My father, who was a rural mail man, and the local Missouri Synod minister organized a Great Books club in our village in my youth. They and their friends thoroughly enjoyed it. We are talking about a farming community of 500 – over a hundred miles from a city of even 50,000. (Nebraska a few years ago – perhaps still – had more school districts than all but one other state, even though its population is a million and a half. Towns & school districts are small.) The contempt some modern scholars have for such ambitions, delights, and approaches has often bothered me. Some draw back with horror from the Arnoldian vision, but its tough respect for all of us is one of our richest heritages.
Jay Manifold quotes a Monty Python dialogue but notes that Jonathan Rose’s “The Classics in the Slums” shows it is not all that unrealistic.
Rose’s essay discusses the coal miner’s libraries and contrasts Forester’s fiction with realiity:
For all his gentle liberalism, even E. M. Forster shared that class prejudice. In his 1910 novel Howards End, the pathetic clerk Leonard Bast tries to acquire a veneer of culture, but his efforts are hopeless. He plays the piano “badly and vulgarly,” and what is worse, he plays Grieg. In literary conversations, he is only capable of repeating cant phrases and dropping names. Aping his betters, he struggles to understand John Ruskin, simply because he has been told that Ruskin is “the greatest master of English prose.” In the end, Bast is literally crushed and killed by books. He would have been better off as a mindless peasant: that is Forster’s unmistakable message, a kind of gentle elitism that clearly Rose sees echoed today.
The reality was profoundly different. The founders of Britain’s Labour Party identified Ruskin, more than anyone else, as the author who had electrified their minds and inspired a vision of social justice. At the time, the brightest working-class boys often entered clerkdom, one of the few professions then open to them, and they often brought to their office an incandescent intellectual passion.
Rose discusses both contemporary literary critics and American responses to such choices as those of the Great Books tradition. While my experience is quite limited, I can say the prisoners that I taught found art quite satisfying, interesting, and, yes, applicable. As Rose obseres:
And yes, Plato is intensely relevant to former drug addicts. ‘Those of us in the grip of addiction use this process to rethink our lives,’ one student explains. ‘Socrates makes clear that you have to have the courage to examine yourself and to stand up for something. A lot of us have justified our weaknesses for too long a time.’
Rose concludes coming back to the critic Greenblatt: “So don’t despair, Professor Greenblatt. There is a way to make literature once again exciting and life-transforming for “common” readers—if only you would grasp it.
Rose’s article is in the fall 2004 City Journal – a publication that entertains often. From my limited experience in other cultures, this is not solely an Anglosphere characteristic. Unfortunately, I suspect attitudes like Forester’s are also not confined to the Anglosphere. (An interesting exercise might be to compare the “coming to consciousness” of Frederick Douglass, whose series of owners denied him knowledge of his birthdate, of reading, of the outside world because they would make him “restless” with the attitudes of, say, Forester.)