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John Atherton

Culture and Democracy. Matthew Arnold in America

Richard Martin

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  • 1 John Henry Raleigh, Matthew Arnold and American Culture (Berkeley University of California Press, (...)

" of the dudes literatune."
(Walt Whitman on Arnold1)

  • 2 Raleigh, p. 60.

1When asked by his friend Traubel whether he considered using vellum as a material for the cover of his new book of poems, Walt Whitman is reported to have replied, "Vellum? pshaw! hangings, curtains, finger-bowls, chinaware, Matthew Arnold!"2 The American poet's aversion to the English apostle of culture was deep-ingrained and of long standing; Traubel reported an earlier judgement.

  • 3 Raleigh, p. 60.

My own criticism of Arnold - the worst I could say of him - the severest... would be, that Arnold brings coals to Newcastle - that he brings to the world what the world already has a surfeit of: is rich, hefted, lousy, reeking, with delicacy, refinement, elegance, prettiness, propriety, criticism, analysis: all of them things which threaten to overwhelm us.3

  • 4 Georges Saintsbury, Matthew Arnold (New York: Russel & Russel, 1967 [1899]), p. 45.

2If the American poet was deeply prejudiced against the English man of letters, so, too, had Arnold long made up his mind what was characteristic of America and the Americans. As early as 1848, he had remarked in connection with the Trafalgar Square riots of March of that year, that the behavior could be seen as a forewarning of "a wave of more than American vulgarity, moral, intellectual, and social, preparing to break over us."4 Some years later, in a letter to his mother, Arnold reported with characteristic self-satisfaction and condescension:

  • 5 Herbert W. Paul, Matthew Arnold (London: Macmillan, English Men of Letters Series, 1902), p. 92.

I have just seen an American, a great admirer of mine, who says that the three people he wanted to see in Europe were James Martineau Herbert Spencer, and myself. His talk was not as our talk, but he was a good man.5

3In the clash of cultures already indicated, Arnold plays the role of the prototype of the cultivated British visitor to the United States - the first in a long line of self-appointed cultural missionaries crossing the Atlantic out of a multitude of highly heterogeneous motives.

4My title is a hardly disguised reference to Arnold's most famous prose work, Culture and Anarchy (1869), and it is in the preface to that volume that we find one of his favorite prejudices formulated, some fourteen years before he was to set foot on American soul. Referring to Ernest Renan, Arnold writes,

  • 6 Matthew Arnold, Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1885); letters of Matthew Arnold, George (...)

When he says that America, that chosen home of newspapers and politics, is without general intelligence, we think it likely, from the circumstances of the case, that this is so; and that, in the things of the mind, and in culture and totality, America, instead of surpassing us all, falls short (Culture and Anarchy, p. 19).6

5It is here sufficient to note the contrasting of journalism and intelligence, politics and culture to be aware of the parameters of Arnold's criticism of America. A nation producing the means to disseminate widely, to a vast public, the news and opinions of the day and possessing democratic institutions of government is unlikely to be in possession of that "sweetness and light" which Arnold so championed and advocated. Here the antithesis to Whitman becomes apparent and serves to illustrate my central thesis: for Arnold there existed an inevitable conflict between democratic principles in action and the equally active pursuit and progress of culture.

6Although America was for him in 1882, a year before his first visit, still an uncivilized land - "as we in England have to transform our civilization, so America has hers still to make" (1953, 6) - Arnold formulated in his article, "A Word About America" the phrase that he was to repeat later to describe the people of the United States: "the English on the other side of the Atlantic" (1953, 2). This remarkable naïveté served as the facade for Arnold's immense Victorian condescension to a people about whom he felt he needed no further information to assist him in formulating judgements. As Lionel Trilling pointed out,

  • 7 Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold (London: Allen & Unwin, 1949 [1939]), p. 392.

Arnold had always been ready for America: almost too ready. America had been for him a symbol and at times an obsession [...] He knew what America was - raw and conceited and vulgar and grasping and dull, and commercial and Philistine and prostrate before bunkum.7

  • 8 Trilling, p. 393.

