I have mentioned elsewhere that the best work of history I have read in a long, long time is Keith Thomas’s The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England.

But if it weren’t for Thomas, I would be singing in the streets about Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. I am trying to resist the temptation to put an anecdote from that book on every page of my own book about reading. One example will have to serve, concerning “an uneducated Irish laborer” who managed to acquire sufficient literacy not just to read but even to write:

When he shut himself in a bedroom to write, his anxious family held a conference and did everything to dissuade him. “There’s something far wrong with a man who writes letters to himself!” his brother exploded. “If you’d just been a pouf the priest could have talked to you or one of us could have battered it out of you. But what the hell can anybody do about a writer?” When he received his first check for a short story, his mother was convinced that he had committed some kind of fraud and insisted that he return it. And when a television play of his was reviewed “his mother was shocked and and said that theirs had been a respectable family until then; never once had any of their names been in the paper.

Of course, there are may other examples of working-class families who invested great hopes in education and encouraged, or even pressured, their children to academic success — a situation that has its own perils. Anyway: read this book. There’s a brand-new edition out.


  1. Thanks so much for pointing me to the newish Keith Thomas book. I'd seen the title when I found his LRB piece, but the book's subject had't "registered" with me. I didn't realize how interested in it I would be, given I'm engaged in an autodidactic attempt to "master" the political culture of the later Stuarts and early Georges.

    It's directly on point of what's been bothering me about the "opposition poets" of late 17th-18thC (Erskine-Hill's Dryden, Swfit, Pope, Johnson) who are usually labelled "conservative" or "anti-modernity" or "anti-commerce" or "royalist" or "Jacobite" or "nostalgic" or "anti-individualist". Putting to one side the anachronism of many of those labels, I find the authors' ironic cultural critique resonates with my progressive, whiggishness in a way none of the polite or sentimental whigs do. And I've been considering whether I might understand what makes them tick better if I focused on anxieties about shifts in what society understood as "aspirations" or "fulfillment" — of the shared values that reward certain types of achievements over others, of how a "good life" was socially understood.

    Or to put it crudely, the Dunciad asks how anyone could want their child to grow up to be just like Sir Robert Walpole (or Lloyd Blankfein). A culture is dying or dead if that is what its elites aspire to.

    Anyhow, thanks for the tip. I'm now eagerly awaiting amazon's delivery.

  2. Or to put it crudely, the Dunciad asks how anyone could want their child to grow up to be just like Sir Robert Walpole (or Lloyd Blankfein). A culture is dying or dead if that is what its elites aspire to.

    Well said. On a related note, do you happen to know Roy Porter's social history of 18th-century England? A truly great book, I think.

  3. It's in my TBR pile. I'm really enjoying Porter's "British Enlightenment" – I'm a sucker for intellectual history in social/cultural context and he wrote it so well. I've also got his "Madness" to look forward to.

    While we're on the topic of reading suggestions, I've just finished Jonathan Clark's English Society and his Samuel Johnson. I loved his description of the Anglo-Latin cultural community, which goes much further in exploring the integration of classical humanism into the culture, and how that was shifting, than the typical "everybody read Cicero as a schoolboy".

    Clark is a bit of a johnnie-one-note, isn't he. But he certainly succeeds in forcing the "continuity" argument into the discussion in a way that can't be ignored. And his view of the Whig oligarchy's strategy of embracing what we'd think of as a conservative Church-and-Crown alliance to protect the Hanovers and their own power seems to me a helpful angle to look at both some of the "British identity" literature like Colley's Britons and the "political ideas and action" folks like H.T. Dickinson. Though why Clark is so allergic to 'Venetian oligarchy' as a descriptive term puzzles me. Yes, the monarch actually mattered and so did ideas, but within Clark's ancien regime, the Whigs succeeded in creating a narrow, self-perpetuating political elite which they tried to justify while claiming they were the guardians of Revoluton principles. And when George III came along, they fought like the devil to preserve the power and position they had come to believe they were entitled to. [In case you haven't noticed, I'm not overly fond of the Whigs.]

    In any event, Clark's insistence on the C of E's insitutional and ideological position within the political culture is important. So I'm trying to get a better handle on the institutional adjustments and politico-theological debates of the C of E post-Glorious Revolution, especially after the Nonjuror disputes died down. There doesn't seem to be much new written on the C of E itself – Norman Syker still is the most often cited – other than some microhistories of parishes, etc. Any recommendations?

    Clark's work is also suggestive, but not much more than that, on how "nonconformity" was evolving both in and outside the C of E — decline of "traditional" dissenting groups, rise of the methodists and evangelicals, connections between the political radicals and the re-emerging heterodoxy of groups like the unitarians.

    There's a plethora of works on the Wesleys, and enormous amounts on the evangelicals in the late 18thC with their link to abolition. But I don't have a clue where to start. I'm particularly interested in the Wesleys in the earlier part of the 18thC and their interaction with the C of E hierarchy. So can I pick your brain for a good entry point or two?

  4. Beyond my expertise, I'm afraid, but the best general guide I know to the religious movements of that period is Mark Noll's The Rise of Evangelicalism.

  5. Many thanks for that recommendation! I had in my head that Noll was pretty exclusively American Colonial and Early Republic. But it looks like at least the first half of the book is just the ticket for getting me started, and he's got a massive bibliography, which should orient me in the historiography. Excellent.

    And btw, isn't it beyond fabulous that the internet allowed me to check out and assess your recommendation in 60 seconds without getting up from my chair? AND, it will allow me to explore further threads — e.g., read reviews placing Noll in context of other authors, or discover who's been citing Noll or writing on related topics.

    All of which pace Carr, requires me to deploy a diverse set of text-consumption skills, from browsing to skimming to thoughtful reading.

  6. Hah! Steven Pinker takes down Carr in the NYT. And has another instrumental justification for universities — teaches us the many different skills necessary to navigate and manage all the information Google serves up to us.

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