Freelance Writers and the Changing Terrain of Intellectual Life in Britain, 1880-1980

By Heyck, Thomas William | Albion, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Freelance Writers and the Changing Terrain of Intellectual Life in Britain, 1880-1980


Heyck, Thomas William, Albion


The terrain of British intellectual life in the twentieth century was dominated by two major features: freelance writers and university scholars. At the elite level, as Noel Annan showed, the two types--independent thinkers and academics--can be treated as one class, linked by personal connections and by common attitudes arising largely from the old school tie. (1) However, when intellectuals beyond the elite stratum are surveyed, it becomes clear that the fortunes of these two features of the intellectual landscape differed sharply. The university teachers grew rapidly in number and made themselves into what Harold Perkin calls "the key profession." (2) But as John Gross has contended, freelance writers, despite a rich heritage from the nineteenth century, seemed, especially in their own eyes, to form an old and decaying mountain range. From 1880 to 1980 freelance writers experienced a pervasive and intensifying sense of crisis in their trade and in their cultural role. (3) John Wain, a successful novelist a nd critic, stated the matter plainly in 1973: contemplation of the difficulties of "being an author," he said, always threw him into "a black depression in which I could slash my wrists." (4)

How can one explain the pessimism of freelance writers, their sense of being increasingly marginalized? Were their complaints simply habitual expressions of a writerly pose common since the romantic period? After all, many of the broad social and cultural trends in Britain between 1880 and 1980 should have been advantageous to independent writers. The reading audience expanded dramatically from the late-nineteenth century, for the population grew, education (including both secondary and higher education) was extended, and illiteracy was eliminated. Moreover, the British populace enjoyed impressive improvement in the material standard of living between 1880 and 1980, with more leisure time and more discretionary income to spend on books and other reading matter. The number of books published and purchased increased every year, save for the unusual period of the Second World War. The mass media put at the disposal of freelance writers new means for communicating with audiences of unprecedented size.

This essay argues that the freelance writers had good reasons to complain about developments in intellectual life between 1880 and 1980. It thus builds on Gross's The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, but it will focus more on material conditions. (5) Recognizing that the explanation for the writers' fall must be complex, Gross rightly attributes their decline to "broad social forces," by which he means the shrinking of the importance of literature within intellectual life as a whole (mainly because of the rise of science), competition for writers from the mass media, the inflow of writers and writing from abroad, principally America, and the annexation of literary criticism by academics. (6) He might have added structural alterations in the public sphere. All of these are important issues, which I hope to deal with in the larger project of which this paper is a part. Here I analyze in more detail than Gross was able to give how changes in the material conditions in which the freelance writers worked sappe d their confidence as cultural authorities. I will draw on evidence from a number of areas of research that have recently become well established --the sociology of authorship, the changing nature of readers and reading, and transformations in the publishing industry--as well as scattered data on authorial incomes and patronage. But this paper also explores the mutual influence of social and intellectual developments: thus it tries to show how the writers' identity and ideology contributed to their problems by making the impact of these broad economic and social changes even more corrosive to their morale and outlook than otherwise they would have been.

I: Freelance Authors: Numbers and Social Origins, 1880-1980

To judge by numbers alone, freelance writers in Britain appeared to thrive since the late-Victorian years. …

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