7The approaching encounter between Arnold and the New World was, however, not one-sidedly prepared for; as Trilling also observed, "America knew what Arnold was [...] He was culture and he was suspicion of democracy; he was amenity, urbanity, the Church of England and aristocratic manners."8 The conflict of personalities and views was to symbolize, to a great extent, the imminent clash between the rights of the masses and the entrenched cultural privileges of the elite.


8Arnold arrived in New York with his wife and elder daughter in October 1883 to be met by Andrew Carnegie and immediately carried off, first to a hotel, then to clubs and homes, and so off on a commercially sponsored lecture tour which would last for the next four months. In his first letter home, Arnold noted "the blaring publicity of this place", which he found to be "beyond all that I had any idea of" (1901, 258).

9From this first moment of arrival Arnold was to be involved in a running conflict with the American press - which, as the remark in the preface to Culture and Anarchy had indicated, he wholeheartedly despised. The Inter-Ocean of October 24, 1883 fired one of the earliest salvoes:

  • 9 James Dow Mc Callum, "The Apostle of Culture Meets America," New England Quarterly 2 (1929), p. 37 (...)

Mr. Arnold is vastly over-rated. He is an example of that extremely intellectual culture which produces imitation rather than originality [...] He may be able to go back to England and tell them that that monarchical country is hundreds of years behind ours, and he will not overstep the truth.9

10Arnold repeated three lectures during his tour: "Numbers" with which he opened in New York; "Literature and Science" - the only lecture he had previously given - and a lecture Emerson, which was written very largely on the voyage across the Atlantic and finished in New York. Arnold's first public appearance in Chickering Hall in New York was a dismal failure; he was not used to such large audiences, over 1200, nor was his voice trained to the situation, with the result that he was barely audible beyond the first five rows. As he himself wrote, with a mixture of wry acceptance and unshakeable composure: "I was badly heard, and many people were much disappointed; but they remained to the end, were perfectly civil and attentive, and applauded me when I had done" (1901, 264). The following weeks (November 5 to 27) were spent in New England, traveling from Boston to Newport, Dartmouth, Hartford, Worcester and back again to Boston for the first delivery of the Emerson lecture. Arnold soon expressed himself "bored by having to repeat my Literature and Science so often" (1901, 270), but on the whole he seemed satisfied both with himself and his audiences. His only criticisms were reserved for the American press and for the American devotion to activity and publicity. Of the latter he wrote, "I have seen no American yet, except Norton at Cambridge, who does not seem to desire constant publicity and to be on the go all day long." Whereas the excellence of his audiences are contrasted to the press which "seems to me at present an awful symptom" (1901, 267 & 271).

11Since the lectures themselves will be discussed in some detail below, suffice it here to state that the initial delivery of the lecture on Emerson, on Emerson's home ground, in Boston, was to prove the touchstone of the whole tour. The lecture appeared, on the surface, to be a systematic demontage of the American writer, who was denied his claims to be a literary figure by the cultural apostle from England.

  • 10 E.P. Lawrence, "An Apostle's Progress: Matthew Arnold in America," Philological Quarterly 10 (1931 (...)

The only event of great importance in Arnold's lecture tour of America was his lecture on Emerson in Boston [...] To the prejudiced Emersonian, Arnold's lecture must have seemed a process of whittling away all traces of Emerson's title to fame.10

  • 11 Lawrence, p. 69.
  • 12 McCallum, p. 373.

12Although there were those in Arnold's audience who were prepared to receive his remarks attentively and even sympathetically, the majority response was negative. Representative of the reviews of the performance was the comment in the critic: "His lecture on Emerson has utterly destroyed him in the sight of the good people of that quarter of the globe."11 Although the Boston transcript almost alone of the journals characterized the lecture as "an interesting and valuable piece of criticism," it modified this praise with the remark that it was "bereft of affectionate insight."12 Arnold was to remain for the majority of Americans a cold fish, someone who did not and could not share in mass warmth, the democratic affection of the crowd. He himself accepted the resentment the lecture aroused, but defended himself in a letter to his sister Frances,

Many here object to my not having praised Emerson all round, but that was impossible. I have given him praise which in England will be thought excessive, probably; but then I have a very, very deep feeling for him (1901, 277).

