Making England Western: Occidentalism, Race, and Imperial Cultureby Saree Makdisi
The central argument of Edward Said’s Orientalism is that the relationship between Britain and its colonies was primarily oppositional, based on contrasts between conquest abroad and domestic order at home. Saree Makdisi directly challenges that premise in Making England Western, identifying the convergence between the British Empire’s civilizing mission abroad and a parallel mission within England itself, and pointing to Romanticism as one of the key sites of resistance to the imperial culture in Britain after 1815.
Makdisi argues that there existed places and populations in both England and the colonies that were thought of in similar terms—for example, there were sites in England that might as well have been Arabia, and English people to whom the idea of the freeborn Englishman did not extend. The boundaries between “us” and “them” began to take form during the Romantic period, when England became a desirable Occidental space, connected with but superior to distant lands. Delving into the works of Wordsworth, Austen, Byron, Dickens, and others to trace an arc of celebration, ambivalence, and criticism influenced by these imperial dynamics, Makdisi demonstrates the extent to which Romanticism offered both hopes for and warnings against future developments in Occidentalism. Revealing that Romanticism provided a way to resist imperial logic about improvement and moral virtue, Making England Western is an exciting contribution to the study of both British literature and colonialism.
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MAKING ENGLAND WESTERN
Occidentalism, Race, and Imperial Culture
By Saree Makdisi
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Making London Western
1. TIME AND HOPE
"The circumstances which it will be seen I have mentioned relative to the ignorance, the immorality, the grossness, the obscenity the drunkenness, the dirtiness, and depravity of the middling and even of a large portion of the better sort of tradesmen, the artisans, and the journeymen tradesmen of London in the days of my youth," notes the great nineteenth-century reformer Francis Place in the opening pages of his autobiography, "may excite the suspicion that the picture I have drawn is a caricature, the parts of which are out of keeping with [each other] and have no symmetry as a whole." If there is a theme running through and tying together the immense accumulation of notes, clippings, testimonies, reports, and observations constituting Place's archive of plebeian London life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it is that a yawning abyss has opened between the ways and morals of the recent past—the past of Place's own London childhood—and those of the present in which he is writing. So large is this gap, Place keeps insisting throughout his archive, that the people of the present find it difficult or impossible to imagine the moral economy of the past.
"It will seem incredible that such songs should be allowed but it was so," he writes, for example, in the preface to his meticulously detailed manuscript notes on flash ballads and bawdy songs circulating through London in that previous era. "There is not one of them that I have not myself heard sung in the streets, as well as at Choir Clubs, Cock and Hen Clubs, & Free and Easy's." Although the obscene and politically subversive songs were eventually suppressed by a new police regime, he admits, such has been the shift in public morality that it would be unimaginable for them to make a return even if heavy-handed state and reactionary vigilante surveillance were ended. "I have no doubt at all that if ballad singers were now to be left at liberty by the police to sing those songs that the people in the streets would not permit the singing of them. Such songs, as even 35 years ago, produced applause, would now cause the singer to be rolld in the mud," he adds, whereas formerly, "not one of these songs even the most infamous was at all objected to. Servant maids used to stop in the markets, to hear them sung, and used to purchase them."
And as with songs, so with other matters as well. The obscene prints the public display of which used to "offend the eye" not so long ago have now all but disappeared, he writes from the perspective of the 1820s and 1830s. The behavior of "unfortunate females" in the streets today is not what it was even sixteen years previously, let alone in the eighteenth century. Whereas in Place's childhood "the merits" of an outlaw like Mary Young (a.k.a. Jenny Diver) "were a constant theme and the subject of continual conversation," today "no one among decent people ever thinks of talking of an abandoned prostitute and thief" like her. And although within Place's recollection a Tyburn hanging day "was to all intents and purposes a fair day," in which throngs of people gaily offered the condemned prisoners beer or gin to ease their passage to the gallows, "songs were sung and the ballads were sold at the corners of the streets, all along Holborn, St Giles's and Oxford Street," and pie men and pickpockets plied their trades, such public revelry at a scene of execution was by the 1820s unthinkable, according to Place.
And, from the same early nineteenth-century vantage point, the "barbarous" pillory once installed at Charing Cross is beyond even memory or recollection, so remote a conception does it now seem. "So atrocious was the conduct of the mob when a man was 'pilloried,' so debased and cruel were they, that those who are now children, will scarcely be able, when grown up, to conceive the existence of such enormities, much less to believe they were promoted and encouraged by lawyers, judges and what are usually termed respectable people," Place notes. "Even the very populace better taught and more humane than their parents, will hear with incredulity the tales which may perchance be told of the Pillory."
