The British Working Class Reader: 1790-1848; Literacy and Social Tension

The British Working Class Reader: 1790-1848; Literacy and Social Tension

The British Working Class Reader: 1790-1848; Literacy and Social Tension

The British Working Class Reader: 1790-1848; Literacy and Social Tension

Excerpt

FOREWORDS--and this one is no exception--serve to forewarn the reader and to fore-arm the author, functions which, since the eighteenth century, the title-page can no longer adequately perform. Only the first chapter of this book deals in any general way with the working class reading public in Great Britain; there an assessment of literacy is made, and some of the types of reading to which they turned are indicated. The sub-title, Literacy and Social Tension, indicates the main concern of the study: the challenge which a literate working class presented to its betters.

For reasons explained in the text, many efforts to provide good or safe reading matter for the newly literate are passed over; attention is concentrated on areas of economic and social conflict, a choice of field which quite clearly dictates the limits in time, from the outbreak of the French Revolution to the relaxation of tension in the fifties. Within that field, representative attempts to deal with the problems raised will be presented. Newspaper writing is for the most part excluded, partly because of the dislocation of collections as a result of the war of 1939, partly because of the near impossibility of getting behind the anonymity of writing for the newspaper press. Of writers in periodicals and of books and pamphlets, some are included because their reputations demand it, some because they show the wide geographical and social spread of the responses. But the sampling is not entirely deliberate; some of it is dictated by the mere chance of survival of appallingly ephemeral literature.

In this field, too, class distinction is more important than it is in the rapidly expanding publication of fiction, cheap editions of the classics, or popularized science; for the ideas at stake here were ideas on which the ruling classes found themselves challenged, and for which they were compelled, either by fear or confidence, to demand or to persuade acceptance. The character of the ruling classes shifts during this half-century, and the new elements of British society which are associated in the work of government bring with them a full programme and a complete rationale. They found themselves in a class . . .

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