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Evolutionary Ideas in Late Nineteenth.

Century English and American Literary Criticism


Author(s): Donald Pizer
Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring, 1961), pp. 305-
310
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
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DONALD PIZER

Evolutionary Ideas
in Late Nineteenth-Century English
and American Literary Criticism

AS WE ENTER the second century of The sponded to the individualism and optimism
Origin of Species we recognize that the of Spencerian evolution and adapted se-
theory of evolution is one of the dominant lected portions of evolutionary thought to
ideas of recent history and that we have just confirm romantic conceptions of the pur-
begun to explore its impact on the world pose and value of literature. During the
of ideas beyond its manifestation in con- 1880's and 1890's, on the other hand, a num-
troversies between science and religion. Iber of critics drew more deeply upon evo-
would like to offer a sketch of the influence
lutionary ideas. Thomas Sergeant Perry,
Hamlin Garland, William Morton Payne,
of evolutionary ideas on one portion of
John Addington Symonds, and H. M. Pos-
that world, that of late nineteenth-century
literary criticism in English. I will first out-nett relied upon the historical relativism
and environmental determinism implicit in
line briefly the various stages of this influ-
ence, and then discuss the particular ways the ideas of evolution, and also upon Her-
in which evolutionary ideas contributed bertto Spencer's master evolutionary formula,
the modification of the study and evalua- in their attempts to construct fully elabo-
tion of literature in America and England rated evolutionary systems. The last period
during the last three decades of the cen- in the influence of evolutionary ideas began
tury.l in the 1880's and still continues. Academic
It is possible to distinguish three roughly critics such as Brander Matthews, H. H.
chronological periods in the influence of Boyesen, and Edward Dowden, as well as
evolutionary ideas. First, during the 1870's such professional literary men as William
and 1880's certain critics whose thought and Dean Howells and George Pellew, did not
values were essentially pre-Darwinian drew go to the extreme of building evolutionary
upon evolutionary ideas to support precon- critical systems. Rather, they absorbed into
ceived critical and ethical positions. Such their critical practices and beliefs certain
writers as Sidney Lanier and E. C. Stedman, by-products of the evolutionary conception
for example, paid little heed to the materi- of the nature of literature and the function
alistic and deterministic implications of of the critic. The weary graduate student
evolutionary science. Rather, they re- who today has to read Boileau along with
Dryden, who complains of lengthy reading
DONALD PIZER, author of Hamlin Garland's Early
Work and Career (U. of California P.), is assistant lists consisting of minor works by minor
professor of English at Newconzb College, Tulane figures, who has to know Trevelyan's So-
University. cial History as well as Baugh's Literary His-