13It is remarkable and worthy of note that Arnold was unable to convey this "deep feeling" to his audience - with, perhaps, characteristic Victorian distrust of revealing emotion? The contrast between this private remark and the Boston Transcript's criticism of his public performance is indicative of the failure Arnold experienced in communicating to his American audience.

14December was spent in a whirlwind round of engagements from Amherst, via Richmond, Virginia (the only part of the United States for which Arnold expressed wholehearted approval) to Washington, where he and his wife and daughter were presented to President Chester A. Arthur on Christmas Day; then back north to Philadelphia and Jersey City. If the itinerary alone is not sufficiently indicative of the rigours of Arnold's tour (in this, too, he was a staunch prototype of the European visiting lecturer to the United States), then maybe his own account of a typical stop on the way, his appearance at Andover, will serve to demonstrate the - in our times - recognizable pattern of the experiences of the European guest in American cultural circles.

I was met at the station by a Professor Churchill, a very nice man, with whom I was to stay [...] At six we had tea - it was really dinner, only there were no liquors. Then I dressed, found the students waiting outside the door to escort me to the Lecture Hall [...] At the Hall I was again cheered, then I gave the lecture on Emerson, and was cheered again, then walked home, and a reception was held, with all Andover at it. "Glad to see you in our country sir, and to tell you how much I have enjoyed your works," is pretty much what everyone says. Scolloped oysters (with iced water and coffee) at eleven, when the people are gone; bed, called at seven, breakfast at eight with a party of professors and their wives - coffee, fruit, fish-balls, potatoes, hashed veal, and mince pies, with rolls and butter. Then I was driven to the station by Professor Churchill, introduced by him to a "leading citizen," who talked to me all the way to Boston, and am now writing to you (1901, 287).

15The familiarity to late twentieth century ears lies in those stereotypical moments: the oft-heard remark, "Glad to see you in our country" coupled with the polite insincerity of "how much I have enjoyed your works;" and then the almost inevitable "leading citizen" whose impact upon the certainly exhausted Arnold is contained (in both senses of the word) in Arnold's unadorned statement, "talked to me all the way to Boston."

16New Year 1884 found Arnold in upper New York State en route for Buffalo; his letter of January 18. to Miss Arnold records a significant moment which was to leave a lasting impression upon the English writer:

I saw a sledge standing still on the snowy, frozen lake, with the horses half turned round, which struck me as the only picturesque thing I have seen in America; the people have even less of the artist feeling than we have (1901, 293).

17Arnold's astonishing blindness to the natural beauties of America can only partially be accounted for by noting that he traveled much of the Eastern States in the depths of winter, often by train and, presumably, many times in the dark. Yet this singular impression of a lack of the "picturesque", which becomes synonymous with the interesting, was to remain with him in the years to come. One is tempted to speculate that Arnold, who as we have seen had his opinion of cultural America well formed before his actual confrontation with the real thing, had also made up his mind that so vast a country either would be much more picturesque than he experienced It, or that it could not fail in this particular to be of less interest than his native England.

18Nor did the cities fare any better under Arnold's scrutiny. Chicago, from which he wrote on January 23, was merely "a great uninteresting place of 600,000 inhabitants" (1901, 296); but then Chicago held a rather low opinion of Arnold, and its newspapers were to maintain a continual sniping action against him until after the termination of his visit. St Louis - the farthest point west that Arnold traveled - produced the smallest and least interested audiences that he was to experience, thus calling forth his reaction; "I begin to recognize the truth of what an American told the Bishop of Rochester, that 'Denver was not ripe for Mr. Arnold'" (1901, 298); suffice it here to note the sense of self-importance that Arnold innocently (?) injects into his observation. It was also during his stay in St. Louis that Arnold was to reduce the American city to a formula that he used several times in his accounts of the United States, which was to become a commonplace of his estimation of urban American civilization:

St. Louis interests me very much; it is very dirty certainly, and in the buildings there is the want of anything beautiful which in ail the American towns depresses me, but it is an old place, and a mixed place, and it looks like both of these, and escapes the profound Gemeinheit of the ordinary American city thereby (1901, 299).

