Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 June 2021
Nineteenth-century British and French intellectuals set the terms by which Europe evaluated Irish and American cultures before World War I. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America proposed that democratic literatures would be deformed by social levelling and market forces and unable to rival aristocratic literatures for distinction. Rare exceptions might occur at brief tipping points when democratic and aristocratic cultures mutually contested and energized each other, but the emergence of a new mass culture less sophisticated than classical or aristocratic literatures seemed inevitable. In Studies in Celtic Literature, Matthew Arnold proposed that though the Celtic peoples of the United Kingdom were too unruly to govern their own affairs, their literatures possessed qualities of lyrical imagination that might usefully correct the worst elements of a materialist modern English culture. Nineteenth-century literary renaissances in Ireland and the United States were founded upon and reacted against these discourses. William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound emerged as especially important figures, daringly reworking received literary discourses to set the terms for a brilliant new modernism that sometimes became stridently anti-democratic in its bid to challenge the degradation of taste that nineteenth-century liberal writers like Tocqueville and Arnold had forecast.