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Criticism 44.4 (2002) 419-424
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The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001 Pp. ix + 534. $39.95 cloth.
A more auspicious birth for a text can hardly be imagined: besides uniformly glowing reviews from all the major newspapers, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes garnered two awards: the SHARP Book History Prize and the Longman/History Today Book-of-the-Year 2002 Award. Although the focus of the praise is mostly on Rose's use of a vast and widely-untapped field of primary-source material, it is the structural organization of that material, using the "framing" model, that exercises Rose the most. As Rose was a founding member of SHARP, and is an editor of the organization's scholarly journal, Book History, it is not surprising that his book is an experiment in the creation of a viable framework for a way of seeing (in one content area) that mirrors [End Page 419] the aspirations of SHARP (in a broad array of content areas). How well, then, does The Intellectual Life, as the flagship for Rose's wider interests, sail?
Although the book spans a period from the Lollards to New Labour, Rose primarily examines the autodidact tradition from around the time of the Reform Bill up to the end of the Second World War. His approach, however, is not consistently chronological. Rather, he takes the pulse of several manifestations of working-class intellectual life across the period—including the autodidact's "Desire for Singularity" and "Mutual Improvement" (both early chapter headings), the impact of schools, of the WEA, and even of Bohemia; within each of these thematic units he tends to follow a chronological trajectory. I say "tends to" because some thematic units are more cohesive than others.
Rose's approach works best where the thematic unit is least diffuse, as in the chapter on the Welsh Miners' Institutes and their libraries. Within this specific topic, Rose's synthesis of statistical and anecdotal sources across a clearly defined timeline is embedded in a confidently declarative prose. We share Rose's enthusiasm for the Institutes, "one of the greatest networks of cultural institutions created by working people anywhere in the world" (237), and with him lament their decline along with the demise of the industry, in part because Rose seamlessly interweaves the words of miners such as W. H. Davies and their almost tragic prescience, with a minute analysis of the borrowing records of the Institute libraries:
In Bargoed the miners' institute only issued 2,661 books in 1961, down from 33,021 in 1931. The typical institute had become, said one ex-collier, a "stark waste of froth and strip-tease, surrounded by the slick decor of vinyl-covered easy chairs and formica-covered tables and glistening counters that click to the sound of glass." The Tredegar Institute, which spent more than £1,000 a year on books in the late 1940s, was broken up in 1964. Nearly all of its magnificent collection is lost. The last Rhonnda colliery (Mardy) closed in 1990. Only two Welsh miners' libraries (at the Cwmaman Institute and Trecynon Hall) survived to the end of the century (254-55).
Rose's affection for his sources—not only does he grieve the loss of Tredegar's "magnificent collection" as if it were a working-class Alexandria, he relishes the day "when someone finds a fourth library ledger" (255)—is not a form of nostalgia. He mines the statistics not for numbers alone, but to create a profile of what the working classes (he consistently uses the plural of the liberal observer, rather than the singular of the vulgar Marxist) read, discussed, and thought. He then uses this material to offset—or confirm—the image of working-class culture posited by less industrious commentators (such as Q. D. Leavis). Moreover, the trajectory described concisely in this particular area [End Page 420] mirrors the larger trajectory followed by the book as a whole, a "success story with a downbeat ending" (11).