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Ethnicity and Cultural Authority

From Arnold to Du Bois

Daniel G. Williams

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Longlisted for the Wales Book of the Year 2007

Writing in 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois suggested that the goal for the African-American was 'to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture'.

He was evoking 'culture' as a solution to the divisions within society, thereby adopting, in a very different context, an idea that had been influentially expressed by Matthew Arnold in the 1860s. Du Bois questioned the assumed universality of this concept by asking who, ultimately, is allowed into the 'kingdom of culture'? How does one come to speak from a position of cultural authority?

This book adopts a transatlantic approach to explore these questions. It centres on four Victorian 'men of letters' - Matthew Arnold, William Dean Howells, W. B. Yeats and W. E. B. Du Bois - who drew on notions of ethnicity as a basis from which to assert their cultural authority. In comparative close readings of these figures Daniel Williams addresses several key areas of contemporary literary and cultural debate. The book questions the notion of 'the West' as it appears and re-appears in the formulations of postcolonial theory, challenges the widespread tendency to divide nationalism into 'civic' and 'ethnic' forms, and forces its readers to reconsider what they mean when they talk about 'culture', 'identity' and 'national literature'.

Key Features

  • Offers a substantial, innovative intervention in transatlantic debates over race and ethnicity
  • Uses 4 intriguing authors to explore issues of national identity, racial purity and the use of literature as a marker of 'cultural capital'
  • A unique focus on Celtic identity in a transatlantic context
  • Sets up a dialogue between writers who believe in national identity and those who believe in cultural distinctiveness


1. Matthew Arnold: Culture and Ethnicity
2. William Dean Howells: Realism, Ethnicity and the Nation
3. W. B. Yeats: Celticism, Aestheticism and Nationalism
4. W. E. B. Du Bois: Black Folk in the 'Kingdom of Culture'

About the Author

Daniel Williams is Lecturer in English and Assistant Director of CREW (Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales) at the University of Wales, Swansea. He is the editor of a collection of Raymond Williams's writings, Who Speaks for Wales?: Nation, Culture and Identity (2003) and Beyond the Difference: Welsh Literature in Comparative Contexts (2004).


In this imaginatively conceived book, Daniel Williams manages to address several of the most central and most contentious areas of contemporary literary and cultural study.
- Professor Stefan Collini, Cambridge
Williams has produced a well-written and useful book that brings the analysis of Victorian culture into productive dialog with Irish and American studies.
- Victorian Studies
The possibilities of extension offered by this vital book are a key indication of its importance.
- Neil evans, Translation and Literature
Ranging across English, Irish, and American writing, Ethnicity and Cultural Authority is not only a deft analysis of his chosen authors, but also an admirably independent-minded charting of some of the tensions between culture as the sphere in which univeral human values are expressed, and culture as the vehicle for the expression and development of particular ethnic identities.

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