Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses

CareyI worked for my PhD in the later 1980s in an intellectual environment in which New Historicism was only just becoming a thing. Fifteen years later, when I moved back to academia after a publishing career, ‘theory’ was well entrenched in the study of English literature. I entered a department where PhD students were guided to choose their theoretical approach first and then choose the text they might apply this to. I did not fit in. My background was historical, and I worked from the text (the novel, the story, the poem, the play, the essay, the words, dammit) upwards, not looking down from the writings of, say, Foucault or Deleuze. So I wandered lonely as a misunderstood literary historian among the library stacks, and fell with relief into the open pages of The Intellectuals and the Masses. Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939.

This book came out in 1992, just after I left academia in despair, and I so wish that I had read it on its first appearance. I might have gone back earlier. It’s a trumpet-blast of defiance by John Carey to the Leavisite strictures of conscious obscurantism and a snooty rejection of mass culture that was the mode in my PhD days. Working on a seriously unfashionable, non-modernist, mass culture subject, I needed any support I could get. I would have got it from Professor Carey, had I but known.

Carey begins The Intellectuals and the Masses by asserting that ‘mass culture’ doesn’t exist, because the term was invented to ‘exclude these newly-educated (or “semi-educated”) readers, and to preserve the intellectual’s seclusion from the “mass”’. Reader, I breathed a sigh of relief. These were my people. I had long been bothered by the underlying assumption of Them and Us in the teaching of English literature. Even before my fifteen-year hiatus, some authors and texts were clearly more equal than others, and now that I was back, I could see the division between the Worthy and the Risible widening every year. I could not understand why reading pleasure was inadmissible as a reason to study a writer, and why some people’s tastes were accepted as being better than others. Where was the egalitarianism and social democratisation in that?

John Carey’s book is a spine-stiffening dose of common sense, because he applies human history to the intellectualisation of reading. When the British people were allowed to stay in school long enough to learn to read adequately, they learned to read for pleasure, and so a vast new market of readers was born in the late 19th century, growing as successive generations discovered reading for pleasure, and self-improvement, as their natural right. But this was a problem, because the newly literate British population (the same happened with other cultures but at different times and under different political and social circumstances) was beginning to bump elbows with the privileged and the rich, in the bookshops, at public lectures, at their own publishers, and in the pages of prestigious reviews and newspapers. The intellectuals did not care for this, and withdrew the treasured status of being intellectual by restricting it to a self-selected inner circle of practitioners (authors, artists, critics, reviewers; mostly white, male and middle-class), excluding the rest of us as the ‘mass’ market. Thus readers of the early twentieth century had their noses rubbed in it if they had not read and admired Ulysses or The Waste Land or Gertrude Stein, and (far worse) if they had read and admired Conan Doyle, Marie Corelli or John Buchan.

Much worse, the reading taste of the ‘mass’ was stamped on, and we were made to feel stupid, lazy, gross, vulgar, female, commonplace, ignorant, and simply unacceptable if we enjoyed Edgar Wallace, fiction published in magazines, Westerns, detective stories set in country houses, or historical novels. So there was a two-way process, of the elite withholding the hems of their garments, and a simultaneously pushing-away of the grubbiness of the masses. It happened in every sphere where culture was related to income (cheap editions were for cheap people) and to education (essays that required prior knowledge of Greek and Latin naturally had a restricted readership). The (male) intellectuals also despised women, and illustrations, so cheap illustrated newspapers aimed at women were simply unspeakable, as were the authors who sold their work to those papers.

This is, of course, a very black and white summary, and lots of excellent work has been done since Carey’s provocative book to say ‘but this is an exception’, and ‘what about …?’. David M Earle’s Re-Covering Modernism, for example, shows how James Joyce sold his work to the cheap and trashy end of the periodicals market to make money, since the intellectual market had none. But The Intellectuals and the Masses was the first book to blow their cover, and gave me confidence in my own opinions. Truly a remarkable and game-changing academic book.

John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (1992, Faber & Faber), 0-571-16926-0

About Kate

Writer, reviewer, literary historian and publisher at Also a Bath Quaker.

9 comments on “John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses

  1. Penny A
    November 9, 2015

    Interesting post. Many thanks!

