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«The mind washes its hands in a basin»

Walter Bagehot’s Literary Essays and Impure Criticism

Silvana Colella    Università degli Studi di Macerata, Italia    



Bagehot’s literary essays provide fertile ground for the exploration of mid-Victorian negotiations with notions of aesthetic impurity. Bagehot looked at the increasing democratization of culture and the changing habits of readers with more excitement than apprehension. His critical perspective was predicated not on an elitist form of detachment from the unrefined philosophies of the commercial classes, but on a kind of respectful proximity to the practicalities affecting the life of what he called the «transacting and trading multitude». In order to bring literature to business, Bagehot brought business into literature. His stance lacks purity and solemnity: standards of value imported from the business sphere co-habit with more traditional notions of aesthetic excellence; a mixture of high-brow and middle-brow concerns inspires his assessments of literary works. As this article demonstrates, Bagehot’s criticism thrives on an impure and sometimes awkward combination of aesthetic and business values.