January 12, 2019

IT WORKED, NO ONE READS THEM:

Was Modernism Meant to Keep the Working Classes Out? : In the 19th century, more working class readers started partaking in contemporary fiction. Modernist literature, however, was specifically not for them. (Matthew Wills, January 9, 2019, J Stor Daily)

The first working-class libraries, which originated in Scotland, concentrated on religious books. Some banned fiction outright; into the early nineteenth century, fiction was considered too avant-garde for the general reader. The popularity of Walter Scott's Waverley novels started to change that. But, as scholar Jonathan Rose details, "a kind of cultural conservatism" lingered for nearly two centuries among working-class readers in the British Isles.

The "cultural lag" was partly economic: new books and periodicals were expensive. Rose, who has made an extensive study of the intellectual life of the British working class, quotes a Welsh collier born in 1871:

Volumes by living authors were too high-priced for me...Our school-books never mentioned living writers, and the impression in my mind was that an author... must be dead; and that his work was all the better if he had died of neglect and starvation.

This helps explain the nineteenth-century mania for Shakespeare; Victorian "Bardolatry" was driven by working class audiences. As Rose writes, however, the "long-term trend in the West [was] away from a common public culture and toward increasingly differentiated and fragmented audiences."

Meanwhile, by the late nineteenth century, inexpensive reprints of classics by authors such as Swift, Pope, Fielding, Byron, and the Greek philosophers were becoming popular. Many of these were cheap because they were out of copyright. This occurrence, combined with the growth of public education, soon had ordinary folks reading more and more books, including seeking out more contemporary writers. Rose has an interesting theory about how this trend helped to create the literary movement of modernism:

The intelligentsia was driven to create literary modernism by a profound loathing of ordinary common readers. The intellectuals feared the masses not because they were illiterate but because, by the early twentieth century, they were becoming more literate, thanks to public education, adult education, scholarships, and cheap editions of the great books.

Posted by at January 12, 2019 6:40 PM

  

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