of his greater optimism.

Overall, Christianson’s study succeeds in expanding our understanding of the contemporary moral and aesthetic debates embedded in these literary works. He convincingly describes how the authors’ views of philanthropy shape their artistic choices. At times, however, the somewhat narrow scope of his ideological concerns desiccates rather than animates these texts. The weight of his theoretically freighted prose likewise tends to detract from his more lucid, concrete analyses.

Christianson rightly emphasizes fiction, and the novel in particular, as providing the most effective aesthetic vehicle for examining and understanding the precipitous changes brought on by rapid industrialization and urbanization in the transatlantic world. Though he does mention the ‘critical mass of presses, bookshops, newspapers, and magazines’ (15) as significant to the creation of a shared transatlantic culture, he might have elaborated more on how those advances in technology and distribution contributed to the creation of a common Anglo-American reading public. His study offers an important corrective to previous studies whose national boundaries limited their consideration of the shared preoccupations of Anglophone readers. Yet the relative brevity of the book does not allow for as much nuance as one might like regarding distinctions in British and American realism. Christianson’s clear summaries of the discursive histories of philanthropy and political economy are one of the study’s greatest strengths. It would have been useful, however, to provide a similar overview of the development of literary realism, particularly given its centrality to his argument.

Finally, Christianson’s coda briefly nods towards his study’s conceptual teleology: ‘religious to secular, charity to philanthropy, romance to realism’ (195), and argues that ‘philanthropy, in its modern form, synthesizes the ostensible contradictions between religious and secular moral rationalities’ (195). Christianson remains surprisingly silent, though, regarding the religious roots of the new social ethos, particularly as they related to evangelical women, who formed the largest constituency of philanthropists and literary apologists for philanthropy. While the Scottish Enlightenment greatly influenced American society, evangelical thought provided an equally cohesive social force that coincided with the articulation of ‘altruistic imagination’ in literary realism.  

© Symbiosis, 2009