In his extraordinary autobiography, William Edwin Adams (1832-1906), a tramping plasterer’s son who would become a self-educated radical journalist, referred to himself as a ‘social atom—a small speck on the surface of society ... just an ordinary person: no better, and I hope no worse, than the ordinary run of my neighbours’1 (Figure 3.1). Adams epitomises the determined spirit of the 19th-century British working-class autodidact. He is also a wise and wry witness to the transition between two different experiences of working-class cultural life. During his lifetime, enormous social progress was made, including the dramatic expansion of the electorate,2 national provision of basic education and the resulting benefits of an expanded literary marketplace.

This chapter examines the classical reading experiences of working-class people from the early 18th to the early 20th century in Britain. Personal reflections of working-class readers reveal that the transition witnessed by Adams was from hard-won experiences of classical literature, often in the original languages, characterised by extreme lack of materials, arbitrary educational provision, and prodigious perseverance and intellectual capacity on the part of the learners, towards smoother and more capacious routes of access to antiquity for considerably more of the working-class population, paved by democratising publishing practices and an emerging cultural infrastructure.

We begin with tales from the 18th century, sparse and sensational, which record the flowering of‘uncultivated genius’ within the least fertile landscapes, attested by scant literary remains among the output of a print media run on a system of patronage. At the end we analyse the late 19th- and early 20th-century impact of mass cultural enterprises, fuelled by technological advancement (i.e. mechanised production) and propelled by the flourishing Labour Movement




Author of "Our American Cousins,” etc.




Paternoster Row 'W 1903

FIGURE 3.1 Title page ofWilliam Edwin Adams’ Memoirs of a Social Atom (1903), reproduced by courtesy ofThe British Library.

and commercial capitalism. Along the way we assess improvements made to the working-class reader’s classical experience by the emergence of reading rooms, circulating libraries, city libraries and publishing ventures such as educational journals and magazines, self-improvement books, classical handbooks (e.g. grammars and reference works) and increasingly accessible and affordable translations.

The recent provision and population of online databases, especially Open University’s Reading Experience Database, are increasingly enabling us to approach literature from ‘the other side’ of the reading process—from the perspective of the reader rather than the author. ’ This represents something of a revolution in literary history in three key ways. First, it challenges the myth still residually informing literary studies, which shapes a narrative about old dead white ‘men of letters’ in transhistorical dialogue, but is uninterested in the people who rescue them from oblivion—their readers.

Second, this approach facilitates challenges to the Western canon of texts deemed worth reading by the gate-keepers of culture. In the act of canonisation, the class-determined and class-determining phenomena of taste and literary merit find consensus among an elite. Such consensus-building can prop up reactionary values, under-represent certain cultures and endorse an ideal of cultural homogeneity. The historical role of classical authors within this canon can be uncomfortable for classicists to come to terms with. In this and subsequent chapters, we shall see how an alternative classical canon formed among workingclass constituencies, according to a different set of criteria to those of the elite, although there was considerable intersection.

Thirdly, when the focus shifts from the author to the reader, we discover that the details of the identity of the reader and the location, reason for and nature of the reading experience reveal a picture of literature remote from the perception of classical literature as a ‘high’ literary endeavour. By accumulating evidence which reflects the material reality of reading practice—the act once deemed insignificant, passive and near-invisible—its significance in cultural dynamics is revealed. This poses new and harder questions about the creation and consumption of cultural artefacts including books. This chapter therefore uses evidence of actual reading experiences.

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