If this kind of thinking causes you some unease, as it does me, you probably like to have your beliefs in the importance of Great Books reinforced every now and then. Certainly you could do a lot worse than Jonathan Rose’s expansive, door-stopper of a study, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Over 500+ pages, Rose explores and dissects the reading habits of miners, millgirls, clerks, factory workers and others to reveal what role literature played in the development of their minds. The result is less a sociological opus and more a cri de coeur for classic literature itself. Rose, an unapologetic conservative, pulls no punches when attacking the claims against Great Books often levied by today’s cadre of academics who wield their theories like hatchets designed to mow down tall poppies.
Indeed, Intellectual Life grounds itself in two unique but interconnected thesis statements, aimed to discredit much of the thinking behind these theories. The first is that today’s literary criticism often treats readers as empty vessels waiting to be filled with whatever biases or prejudices the Great Books preach, failing to take into account how real readers responded to the books they read. Rose, through painstaking historical and sociological research, reveals that, far from being lemmings willing to buy whatever racist, sexist, imperialist views the Great Books conveyed, the working class read these tomes with far more nuance. Second, the erroneous notion that Great Books are the domain of only the most elitist class of society. This has never been the case. And Rose puts it:
The question of whether Dickens, Conrad, or penny dreadfuls reinforced or subverted patriarchy, imperialism, or class hierarchies has become an obsession in academics, literature departments and cultural studies programs. Although literary criticism has been narrowed and impoverished by this fixation, the question is a legitimate one, and it is addressed (alongside other issues) in this book. The failure of political criticism, as it is actually practiced, is methodological: with some exceptions, it ignores actual readers … If the dominant class defines high culture, then how do we explain the passionate pursuit of knowledge by proletarian autodidacts, not to mention the pervasive philistinism of the British aristocracy?
While Rose’s focus is on the British working classes of the 18th, 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, there is much truth in this passage for a reader in 2015. By ignoring the impact of literature on actual readers, academics are given a pass of convenience to impose whatever political discourse on a work of high or low literature they wish. Furthermore, to say that Great Books are only read by the elite is absurd. No matter the mix of people at a cocktail party, it’s usually the one-percenter CEO who is the poorest-read person in the room.
Which itself is an awkward term. Rose acknowledges that “[t]hough canons can be changed, canonization is inevitable,” and later points out that what gets counted as part of a traditional canon is less a matter of politics and more a matter of time and inclination, which had less impact on a general readership. As he puts it:
A generation of literary theorists might argue that there is an irrepressible conflict between “canonical” and “nontraditional” literature, that the great books somehow “marginalize” or “silence” oppressed peoples; but to Dent and Rhys that would have been absurd, contrary to everything they knew about working-class readers. “Canon wars” are purely a campus phenomenon, the result of an academic economy of scarcity. If an English faculty is allowed only one new hire, they may have to decide between a Miltonist and a Caribbeanist; and they can only add Zora Neale Hurston to a survey course by bumping someone else, in which case Dr. Johnson may seem a fitting target. But this is an internal professional controversy, irrelevant (if not slightly comic) to general readers, who have time for both Johnson and Hurston.
From looking at the lending records of miners’ libraries to examining the unpublished memoirs of working-class laborers from around Britain, Rose paints a gripping portrait of this exact kind of general readership. There is something invigorating in his descriptions of weavers setting up books to read on their looms, of shop-floor workers discussing Shakespeare and Immanuel Kant on their breaks, and the young, upwardly mobile office clerks sneaking out for a lunch-time classical music performance or a lazy afternoon at the library. Rose has a great deal of fun bashing the Bloomsbury group – especially E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, two unrepentant snobs who wore their classism on their sleeves – for failing to see and embrace the intellectual vitality of this class of people. “Forster could not believe,” he writes, “that a clerk might be genuinely thrilled by literature. (That prejudice is not dead among academics even today.)"
Of course, all of this heady autodidact reading prompted many in the working (and clerking) classes to begin producing their own literature, which they did in abundance. There was an explosion in literacy following Britain’s Education Act of 1870, resulting in a boom of print journalism, and many working-class people with a flare for words – with the help of evening classes and mutual improvement societies – found it relatively easy to make the transition to writing articles, opinion pieces and even whole novels. Their efforts have not really survived, thanks mostly, Rose points out, to the relentless classism of modernists and the political biases of today’s academics. “If the Great Proletarian Author was never found, it was not because there were no candidates for the role. The difficulty was that leftist intellectuals were looking for a modernist in overalls, and that combination was hard to find.”
