Daniel G. Williams

Ethnicity and Cultural Authority from Arnold to Du Bois

Daniel G. Williams, Ethnicity and Cultural Authority from Arnold to Du Bois. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. 272 pp. ISBN: 0748622055 (hardback). £65 (UK), $120 (USA).


Reviewed by Sarah Meer, University of Cambridge
(online, July 2009)

Opening with a comparison of a 1926 speech by W. E. B. Du Bois and Matthew Arnold’s 1865 lectures On the Study of Celtic Literature, Daniel Williams’s enterprising book repeatedly offers surprising juxtapositions. Despite their manifestly varied concerns, Williams suggests that intellectual affiliations or similarities tie together not only Arnold and Du Bois but also W. B. Yeats and William Dean Howells. Crucial oppositions in Arnold—materialism v. primitivism; industry v. nature; philistinism v. cultural appreciation—recur in Howells’s promotion of cultural independence for writers in the United States, in Yeats’s championing of Irish literature as part of a ‘Celtic’ revival, and in Du Bois’s plans for African American political enfranchisement and cultural development.

All three of the later writers draw on Arnold’s sense of ‘culture’ as the bulwark against, or opposition to, a burgeoning materialism. Williams sees interesting variation in the different ways they balance contradictory but often competing tendencies in their work, what he calls conservationism and contributionism. Williams’s primary interest is in the attitudes all four writers manifest towards minority peoples, languages and cultures—in Britain, in the United States, and in general. He sees evidence of both a wish to preserve the perceived distinctiveness of minority cultures (conservationism), and the assumption that, for the good of all, they must be subsumed into a greater majority (contributionism). To a greater or lesser degree, he detects a tension between the two in the writing of all four figures, perhaps most notably in Arnold: a mystical evocation of Wales in the 1865 lectures, for example, challenges the tendency to caricature his thought as English imperialism.

Williams defines his concern as lying with ‘suggestive correspondences … and crucial differences’, not specific indications of ‘influence [or] … intertextuality’, though his attentive and revealing readings suggest that he might very well have pushed his claims further in these directions (7). Since all four writers are crucial figures in what have often been conceived as separate areas of critical interest (‘Victorian’, ‘American’, ‘Irish’ and ‘African American’ studies respectively), bringing them together adjusts conventional critical categories and emphasises the circulation of ideas across national, cultural and racial boundaries in a way that will be especially compelling for readers of Symbiosis. Reading these four writers alongside each other clearly offers an important way to historicise them, and illuminates not only complexity, but also recurring patterns of contradiction and conflict in their thought.

In his American lectures, Arnold declared that only a minority in the United States, a ‘remnant’, were culturally sensitive enough to offer real wisdom, just as a similar minority stood fast in Britain against Barbarians and Philistines, and offered a buffer between classes in conflict. Williams sees the aristocracy in Yeats’s thought similarly mediating between the representatives of the folk tradition and the nationalists, just as Du Bois’s ‘talented tenth’ stood between the twin threats of white supremacy and an uprising by the black masses.

Williams uncovers some especially suggestive details of transatlantic connection. Howells’s shifting self-definition as Welsh, for example (his claim to be ‘as proud of the West as I was of Wales’, his fascination with the Welsh language and fear that it ‘cramps and dwarfs the national genius’, 83, 97). Or Yeats’ frequent invocations of Whitman and Thoreau as national artists, which Williams underlines with a lovely identification of the Thoreauvian qualities in ‘the longing in ‘‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’’’—its dream of ‘isolation in a hut on the water’ (and though Williams doesn’t overstress the point, the clay and wattle ‘cabin’ and the ‘nine bean-rows’ are also strongly reminiscent of Walden Pond, 155). There is also the striking appearance of two of Yeats’s fellow Celtic aestheticist poets, Fiona Macleod and Arthur Symons, in the famous epigraphs that head the chapters of Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. As Williams observes, Paul Gilroy has cast the epigraphs as being all from ‘canonical’ authors, but these two examples were not only contemporary, but suggestively contentious, especially given the similarities between Du Bois’s claims for the distinctiveness—and distinction—of African American culture and the Yeatsians’ for a Celtic one.

There are several more places where Williams’s shifting of critical perspective on these writers usefully reveals some common disciplinary blind spots. He produces a sharp retort to Paul Giles’s apparent defence of a monolingual transatlanticism in Virtual Americas, taking in not only its conflation of England and Britain, but also its assumption that, in the United States and Britain, languages other than English all originate in ‘other parts of the globe’: ‘those working on American multilingualism are not engaged in a process of decentring, but are attempting to redefine the centre itself’ (11). There is also a trenchant objection to the tendency in some Irish studies to ignore Wales and Scotland: ‘it seems that Irish Studies, whether in its nationalist, revisionist, or post-nationalist phases, has a problem incorporating the concept of Britain—in its more subtle definition as the complex ‘‘history of four nations’’, not as synonym for England—into its analyses’ (125).

Notwithstanding these examples of firmness, Williams is a courteous, as well as an attentive reader of his colleagues, as of his primary texts. He pays more attention to critical and philosophical writings than he does to fiction and poetry, but here too he is a subtle interpreter, bringing out, for instance, the deceptiveness of the simplicity of Yeats’s poem ‘The Ballad of Moll Magee’, and its quiet distortion of conventional imagery. He is also a fluent writer, and exceptionally clear in explaining and locating ideas, positions, arguments. My only frustrations with this book concern the limits of its investigation. Some of the historical conditions that the book adduces as context (new printing technologies, for example) have been described as arriving much earlier by sources other than those Williams relies on, and many quotations come via secondary sources or are identified only by their place in modern collections, so that the specific circumstances in which writings or speeches appeared are not evident to the reader without further investigation. Williams is very alert to the way ideas develop and shift, but he does sometimes treat their appearance in writing as if genre, form or occasion have no special bearing on the way that they are articulated. There is a larger version of this tendency to ignore textual history in the book’s restriction to noting ‘correspondences’—they certainly seem suggestive enough to raise questions of influence, to lead one to ask where else, and how, and how widely they were shared, and why these connections were possible. But the questions Williams leaves the reader asking are a measure of the interest and significance of this book, and its gently provocative yoking of these four, apparently very different, titans of late nineteenth-century literature and criticism.

© Symbiosis, 2009