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306 DONALD PIZER

tory, little realizes


coherent homogeneity to the complexity of t
engaged inheterogeneity.
coherent "the There werescie
several
ture" as many
reasons why the Spencerian evolu
formula ap-
late nineteenth cen
pealed to literary men. It was universally
study. applicable, explicitly optimistic, and easily
Evolutionary ideas influenced the study grasped; it was capable of wide variation
and evaluation of literature in three ways depending on the predilections of the indi-
during the late nineteenth century. First, vidual writer; and, perhaps most of all as
the widely held conviction that the princi- far as American criticism was concerned, it
ples of evolution evident in man's biologi- permitted the critic to view the history of
cal past could also be found in his intellec- literature as a progress toward a democratic
tual and social past encouraged a belief that individualism in expression and subject
literature grew and changed according to matter.3
natural law-that literature, like life, was
The combination of Taine and Spencer
dynamic rather than static, and that its
is therefore the basic pattern in most evo-
lutionary critical systems of the 1880's and
condition at any one moment of time could
be understood only by an examination 1890's.
of A typical example is H. M. Posnett's
its development from its previous condi-juxtaposition of the static and the dynamic.
tion.2 Secondly, evolutionary ideas sup-Posnett argued that the critic must organize
ported an emphasis on the milieu as the his studies
determining factor in literary production ... round certain central facts of comparatively
rather than the individual writer. It was permanent influence. Such facts are the climate,
the literary and social environment which
soil, animal and plant life of different countries;
conditioned the writer's ideals, material, such also is the principle of evolution from com-
and methods and which therefore ulti- munal [that is, homogeneous] to individual [that
is, heterogeneous] life.... The former may be
mately determined the pattern of literary
called the statical influences to which literature
history. Lastly, evolutionary studies fos-everywhere exposed; the latter may be
has been
called the dynamical principle of literature's
tered a conception of the critic or historian
progress and decay.4
as an analogue to the scientist-as an ana-
lytical observer and codifier of literary What Posnett called the dynamic, T. S.
speci-
mens rather than a belletristic entertainer
Perry named growth and J. A. Symonds
or an arbitrary determiner of value. process. "The fundamental conception
Let me examine each of these majorwhich
pat- underlies the Evolutionary method
terns of influence in greater detail.ofThe
thought," Symonds explained, "is that
concept of change is fundamental to evolu-
all things in the universe exist in process.
tionary thought, and Darwin's belief No
thatother system has so vigorously enforced
biological change is the product of varia-
the truth that it is impossible to isolate phe-
tion and natural selection was immediately
nomena from their antecedents and their
available as a possible means of examining
consequents."5 Like Posnett, Symonds
change in other phases of man's experience.
viewed change in Spencerian terms. "Evo-
The application to literary study oflution,"
the he stated, "may be defined as the
environmental determinism implicit in the of all things, inorganic and organic,
passage
theory of natural selection was also encour-
by the action of inevitable law, from sim-
aged, of course, by Taine's belief that litera-
plicity to complexity, from an undifferen-
ture is the product of a nation's physical
tiated to a differentiated condition...."6
and social conditions. But the basic The
pat- belief that literature was largely a
tern of evolutionary change which product
was of social conditions, and that these
joined to Taine's environmental determin-
conditions changed according to the Spen-
ism to produce an evolutionary criticalcerian
sys- formula, is exemplified by Hamlin
tem was seldom Darwinian. Rather, most Garland's unpublished "The Evolution of
critics accepted and absorbed Herbert Spen- American Thought." In this work, written
during 1886-1887, Garland explained that
cer's doctrine that evolution is, in all phases
the progress of American literature was de-
of life, a progress from the simplicity of in-

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Evolutionary Ideas in Literary Criticism 307
pendent upon the growth ofSymonds and Perry held that the works
heterogeneity
in American social and intellectual life.7 within a genre inevitably reached a high
The application of the Spencerian formula point, after which they substituted literary
is also illustrated by Posnett's organizationimitation for a reflection of life, a failure
of the history of European literature around to adapt to environment which ultimately
the progress from the clan to the city-state caused the decline of the genre.13 The im-
to the nation to the individual,8 and by T.
portant similarity among all critics employ-
S. Perry's conception of the history of ing the a genre approach to the evolution of
drama. Perry wrote: literature was their belief in the subservi-
ence of the individual writer to the stage
The change from a drama that represented only
of
kings and heroes of princely birth to one that
development of his genre. Writers in the
concerned itself with human beings, was as "stone in- age" of fiction, Howells observed,
evitable a thing as is the change in government such as Scott and Balzac, were not to be
from despotism to democracy, with the growth blamed for their flaws in technique and con-
of the importance of the individual. There is a tent.14 Even Goethe in his fiction could not
certain monotony in civilization which may be
exemplified in a thousand ways. The large gas rise above the low development of the novel
pipes, for instance, that are laid in every street, during his age. "What is useful in any re-
and then have the smaller branches running into view of Goethe's methods," Howells wrote,
every house, which again feed the ramifying tubes "is the recognition of the fact. .. that the
that supply the single lights, may remind one of
the advance from the general to the particular greatest master cannot produce a master-
which characterizes every form of human piece in a new kind. The novel was too re-
thought.9 cently invented in Goethe's day not to be,
even in his hands, full of the faults of ap-
But whatever the degree of Spencerianism prentice work."15 T. S. Perry, on the other
in particular critics, the primary character- hand, pointed out that praise was usually
istics of evolutionary criticism were ade- unjustified for a later writer in a genre on
quately summarized by William Morton the basis of his superiority to an earlier.
Payne when he wrote, "We are coming to Sophocles reached a greater height than
understand more and more clearly that... Aeschylus, Perry noted, but he then went
the history of literature is the history of a on to explain that the difference between
process, and the study of a work of litera- them "was not so much a personal one as
ture is the study of a product. To this, in it was the necessary result of their relative
the last analysis, the evolutionary concep- positions in the history of the Greek
tion of literature reduces....'10 Hamlin drama."16
Garland was even more explicit whenThe he effect of the application to literary
stated that "Nothing is stable, nothing ab- of both the Spencerian conception of
study
solute, all changes, all is relative. Poetry, progress and the conception of the genre as
painting, the drama, these too are always analogous to a species was to diminish the
being modified or left behind byimportance the of the author in literary crea-
changes in society from which they tion. In this tendency evolutionary critics
spring."" locked horns with the romantic celebration
The dynamic quality of literature was of genius. Many evolutionary critics openly
not only the result of literature's intrinsic attacked the idea that the genius was above
relationship with a society continually in or outside law. They pointed out that the
flux. Literature also contained within itself
reliance upon an inexplicable outburst of
a constantly changing element, one com- genius as an explanation of literary produc-
parable to a species in biological life. Like tion was comparable to the reliance placed
a species, a literary genre pursued a life upon special creation in the explanation of
cycle from birth to maturity to death and biological existence. T. S. Perry complained
decay. Explanations of the cause of this that although the idea that it is possible to
cycle differed somewhat from critic to critic.
evoke "something out of nothing by direct
William Morton Payne believed that there exercise of creative power ... has vanished
was a struggle for existence among genres.12 from science, it still survives in those de-

