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Charles Eliot Norton
The Art of Reform in Nineteenth-Century America
Linda Dowling

Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies

New Hampshire
2007 • 248 pp. 6 x 9"
Biography / Intellectual History

$26.00 Paperback, 978-1-58465-678-4

“Drawing on unpublished portions of his journals, Dowling shows a man bereft of religious faith struggling to develop a principled ethic of civic liberalism in contrast to the predominant values... [continued in Reviews below]”—Atlantic Monthly

An impassioned reassessment of a major nineteenth-century public intellectual

Author, translator, social critic and Harvard professor of art, Charles Eliot Norton was widely regarded in his own day as the most cultivated man in America. In modern times, by contrast, he has been condemned as the supercilious representative of an embattled patrician caste. This revisionary study argues that Norton’s genuine significance for American culture and politics today can only be grasped by recovering the vanished contexts in which his life and work took shape. In a wide-ranging analysis, Linda Dowling demonstrates the effects upon Norton’s thought of the great transatlantic humanitarian reform movement of the 1840s, the Pre-Raphaelite and Ruskinian revolution in art and architecture of the 1850s and the surging liberal optimism that emerged from the Civil War. Drawing on numerous deleted passages from Norton’s manuscript journals, Dowling probes beneath the imperturbable mask of the public Norton, bringing to light the elusive private man.

Returning from Europe in 1873, bereft of his wife and stripped of his religious belief, Norton was compelled to confront the painful contradictions within his own liberal political faith. In a land given to celebrating freedom of speech, Norton would become a speaker subjected to physical threats for opposing the Spanish-American War. Among a people given to glorying in its superiority to other civilizations, he would become a social critic reviled for arguing that the nation was failing to live up to its own most cherished ideals. It would be Norton’s misfortune, shared with others of his generation, to watch the golden promise of a victorious war for the Union fade into the unrepentant cynicism of the Gilded Age. Yet Norton’s militant idealism and heroic citizenship, Dowling argues, survive now as a vital parable for American civic liberalism in the present day.

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Reviews / Endorsements

“Drawing on unpublished portions of his journals, Dowling shows a man bereft of religious faith struggling to develop a principled ethic of civic liberalism in contrast to the predominant values of the Gilded Age. He was censured during his lifetime for his opposition to the Spanish-American War, but more than a century later he stands out as a lodestar of opposition to the excesses and coarseness characteristic of his age—and, unfortunately, of our own.”—Atlantic Monthly

“The structure of [Dowling’s] concise, lucid introduction to Norton’s remarkably multifaceted career reinforces an implicit argument of the book: that Norton is a figure who deserves the attention of nonspecialists. . . . Dowling’s arguments should prove useful in stimulating further investigation of the disputes in which she weighs in on Norton’s side. . . . Her slim volume more than sufficiently establishes its premise that Norton is a figure worthy of the general public’s attention.”
New England Quarterly

“Dowling’s wide-ranging and learned study brilliantly analyzes the intellectual and cultural context within which Norton acted. It is based on meticulous research in Norton’s manuscript journals and other archival sources, and her prose is often elegant . . . Her biography sheds valuable light on an important and often misunderstood man who spoke eloquently and forcefully to the hopes and anxieties of Americans during the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century. Her study belongs on the shelf of everyone who seeks to understand the complex interaction between art and politics in mid- and late nineteenth-century America.”—Journal of American History

“Dowling clearly admires her subject for his intellect, probity, and courage, but does not overlook his shortcomings. . . . This is a solid, well-written, and important contribution to scholarship.”

“For nearly a century, the conventional wisdom has dismissed Charles Eliot Norton as a snobbish aesthete sunk in gloomy withdrawal, the epitome of bloodless elite culture at the height of the genteel tradition. But Linda Dowling’s forceful and revelatory account renders all such glib caricatures untenable. She overturns the clichés, and gives us in their place a dramatically different and vastly more interesting portrait of Norton: a reform-minded democrat engaged in a lover’s quarrel with America."—Prof. Wilfred McClay, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, author of The Masterless: Self and Society in America

"With vigorous prose and deft attention to detail, Linda Dowling restores Charles Eliot Norton to his rightful place as one of the leading figures in the great nineteenth century tradition of civic republican thought. Dowling's book brilliantly evokes the mind and spirit of a man who dared to believe that art and politics might have something to do with one another."—Jackson Lears, editor, Raritan

LINDA DOWLING is the author of five books, including The Vulgarization of Art: The Victorians and Aesthetic Democracy (1996), Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (1994), and Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (1986).

Wed, 17 Oct 2018 11:33:15 -0500