As Vic Gatrell has also pointed out, the constant theme of Place's writing is the running contrast between London's "then" of undignified, violent, obscene, gross, wasteful, and altogether barbarous activities both public and private and London's "now" of increasing respectability (not to mention its projected future when the past will be altogether unimaginable). For Gatrell, although Place compares unfavorably with James Boswell in that he "was a clumsy, self-taught and not fully literate writer, and he lacked a sense of both irony and humour," he yet "monitored humble and middling-class London with an intensity that Boswell could never have attempted." Although Gatrell acknowledges the importance of Place's project and the significance of its attention not merely to the improvement of the working people but to the fact that that their improvement was largely self-motivated rather than directed by benevolent bourgeois reformers or evangelical Sunday school teachers, he misreads the moral overtones of Place's work. In itself this is not surprising, because Place enters Gatrell's narrative supposedly as a proto-Victorian opponent of the eighteenth-century satirical culture that Gatrell's book City of Laughter sets out to celebrate. "In repudiating past vulgarities, in distancing himself from the low world that he and his kind had outgrown, in his priggish humourlessness, earnestness and vanity about his own distinction," Gatrell argues, "he turned himself into another of the old laughter's enemies, speaking in this for many at aspirant middling levels, and announcing the coming of sober times."
Place's attitude, however, is much more complex and ambivalent than Gatrell allows, largely because Gatrell overstates Place's interest in moralism and loses sight of what is far more important in Place's narrative. Take, for example, Place's account of his own father, to whom he frequently turns as a marker of the cultural logic of a bygone era:
My father was a very bony muscular man about five feet six or seven inches in height dark complexion and very strong for his height. I have heard my mother say that he has carried two sacks of fl our on his back at the same time. He was an elderly man from the earliest recollection I have of him, so he appeared to me, troubled with severe fits of Gout, yet when free from the disorder robust and active. He was a resolute daring straight forward sort of a man, governed almost wholly by his passions and animal sensations both of which were very strong, he was careless of reputation excepting in some particulars in which he seems to have thought he excelled. These were few, mostly relating to sturdiness and dissoluteness. Drinking, Whoring, Gaming, Fishing and Fighting, he was well acqua[i]nted with the principal boxers of his day; Slack and Broughton [mid-eighteenth century pugilists later celebrated by Pierce Egan in Boxiana] were his companions. Some of these desires and propensities never left him, though most of them became all but extinct with old age. He was always ready in certain cases to advise and to assist others, all who knew him placed the utmost reliance on his word, and as the habits of all ranks then as compared with then as compared with the habits of each class of men now, were exceedingly dissolute, his conduct was not then obnoxious to the censure of others as such conduct would be now.
Although Mary Thale and others, including Gatrell, have argued that Place was keen to denounce his father's barbarism—he would often beat his children with a stick until it broke—the sense we get of the older Place from the younger is rather more nuanced and sympathetic, not to say tinged with nostalgia for the resolution, daring, and straightforwardness demanded by a hard life of drinking, whoring, gaming, fishing, and fighting: a life whose attractions somehow seem to shine through Place's critical description of it.
The older Place may have had his investment in "animal sensations," but he also emerges from his son's description of him as a solid friend, ready to help those in need of his assistance: his reliability and dependability even end up weighing against, if not outweighing altogether, his interest in physical pleasures. Moreover, Place is eager to locate his father in his own time: what he did is what everyone did in those days, and placed in its own context, would not have been seen as objectionable. In fact, even in beating his children, he actually had their best interests at heart, according to Place himself:
In his opinion coercion was the only [way] to eradicate faults, and by its terror to prevent their recurrence. These were common notions, and were carried into practice not only by the heads of families and the teachers of youth generally, but by the government itself and every man in authority under it, in the treatment of prisoners and the drilling of soldiers who were publicly beaten by the drill serjeants with a cane. Indiscriminating, sanguinary and cruel as our Statutes are, they as well as all the other practices alluded to, were much more so fifty years ago, and they were administered in a much more unfeeling and barbarous manner. The manners of all were much more gross then than now, what would now be thought intolerable cruelty towards inferiors was then practiced as mere matter of course. What would now be thought gross and brutal was then as little repugnant to common notions, to good sense and good teaching, as the more mild and efficacious modes now in use are thought to be by the present generation, however much room their [sic] still is for amendment.
The relationship of father to son, then, sums up and is bound up with the relationship of that older London to the present-day London in which Place is writing; what matters is not what conditions were once like, but that they have changed in accordance with the flow of history.
