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A Year of Dickens: Literature for the Masses  


21 January 2019, 15:53

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.

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.

Dickens helped change that with serial publication.

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.”

Except Dickens was for a hyuuuuge audience… just like Harry Potter is.

I think part of the difference is that Dickens really needed to make money.

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.”

So yes, a lot of this was snobbery, but it was a snobbery that people who don’t have to make a living can afford.

It is interesting to me, considering which authors really have lasted and will likely continue to last: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens… and they are all quite accessible in that, at their heart, the work is about how human beings actually behave. There’s nothing much obscure about that. To be sure, Chaucer had some obscure pieces, intended for a royal audience, but what most people read now – the Canterbury Tales – is obviously accessible beyond court.

Anyway, the “working classes” being excluded from modernism is just fine. Maybe James Joyce will hobble along for a while, but the movement may end up being forgotten except among scholars. That’s what you get when you try to exclude so many.

Also, such people may preen themselves for knowing so many obscure authors, but they’re going to impress only other people (and young, naive students who are budding snobs) like that.

Look, there’s nothing wrong in enjoying obscure or niche authors.

But it does not necessarily make one better than other people.


So I said I’d be getting to the villains, but first a fakeout:

Alfred Jingle is one of the few notable characters in Pickwick, and the most distinguishing aspect of him is how he talks.

I didn’t give an example in my video, because I’m not a strolling actor (yet), but here’s a direct quote from the text:

“Heads, heads – take care of your heads”, cried the loquacious stranger as they came out under the low archway which in those days formed the entrance to the coachyard. “Terrible place – dangerous work – other day – five children – mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash – knock – children look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in – head of family off – shocking, shocking. Looking at Whitehall Sir, – fine place – little window – somebody else’s head off there, eh, Sir? – he didn’t keep a sharp look-out either – eh, sir, eh?” (Pickwick Papers Chapter 2)

That’s from when Jingle appears, and his way of speaking is really a glorious creation.

But he seems not to have been as popular as Dickens had hoped, which is why he disappeared fairly rapidly.

This is one of the aspect of serial publication people don’t think about, because the modern version of serial production doesn’t work in the same way re: timing. But Dickens really didn’t submit his manuscripts all that long before publication, and he (and the publishers) were receiving fan mail while the pieces were coming out.

The only relatively similar experience I’ve seen is with MST3K and viewer letters, but that only worked in the early years, because of production and release schedules. The problem with modern serialization is that many episodes are produced ahead of time, and it doesn’t matter if people binge or not, but the point is it doesn’t matter if you send an email or handwritten letter in response, because the entire season is done at once.

That’s not how it worked with Dickens, definitely with the early novels. There’s one character who was a throwaway, that Dickens made a central character because he got such great response to that character. And he was even funnier than Jingle.

But that’s for next week.

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