Classics for the masses

The masses read the classics in 19th and early 20th century Britain, writes Jonathan Rose in City Journal.

Until fairly recently, Britain had an amazingly vital autodidact culture, where a large minority of the working classes passionately pursued classic literature, philosophy, and music.

. . . Will Crooks (b. 1852), a cooper living in extreme poverty in East London, once spent tuppence on a secondhand Iliad, and was dazzled: “What a revelation it was to me! Pictures of romance and beauty I had never dreamed of suddenly opened up before my eyes. I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land. It was a rare luxury for a working lad like me just home from work to find myself suddenly among the heroes and nymphs of ancient Greece.”

. . . In the nineteenth century, Shakespeare could still attract enthusiastic, rowdy working-class audiences, who commented loudly about the quality of the performances. Caravans of barnstorming actors brought the plays to isolated mining villages. In response to popular demand, Birmingham’s Theatre Royal devoted 30 percent of its repertoire to the Bard and other classic dramatists. In 1862, a theater manager provoked a near-riot when he attempted to substitute a modern comedy for an announced production of Othello.

Via Erin O’Connor’s Critical Mass.

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  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Look at the names the ’49ers gave their towns and mines.

  2. The masses also loved extremely low entertainment – Punch and Judy puppet shows, bearbaiting, public hangings, etc. Before movies, radio, and TV, most people were bored silly and desperately hungry for any form of entertainment. This was particularly true in rural areas, but even in a city with many live theaters to choose from, the tickets are necessarily rather high-priced compared to the average wage so the working class could only afford to see a few performances a year. Serious literature took more effort to read, but it lasted a long time for the price, and was also better quality.

    The problem now is that literature has to compete with low-quality mass entertainment that is cheap (DVD’s) or “free” (TV) and accessible without any effort whatsoever. And kids that grow up with TV’s often have no tolerance for the kind of effort that reading requires.

  3. Too bad they didn’t have TV back then so the masses didn’t have to waste their time reading stuff by a bunch of dead white guys.

  4. A similar phenomenon occurred in America during the Depression and the post-wwII eras. My grandfather was one of many immigrants who was forced by the Depression and/or the war to curtail his eduction – in contrast, his brother (younger by some 8 years) got educated first by the army, then by the GI bill. By then my grandfather was a family man, and had spent the war in the Brooklyn shipyards. He worked his way up through the builders union.

    People like my grandfather pursued their own education informally. That generation was extremely well read, and in the 50s there were many autodidact taxi drivers in New York.

    Also, my mother remembers that many of her teachers were highly educated people who, because of the Depression, went into education as their advanced degrees were of little use in the job market. So that also raised the level of intellectual involvement for an entire generation.


  1. BUFFALOg says:

    On Reading The Classics

    We can only hope that, just as they sneaked in some phonics when their kids were taught whole-language reading, some parents will put a few of the good old books on the nightstand.