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308 DONALD PIZER

tion which of
partments precluded exhibitionism
human and
yet come judgment. fully
Howells cautioned that the func- un
and poetstion of theand
modern critic was "to classify
pain
estimationand analyze the fruits a of the priv
human mind
nied to nature."'7
very much as the naturalist classifies the ob-
jects of his study, rather thansupe
"mischievous to praise or
it,18 which
blame them,"24 while hinder
Perry suggested that
writers, "it is awhatever
question whether praise and blame,
were admiration and contempt, have anything up
dependent
for whatsoever to do with literary history. and
inspiration Our
Of sole aim should be
course, to know...."25 In prac-
most ev
ognized tice,
the however, despiteexisten
Dowden's early and
influential call for historical relativism in
a phenomenon wh
ously as criticism,26
either most evolutionary critics did ap-
the
the ply
spectrum evaluative standards. They ofthatl
believed
literary literature progressed as the whole of life
analogue
progressed, and thatis,
tions"-that the best workbiol of art was
Garland therefore
expressedalmost always that which most
the closely mirrored the social and
interplay betwintellectual
milieu when he noted that: life of its time. In other words, literature
was not only describable in terms of its close
In evolution there are always two vast funda-
mental forces; one, the inner, which propels; the
relation to life, but could also be judged on
other, the outer, which adapts and checks. One the basis of its varying degree of reflection
forever thrusts toward new forms, the other for- of that life.27 It was this characteristic of
ever moulds, conserves, adapts, reproduces.... evolutionary criticism which made most
The force that flowers is the individual, that
which checks and moulds is environment.20
American evolutionary critics such staunch
supporters of realism during the literary
But in their reaction against the prevalentcontroversies of the 1880's and 1890's.28
"great man" school of historical and critical Nevertheless, in theory the scientific
critic was distinguished by a willingness to
writing, most evolutionary critics tended
to emphasize the outer force.21 Symondsdiscard
re- judgment and to view literature as
flected this tendency when he wrote, a"Thehistorical process. William Morton Payne
called such a critic a "natural historian" of
Evolutionist differs from previous students
literature and described him as one who
mainly in this, that he regards the totality
of the phenomena presented as something ... endeavors primarily to account for the work,
necessitated by conditions to which the
to view it with reference to the conditions that
prime agents in the process, Marlowe have
or attended its production, to consider it,
even Shakespeare, were subordinated."22sometimes
In as a natural development in an es-
tablished line, sometimes as the expression of a
short, evolutionary criticism posited a liter-
new tendency born of a changed environment
ature of law, not men. or a fresh impulse given the human intellect....
The evolutionary critics believed that
He looks before and after, and views literary
criticism had reached a high point in the
productions as members of a system rather than
as sporadic appearances, as links in a causal chain
modern period. Perhaps the most influential
rather than as isolated phenomena.
depiction of the advance of criticism was
that of Symonds, who viewed the critic asScientific criticism, Payne concluded, is
progressively judge, showman, and scientist, that "controlled by the doctrine of evolu-
or, in another context, as classicist, roman- tion as a guiding principle."30
ticist, and scientist.23 Whatever tags they The comparative method, which Posnett
applied to earlier criticism, however, all characterized as "the great glory" of nine-
evolutionary critics used the term scientific teenth-century thought,31 was one of the
to designate the modern critic who, like primary tools of the evolutionary critic as
the scientist, sought a truthful description well as the evolutionary scientist. It was
of the phenomenon under study, a descrip- Darwin's ability to note the similarities and

