The Literary Impact of The Golden Bough

The Literary Impact of The Golden Bough

by John B. Vickery


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Frazer, with Freud, Marx, and Jung, is one of the thinkers who have had a deep and pervasive influence on modern literature. One of the great nineteenth-century syntheses, The Golden Bough was the culmination of a century of investigations into myth and ritual. John Vickery locates The Golden Bough in the context of its age and shows how, by gathering up many strands of nineteenth-century thought, it embodied the dominant intellectual tradition shaping the modern spirit.

The author's intimate acquaintance with an extraordinary range of modern literature enables him to demonstrate the variety of strategies that poets and novelists have used to assimilate The Golden Bough in their individual attitudes and preoccupations. The remaining chapters of the book are devoted to extended discussions of the intellectual, thematic, and format impact of The Golden Bough on Yeats, Eliot, Lawrence, and Joyce.

Originally published in 1973.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691619163
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1696
Pages: 446
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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The Literary Impact of The Golden Bough

By John B. Vickery


Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06243-3


The Golden Bough and the Nineteenth-Century Milieu


In the seventy-five years since The Golden Bough first appeared, it has become one of the most influential works in the twentieth century. What is most striking is the depth to which it has permeated the cultural strata of our time. In literature alone it touches nearly everything, from the most significant to the most ephemeral works. At one end of the spectrum is its well-known importance to works like The Waste Land and Finnegans Wake; at the other extreme is its perhaps largely unsuspected impingement on serious minor fiction like Devil by the Tail and The City of Trembling Leaves, prize novels like Tower in the West, and even Raymond Chandler detective stories. Between these two poles The Golden Bough also asserts its role in the very shape and texture of the middle ground composed of genuine but less celebrated works of art. Without it such diverse works as David Jones's The Anathemata, George Barker's Calamiterror, Ronald Bottrall's Festivals of Fire, T. Sturge Moore's Biblical drama, F. L. Lucas' First Yule poem, and the novels of Naomi Mitchison, John Cowper Powys, and Robert Graves would be immeasurably different in outlook as well as style. We find that it has even played a controlling role in at least one television program and engrossed a movie star like the late James Dean. Such random soundings reveal its presence at every cultural level from the most exalted to the most trivial.

The Golden Bough is both the most encyclopedic treatment of primitive life available to the English-speaking world and the one that lies behind the bulk of modern literary interest in myth and ritual. These were subjects that engrossed William Buder Yeats before the turn of the century as much as they do writers today. As Lionel Trilling has recently remarked, "perhaps no book has had so decisive an effect upon modern literature as Frazer's." To assess the nature, forms, and extent of that impact is the purpose of this study, but to do so some knowledge of The Golden Bough itself is necessary. This includes not only the controlling ideas and form of the book but its cultural content as well. It is, of course, a truism that any work is the product of its age. Nevertheless, this is particularly true of The Golden Bough, for it sums up so many strands of nineteenth-century thought and feeling. Catching up as it does many of the scientific, philosophical, historical, and artistic emphases of the age, it is a subtly persuasive form of the loose, variegated, and often contradictory intellectual tradition that shapes the modern spirit.

Frazer brought together the major elements of that tradition with such astonishing and subtle power that The Golden Bough became a central focus for the many divergent forces struggling to evolve a distinctive twentieth-century temper. This chapter examines in turn Frazer's reflection and adaptation of the nineteenth century's rationalism, historicism, evolutionary ethic, and mythological imagination. Focus and emphasis are sought by relating Frazer to such representative figures as John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, T. H. Huxley, Ernest Renan, and John Ruskin. While scarcely more than a sketch of an intricate subject and voluminous age, it should nevertheless indicate why Frazer's importance was inevitable. He drew together the central strands of thought and feeling in the age, but in an undoctrinaire manner. Consequently, his readers, both original and later, found his ideas and sentiments to be meaningful encounters with their own current problems and experiences rather than merely records of obsolete and tedious arguments or views. In so doing, he inadvertently but powerfully conveyed a sense of the continuity of dilemma and temper obtaining between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

