This essay collection is a welcome
addition to the growing sub-discipline of working-class studies. Krishnamurthy
has brought together a diverse range of scholars - some senior, some junior---
to examine a diverse body of work : poetry, autobiography, journalism, and
music hall lyrics. While the quality of the essays varies, reading them all is
both informative and enjoyable. The editor's introduction helps contextualize
the emergence of working-class intellectuals, provides via footnotes an
overview of criticism already available on the topic, and of course previews
what readers may expect from the twelve essays that follow. The introduction
seems somewhat discontinuous: after learning about the first three essays on
page 7, we must wait until the final paragraph (20-22) for advance word on the
remaining nine (20-22). Likewise a few of the essays seem to wander, with
authors attempting to unite them through the repetition of key phrases rather
than through sustained arguments. Nevertheless, readers who press on will find
their persistence rewarded, for each essay offers memorable insights.
Initiating the collection with an
essay about the thresher poet, Stephen Duck, William Christmas questions a
critical habit of looking back at Duck through the later history of politically
engaged working-class intellectualism. Compared with the writings of Chartist
intellectuals in the 1830s and 40s or of the London radicals in the 1790s,
Duck's poetry appears quite conservative, a characteristic that has led some
critics to "devalue, dismiss, or at best redefine" his work (26).
Christmas, in contrast, argues that Duck's "talent, intellect, guile,
sense and fortitude ... was disruptive to the contemporary literary
establishment and paved the way for later forms of working-class
Examining what poet Ann Yearsley
wrote about education, Monica Smith Hart links her writings to both the Sunday
School movement and contemporary discourses about working-class education.
Yearsley, Hart shows, managed to write about an inflammatory topic for a
primarily middle-class audience by flattering her readers and also reminding
them of their responsibility to the poorer classes, Yearsley thus
"transforms middle-class desire for her own purposes" (57). Hart
provides several close readings that support these assertions.
From Luke Maynard's essay we learn
how poet Robert Burns represents a working-class life for leisure-class
readers. According to Maynard, Burns's working-class background helps rather
than hinders him because it offers him "a decentralized (and thus, a
vastly expanded) perspective" (73). Maynard derives this theory from
feminist Helene Cixous, who argued that women are aware of both male identity,
which is central, and female identity, which is not. But Maynard contends that
Burns reconfigured this contrast in terms of class. Knowing both the central
discourse of the leisure class and decentralized discourse of the working
class, he could manipulate the persona of "the Heaven-taught
ploughman" (78) to his own ends.
With Aruna Krishnamurthy's essay,
the book turns away from peasant poetry to working-class culture more broadly.
Krishnamurthy argues that in shifting from the alehouse to the coffeehouse,
working-class intellectual culture moves from spontaneity to political
organization, from crowd driven working-class consciousness to something
directed from above: it adopts features of bourgeois intellectual culture in
order to control working-class consciousness and redirect it toward specific
political ends. Focusing especially on the figure of John Thelwall,
Krishnamurthy shows how the London Corresponding Society both accelerated and
responded to this shift.
Scrutinizing genre in the Chartist
periodical, Rob Breton documents Chartist attempts to reach a broad
working-class audience through sensationalized fiction. In Chartist
periodicals, he argues, the use of sensational elements results in "a
various working-class aesthetic, not simply a sensationalized one" (112)
because these periodicals continued to feature more sober rhetoric as well.
Breton supports his broad claim by contrasting broadsides and books by
prominent Chartists with non-Chartist working-class periodicals such as the Penny
Also treating periodicals, Kathryn
Prince shows how they took Shakespeare as "a model for the working-class
intellectual, a representative of that class who had risen through the ranks
simply by virtue of his own intellectual prowess and hard work" (130). In
quoting lines from Shakespeare's plays, they typically stripped the lines of
their context so as to imply that Shakespeare's characters expressed the
radical sympathies of the bard himself. In theatre reviews, however,
working-class periodicals such as Wooler's Black Dwarf educated their readers about
Shakespeare's plays and helped their readers interpret the plays in light of
their own political situations.