19The contrast between age and variety on the one hand and vulgarity (Gemeinheit) on the other is notable. Arnold demanded a Europeanization (tradition, history, a mixture of styles and cultures) that America was unable to offer; the result wa3 a singular inflexibility and blindness on Arnold's part: a dismissal of scorn" - Gumeinheit. Time and again in the letters from America the reader misses just that "affectionate insight" which the Boston Transcript had found lacking.

20Arnold's stay in America came to an end at the beginning of March 1884; shortly before sailing from New York he noted, "At the end of my stay in America [...] I feel myself utterly devoid of all disposition to write and publish my intuitions, clear or turbid" (1901, 307). Yet, as we shall see, it was not long before Arnold was putting pen to paper to do just this, to record not only his intuitions about the United States, but to express as well his severer judgements on that country.


21Before, however, passing on to Arnold's later publications on America, it is necessary to pay some regard to the lectures which he delivered there. In doing so, it will be my aim not so much to expose Arnold's thoughts as to see in the lectures an expression - which must have been clear to his audiences - of his natural predisposition to distrust democracy and thus to see culture in a democratic society as endangered.

  • 13 Howard Mumford Jones, "Arnold, Aristocracy, and America," American Historical Review 49 (1944), p. (...)

22Arnold's opening salvo in America was the lecture "Numbers; or, The Majority and the Remnant;" an essay which has been characterized by Howard Mumford Jones as "a pretty a piece of antidemocratic propaganda as one can possibly find, even today."13 Arnold's basic thesis is that in any society the majority "lacks principle; it lacks persistence" (1885, 6-7). Thus, by extension, the hope for the survival of a society must be placed in the cultured minority, the remnant or elite, Arnold begins by examining Athenian society at the time of Plato and Israelite society at the time of Isaiah and comes to the conclusion that the minorities in those societies, themselves very small, were too small to achieve success. From this he develops his idiosyncratic political theory - already familiar from earlier essays such as "Equality" - concerning the qualities in a society which guarantee its survival: "Having in mind things true, things elevated, things just, things pure, things amiable [...] is what saves States" (1885, 32). This metaphorically framed conviction is coupled in Arnold's though with what he himself refers to as "the hard doctrine of the unsoundness of the majority" (1885, 56), which, if not resolutely combated by the minority will result in the decay and destruction of society, Arnold's remarks then focus upon America:

In a democratic community like this […] the danger is in the absence of the discipline of respect; in hardness and materialism, exaggeration and boastfulness; in a false smartness, a false audacity, a want of soul and delicacy (1885, 68).

23It is almost astonishing that Arnold's audiences did not walk out on him in protest for his patronizing condemnation of their society. That they did not is due to the fact that on the one hand his audiences were inured to the condemnations of evangelical preachers, and on the other that they were composed in the main of that very remnant, that elite, whose praises he was studiously singing.

24In the closing paragraphs of "Numbers", Arnold reveals himself to be an early propounder of the 20th century doctrine of the supremacy of WASP-culture when he justifies his faith in the American minority. This he praises for its Anglo-German origins and its sound tradition of Puritan discipline. He concluded his lecture on the hopeful note that since America was such a large society, correspondingly it must have a large remnant and thus its hopes for future survival could be secure.

25The second lecture, "Literature and Science", was the one his audiences liked best, but it was also the best known since it had been delivered at Cambridge University as the Rede Lecture and was given in America by popular request. Nor need it take up too much of our time here. In its defence of a humanistic education against the increased introduction of scientific and technological subjects into the broad educational curriculum, it is, of course, a subtle and concealed attack on the accomplishments of the newer democratic, practical society of the United States. The conclusion is well known but may be repeated here as illustrative of a general tendency in Arnold's thought.

A poor humanist may possess his soul in patience, neither strive nor cry, admit the energy and brilliancy of the partisans of physical science, and their present favour with the public, to be far greater than his own, and still have a happy faith that the nature of things works silently on behalf of the studies which he loves, and that, while we shall all have to acquaint ourselves with the great results reached by modern science, and to give ourselves as much training in its disciplines as we can conveniently carry, yet the majority of men will always require humane letters (1885, 136-137).

