Blog Post

Riding the Escalator

Name your favorite historical master narratives!

The other day I was looking again into Raymond Williams's The Country and the City. Of the many wonderful things about that wonderful book, my favorite is the second chapter, "A Problem of Perspective." In this chapter, Williams, in deadpan style, cites a series of laments over the decline of country or village life. The brilliant, very funny twist is that he works backwards, showing that though each generation is convinced that it is seeing the end of the old country ways in its lifetime, the previous generation expressed the very same conviction. From F.R. Leavis to Thomas Hardy; from Hardy to Eliot; from Eliot to John Clare to Philip Massinger, to Thomas More, "to the 1370s, for example, when Langland's Piers Plowman sees the dissatisfaction of the labourers, who will not eat yesterday's vegetables but must have fresh meat." This Williams calls the "escalator," a force that seems to move these laments inevitably, mechanically, backwards and backwards into history.

The threshold of that major historical change, the decline of traditional rural modes of life, turns out to be incredibly hard to pinpoint, since it seems to be always in process without ever quite being complete. And this reminds me of a whole set of historical narratives that influence our thinking about literary history. Such narratives of transition—sudden change or final decline—constantly tempt us with their explanatory power, yet they have an awkward way of being indefinitely backdateable.

So, in the spirit of Emily Thornbury's hilarious Are We in the Dark Ages Yet Handy Home Test, here are my favorite all-purpose historical transitions:

  • The rise of the bourgeoisie! Goodbye to that stodgy old aristocratic order, hello to social mobility and personal striving! Ah yes, once they built up all that capital from the industrial revolution, culture was definitely in the hands of the bourgeoisie! You can tell, because of the realist novel! ...Or maybe it was the English Civil War that made all the difference. You know, Puritans! So middle-class, with their spirit of capitalism! Milton! And, uh, Jansenism in France! Well, I guess it's Shakespeare who's really the exemplary bourgeois author—no Sir Philip Sidney he, no, and can't you see it in those Sonnets? Except how about Chaucer the wine-merchant's son?
  • The birth of the modern subject! Ah yes, the modern subject. Back in those olden times, the individual was not so alienated, so self-reflexive, so full of doubts and thoughts. But now that Joyce invents the modern metropolitan subject, nothing is the same any more! Or is it when Shakespeare invents the human?—or perhaps St. Augustine?—Why not Zhuangzi? Homo sapiens sapiens?
  • The end of all the old certainties! Ah yes, God was in his Heaven and all was right with the world, but ever since the First World War, civilization has been a grim, disillusioned affair! Just look at all the disruptions of aesthetic modernism! Well, to tell you the truth, Prufrock was disillusioned before the War, so maybe it was really all Darwin's fault. After him, we're all in the hands of Nietzsche, or maybe Wilde… But wait--wasn't it supposed to be Enlightenment that freed mankind from its self-imposed immaturity? Look at the radical epistemic break we find in Defoe! And I thought Montaigne was a pioneer in radical skepticism. Well, and maybe the Buddha...
  • Williams's own example in reverse: urbanization! Modernism is the stuff here—look at Mrs Dalloway! Or, anyway, Conan Doyle. Yes, not until Sherlock Holmes did the "great city" have its "Iliad" (Chesterton). Or, anyway, not until the rise of City Comedy under King James I (Bartholomew Fair, etc.). Or, anyway, not until the consolidation of the Greek city-states...
  • The professionalization of authorship! This one hits kind of close to home, since I'm very fond of invoking the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the moment in which new ideals of literary professionalization and autonomy assume decisive importance. Except for all those pesky mid-nineteenth-century professional novelists! And those Romantic ideologies of authorship! And Pope making a living off subscriptions to his Homer translations! And Aphra Behn pioneering novelistic professionalism! And Ben Jonson compiling his own collected works! When will these authors quit working so hard?
  • The disintegration of the organic community to be replaced by the confusing, wide-open societies of modernity! This is one of the transition-narratives that Williams has in his sights (along with its sometime reactionary exponents, Leavis and T.S. Eliot). Ah yes, those ethnically, ideologically unified old societies, with their rigid, self-reproducing hierarchies, their relative isolation, their shared purpose. It hurts too much to see the medievalists cry if I even begin to invoke the canonical examples, so let's just skip right to prehistory and leave it at that. Better hope paleolinguists and geneticists don't start explaining to us how frequent contact and mixing were back then!

Suggest your own favorite historical master narratives in the comments!

Naturally, I'm not implying that there is no such thing as historical change. (Nor am I implying that I don't like master narratives, especially when they're in the form of defeasible causal hypotheses.) As Williams remarks of his chroniclers of rural decline, "Some at least of these witnesses were writing from direct experience." As he argues, the real point is that the apparently endlessly reiterated terms really have historically shifting meanings. The question is how to relate cultural developments to historical changes without reducing those changes to overly schematic narratives that are vulnerable to being...escalated!

Full disclosure

It is perhaps worth mentioning that I am co-organizing an ACLA seminar on periodization. Abstracts very welcome through Nov. 1 Nov. 12.

Andrew Goldstone's picture

Andrew Goldstone is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. His book, Fictions of Autonomy: Modernism from Wilde to de Man, is published by Oxford University Press. He specializes in twentieth-century literature in English, with interests in modernist and non-modernist writing, literary theory, the sociology of literature, and the digital humanities.