Moving from the periodical to the
novel, Sambudha Sen tracks the influence of radical expressive modes such as
caricature, inclusive language, and satiric overwriting in novels by Thackeray
and Dickens. Though both of these authors helped to produce periodical
literature, Sen chiefly considers how their periodical writing affected the
middle-class genre of the novel. He argues that the radical language that had
originated in "the revolutionary political climate of the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries" remains influential through "the stability
and prosperity of the mid-Victorian era" because of its effect on the
In another essay on fiction, Richard
Salmon shows how the working-class intellectual becomes "a distinctive
modern cultural figure within the work of two influential middle-class writers
of the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Kingsley and Thomas Carlyle" (167).
Carlyle's popular conceptions of heroism and the process of self-formation,
Salmon observes, shaped Kingsley's autobiographical novel Alton Locke to such an extent that he has been
faulted with forcing his working-class protagonist into a characteristically
bourgeois plot structure. Salmon argues, however, that Kingsley mediated an
historically accurate working-class experience, the struggle for
self-improvement, by means of a novelistic form that helped middle-class
readers sympathize with the protagonist's plight.
Turning from autobiographical
fiction, Julie Codell examines the actual autobiography of Alexander
Somerville, who (according to his pseudonym) "whistled at the plough"
as a young man. He became a successful journalist in middle-age, and then died
in poverty after moving to Canada. Although his autobiography and much of his
writing about political economy date from the middle period of his life, Somerville
draws much of his authority to write from his early experiences as an
agricultural laborer. With a thesis similar to Maynard's, Codell shows how
Somerville combined working-class experience with middle-class discourse to
shape a respected authorial identity.
Alice Jenkins examines a liminal
figure for working-class studies, Michael Faraday. Like other artisans of his
generation, Faraday sought to expand his education by working with a writers
group. Jenkins "explore[s] the aims and practices of [this] essay-circle
through an account of its intertextual relations with canonical writers"
and polite rhetoric (221).
Examining the cross-class
environment of the music hall in the final chapter of the collection, Ian
Peddie shows how the representation of working-class characters changed as
larger, national companies purchased small regional music halls. Increasingly,
working-class characters featured in music hall performances came to express
dominant ideologies and to re-enact stock working-class types (the coster, etc)
rather than realistic working-class characters. Exemplifying the balance that
all of the contributors strive for and the best achieve, Peddie combines
accounts of individual performers (or writers) with contextualizing information
about the genre and culture in which they work.
As someone who shares the editor's
goal of discovering a more nuanced narrative of the emergence of working-class
consciousness, I found this collection a rewarding read. In her introduction,
Krishnamurthy says that by focusing on the working-class intellectual, she
hopes to draw critics' attention to the ways these intellectuals mediated
between the public sphere, which was dominated by the leisure classes, and the
cultures of workers' lives. All of the essays succeed in this goal.
Krishnamurthy also articulates a
second goal for the book. She hopes that "the insertion of the figure of
the intellectual into the larger story of the formation of working-class
identity allows for a tripartite rendering of that history - the early
eighteenth-century moment that saw the rise of a sporadic but comprehensible
'tradition' of working-class poets who wrote for a select readership and within
conventional modes and genres; the 1790s era of the radicalized artisan who
innovatively adapted the universalistic language of the bourgeois public sphere
to the demands of a indigent and restless constituency of readers; and the
Chartist era of the 1830s, where the working-class intellectual consolidated
the identity of the working classes within a multi-generic, counter hegemonic
narrative that reinserted indigenous oral traditions into print culture"
(4). This is clearly and concisely put. It does not, however, fundamentally
alter the history of working-class formation that has already been written. The
working-class intellectual has always been part of this story, and its
chronological boundaries have always been porous. Although E. P. Thomson's Making
of the English Working Class focuses on the early 1800s, he refers to the eighteenth
century, especially the 1790s. Other accounts of working-class formation such
as Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Raymond Williams The Country and
The City, or David
Vincent's Bread, Knowledge and Freedom extend the narrative back farther than this, as do
numerous single author studies. This book, therefore, does not rewrite the
narrative of the emergence of working-class intellectualism in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries. But it certainly enhances our understanding of what
individual authors and genres contributed to this emergence.
Cassandra Falke, Assistant Professor
of English at East Texas Baptist University, is the author of "A Mote
in the Eye of Literature": English Working-Class Autobiography, 1820-1848 and the editor of Intersections
in Christianity and Critical Theory, both forthcoming in 2010.