At the same time, Frazer also suggested something of how the various intellectual facets of the age fit together. In a way not apparent in the more powerful or sustained thinkers of the period, Frazer shows us the rational, evolutionary, historical, scientific temper conspiring with as well as opposing the imaginative, spiritual, irrational, myth-making impulses of mankind. On the surface, such positions as Mill's rationalism, Arnold's historical sense, and Huxley's scientific and evolutionary outlook seem to be largely antipathetic to the passion for classical and other mythologies felt by nineteenth-century artists and their readers. The former appear grounded in factuality and precision, while the latter ostensibly aspire to the fanciful and conjectural. But actually, viewed in context, all these factors converge on an impulse toward the release and expansion of the mind beyond the confines of a constricting dogmatism. The age itself was not so aware of this convergence. As a result, its members frequently talked as though the role of reason was the elimination of fancy, that of history the dispensing with myth, and that of science the displacement of religion.

What The Golden Bough implicitly shows us is that the interest in myth — which extends throughout the entire century, and beyond — became a viable power in the creative world only when the full significance of mythic activity was revealed by the new forms of science and history. It is perhaps not too much to say that without Darwin and the evolutionary perspective, the German historians and Biblical scholars, and the commonsense logic of minds like Mill and Huxley, myth would have remained an airy fancy with no social or psychological relevance to modern man. Frazer's great merit was that he could absorb the relevant training and views of his time, bring them to bear on subjects like myth and ritual, and convey his views to the world at large in a language that neither obscured nor oversimplified them. Without him, the literary concern with myth and related matters would have been substantially different, if indeed it had existed at all. And without the intellectual milieu outlined in the following pages, Frazer too would have been far different than he was and perhaps considerably less significant. Indeed, The Golden Bough represents in an almost unique fashion the fusion of an individual author with the temper of an entire age. Later, in the twentieth century, under the growing impact of such forces as Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, Jung's archetypal psychology, and Bergson's and James's locating of the religious impulses in human emotions, myth for the creative artist and his audience largely pulled free of these rational and scientific underpinnings. But because Frazer remained undogmatic, The Golden Bough continued as the artist's vade mecum to myth.

Broadly speaking, the intellectual tradition that shaped Frazer encompassed two chief strains, one looking essentially to the future, the other to the past. The former was the source of major advances in science, radical attitudes in politics, and positivistic philosophical principles. The latter, on the other hand, subsumed political conservatives, religious traditionalists, and historical antiquarians. Though diametrically opposed in beliefs and assumptions, the two nevertheless were not so violently hostile as they frequently were in Europe proper. This was largely because of a firmly ingrained moral attitude common to both, which cut across intellectual lines. The Golden Bough aptly exemplifies the fruitful interchanges of the two tendencies, for, though scientific and mildly Liberal in outlook, Frazer also invested enormous time and energy in researches that steadfastly looked to the past for its data and perspectives.

To our twentieth-century notion of science, geared as it is to mathematical formulae, intricate experiments, and concepts that either flout or beggar common sense, the aligning of Frazer with science seems curious and unlikely. Yet like Darwin and Freud, though less emphatically, Frazer thought of himself as a scientist, as one for whom truth and fact were not only accessible but ultimate values. For him, science was perhaps less a refined methodology than a general temper and stance toward the nature of knowledge and the conditions of ignorance. In his Preface to the third edition of The Golden Bough, for instance, he clearly feels that while striving for a deliberately artistic form he has also preserved "the solid substance of a scientific treatise." It was as "a contribution to that still youthful science" of anthropology that he offered the second edition to the reading public. And a few pages later he faces the prospect of destroying long-established beliefs possessed of numerous "tender and sacred associations" and concludes: "Whatever comes of it, wherever it leads us, we must follow truth alone. It is our only guiding star: hoc signo vinces." Thus, Frazer clearly links himself to the great intellectual development of modern times — the rise of science — that extends back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where the scientific intellectual first emerged as a type."


