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.
I 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