26Arnold, while appearing to admonish his audience, is in fact merely enunciating his own belief, the faith of the "poor humanist" ('poor' only as a rhetorical device), in the desire of the majority of men "for humane letters," that is, for literary culture. Two points may be made here: first, it is Arnold's despised majority that is shown with this saving hunger for a culture based traditionally upon literature; and second, Arnold's argument stands or falls on the subtle transformation of an article of faith into an observation of a true state of social affairs. It is this second feature that characterizes so much of Arnold's activity in America. He was possessed of the doubtful ability to transform personal belief into universal truth whenever it suited his own line of argument. It is this which convinces him that his pre-formed judgement of America rests on empirical foundations and which also informs the majority of his statements about his own conception of a probable democratic society.

27The lecture on Emerson does not, at first reading, appear to fit into the pattern which emerges from an analysis of the other two pieces. Arnold would seem to be concerned to redraw the configurative lines of the traditional image of Emerson dominant in America at the time; what in fact emerges, however, apart from a further ambush of America's image of itself, is Arnold's (un?) conscious effort to justify his own position and to ally himself with the great American sage.

28Arnold begins by recalling the great voices of his student days at Oxford: Newman, Carlyle, by way of Carlyle, Goethe, and, finally, Emerson. However, he announces the need to question youthful judgements and his own intention to attempt a revaluation of Emerson. He proceeds to quote an American critic, who had claimed for Emerson the distinction of having contributed some fifty to sixty passages of poetry to the general fund of the English language in the form of memorable quotations. After citing the counter-examples of Shakespeare, Milton and Gray, Arnold opens up his "attack":

And in truth, one of the legitimate poets, Emerson, in my opinion, is not. His poetry is interesting, it makes one think; but it is not the poetry of one of the born poets. [...] Emerson's poetry is seldom either simple, or sensuous, or impassioned. In general it lacks directness; it lacks concreteness; it lacks energy (1885, 153-154).

29What is interesting about Arnold's final judgement is that he chooses those qualities of poetry most likely to appeal to a young, materialistic society: directness, concreteness, and energy, so that by showing their absence in Emerson he can at the same time as calling his qualities as a poet in question, more particularly throw doubts on his qualifications to be a significant American poet (in the sense, say, that Whitman was).

30Arnold, having dismissed Emerson as a poet goes further, "I do not place him among the great writers, the great men of letters [...] writers whose prose is true and sound" (1885, 159-160). Once again it is those particularly puritanical and American qualities which are disallowed Emerson: truth and soundness. One might in addition note at this point the characteristically Victorian ring of that adjective 'sound;' it was typical of Victorians and twentieth century post-Victorians to label anything of which they disapproved, from religious doctrine or practice to politics or views on art, 'unsound' - lacking contact with the solidly real.

31To the titles which are stripped from Emerson - poet, man of letters, great writer - is added, finally, that of "a great philosophical writer" (1885, 169). Arnold dismisses Emerson's English Traits, too, by comparing it to Montaigne, La Bruyère and Addison while citing Hawthorne as a truly first-rate American writer. What, may we (and no doubt Arnold's audience) ask, is left? It is at this point that the self-referential in Arnold's lecture becomes apparent.

32We have not in Emerson a great poet, a great

writer, a great philosophy-maker. His relation to us is not that of one of those personages; yet it is a relation of, I think, even superior importance. His relation to us is more like that of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius [...J he is the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit (1885, 178-179).

33Arnold gives himself away in the brief parenthesis "I think", which retards the flow of his discourse and has the typical function of the rhetorical pause, or hesitation, of drawing particular attention to what follows, while at the same time indelibly linking the speaker to the opinion about to be articulated. For, on consideration, it is surely, Arnold himself who is characterized in the invocation of Marcus Aurelius; Arnold who is "the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit;" Arnold it is, who throughout his life in his role of cultural critic was continually emphasizing "sweetness and light" and who emerges as the champion of the higher virtues. Arnold's demontage of Emerson, the hero of his own youth, becomes a reconstruction of Emerson, so that Arnold can finally praise him for resembling his maturer self.

