Use Value and Literary Work: Poetic Identity in 19th Century Britain

I am a few days from submitting a full draft of my Ph.D. comprehensive exam rationales. These short written explanations/defenses of my lists are intended to help my committee see how I chose my texts, how I conceptualize the time periods, and what kinds of questions to pose in my oral exam next month.  No pressure, right?  I am not required as of yet to make groundbreaking strides in our field.  (I have four months until the dissertation proposal is due.)  For now, I am to demonstrate a confident knowledge of the area and its current critical debates.

And I must say, despite all odds: I am really enjoying this process.  I mean REALLY enjoying it.

Months upon months ago, I began designing my lists according to major themes in Romanticism and Victorianism.  I borrowed this approach from an old Victorian lit syllabus that divided our readings into the major debates of the period.  Luckily, the Victorian epoch already has names for many of these debates– we get “the woman question” and “the condition of England.” I started there and tried to work backward to see similar debates in Romanticism.  Not impossible, but I eventually abandoned these categories, finding many texts too difficult to compartmentalize.  Within and across the lists, I found too much resistance to these neat categories.

The porous boundaries between literary movements or cultural epochs are a consistent point of debate in literary studies. (This acknowledgment heads the disclaimer we sign upon entering grad school, right? “We all know this fact, but you, grad student, are responsible for challenging these textual boundaries in intelligent and original ways for the next six years”). The long-nineteenth century in British literature itself must expand at both ends to encompass a least a decade in each direction to make adequate sense in the ways we critics currently construct the period. And this is not a phenomenon reserved for the afterlife of each movement alone, but rather the writers and theorists of the Romantic and Victorian movements look backward and forward in attempts to situate themselves and their literature within a cultural narrative that shapes and is shaped by their work. Indeed, what I find definitive of the nineteenth century, a point of connection that unites the various authors and genres represented in my comprehensive exam lists, is a desire for clear situation within and beyond an epoch.

The writers we study desire a lasting cultural influence. They seek to shape and correct, to play a significant role in cultural formation and the national story. I argue that this desire to influence and make a mark is a symptom of economic insecurity. With an emphasis on practicality and pragmatism (the use-value of work) as the bourgeois class rises to influence across the Romantic and Victorian epochs, the “word’s worth,” if you will, of a man or woman of letters seems to require its own proof. This need to defend and define one’s usefulness in society and to posterity (on top of the need to prove one’s self within a chosen vocation, as with Keats, Hunt, DeQuincey and numerous women writers like Mary Robinson) creates a significant identity crisis that gets translated across the century into various points of cultural and historical contention.

"Work" by Ford Maddox Brown, 1865
“Work” by Ford Maddox Brown, 1865

John Guillory writes a compelling history of “use value,” how it was invented and how it comes to odds against aesthetic value in the early nineteenth century. I came to Guillory through Mary Poovey’s brilliant 2008 book Genres of the Credit Economy. Hers is a book you read and pine over, jealous you hadn’t written it first.  Of course the list of books I wish I had written has grown well beyond anything I could reasonably produce in a long academic career; nonetheless, I continue to drool and dream. Teasing out what Poovey calls a “double-discourse of value,” Guillory argues that aesthetic value depended on the emergence of “use value” as an economic concept in the late eighteenth century.  Looking to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, Guillory states that use value was invented to discursively clarify the relationship between production and consumption. It seems the people—literary writers and theorists?—were uncomfortable with the affective motivation behind ascribing a product value. Under the increased pressure for utility and practicality, valuing a work of art because of the pleasure it brings seemed a tenable (at best) justification for the time and effort expended in producing and consuming it. Therefore, the discourse substituted in use value which seems to marry production and consumption and get rid of the warm, fuzzy emotional value of art.

At the same time, Literature with a capital “L” cannot become so useful as to be absorbed into other types of writing like economic, scientific, or political writing (here’s the heart of Poovey’s book– how the distinctions arose between the genres).  So here’s the rub—aesthetics branches off from economic discourse for the first time, reiterating that not all written products are works of art. But what’s more, the products that appear like works of art may not be.  Thus Literary writers define what is “fine art” and distinguish between types of imaginative production based upon their adherence to the definition (namely, a work should not call attention to itself as a commodity, so rule out popular works and works of “immediate utility”).

But does this dismissal of “immediate utility” give leeway enough for my argument that poets and novelists in the nineteenth century feel the need to prove their utility?  I say, absolutely yes.  In my own adaptation of this cultural narrative, this is the crux of poetic identity in crisis. Suddenly (or not so suddenly, really, but now of sudden we have the language to explain this phenomenon) literature’s worth can no longer be taken as indisputable fact.  Suddenly, artists must defend the cultural relevance of the work.  What work does Literary work perform? Ironically, Wordsworth’s Prelude (esp. the 1805 version) justifies his seemingly self-indulgent aesthetic exercise in tracing the development of the poetic genius as performing the cultural work of a natural philosopher or historian, as he uses himself as the case study of a mind in development during upheaval of the French Revolution. Similarly, guarding his work against accusations of sensationalism or shock value, DeQuincey justifies his Confessions as being a comprehensive (scientific?) study of the effects of opium consumption, adding the potential educational benefits his mistakes may provide for the reader.

Perhaps more interestingly, Victorians like Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold seek to define a use value for the aesthetic products more obviously abstracted from immediate utility than Wordsworth’s or DeQuincey’s.  Here we have a sense of immediate cultural crisis—the moral fabric of society is degrading as the class boundaries seem to be dissolving, gender roles (especially in the literary marketplace) seem to be in flux, science is questioning what it means to be human (and to be particular kinds of humans, etc). Carlyle and Arnold foresee anarchy, and they don’t seem too extreme with these concerns.  Radical individualism, as Carlyle terms it “democracy,” erases the need for leaders to model correct behavior.  And what will we do without models?  How can we possibly be moral without seeing what morality is?  How can we be cultured if everything and everyone is valued equally?  Carlyle’s answer: heroes and hero worship.  And significantly, his heroes always have a poetic sensibility, that is when his heroes are not poets themselves. Likewise, Arnold famously writes that culture is the answer to anarchy. To read and see all the best that has been known and created–this will civilize and make moral the British populace in flux.

I can see these economic questions of “work” and “value” at the root of my original categories, the major crises of the nineteenth century in British culture.  I feel as though this framework lends itself to a discussion of so many topics in recent scholarship: mental science, gendered work (domestic novels vs. fin de siècle adventure novels; sensibility and sentimentalism; etc.), professionalization of bourgeois occupations, dissenting culture, the widening franchise, the bard’s role in nation-making and historical record, scientific advancement and religious doubt, etc.

All this to say, I am arguing a relationship between economic and social (class) change as the root of writers’ identities. I see the common thread between nineteenth century writers as their struggle to negotiate aesthetic vocations within a market and within a society that seeks a use value for all products (read utilitarianism, read Victorian work ethic, read rise of bourgeois values). Meanwhile every fiber of their beings wants to privilege fine art above products with an immediate utility. Fine art is for posterity, it is lasting and transcendent. Okay so “every fiber” is a gross overstatement, and my actual narrative challenges this art for art’s sake assumption. Ultimately, there is a real anxiety about whether literary work performs a cultural service, and these writers vie for recognition of their worth both personally and occupationally, both in the moment and in literary history.