In fact, Place was not all that interested in moralism as an end in itself, which is where Gatrell's reading of him as a prude takes us. He was interested in morals as markers of temporal modes: moral improvement was important for him not because he was invested in morality as such, in other words, but because it marks movement in time, and ultimately history. In short, Place was interested in a discourse of moral improvement because it offered him an index for the entry of working people into history—and that is what he is ultimately interested in. This is why Gatrell's reading of Place as prudish and judgmental is off mark; what excites Place about improvement is that he can look right through it to see the movement of time and ultimately history itself. He rarely mentions some past vulgarity without pointing out that things are now much improved.
Take drinking, for example. "Drunkenness is no longer the prevailing and conspicuous vice among workmen," Place argues in his 1829 tract Improvement of the Working People. "The very meanest and least informed being much more sober as a class, much more cleanly in their persons, than were those who in former times were far above them in respect to the amount of wages they received; whilst the most skilled and best paid are, as classes, more sober, more moral, and better informed, than were the generality of their employers at the time alluded to." Taken at face value, this certainly seems moralistic and judgmental. But we have to follow Place's argument to see where it takes him. Why does a working man drink?
Working, when he has work to do, from an early hour in the morning until late in the evening; excluded, as in most cases the working man is, from all rational enjoyment; during the days he is employed, shut out also, by the nature of his employment, from all reasonable conversation; doing the same thing, generally in the same place, always against his will and on compulsion; without hope of bettering his condition, and in a majority of cases with a conviction that it will become worse and worse as he grows older and his family increases, his thoughts are necessarily of a gloomy cast, his home is seldom comfortable: for be his wife ever so well disposed and industrious, she with spirits broken cannot even do those things for comfort which in former times she was wont to do, while in many cases her family occupies her whole attention and all her time, and the room and the husband as well as herself are neglected; and thus the man and the woman sink gradually, home becomes more and more comfortless, as he degenerates continually, neglects his family, and at length becomes reckless and worthless. Such is the actual state of many, and especially among uneducated workmen and labourers, to whom none but the mere animal sensations are left; to these his enjoyments are limited, and even these are frequently reduced to two,—namely, sexual intercourse and drinking.
Drinking is not a problem in itself; it is, instead, a marker of a certain conception of time. The workingman drinks because he feels, and is, trapped in time, caught in an endless present ("doing the same thing, generally in the same place") that threatens to, and actually does, swallow him and his family alive. Gradually he breaks down, losing not only his sense of agency but his very humanity, and he falls back instead on his "animal sensations" (and note the repetition of that phrase from his account of his father in his autobiography). Drink is thus not a sign of immorality as such; it is a sign of the sheer loss of humanity occasioned by a loss of time, literally timelessness, being stuck in time. "The uninformed man thinks only of sensual enjoyments," Place argues, because that is what he has been reduced to by social circumstances. "The better-informed man's thoughts," by contrast, "are occupied with the pleasures he has had, and those he anticipates;—from books, lectures, conversations, experiments, and ingenious mechanical contrivances." He does not drink because he is aware of the flow of time from past through present to any number of possible futures—and his sense of agency is inextricable from his awareness of the flow of time.
Movement in time, for Place, is the very basis for hope, and hope in turn is the basis for politics. "Take away hope," he asks, "and what hold can you have of any man." Without hope, the workingman will sink into despair; armed with hope, however, the better-informed workingman will seek to improve himself, and, Place notes, "such a man will frequently rise as the uninformed man sinks." The sense of the working classes that one gets from Place's account is thus extremely uneven: a heterogeneous patchwork of rising and falling movement, and indeed, acceleration and deceleration, corresponding to the distribution of hope. Overall, the perspective he wants to convey is that the London of the 1820s and 1830s is a scene of temporal movement—and hence improvement—compared to what it was two or three decades previously, even if that movement is also at times so slow as to be imperceptible even to those propelled along by it.
Even if in general there has been movement and hence improvement, however, there are also plenty of cases in Place's account where movement has not taken place, where people are sinking or standing still rather than rising. Place's map of his contemporary London thus consists of the spatialization of a heterogeneous and uneven distribution of time, speed, and hope, the point of which is to bring those sites and subjects that are falling behind into temporal, and hence political, alignment with those sites and subjects who have moved forward in time and into the flow of history. For, as Place's account of his father makes clear, history for him is the accumulation of individual movements in time, distributed through space.
Excerpted from MAKING ENGLAND WESTERN by Saree Makdisi. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Saree Makdisi is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of three books, including William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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