New York Times Book Review
, 6 December 1998:
"...an immense, imaginative, tireless study of the much-abused class that invented everything liberal intellectuals cherish about modern civilization."
Peter Gay's five-volume series is nothing if not exhaustive. The books have frustrated some readers in being more of a searching exploration of the many sides, dimensions and aspects of "the bourgeois experience" than a definitive judgement about the time, the era or its values and propensities.
I have a sense that much of this unease comes from recognizing how little the dominant, aspiring middle-class culture has managed to break free of its Victorian underpinnings, considering the amount of time, effort and energy that "the culture" often likes to believe we have collectively devoted to this "breaking free" over the past century or so.
This is, of course, a very brink-of-the-21st-century view.
Those who come later to add to the database may well differ with this view over time. It will be fascinating to see that social evolution, as it proceeds, when and if "we" find ourselves in a post-modern culture that all percieve as something truly different from what was seen in the 20th century's bourgeois culture.
The people of the Victorian (and Edwardian) era were nothing if not human. Gay approaches these intertwining subjects from many angles. Many sections devote considerable attention to obscure individuals, who may happen to have kept meticulous diaries or other inadvertent records of their lives. These diaries and other signs offer some window to their "secret" selves, which is often what Gay wants most to consider in piecing together the mindscape of these individuals and their society. In this way Gay brings much to light about the obsessions and the social conventions, as well as the subtle (and not subtle) ways in which those elements supported the dominant, acquisitive and colonizing societies of the times.
A rich series of books, elegantly written, and far too broad in scope to do them justice in a short write-up here. I suspect they will stand as classics for some time to come, and gain a greater following as the decades pass.
The volumes in the series are:
- The indroductory volume. A summary and groundwork for the volumes that follow, with emphasis on the development of the modern (or modernist) sensibility.
- Romantic and erotic love, their mystification and social exploitation.
- Warfare and the roots of modern masculinity, its stereotypes, pathologies and fixations.
- Romanticism and its role in Victorian "consumer culture." Exploring the inner lives of the class, both its notables and its most obscure members, largely through the sort of cultural artifacts they consumed and were attracted to.
"The secret life of the self," writes Peter Gay, "had grown into a favorite and wholly serious indoor sport."
- Art and aesthetics. From Flaubert to Modernism; Zola to Wilde.
In addition to the Bourgeois Experience series, Peter Gay's books include The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism
, The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom
, and Freud: A Life for Our Time.
Drafted: Aug. 22, 2000
Revised: Aug. 22, 2000
First noded: Aug. 22, 2000