While the working class finds a huge advocate in Rose, there are times when Intellectual Life slides a bit offside in its descriptions of or theories about these individuals. There is an entire chapter, for example, that details how many in the newly literate working classes had a difficult time telling the difference between fact and fiction. Rose tells a story of one worker who “[a]ttending a performance of The Merchant of Venice … was so gripped by Portia’s judgment that he leaped from the box and assaulted Shylock,” and another of a woman who read the entirety of Tom Jones and thought every word of it was true. While these tales are no doubt accurately rendered, I think there may be a missing component to their telling. Rather than merely casting some working-class readers as naïve rubes unable to tell the difference between a “true” story and one that is made up, Rose might have reminded his readers that fiction itself – especially early prototypes of the novel – often blurred these lines. Indeed, Moll Flanders, Tristram Shandy, Robinson Crusoe and other early entrants into the novel genre were originally presented to readers as “true” stories.
Also, there are times when Rose’s conservatism gets the better of him. While he does admit that there were ample quantities of literature, both high and low, that detailed and promoted British imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries, he dismisses the affects that reading these materials might have had on working-class consumers. “So housepainter’s son Harry Burton might sing patriotic songs on Empire Days, ‘but it did us no harm because it never went very far,’ and no one knew where the Empire was.” Of course, just because a housepainter was ignorant of the broader scope of British imperialism does not mean that he didn’t benefit directly and indirectly from it. Literature, art and patriotic songs can imbue a culture with subliminal as well as liminal biases. It would have been better for Rose to fall back on his earlier, sturdier argument: that working class people could, by and large, read imperialist stories without being brainwashed by them; they had the intellectual capacity to weigh evidence, form their own perceptions/opinions, and judge the merits and demerits of imperialism on their own terms.
[E]arly British Marxists dismissed as “bourgeois” the same canon of English classics that inspired generations of autodidacts, thus alienating the very proletarian intellectuals who might have been the driving force behind a more creative Marxism. Where Marxists defined exploitation in purely economic terms, Labour socialists, brandishing their Everyman’s Library volumes, promised beauty in life, joy in work, a moral vision for politics. Following a long line of radicals and mutual improvers, they proclaimed that knowledge (rather than ownership of the means of production) is power.
In other words, wide, promiscuous reading of the classics by the proletariat helped them to think for themselves, seize more control over and improve their situations, take moral accountability for their actions, and, most importantly, inculcate them in the need to question all ideologies – including the rigid, dehumanizing theories of Marxism. This is why those of the far, radicalized left despised classic literature, and continue to do so: because it can provide readers with a prismatic worldview that makes them less susceptible to easy, vacuum-sealed propaganda. Rose goes further. He says for all of Marxism’s bluster about the working class, few in the target audience actually found its writing compelling or even digestible:
In fact, most workers did have great difficulty reading Marx and Marxists … [T]he Marxists generally and glaringly failed to produce literature accessible to the working classes. If Ross McKibbin is right – that there was no British Marxism because Britain lacked an alienated intelligentsia, but developed a working-class party and trade union movement of the middle classes – that amounts to saying that Marxism is inherently a movement of the educated classes rather than the laboring classes. The latter were effectively and , one could argue, deliberately excluded by the difficulty of Marxist language. Any number of autodidacts registered that complaint.
It’s the “deliberately excluded” part of that quote that hits the nail on the head for me. This feeling of alienation from language might certainly resonate with anyone who has taken a graduate-level, Marxism-inspired critical theory course after having completed – and loved – a Great Books course as an undergrad, as I did. That sense of estrangement only gets compounded should you be a member of the working or clerking class.
Rose’s ultimate rejection of Marxism comes in the form of his ongoing love of autodidactic reading, which remains the backbone of and largest endorsement in this fabulous, spirited book. Of course I would say that, reviewing this tome on a blog called Free Range Reading. But this notion is where Intellectual Life finds its greatest strength: in the way it reminds us of the inherent value of solitary, individualized, unideological, intellectual pursuits. A person’s intellectual life is a garden within himself that he tends to, a place for quiet reflection, for sowing new seeds, and for weeding when necessary. Rose’s book is a much-needed palliative against arguments that say otherwise, a reminder about how Great Books can both disrupt and connect us to our sense of self, and this ultimately makes that garden within us a more enriching place.