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Matthew Arnold and the Institutional Imagination of Liberalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 June 2021


I first took up Matthew Arnold's essays as a dissertation writer circa 2008. Although I had not read much of Arnold's prose beyond the commonly anthologized pieces (“The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” “The Study of Poetry,” bits of Culture and Anarchy), he was a figure very much out of favor, and I brought to the table a strong preconception of his polemic. Arnold, I had learned, was a kind of cultural nationalist trying to fight class divisions within Britain by prescribing a narrow canon of books that could shore up a common language for his compatriots. His main claim was that there was a singular tradition of great books called “culture” that embodied “the best that is known and thought in the world.” Everyone in Britain needed to keep reading these books if the nation were to retain a shared identity and not fall into chaos. Furthermore, as I understood it, Arnold thought that to experience culture you needed to remain “disinterested” and “aloof from what is called ‘the practical view of things’” (5:252). Arnold was a Victorian Mortimer Adler who sought to defend the authority of traditional literary canons as well as a Victorian Wimsatt-and-Beardsley who upheld disinterested close reading against hyperpolitical Theory.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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