  2. George Simmers
    November 9, 2015

    I totally agree. And what I like best about the book is Carey’s celebration of Arnold Bennett, whose warmth, democratic principles and readability made him shunned by academics forming an exclusive canon, based on difficulty and elitism.

  3. Mark Wallace
    November 9, 2015

    I really like some aspects of Carey’s book, but the half-baked Hitler parallel annoyed me. It was odd to find him writing of H.G. Wells with such appreciation and then later on find him comparing him to Hitler. For me, it’s a good book slightly ruined by excessive polemicism.

  4. Kate
    November 9, 2015

    I found the Hitler bits rather far-fetched, I agree. But they didn’t detract from his main point, which was the one I responded to so strongly.

  5. Sharon Robinson
    November 9, 2015

    It’s a long time since I read this book, but I remember finding it both riveting and depressing. The Hitler parallel is overdone, but there’s little doubt that certain people who regarded themselves as progressive and civilised, had some deeply unpleasant attitudes.

  6. Conor M
    November 13, 2015

    I disagree. Carey’s book is an appalling betrayal of his subject. I disliked him for his wilful misrepresentation of D H Lawrence in an essay collection, until he recently admitted his lack of knowledge about Lawrence at the time; but this book’s grotesque travesty of scholarship had something disturbed about it.

    Roger Kimball unpicked his distortions in a review which ended:

    Auden understood that the prospect of a “consumer culture” in which the highest products of civilization become transient fodder for entertainment is really an anticulture. Note well that Auden is not “antidemocratic.” Like Matthew Arnold before him, he believed that the work of culture will not be finished until “the raw and unkindled masses of humanity” know the benefits of culture, “until the best that has been thought and known in the world [is] current everywhere.” But Auden also knew that pretending that the masses were not “raw and unkindled” or that there is no such thing as “the best” served only to deceive, not to enlighten, his fellow man. Professor Carey prefers pretence to the unpleasant truth. And that is one reason he has written such an execrable book.

    Stefan Collini wrote: But structuring everything around a binary contrast in which “academic” equals pretentious and (deliberately?) unreadable while “ordinary” equals authentic and down-to-earth is silly and reductive, obstructing any deeper thinking about these issues. It also panders to a familiar anti-intellectualism that sneers at that very life of the mind of which Carey is, in other modes, such a fine exemplar. Similarly, he insists that it’s “blindingly obvious” that “judgments of art and literature” are “matters of personal taste – what else could they be?” Well, quite a few things, actually, as writers on aesthetics have explored down the centuries.

    English Studies were almost in meltdown when you wanted to do a Ph D on some writers you read for pleasure, Kate, so you seem to have been looking for trouble, a bit like Carey.

    By the way a lot of high-minded critics admired Arnold Bennett, such as Martin Seymour-Smith, Walter Allen and Q D Leavis, and Harold Bloom has him in ‘The Western Canon’.

  7. Kate
    November 13, 2015

    I wasn’t looking for trouble, I was looking for ways to explore the writers that interested me.

  8. Wicked One
    March 17, 2019

    Conor, you reveal your intellectual snobbery when you deem ‘consumer culture’ (itself a meaningless phrase and hopelessly ill-defined concept) as worthless fodder. Auden may not have been anti-democratic politically, but his artistic opinions (if you have represented them accurately) certainly are.

    The ‘best’ is not a matter of objective scientific fact but mere subjective opinion. The so-called cannon is simply the choice of a particular class of people whose opinions are, in reality, of no more value when determining literary merit than a dustman’s or a cleaner’s who prefers reading John Grisham or E. L. James to Shakespeare or D. H. Lawrence.

    No writer on aesthetics has never established a universally accepted measure of artistic value for any particular work or artist and such writers rarely agree with one another about anything. In world which has experienced modernism and post-modernism it is frankly comical to pretend that there could ever be anything approaching consensus, even among the narrow scope of the chattering classes who make up the world of critics and dons.

    It isn’t anti-intellectualism to point this out, simply an inescapable fact. Your taste is just that, taste, not a sign moral virtue or a measure of your intellectual superiority.

  9. Pingback: Books That Made Me – Kate Macdonald

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