34In conclusion, Arnold invokes another American, Benjamin Franklin, whom he links to Emerson, seeing in the pair "the most distinctively and honourably American of your writers" (1885, 205). The reason given for this approval is that between them in their optimistic confidence, Franklin and Emerson support the twin ideologies of happiness through work and honesty, and happiness through the life in the spirit. For Arnold they appear to epitomize those twin poles of Christian doctrine: salvation through works and salvation through faith-so familiar to the Victorian consciousness and so embattled.

  • 14 See Lawrence, p. 63, for example.

35However much Arnold's lecture on Emerson may have enraged the Emersonians, it emerges as a true document of Victorian England and a piece of fascinatingly involved reasoning, in which Arnold finally justifies his own mission to America. He reveals his own view of himself as a traveller with an almost messianic vocation: the salvation of mass-society, democratic America by a recall to the traditional virtues and values of a cultured and temperate society. Yet, as critics have noted14 the missionary task remained largely unaccomplished, the messianic visitor unacknowledged. It was thus, perhaps, that Arnold's writings on America were to continue from a position of a certain bitterness.


36"A Word More About America" (1885), which, echoing the title of Arnold's 1882 essay, belies the impression Arnold gave on leaving the United States of an unwillingness to transform into print his intuitions, adds surprisingly little to the views expressed in the earlier piece. He reiterates his belief that Americans are "at bottom the same people as ourselves" and that they are "plain, decent middle class" in their ideas and morals (1953, 27 & 30). For all that is new in Arnold's critique, he might never have visited the country in the interim between the two essays.

37It took a second look at the United States to prompt Arnold to more forthright statements and to further excursions into print. The second visit he paid to America in 1886, a visit of a brief and private nature to see his daughter Lucy who had married and settled down in Massachusetts, although outwardly calm and uneventful seemed to have served to reinforce many of Arnold's brasses. He writes of Carnegie, whose vast steel works in Pittsburgh he had visited in early July, that he

and most Americans are simply unaware that nothing in the book [Carnegie's Triumphant Democracy] touches the capital defect of life over here: namely, that compared with life in England it is so uninteresting, so without savour and without depth. Do they think to prove that it must have savour and depth by pointing to the number of public libraries, schools and places of worship? (1901, 396).

38We are reminded of Arnold's dismissal of the picturesque on the occasion of his earlier visit, but here his criticism goes deeper. It is, of course, significant that the object of his criticism is a book in praise of American democracy; this alone is Arnold's excuse for picking up once again the theme of numbers. Mere quantity can never, for Arnold, be regarded as a justification in itself. Not a number of libraries, or schools, or churches is of interest to him but their excellence. It is this that is iterated in a letter to his friend Charles Eliot Norton towards the end of this second stay:

Das Gemeine is the American danger, and a few and good secondary schools and universities, setting a high standard, are what you seem to me to want, rather than a multitude of institutions which their promoters delude themselves by taking seriously, but which no serious person can so take (1901, 403).

39It is not a question of whether Arnold was right or wrong in his criticism (and who knows what sentiments he would have uttered if faced with the multiplication of institutions in present-day America); rather it is of importance to realize that all his negative observations of America have their root in a deep-seated distrust of what he felt democracy potentially to be: the rule of an uncultivated mass. Once again it is the vulgar (das Gemeine) which characterizes the threat to America - a principle which might also be expressed as the great levelling out, which must have been anathema to Arnold, who was unashamed in his propagation of the elite.

40The product of this second visit and of Arnold's closing years was "Civilization in America" (1808). In summary this essay repeats most of Arnold's by now familiar charges: America is uninteresting, lacks distinguished men, its few cultivated individuals tend to ignore the true faults of their country, America is largely still lacking in civilization. Since so many of the criticisms are now familiar I shall forbear to quote them once again, even in the revised formulation. Rather, let us concentrate on Arnold's brief but summary diagnosis of the root of all the weaknesses of American society, Ile expresses it in a passage dealing with the lack of distinguished men in American public life:

The Americans have produced plenty of men, strong, shrewd, upright, able, effective; very few who are highly distinguished [...] Lincoln is shrewd, sagacious, humourous, honest, courageous, firm; he is a man with qualities deserving the most sincere esteem and praise, but he has not distinction. In truth everything is against distinction in America [...] The glorification of 'the average man', who is quite a religion with statesmen and publicists there, is against it (1953, 56).

