Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere

Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere

Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere

Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere

Synopsis

Melba Cuddy-Keane relates Woolf's literary reviews and essays to early twentieth-century debates about the value of "highbrow" culture; the methods of instruction in universities and adult education; and the importance of an educated public for the realization of democratic goals. Combining a wealth of historical detail with a penetrating analysis of Woolf's essays, this study will alter our views of Woolf, modernism, and intellectual endeavor.

Excerpt

Virginia Woolf was an intellectual writing at a time of public debate about the role of intellectuals and the nature and value of literary education. Between 1904 and her death in 1941, she published over five hundred essays and reviews in more than forty periodicals and two volumes of collected essays. These writings offer a magnificent compendium of literary opinions and judgments, but they go further to scrutinize the process of reading, to locate reading in a context of historically and ideologically variable standards, and to outline a model for active, self-reflexive reading practices. The overall impact is pedagogical and empowering: Woolf's penetrating readings make a vast range of literature accessible, but they also offer the tools for readers to gain that access for themselves.

Concerns about reading and cultural literacy have been widespread in the West for at least a century and a half. Yet the complexities of our increasingly global and technological age are disturbingly accompanied by the shrinking priorities given to intellectual education and the belief that intellectual interests are not particularly relevant to the lives of the people known as “the mass.” In these circumstances, uniting the highbrow values of intellectual life with a broad public base may seem a paradoxical goal. Yet, in a similarly threatened environment, Virginia Woolf, the “high modernist, ” was an advocate for both democratic inclusiveness and intellectual education. In bridging these two spheres, she forged a positive answer to one of her culture's most pressing concerns. The achievement of universal franchise, the extension of adult education to the working class and to women, and the rise of mass publishing all added urgency to the need to foster accessible cultural education. At the same time, the institutionalization of English studies within the universities augured an increasing gap between professional study and the general reading public. The intellectual debates of the time revolved around issues only too recognizable today: the gap between specialized theoretical discourse and the generalist reader; the fate of critical reading and thinking in an age of increasing mass communication . . .

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