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Evolutionary Ideas in Literary Criticism 309
1Two
dissimilarities among a large previous treatments
number of are Harry H. Clark,
"The Influence of Science on American Literary
species of various areas which had led to his
Criticism, 1860-1910...," Transactions of the Wis-
great discovery. Payne indicated the perva-
consin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, XLIV
siveness of the association of the
(1955), compara-
109-164, and Rene Wellek, "The Concept of
tive method with evolutionary criticism
Evolution in Literary History," in For Roman
when he claimed that Jakobson, ed. Morris Halle (The Hague, 1956), pp.
653-661. Clark's survey is descriptive rather than
The study of literature in the evolutionary sense
analytical; Wellek's is a summary of the entire sub-
tends more and more to become a comparative ject, with little detailed examination.
study. Just as the geological series of deposits,'The influence of Darwin on the nineteenth-
confused or abruptly broken off in one country,
century intellectual reorientation from absolutism
may be found continued elsewhere, so some to line
relativism is studied by John Dewey, The Influ-
of development among the genres of literature,
ence of Darwin on Philosophy (New York, 1910), pp.
clear up to a certain point in the product of1-19,
one and David F. Bowers, "Hegel, Darwin, and the
nation, may from that point on be better traced
American Tradition," in Foreign Influences in
by transferring the scrutiny to some other field.32
American Life, ed. David F. Bowers (Princeton,
1944), pp. 146-171.
A possible approach to the understanding
3See Morse Peckham, "Darwinism and Darwin-
and evaluation of evolutionary criticism is
isticism," Victorian Studies, III (Sept., 1959), 19-40,
to adopt Payne's critical dictum that for
thean
explanation of the relatively negligible influ-
critic must look "before and after." Like
ence of the theory of natural selection. In terms of
Peckham's
many literary movements, evolutionary cri-definitions, the evolutionary ideas which
I discuss
ticism began in reaction, in this case reac- are for the most part "Darwinisticistic"-
that is, they owe less to the theory of natural selec-
tion against the supposed subjectivism andto other ideas of emergence and develop-
tion than
absolutism of the criticism of the previous
ment which were popularized or introduced as a
age. It wished to replace personal willful-
result of the impact of Darwinism.
ness and outworn conventions with the law 4Comparative Literature (New York, 1886), p.
20. This volume was published in Appleton's Inter-
of evolution, an undertaking which to national
manyScientific Series.
in the generation after Darwin appeared
5"The Philosophy of Evolution," in Essays Spec-
to be necessary for the attainment of ulative
truth and Suggestive (London, 1907 [1890]), p. 5.
in all phases of life. Of course, in their en-
6 "On the Application of Evolutionary Principles
thusiasm most evolutionary critics went to Art
too and Literature," ibid., p. 28.
7See Donald Pizer, "Herbert Spencer and the
far, particularly in their attempts to find
Genesis of Hamlin Garland's Critical System," Tu-
biological analogues in literature, inlane
theStudies in English, VII (1957), 153-168.
rigid determinism of their conception of8 Comparative Literature (New York, 1886).
literary change, and in their diminution9From
of Opitz to Lessing: A Study of Pseudo-
Classicism in Literature (Boston, 1885), pp. 143-144.
the aesthetic evaluative functions of the cri-
See also H. H. Boyesen, "The Evolution of the Ger-
tic. But looking "after" as well as "before,"
man Novel," in Essays on German Literature (New
one can see that the movement was part of aYork, 1892), p. 232, and Brander Matthews, The
larger reorientation in man's examination Development of the Drama (New York, 1903), p. 351.
of his cultural past, and that it served as a10 "American Literary Criticism and the Doctrine
now discarded prelude to much that is ac- of Evolution," International Monthly, II (Aug.,
1900), 153.
cepted and valued in modern criticism and
1 "The Evolution of American Thought," quoted
research. It confirmed, for example, the be- by Pizer, "Herbert Spencer and the Genesis of Ham-
liefs that discernible change is a major con-lin Garland's Critical System," op cit., 164-165. See
dition of literary history, that an under- also George Pellew, "The New Battle of the Books,"
standing of the life and conventions of Forum,
a V (July, 1888), 570.
particular age is important and necessary 12 "American Literary Criticism and the Doctrine
of Evolution," International Monthly, II (July,
for the understanding of works written1900), 41.
(luring that age, and that comparative 3 Symonds, "On the Application of Evolutionary
studies are a significant contribution toPrinciples," pp. 27-52; Perry, A History of Greek
literary research.33 As in almost every aspect Literature (New York, 1890), p. 859, and "The
Progress of Literature," in Gately's World's Prog-
of thought it touched, the theory of evolu-
tion aided in the modification of our ideas ress, ed. Charles E. Beale (Boston, 1886), p. 661.
14 Criticism and Fiction (New York, 1891), pp. 18-
-in this instance, those concerning the
22, 119.
nature and the proper study of literature. 5 Ibid., p. 24.

