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Dan Bivona and Roger B. Henkle, The Imagination of Class: Masculinity and the Victorian Urban Poor.

Dan Bivona and Roger B. Henkle, The Imagination of Class: Masculinity and the Victorian Urban Poor, Ohio State University Press, 2006, pp. 256, $39.95

The Imagination of Class: Masculinity and the Victorian Urban Poor is an intriguing exercise in what one might call posthumous collaboration. In 1991, Roger B. Henkle suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving behind an incomplete book manuscript that might have remained untouched had not his former doctoral student Dan Bivona resumed writing and editing it.

Bivona and Henkle's thesis is that mid-to-late Victorian texts of slum exploration reveal as much about their male authors as they do about tenement dwellers, and that these texts particularly served to define middle-class men as adventurous, industrious, and self-controlled. The book thus interrogates reformers' claims to professional detachment, arguing instead they used the slum as an arena for projecting anxieties about their own agency and betraying their discomforts with mid-century economic competition and domesticity. They constructed a complex discourse with its own tropes, such as the immersion of the self into a labyrinthine netherworld. Narrators respond to this immersion with various degrees of differentiation and abjection, from journalist James Greenwood's confident, urbane cross-class masquerade to H. G. Wells's Time-Traveller's horrified identification with the cannibalistic Morlocks. A representative subject, Henry Mayhew admires costermongers' masculine freedom, but, observing their entrepreneurialism, he critiques their absence of self-reflexivity and symbolic thought.

Two chapters break from the book's customary focus on normative male middle-class subjectivity; their subjects question detached empiricism and realism as means of appropriating slum life. As Chapter 2 reveals, Beatrice Webb had determined that she must pursue 'push and severity' in order to be effective as a social worker (p. 84). Believing that empirical observation of the poor would benefit her ethically, she nonetheless felt prey to an enervation that echoed the helplessness of her more incapacitated slum tenants. Bivona and Henkle also detect this 'stultification of spirit' in Margaret Harkness's characters in A City Girl and in the dull streetlife of Sir Walter Besant's East London (p. 87). Yet, rather than succumb to the miasmic slum, Besant feels empowered to transform it by envisioning the labourer's education in consumerist bourgeois desire. Bivona and Henkle posit Besant's faith in culturalism as a counter-remedy to Webb's defeatism; (in fact, the slum projects Webb reluctantly served were complicit in the same rhetoric of recreational and cultural reform).

Chapter 3 examines Arthur Morrison's and George Gissing's construction of a unassimilable East End. Morrison's denizens in A Child of the Jago (1896) constitute their own social entity, impervious to middle-class readers' mores or affective connection. By representing slum women either as savages or passive victims, Morrison denies them the female ethical agency typical of sentimental fictions. Likewise, rather than seeking assimilation into the respectable middle classes, Morrison's male characters exploit one another and glorify the High Mobsmen, who mimic and spectacularize aristocratic privilege through their showy lifestyle. Unable to comprehend any genuine class above themselves, the Jagoites cannot critique or aspire to other classes. According to Bivona and Henkle, Morrison rejects Zola's naturalist method of interpreting working people in detail for the reading public; instead, he turns to symbol to confirm the Jago's resistance to middle-class hegemonic classification. The setting of The Nether World is as vile as the Jago, but Bivona and Henkle see Gissing ascribing an 'integrity of experience' (p. 127) to his suffering protagonists. Although their aspirations toward high culture mirror Gissing's own, in his artistic detachment and political conservatism, he depicts them as contaminated and their passions as thwarted or excessive, and denies them successful acculturation.

The Imagination of Class integrates various critical methodologies: Chapter 1 on sensational journalism employs Lacan on readerly suture and Kristeva on abjection alongside scholarship on urban history, melodrama, and sentimental fiction. Chapter 4 on the self-fashioned, professional, technologically-savvy explorer/survivor of the 1890s abyss, assimilates George Levine, Alan Sinfield, and Jonathan Freedman on the aesthete/flaneur, Gareth Stedman Jones on class and spatiality, Richard Soloway on race degeneration, Martin Green on adventure literature, Regenia Gagnier on proletarianization, J ames Kincaid on childhood eroticism, Paula Krebs on anti-Boer prejudice, and Tina Young Choi on infection. Synthesizing chapters' sub-theses can be challenging; these disjunctions are a likely consequence of Bivona's task of theoretically contextualizing Henkle's ideas. This study testifies to his insight, industry, and loyalty.

Diana Maltz

Southern Oregon University
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Author:Maltz, Diana
Publication:Literature & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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