While Frazer has affinities with the general scientific temperament of modern times, he also embodies qualities that are even more peculiarly representative of nineteenth-century England. He came too late in the age to be subjected to the full weight of Evangelicalism. Yet there is a sense in which his scholarly vigor, dedicated to the exploration of strange and barbarous customs in often graphic detail, is a latter-day recapitulation of G. M. Young's thesis that "Victorian history is the story of the English mind employing the energy imparted by Evangelical conviction to rid itself of the restraints which Evangelicalism had laid on their senses and the intellect; on amusement, enjoyment, art; on curiosity, on criticism, on science." Even after the deaths of Wilberforce, Hannah More, and Charles Simeon, Cambridge remained a center of Evangelicalism. Thus, by the time Frazer was a member of the university, Evangelical drive and energy had been transformed without being dissipated into the more secular Victorian belief in hard work and the active life. Like Samuel Butler and William Morris he is the embodiment of Victorian intellectual dedication in its late form. What distinguished Frazer from the early, less imaginative stress upon self-application, dictated as it was by economics and the social drive to succeed, was his post-Darwinian feeling that there was nothing higher or more rewarding than a life dedicated to working, however humbly, toward the extension of human knowledge. When The Golden Bough likens traditional beliefs to a strong tower sheltering man from life and reality, a tower to be breached by "the battery of the comparative method," it typifies the very mood evoked in Windyhaugh (1898). The "drudgery" of "a long and patient study of primitive superstition" is more than compensated for by "the extent of the intellectual prospect which suddenly opens up before us." It affords "a greater panorama" even than that "revelation" experienced by "classical scholars at the revival of learning." That this attitude is genuine and not merely rhetorical is attested to both by Frazer's voluminous correspondence with other investigators and by his detailed footnotes, which scrupulously acknowledge information made available by others.

Another aspect of the Evangelical tradition discernible in Frazer provides a bridge to his affinities with Utilitarians like Bentham and James Mill. By his shocked and deeply moved recognition of the savagery and cruelty men have historically visited on one another, Frazer revealed how he shared in both movements' common humanitarian regard for their fellow man. Frazer's concern for the pitiful struggles and suffering of mankind throughout history could not compare in immediacy with the characters of Dickens or George Eliot. It did, however, build on those cultural predispositions established by literature in the middle of the century. From the outset his style stamped him as a literary artist. Hence he was able to convey humanitarian attitudes through the longer and more abstract vista of history because his readers intuitively felt his work to be literature. As a result they were predisposed to regard it as a likely and admirable medium for the expression of man's tenderer feelings.

His strongest link with the Utilitarian tradition is, of course, his preference for a philosophical outlook that is at least loosely rationalistic in character. Frazer was no philosopher, but insofar as he thought about such matters his temper was substantially that of John Stuart Mill not only in its inherent rationalism but also in its ultimate willingness to allow the claims of the emotions. The very year that Frazer entered Trinity College, Cambridge, Mill's Three Essays on Religion (1874) appeared posthumously. They possess several features which point up the kinship of the two men. For instance, the second essay finds that the institution of religion is socially and morally useful to mankind, a view that is qualifiedly entertained in The Golden Bough and more emphatically implied by the main argument of Psyche's Task. Here both Frazer and Mill affirm beliefs in terms of social and psychological utility and not of objective truth. And in the first and third essays there is a dramatic instance of the struggle the reasonable and tolerant mind undergoes in the search for truth. Mill hovers between thinking that there is and there is not evidence for belief in a personal deity kindly disposed toward man just as Frazer oscillates from volume to volume over his views on euhemerism. In both we see the same kind of temper at work. Their common ground is less the uncertainty over a particular issue than the habit of recognizing and giving due weight to the evidence bearing on the issue. Some may find this a "retreat from rationalism"; others may be more inclined to regard it as a stubborn disavowal of secular dogmatism.

