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THE BOURGEOIS EXPERIENCE by Peter Gay

THE BOURGEOIS EXPERIENCE

Victoria to Freud, Vol IV: The Naked Heart

By Peter Gay

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-393-03813-0
Publisher: Norton

 The fourth volume in Gay's series on 19th-century bourgeois culture (The Tender Passion, 1986, etc.): readable and intelligent, though debatable in its methodology. Seeking to prove that ``the nineteenth century was intensely preoccupied with the self,'' the author looks at familiar material in provocative new ways without ever providing the earth-shaking insights he seems to think he's garnered. Although he claims to deal ``mainly with ordinary bourgeois,'' Gay (History/Yale) devotes only a single chapter to the writings of nonfamous Victorians. Otherwise, his sections on music, Romanticism, autobiography, biography and history, fiction, and painting all draw on such well- known figures as Shelley, Coleridge, Goethe, Michelet, and Victor Hugo. Gay makes a good case for his argument that the Victorians, though they did not invent the art of introspection, democratized it by making literary examples available on a wide basis (thanks to the spread of literacy and cheaper access to books). He makes a slightly less compelling case that the elite's view of the arts as means of self-expression spread to the middle class during this period. Moment to moment, his analysis is unfailingly intriguing, as he dissects the Romantics' political narcissism, discusses how much truth autobiographies contain, and examines 19th-century historians' search for a usable past. But his oft-repeated central point, that ``at the heart of Victorian bourgeois culture . . . self-concealment and self-revelation struggled for supremacy,'' seems so evident as to hardly require the amount of explication he gives it; the disappointingly shallow section on novels similarly reiterates the obvious. A lot of serious thought doesn't quite hang together here, a problem highlighted by the fact that the book's only summing-up occurs in four paragraphs tacked onto the end of the chapter on diaries and letters. Stimulating, but not nearly as good as it should be. (photos, not seen)