41The condescension towards and the attack upon Lincoln is characteristic; not only does Arnold choose a "folk hero" to disprove the distinction of great Americans, but Lincoln is also quite clearly associated with the scorned "average man." Here then, in Arnold's eyes, is the root of all American evils. The basic principle of democracy, the assertion of equality, strikes at the very heart of Arnoldian cultural elitism. Thus, by the final phase of Arnold's dealings with the United States, culture and democracy have become antithetical elements in an unwilling dialogue. It is in this context that Arnold delights in quoting a favorite phrase from Michelet which appears in several places in his writings on America, "la dure ininetelligence des Américains du Nord" (1953, 63).

42Yet in spite of this totally negative view of America - relieved only by his admission that there are plenty of "cultivated, judicious, delightful individuals there" (1953, 62) - Arnold, almost prophetically, points to the importance of the United States to England in the future:

To us, too, the future of the United States is of incalculable importance. Already we feel their influence, and we shall feel it more. We have a good deal to learn from them; we shall find in them, also, many things to beware of, many points in which it is to be hoped our democracy may not be like theirs. As our country becomes more democratic, the malady here may no longer be that we have an upper class materialized, a middle class vulgarized, and a lower class brutalized. But he predominance of the common and ignoble, born of the predominance of the average man is a malady too (1953, 64).

43The classification of the predominance of the average man as a malady of society reveals an alarming tendency in Arnold to generalize and polemicize. Having reiterated his familiar diagnosis of British society (first formulated in the lecture-essay on "Equality") with his characterization of the three classes in a state of degeneracy, Arnold rightly, perhaps, states that such a society is sick. But to transfer this diagnosis unthinkingly to a different set of symptoms is at least unscientific and, for Arnold surely, illogical. This step in his reasoning reveals clearly the Arnoldian dilemma, He is aware of the development of nineteenth century English society in the direction of a form of democracy which, as a patriotic and sensitive Englishman, he feels bearable if dangerous. He has personally experienced another form of democracy, the American, where the process of establishment has been comparatively rapid and accompanied by unprecedented material growth and increase in wealth. Arnold detects many of the ingredients of the American context in English society and immediately jumps to the conclusion that England could easily develop in the same way as the United States. To link the futures of the two nations in such a way is typical of sets of attitudes developed in England and other European countries, where "American," "American English," or "Americanization" have long been negative concepts.

44The final act of the shared drama of Arnold and America is composed of both a nostalgic and an enduring element. The nostalgic reveals an Arnold reminiscing half-regretfully over his time in America; clearly aware of his failure to have had any lasting impact on the New World, he projects a somewhat pathetic image of himself. First as related by Edmund Gosse:

  • 15 McCallum, p. 367.

When I returned from a tour in the United States in 1886, Matthew Arnold [...] asked me to come and talk with him about America. "Did you make them hear you?" he asked, and continued, "I couldn't. They did not like my manner. The Chicago newspapers said that I resembled an elderly macaw pecking at a trellis of grapes. How lively journalistic fancy is among the Americans. But they were very kind."15

45That final wistful note is echoed in another incident related by one of Arnold's early biographers and critics, Herbert Paul:

  • 16 Paul, p. 155.

I remember the delight with which he told me of his invitation from Mr. Phineas Barnum, "the greatest showman on earth." "You, Mr. Arnold," wrote the great man, "are a celebrity, I am a notoriety; we ought to be acquainted." "I couldn't go," remarked Mr. Arnold, "but it was very nice of him".16

46These two acknowledgements of personal kindness after the event show a more mellow and affectionate Arnold than the public persona revealed in his lectures and articles. Could those isolated incidents of acceptance, recognition and politeness have heightened the awareness of public rejection, or was Arnold simply representative of that particular brand of cultural showman who is stingingly critical on the platform and shyly grateful for small signs of kindness in private?