What Frazer, then, has in common with the greatest of the Utilitarians is the ideal of the open, flexible mind, of reason as man's best hope for reaching the truth and solving his problems. Like Bentham, who adapted the critical temper of Hume and Voltaire to nineteenth-century needs, Frazer sought to scrutinize all evidence and authority with the eye of reason. He could, of course, sharply define the limits of his interests, as when he refused to read Freud or any reviewers of his work. Yet within those limits Frazer showed an enviable tolerance for views other than his own as well as a scrupulous regard for the due weight of all evidence whether it fitted his thesis of the moment or not. His handling of the rival theories of Mannhardt and Westermarck concerning the significance of fire-festivals is a particularly good example of his prevailing attitude. Such an attitude, however, is not one simply shared coincidentally or through deliberate emulation. Rather it is part of a slowly gathering tradition in the middle years of the century of which Mill was but a single instance.

As the century wore on, historical relativism began to emerge as a powerful intellectual force. It is one of the great merits of The Golden Bough and its author that they should have survived (with neither apparent corruption nor reaction) the refined and sophisticated scepticism that made up part of the tone of the 90s and the Edwardian Age. In thus maintaining the spirit of free inquiry mingled with a tough-minded caution about theories and ideas, The Golden Bough preserved the intellectual gains first established in the 60s without dissolving them into a facile expression of either the toute comprendre view or the debunker's disavowal of any and all truths. Doubtless a large part of the credit for this can be traced to Frazer's involvement in the tradition of Cambridge rationalism in which, as Noel Annan has remarked, "ideas were hammered into principles to be judged empirically" and "talking for effect" was rejected in favor of "studies which are precise and yield tangible results."

Since he shared its general feeling about the capacities and uses of the human mind, especially the rational faculty, it is not surprising that he should also have reflected the idea of progress articulated by this tradition and much of the age at large. G. M. Young has observed that in general the thought of early Victorian England was controlled by the notion of progress, whereas that of the later period felt the impress of the concept of evolution. For Frazer the two ideas existed together though not in the crude or simple forms that led certain thinkers of the age to use them to justify the extremes of laissez-faire. Thus, in the Preface to the second edition of The Golden Bough, Frazer exults in the opportunity afforded the modern historian to trace the fortunes not merely of a single race or nation but "of all mankind, and thus enabling us to follow the long march, the slow and toilsome ascent, of humanity from savagery to civilisation."


Excerpted from The Literary Impact of The Golden Bough by John B. Vickery. Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Preface, pg. v
  • Contents, pg. ix
  • CHAPTER I. The Golden Bough and the Nineteenth- Century Milieu, pg. 1
  • CHAPTER II. The Controlling Ideas of The Golden Bough, pg. 38
  • CHAPTER III. The Intellectual Influence of The Golden Bough, pg. 68
  • CHAPTER IV. The Golden Bough: Impact and Archetype, pg. 106
  • CHAPTER V. The Literary Uses of The Golden Bough, pg. 139
  • CHAPTER VI. William Butler Yeats: The Tragic Hero as Dying God, pg. 179
  • CHAPTER VII. T. S. Eliot: The Anthropology of Religious Consciousness, pg. 233
  • CHAPTER VIII. D. Η. Lawrence: The Evidence of the Poetry, pg. 280
  • CHAPTER IX. D. H. Lawrence: The Mythic Elements, pg. 294
  • CHAPTER X. James Joyce: From the Beginnings to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, pg. 326
  • CHAPTER XI. James Joyce: Ulysses and the Anthropological Reality, pg. 346
  • CHAPTER XII. James Joyce: Ulysses and the Artist as Dying God, pg. 358
  • CHAPTER XIII. James Joyce: Ulysses and the Human Scapegoat, pg. 381
  • CHAPTER XIV. James Joyce: Finnegans Wake and the Rituals of Mortality, pg. 408
  • Index, pg. 425

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