Speaking of the Working Class: On Richard Hoggart

RICHARD HOGGART IS A FIGURE who many contemporary American critics have heard of, but few have read. Generally considered one of the founding figures of British cultural studies, he oversaw the inauguration of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, serving as its first director from 1964 to 1968. However, despite his considerable status within cultural studies circles, Hoggart remains relatively obscure outside of them, and his writing even less widely studied. His most influential work, 1957’s The Uses of Literacy, offers a groundbreaking cultural analysis of working-class life in Northern England during the postwar years, but it can be a quite difficult work to encounter for contemporary audiences. There are, of course, some good reasons for this.

To begin with, much of the material Hoggart analyzes comes from what the historian Dennis Dworkin has called the “lost world” of midcentury British popular culture: things like “juke-box boys,” Peg’s Paper, “chara trips,” and “spicy magazines.” Cultural studies has often displayed a bias toward the contemporary, and such cultural artifacts, many of them with roots in the 19th century and predicated upon technological revolutions in now almost entirely defunct media forms, appear now as little more than musty fossils. The Uses of Literacy is also an oddly structured book, from a contemporary academic perspective. It begins as a blend of confessional memoir and amateur ethnographic study, is interrupted at its midpoint by an in-depth material survey of contemporary literacy, and finally concludes with a cultural polemic that morphs into a reluctant manifesto.

But Hoggart’s approach to the familiar social questions of his day was a fresh one. His focus on the shifting coordinates of social difference and the changing direction of political discourse in postwar Britain resonated with contemporary audiences, and upon publication The Uses of Literacy garnered significant attention from both academics and the general public. By the late 1950s, sociology in Britain was almost entirely under the sway of highly theoretical, programmatic methodological approaches imported from the United States. Models and systems like “social action theory” and “structural functionalism” developed by the American sociologist Talcott Parsons during the 1930s and ’40s had achieved their full ascendancy, and social scientism in the West was reaching unprecedented levels of legitimacy and authority. By contrast, Hoggart’s decidedly unscientific appraisal of the state of culture and society in Britain pursues its arguments through a patchwork of deeply personal reflections, sharp social comment, and an impressionistic catalog of the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of working-class people. This heterodox approach is at least partly responsible for the book’s appeal during the late 1950s.

In this sense, The Uses of Literacy is a book very much of its time. Like roughly contemporary works such as Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, it displays a perspective and stance shared by much writing from the postwar period that seems distant, if not alien, today. These texts blend a harsh cultural pessimism with political cynicism, occasionally leavened by what now seems a wild social optimism fueled by faith in the salvation of rational-scientific social planning or technological advance. This blend can often make social criticism of this era difficult to deal with, catching it out in a sort of historical no man’s land. Writing like Hoggart’s is old enough so as to appear thoroughly dated to our contemporary sensibilities, yet recent enough so as to remain readily familiar to, and even sometimes seem immediately responsible for, our present circumstances.

The Uses of Literacy displays some of this tonal mélange. Hoggart originally intended it to be titled The Abuses of Literacy, and it indulges in its fair share of panic about new mass culture of its day, as in its rather caustic assessment of popular American-style crime fiction as catering primarily to “adolescents of below the average intelligence and for others who, for one reason or other, have not developed or do not feel themselves adequate.” At the same time, Hoggart is not above maintaining stock in some seriously held political ideals, namely democracy and welfare, devoting ample coverage to the “valuable social changes of the last fifty years” in the lives of working-class people. But he tends to swap optimism regarding science and technology for an anxiety about mass media and its deleterious effects on political discourse in an age when scientific progress has managed to ameliorate a good deal of material hardship for so many, yet failed to afford them any greater stake in real social power. Throughout it all, Hoggart writes with an odd combination of gritty practical intent and lofty moralizing pretension that is all his own, and which is entirely unfashionable today.

