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  • Pope in the Coal Mines

    Posted by Ginny on January 12th, 2005 (All posts by )

    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.)

     

    3 Responses to “Pope in the Coal Mines”

    1. Jonathan Says:

      I read only a little Forster, and long ago, but I think he had an irrationally fearful attitude about some things. For example, IIRC, the theme of his story The Machine Stops is straightforward paranoia about technology. He just didn’t get it. I think he was the type of person who might have looked at the first jet airliner and fretted about accidents or “dependence on technology” rather than fantasized about the places he could now easily visit.

      Frederick Douglass may actually be a good antidote to Forester. Contrast Forester’s fearful prissiness with Douglass’s refusal to be limited and desire to exploit opportunity. Douglass, despite the harshness of his early life, had a great attitude without which he probably wouldn’t have amounted to much. He must have appreciated the value of education as a way to help the poor and downtrodden to see possibilities in life that their “station” denied them.

    2. Lex Says:

      I saw this book, the Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes favorably reviewed some time ago. I have wanted to read it since I saw it reviewed in the Economist:

      By reading through thousands of diaries and autobiographies, the kind of archival foot-slogging which some cultural theorists are apt to avoid, Mr Rose has found persuasive evidence that, far from being passive consumers of material handed down by their masters, working-class audiences were sharp and active critics. Time and again he shows us laundresses, miners and farmhands filtering, challenging and reworking any readings of artworks which did not strike them as entirely apt.

      The proof of the pudding came with Marxism, which signally failed to take off amongst the British working classes of the late 19th century. The leaders of the growing labour movement were exactly the kind of self-educated men who prided themselves on a fierce intellectual independence from ready-made doctrine. Marxism, with its emphasis on the mass, indifference to the individual, and its alienating conceptual apparatus, ran counter to everything the self-educated British people had worked for—namely, a mind of their own. When the first large batch of Labour MPs to enter parliament in 1906 were questioned as to their favourite reading, only two mentioned Marx.

      It is hard to stress how important this book is. Mr Rose has swept away any lingering guesswork and approximation about the intellectual life of the British working classes in the industrial age. Instead of vague hypotheses about the transmission of culture to those who were not supposed to have it, Mr Rose returns us to the actual thoughts and feelings of the countless working men and women who insisted, often against the odds, on finding things out for themselves.

      The supposedly sophisticated artistes of the Bloomsbury set were bigoted against their own countrymen. I recall Professor Max Hartwell lecturing us on the vibrant social life of the British workers (he would have balked at the collective noun “class” or “classes”). They were poor, but they were not stupid, and they read good books when they could get them because they liked them.

      My grandfather never finished high school. He was very well read. He could quote yards of Shakespeare. He had a complete shakespeare and a dictionary on the table next to his chair in the living room. My mother has it now. It is not a museum piece. It was obviously well-used.

    3. Jim Bennett Says:

      Ginny asks: “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.)”

      Great qustion. I wonder how Don Quixote fits into this? We was a poor country bumpkin who has his head filled full of illusions by reading fantasies like “Amadis de Gaul”, and got into a lot of trouble for his pretensions. Everything he did was a parody of the world of his “betters”.

      Yet Cervantes makes him admirable, in the end, by his wonderful portrayal.