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310 DONALD PIZER

16 A Sholom J. Kahn, Science


History of and Aesthetic Judgment: A
Greek
17 From Study in Taine's Critical Method
Opitz to (New York, 1953).
Less
18 Criticism28 See my "Evolutionary
and Literary Fictio
Criticism and
19See, for
the Defense ofexample,
Howellsian Realism," soon to appear
Criticism," in the Journal of English and Germanic
op. cit., Philology. 4
conception It is possible of
to argue that the attraction of evolu-
literar
the earlytionary ideas for a number of American critics was
twentieth c
theory. the ready adaptability of those ideas to a defense
20 Crumbling Idols (Chicago and Cambridge, of realism.

1894), p. 191. 29 "American Literary Criticism," op. cit., 45.


21 For the contemporaneous conflict over the role 30 Ibid., p. 39.
of "great men" in history, see Philip P. Wiener, 31 Comparative Literature, p. 76.
Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism (Cam- 32 "American Literary Criticism," p. 149.
bridge, Mass., 1949), pp. 129-136. 33 These beliefs were, of course, encouraged by
22"On the Application of Evolutionary Princi- other movements in nineteenth-century thought be-
ples," p. 37. sides the direct influence of evolutionary ideas on
critics and scholars-notably cultural anthropology,
23 "On Some Principles of Criticism," Essays Spec-
ulative and Suggestive, pp. 53-78. sociology, and linguistics. But each of these was it-
24 Criticism and Fiction, p. 30. self partially a product of the widespread diffusion
25 From Opitz to Lessing, p. 58. of evolutionary ideas. In short, modern historical
26 "The Scientific Movement and Literature," in literary scholarship owes much to nineteenth-cen-
Studies in Literature, 1789-1877 (London, 1899 tury evolutionary thought, and the direct impact
[1878]), p. 106. of evolutionary ideas on late nineteenth-century
27 The influence of Taine was also important incritics is perhaps the most clearly discernible and
encouraging this method of aesthetic evaluation. Seeemphatic example of this debt.

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