The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes – 50 Years in 50 Books

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes draws on workers’ memoirs, social surveys, library registers, and more, to create an intellectual history of Britain’s working classes. First published in 2001, Jonathan Rose’s landmark work uncovers which books people read, how they educated themselves, and what they knew; from the preindustrial era to the twentieth century.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Jonathan Rose recalls the origins of the book, and reflects on the resonance of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes to the world today.

Article by Jonathan Rose

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes began as a badly constructed student paper, one of the first pieces of research I wrote in graduate school. The question I addressed was simple: were working people in Victorian Britain reading what we would now define as classics? My professor (quite rightly) sent it back drenched in red ink, but I resolved to someday return to the subject and do it right. That only took another 25 years.

My life plan was to become a conventional intellectual historian, focusing on Great Books and Great Ideas and Great Thinkers. But it was the mid-1970s, and all those assumptions were being challenged. Who defined the Great Books anyway? Wasn’t it a club of elite white guys who were only talking to each other? And wasn’t that discourse all irrelevant to the “inarticulate masses”? That never sounded right to me, and frankly, I set out to prove the skeptics wrong, but I realized I couldn’t do that by sticking to traditional ways of writing history. This was the high noon of the “New Social History”, which explored the everyday lives of ordinary people, and focused on such concrete matters as housing, diet, workplaces, and family structure. But why couldn’t the same methods be used to study something less tangible – the reading experiences of a cook or a millworker or an agricultural laborer? One didn’t have to be a deconstructionist (and I wasn’t) to realize that the same text can be read very differently by different readers: that much is self-evident to anyone who has belonged to a book group. So I would necessarily have to ask not only what the working classes were reading, but how they were reading it, to somehow recapture the inner lives of obscure (but often voracious) readers. And that compelled me to study sources that historians weren’t used to studying – mainly the memoirs of working people (there were literally thousands of them), but also diaries, social surveys, letters to editors, and library records.

The result was The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Most publishers were not eager to take a chance on it, but Robert Baldock (former YUPL Managing Director) immediately appreciated what I was trying to do and backed me to the hilt. As an editor he understood the possibilities of academic history better than most academics.

And yet Intellectual Life also proved to be a crossover book that appealed to many lay readers, as I hoped it would be. (I’m less interested in writing for other professors.) I still received appreciative letters from folks (not just in Britain) who recall that they had an autodidact parent or grandparent much like those whose stories I recovered. The greatest reward any writer of history can receive is to be told, by those who lived that history, that he got it right.

One drawback to social history is that it can often reduce individuals to “the masses”, statistics rather than unique human beings. I certainly made some use of quantification, but my methodology was essentially pointillist, assembling a mosaic of personal reading experiences until a picture emerged. And that picture turned out to be a vast group portrait not of a “crowd”, but of hundreds of independent thinkers.

That methodology radically shifted the very direction of literary studies, panning away from authors and works and refocusing on what Richard Altick (a pioneering historian of reading) called the “common reader”. Other scholars at the same time were working along similar lines, for instance Elizabeth McHenry in her book Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (2002). I confess I am more interested in a chambermaid reading Middlemarch than I am in the novel itself, largely because common readers often read surprising books in surprising ways. When I later investigated a black public housing project in Louisville in 1943, I was stunned to discover that the most popular novel was Gone with the Wind. Likewise my latest research project leads to a raft of strikingly counterintuitive conclusions. I’m investigating Playboy magazine’s female readers, of which there were millions, outnumbering the readers of Ms. magazine. These women surprisingly read Playboy as a liberating feminist exponent – and though they were mostly heterosexual, they also admired the centerfolds.

In 2001 many historians still doubted that we could recover the responses of ordinary readers. Since then we have produced a vast body of scholarly literature that does precisely that, including H. J. Jackson’s Romantic Readers, Elizabeth Long’s Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life, Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II, Katherine West Scheil’s She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America, and What Middletown Read: Print Culture in an American Small City by Frank Felsenstein and James J. Connolly. Today, non-Western historians still doubt that the experiences of non-Western common readers are recoverable, but note (for instance) Arun Kumar’s work on self-improving textile workers in Bombay.

If I today had a chance to rewrite The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, would I revise anything? I have changed my mind about one important issue. In 2001 I assumed that the autodidact tradition died out after 1945, but it is today very much alive and kicking. Twenty-first century book clubs – untold thousands of them in the UK and US – are the successors to the nineteenth-century “mutual improvement societies”. These are seminars without professors, where students democratically select their readings and educate each other.

The Internet is, for all its flaws, the greatest machine for self-education ever invented, and it does far more good than harm. The fact that the powerful and wealthy want to control and censor it is a testimonial to its immeasurable social value. When economic inequality is breaking all records, when the media is concentrated in ever fewer hands and deeply complicit with corporations and governments, when universities create vast bureaucracies devoted to shutting down debate, when Western liberals have abandoned liberalism, online discussion groups and websites must be preserved as islands of free thought and individual self-direction. To take just one illustrative example, autism parents (I am one) soon discover that doctors and public officials tell them little about the autism epidemic (they won’t even admit that it is an epidemic). So these parents have bypassed official channels and educated each other through an enormous grassroots network of social media platforms. (See my article “The Autism Literary Underground,” Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History [2017]). These parents are the natural successors to the Victorian working people who, relying on their own mental resources, struggled to make sense of a grossly unjust social order. Much to the consternation of “experts”, the drive for self-directed education continues.

Read an extract from The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes below:

About the Author:

Jonathan Rose was the founding president of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing and a founding coeditor of the journal Book History. He is professor of history at Drew University.

About the book:

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes
A landmark intellectual history of Britain’s working classes from the preindustrial era to the twentieth century. Drawing on workers’ memoirs, social surveys, library registers, and more, Jonathan Rose uncovers which books people read, how they educated themselves, and what they knew. A new preface addresses the continuing relevance of the book amidst the upheavals of the present day.

Find out more

Books by Jonathan Rose

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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