Patrick James Buckridge
Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, Vol 13, No 1 (2008)
In a famous 1970s American television advertisement for Starkist canned tuna a nattily-tailored tuna fish named Charlie, complete with beret, black tie, and cane, presents himself for approval to his friend Joey as a walking epitome of “Good Taste”, and therefore a certainty to be selected for canning by the Starkist people. “But Charlie”, explains Joey, “Starkist don’t want toona with good taste. Starkist want toona that taste good!” “Sorry, Charlie!”, says a sympathetic but patronising voice-over.
The persistence of good taste as a synonym for social and cultural distinction some two hundred years after Wordsworth supposedly ‘skewered’ it in his Prefaces to the early editions of the Lyrical Ballads may be an illustration of the conservatism of popular culture. But Charlie’s embarrassing gaffe also indicates a persistent popular sense of the slipperiness of the term, and in particular of its shifting and uncertain relationship, as a cultural concept, to the physiological sense from which it derives.
The argument I advance in this article is that certain significant shifts occurred in the uses and meanings of two related concepts, “taste” and “appreciation”, in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and that these shifts both reflected, and also in a sense facilitated, the emergence of literary study as a formal academic discipline. The salient context for these shifts is the rise of popular literary education in Britain, but especially (I argue) of those extramural forms of education – most notably the University Extension movement – that came to fruition in the second half of the nineteenth century, bringing with them a distinctive rationale and a new pedagogy for the study of literature.