47The enduring element in the Arnoldian experience of America is the attitude which he embodied of a fundamental unwillingness to believe that American culture is not a contradiction in terms. This was expressed, for example, in Arnold's comments on seeing an advertisement for The Primer of American Literature:

  • 17 James Bentley Orrick, "Matthew Arnold and America," London Mercury 20 (1929), pp. 390-391.

Imagine the face of Philip or Alexander at hearing of a Primer of Macedonian Literature) Are we to have a Primer of Canadian Literature, too, a Primer of Australian? We are all contributors to one great literature - English Literature.17

  • 18 F.R. Leavis, English Literature in our Time and the University, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1969), p (...)

48This attitude was echoed by that most Arnoldian of English critics, F.R. Leavis, when, in the course of his Clarke lectures at Cambridge in 1967, he stated that "the general acceptance, in England, of Hemingway as a great writer [...] would have been possible only in a period marked by a collapse of standards."18 But then, so much of Arnold is familiar in the twentieth century; his whole attitude to America as well as many of his experiences and most of his sayings have become stereotypes in the sphere of transatlantic cultural exchange.

49What is of major importance, however, is to realize that this stereotypical sense of European superiority and the smiling condescension to an America lacking in culture and civilization, was born of a fundamental distrust of the basic concepts of democracy.

50Not that Matthew Arnold regarded democracy with complete enmity. It is, however, important to realize that his political thinking was significantly colored by his elitist cultural theory and was marred by a certain contradictoriness in its expression. Although he quite clearly states, in the lecture-essay "Equality" (1878): "Certainly equality will never of itself alone give us a perfect civilization," Arnold is circumspect enough to modify this by adding "But with such inequality as ours, a perfect civilization is impossible" (1949, 606). This may be interpreted as a gesture of approval for democratic social principles; however, as always, Arnold in this lecture was still in the first instance a man of letters. Therefore, his final word on the subject here may be true of the deeper inner antithesis between Arnold's the theoretical social liberalism and his cultural convictions:

A community having humane manners is a community of equals, and in such a community great social inequalities have really no meaning (1949, 588).

51Whereas in Arnold's opinion the United States was, quite clearly, sadly lacking in "humane manners," it was undeniably a democracy - herein may have lain the cause for his continued irritation with that country; it would not be surprising.


1 John Henry Raleigh, Matthew Arnold and American Culture (Berkeley University of California Press, 1961), p. 61.

2 Raleigh, p. 60.

3 Raleigh, p. 60.

4 Georges Saintsbury, Matthew Arnold (New York: Russel & Russel, 1967 [1899]), p. 45.

5 Herbert W. Paul, Matthew Arnold (London: Macmillan, English Men of Letters Series, 1902), p. 92.

6 Matthew Arnold, Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1885); letters of Matthew Arnold, Georges W.E. Russel ed. (London: Macmillan, 1901), vol. 2; The Essential Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling ed. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1949); Five Uncollected Essays of Matthew Arnold, Kenneth Allott ed. (Liverpool: University Press of Liverpool, 1953); Culture and Anarchy, J. Dover Wilson ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966). References to Arnold's works are given in the text by date of publication, followed by page number.

7 Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold (London: Allen & Unwin, 1949 [1939]), p. 392.

8 Trilling, p. 393.

9 James Dow Mc Callum, "The Apostle of Culture Meets America," New England Quarterly 2 (1929), p. 377.

10 E.P. Lawrence, "An Apostle's Progress: Matthew Arnold in America," Philological Quarterly 10 (1931), pp. 67-68.

11 Lawrence, p. 69.

12 McCallum, p. 373.

13 Howard Mumford Jones, "Arnold, Aristocracy, and America," American Historical Review 49 (1944), p. 398.

14 See Lawrence, p. 63, for example.

15 McCallum, p. 367.

16 Paul, p. 155.

17 James Bentley Orrick, "Matthew Arnold and America," London Mercury 20 (1929), pp. 390-391.

18 F.R. Leavis, English Literature in our Time and the University, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1969), p. 56.


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