Reading Jacques Barzun’s works is a fantastic corrective to the Horror Victorianorum that haunts America’s pop culture and the minds of our intellectuals. Our image of the Victorian era and its people is still shaped by ‘rebels’ like Byron (who went into exile while denouncing the informal and formal strictures of England as ‘cant’). Its popular historiography is still founded on Lytton Strachey Eminent Victorians.
As Barzun points out in From Dawn to Decadence, what Byron called ‘cant’ was a powerful, religiously-inspired reforming impulse:
Where Byron’s coterie could not be bothered to care about their own children, the Victorian do-gooders sacrificed in order to help the children of even the most despised. On the Salvation Army:
Its origins go back to Methodism, and in the early 19C its impulse to do good inspired the Evangelicals of the Church of England to agitate for such causes as the abolition of slavery.
What did those people have that our age lacks? “Wits and will” makes a good start. And energy. Oh, and the courage to break from the crowd.
Huxley's denunciation of it for fanaticism and regimentation hindered it no more than did the disdain of professional men, who seemed to think that spirit seances and Theosophical jargon were worthier expressions of their feelings. It was not until George Bernard Shaw made the point in Major Barbara that the so-called elite began to appreciate what General Booth's movement had done for the uneducated, pauperized, and drink-sodden masses which Social Darwinism had complacently allowed to find their place under the heel of fitter men. Then it was seen that neither the fatalism of biological evolution nor the fatalism of 'scientific' socialism could withstand a vigorous assault by people who believed in the power of the human will and had the wits to combine religion, social work, army discipline, and rousing tunes
The Victorian period produced so many strongly marked characters, fearless in promoting original views and often eccentric in habit and deportment. Self-control at least develops a self. And the multiple achievements of the Victorian Age testify to the abundance of such men and women
We might be richer than the Victorians, but compared to them we are weak, lazy, conformist drones.
Willpower, industry and an internal drive in a particular direction: these raised the great men of the 19th century above their circumstances
The Birth of the Modern
Even worse, for a half century we’ve be tearing down what they built up:
And to think, we did that without a federal Department of Education.
The American school system was at the height of its dedication and efficiency. The grammar schools has assimilated millions of motley immigrants; the free public high school was a daring venture that was the envy of industrialized nations; its curriculum was liberal (in modern speech elitist)-- Latin, the English poets, American and English history, a modern foreign language, mathematics and science every year-- and no marshmallow subjects
One of the very first times Abraham Lincoln appears in the public record is as the result of a speech he gave to Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838. What interests me here is not the speech but the venue. The first cabin at the place that would become Springfield was built on the Illinois frontier in 1820. In the 1840 census, the town had a population of 2,579. Yet the people of Springfield, the young men of Springfield, were already part of the Lyceum movement.
That spirit of self-improvement and adult education completely shames what passes for community organizing today.