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Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders.

Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders. By Don Herzog (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. xvi plus 559pp. $29.95).

This is at times a deeply interesting book, but a damnably frustrating one to try to read from cover to cover. It is full of erudition and illuminating insights, but it is an organizational nightmare. So far as I am able to make it out, Herzog's argument is as follows. British conservatism as it manifested itself between the fall of the Bastille and the making of the New Poor Law "was best understood as a fundamental assault on the possibility and desirability of democratic politics" (p. ix). Conservative observers were obsessed with hierarchy and subordination, and feared that both of them were dissolving before their eyes. The main solvent, in their opinion, was the nefarious growth of 'public opinion.' The concomitant rise of literacy, of journalism, and of circulating libraries, coffeehouses and alehouses was deeply threatening to them, because they felt it was prompting more and more of the lower sort of people to question the divinely ordained order of things. The conservatives' rhetorical adversaries, on the other hand, were proponents of what Herzog calls the 'irreversibility thesis.' They insisted that there was such a thing as rational debate and a level playing field on which the best argument could win, and that the March of Intellect was turning more and more Britons into discerning critics of an impossibly narrow political system.

Herzog persuasively argues that both the conservative and the progressive attitude toward the growth of public opinion were shot through with contradictions. Conservatives found themselves in a rhetorical bind, because while they felt it was beneath their dignity to respond to radical critics of the social and political hierarchy, they risked leaving the field to their contemptible opponents if they refused to stoop down to refute them. For their part, the more 'enlightened' advocates of democratic debate were anything but universalist in their democratic assumptions, because they were almost as likely as their conservative opponents to express contempt for subaltern groups.

Indeed, according to Herzog it is "contempt for pariah groupings" that was "the ground of unholy community between conservatives and democrats" (p. xii) in this era. Hence he devotes the second half of the book to "the Byzantine dilemmas created by the drive to transform lowly subjects into dignified citizens when all too many of those subjects were objects of contempt" (p. 405). Those most frequently singled out for contempt were the very poor, women, manual laborers, blacks, Jews, and homosexuals. Herzog presents the reader with an exhaustive chronicle of abuse that strings together what most of us would now consider repellent quotations from Byron, Cobbett, Coleridge, Wilberforce, and many other famous personages as well as from popular theatricals and the more scurrilous Tory newspapers. In doing so, he amply demonstrates his point that conservatives and democrats alike trafficked deeply in contempt, and that the debate over citizenship was (both consciously and otherwise) structured by categories of dif ference. This will not be a surprising conclusion to anyone who is familiar with the historiography on perceptions of citizenship in this era, but Herzog states it with admirable panache.

There is much else to recommend in Herzog's sprawling volume. Few scholars, if any, can have read as widely through the primary sources as he has done, and he brings together a vast number of juicy anecdotes and quotations. In the process, he makes fascinating observations on a number of cultural tropes, such as the Jewish boxer, the uppity hairdresser, and the Burkean 'swinish multitude.' Still, this is a much easier book to look through than it is to read. Herzog's offhanded cheekiness quickly gets irritating, and his refusal to structure his insights in a readily intelligible way is downright maddening, at least to an historian who stubbornly adheres to the old-fashioned belief that argumentative clarity is a virtue. In short, Herzog has a lot to say, but he too often says it in an annoyingly mannered and elliptical way.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Harling, Philip
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Words:671
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