Critical Americans

Critical Americans: Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Critical Americans
    Book Description:

    In this intellectual history of American liberalism during the second half of the nineteenth century, Leslie Butler examines a group of nationally prominent and internationally oriented writers who sustained an American tradition of self-consciously progressive and cosmopolitan reform. She addresses how these men established a critical perspective on American racism, materialism, and jingoism in the decades between the 1850s and the 1890s while she recaptures their insistence on the ability of ordinary citizens to work toward their limitless potential as intelligent and moral human beings.At the core of Butler's study are the writers George William Curtis, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton, a quartet of friends who would together define the humane liberalism of America's late Victorian middle class. In creative engagement with such British intellectuals as John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Leslie Stephen, John Ruskin, James Bryce, and Goldwin Smith, these "critical Americans" articulated political ideals and cultural standards to suit the burgeoning mass democracy the Civil War had created. This transatlantic framework informed their notions of educative citizenship, print-based democratic politics, critically informed cultural dissemination, and a temperate, deliberative foreign policy. Butler argues that a careful reexamination of these strands of late nineteenth-century liberalism can help enrich a revitalized liberal tradition at the outset of the twenty-first century.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0612-5
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    They had come to praise Charles Eliot Norton. Gathered in their elegant new building on Boylston Street on a November day in 1908, the members of the Massachusetts Historical Society remembered the life and work of their recently deceased friend with tributes to his high cultivation and cosmopolitanism. Even within the rarified world of Brahmin Boston, Norton had been the prototype of the Harvard aesthete, sustaining exceptionally extensive ties to the transatlantic world of Victorian letters. Here was one of the leading Victorian art historians, a translator of Dante, a confidante of intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic, the...

  5. 1 Victorian Duty, American Scholars, and National Crisis
    (pp. 17-51)

    By all accounts, George William Curtis was a rousing public speaker. His success depended on his presentation of high-minded Victorian idioms and ideals to audiences eager for clear perspective. At no time were these skills more in evidence than in his 1856 plea for college students to “introduce thought and the sense of justice into human affairs.” In considering “The Duty of the American Scholar to Politics and to the Times,” Curtis implored the “scholarly class” in his audience to recognize the responsibilities that had made it the “upper house in the politics of the world.” Those who did no...

  6. 2 The War for the Union and the Vindication of American Democracy
    (pp. 52-86)

    War made a confirmed democrat out of Charles Eliot Norton. After a decade of hand-wringing about the future of republicanism during the 1850s, Norton soon found himself rejoicing over the “triumph of popular government and the essential soundness of the people.” He marveled at Americans’ willingness to undertake a process of sacrifice that raised the entire country from degradation to unexpected heights of idealism. The constancy of citizens through this crisis convinced Norton that a war to preserve the highest American principles might provide the occasion for reinvigorating the country’s basic institutions and ideals. The virtue displayed both on the...

  7. 3 The Liberal High Tide and Educative Democracy
    (pp. 87-127)

    “It is not simply the triumph of American democracy that we rejoice over,” the inaugural issue of theNationproclaimed in the summer of 1865, “but the triumph of democratic principles everywhere.” This new weekly journal of liberal opinion announced its arrival by noting that the “effects of the revolution through which we are now passing upon European politics” would likely surpass the global ramifications of the American Revolution itself. Reformers in Great Britain and France had clearly understood that the fate of the Union was linked to the prospects for democracy within their own countries. With the coming of...

  8. 4 Liberal Culture in a Gilded Age
    (pp. 128-174)

    In May 1864, as he was recuperating from a mild grapeshot wound and lingering malaria, Thomas Wentworth Higginson established a new home at Newport, Rhode Island. His relocation from a war zone to a coastal resort signaled a larger self-transformation, as the onetime abolitionist gave up soldiering and began to fashion a new career as a man of letters. The apparent passage from hardship to comfort worried Higginson, who was clearly intent on avoiding the charge of mere indolence and of retreating into “comfort and good dinners.” He retained some of his youthful misgivings about the literary life and the...

  9. 5 The Politics of Liberal Reform
    (pp. 175-220)

    Over the last quarter century of his life, James Russell Lowell mulled over a central question: Could Americans live up to their Civil War selves? Lowell never forgot that when the Union had faced its supreme crisis, an inspired citizenry had followed steady leadership toward noble goals. In so doing, it had vindicated the cause of popular government across the world. That such accomplishments could be repeated was doubtful, and Lowell at times even expected the United States to experience a period of steady political decline. These moments of despair inevitably produced a gloomy eloquence that has since marked Lowell’s...

  10. 6 Global Power and the Illiberalism of Empire
    (pp. 221-261)

    Late in 1895, Anglo-American relations took a turn that shocked liberal men of letters even as it confirmed some of their deepest anxieties. That December, Grover Cleveland’s hostile message to Great Britain regarding its boundary dispute with Venezuela “fell like a thunderbolt out of the clear sky,” as the Mugwumps’ favorite president unexpectedly threatened war if Britain would not yield to America’s supremacy in the Western Hemisphere. Liberals who had looked to Cleveland as their best hope for better government were horrified by his belligerent stance and realized that they bore some of the blame for the worst Anglo-American crisis...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 262-268)

    On May 12, 1911, a bright spring day, eighty-eight-year-old Thomas Wentworth Higginson was laid to rest in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. The fact that he had outlived nearly all his contemporaries meant that here would be no assemblage of Victorian liberal lights at the ceremonies that honored him. Without the presence of James Russell Lowell, George William Curtis, or Charles Eliot Norton (whose passings Higginson had noted in 1891, 1892, and 1908, respectively), others tried to assess his legacy. Six African American soldiers played an important role by carrying Higginson’s casket, which was draped with an old regimental flag of the...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 269-324)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 325-360)
  14. Index
    (pp. 361-381)