Still, just over 60 years since its original publication, The Uses of Literacy offers some important forgotten lessons about working-class culture and the progress of democracy. Academic attention to the historical significance of Hoggart’s work in the United Kingdom has not been nearly so spare as it has in the United States. He has been the subject of a handful of recent academic books including the retrospective Understanding Richard Hoggart: A Pedagogy of Hope (2011) co-authored by Michael Bailey, Ben Clarke, and John K. Walton, who hold posts in sociology, literature, and history respectively: a testament to the interdisciplinary reach of Hoggart’s ideas. He has also been the subject of multiple essay collections, including Re-Reading Richard Hoggart: Life, Literature, Language, Education (2008) and Richard Hoggart: Culture and Critique (2011). Most recently, Fred Inglis, an English scholar who has authored studies of other prominent midcentury cultural thinkers like Raymond Williams and Clifford Geertz, published an intellectual biography, Richard Hoggart: Virtue and Reward (2013), which provides a detailed account of his life and helpfully situates him within the broad social trends shaping British society during the first half of the 20th century.

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Born in 1918, Richard Hoggart spent his early years in Potternewton, just outside of Leeds, a Yorkshire hub of industrial garment manufacturing. By the time Richard was eight years old he had lost both of his parents: his father Tom contracted brucellosis from contaminated milk in 1920, while his mother Addie succumbed to tuberculosis in February 1927. In these early years of Hoggart’s life, and especially after his father’s death, the family was desperately poor. Basic needs such as food and clothing were real and constant concerns, and Addie, a single mother of three, relied on public assistance from the Board of Guardians to survive.

Unsurprisingly this early experience of poverty made an indelible mark on young Richard’s social perceptions. After his mother’s death Hoggart went to live with his grandmother and aunt in Hunslet, a working-class neighborhood near the city center. He eventually won multiple scholarships, which afforded him a level of education and opportunity far above any he could have hoped for otherwise: first at Cockburn grammar school, then in 1936 to study English at the relatively recently established University of Leeds.

In The Uses of Literacy, these biographical details weave their way into Hoggart’s analysis, providing the raw materials for his quasi-ethnographic survey of working-class life in the Leeds of his childhood during the 1930s and 1940s. Hoggart remarks on these linkages at length, taking care to disclaim their inevitable bias and potential inaccuracies, while at the same time always insisting that they serve as the evidentiary basis for his suppositions about the attitudes, values, and preoccupation of working-class people. And they likewise give meaning and sense to his ruminations on their typical pastimes, family arrangements, daily rituals, and community dynamics. He discloses this potentially debilitating personal attachment to the material from the outset, remarking in the book’s opening pages that he found himself beset by a tendency “to be unwarrantedly sharp towards those features in working-class life of which I disapprove” while also battling the temptation of “a sentimentality, a romanticising of my background, as though I were subconsciously saying to my present acquaintance — see, in spite of all, such a childhood is richer than yours.”

As a result, the text of The Uses of Literacy is imbued with all of the conflict and perplexity that color many individuals’ relationships to the categories of their identity. This is crystallized in the conflict between the urgent political responsibility Hoggart felt to mount a defense of his own social group — a group long abused and degraded by the established power structure — and his deep personal investment in the aspirational ideals of culture and education. He refused to be hemmed in by the classed expectations that others ascribed to his social background and his distinctly unpedigreed credentials from Leeds, Hull, and Leicester. Hoggart’s work turns on these tensions: a critical recourse to the matter of “culture” as a moral imperative for understanding social difference, and an unerring faith in the ability of the individual to transcend the limitations of their social conditions by engaging in intellectual communion.

While Hoggart’s ambivalence toward his working-class background might seem an analytical weakness, it arguably forms the basis of the book’s greatest strength. It’s hard to imagine a more clear-eyed class informant. The chief insight rests on Hoggart’s view that working-class people, no more and no less than people of any other class, embody the social contradictions of their time. Working-class life comes to express the various compromises made as communities accommodate themselves to conditions of material deprivation and social exclusion. Crucially for Hoggart, these compromises run both ways, yielding both healthy and unhealthy consequences for the cultural horizons of working-class people.

As a result, the picture we get from The Uses of Literacy is of a people both extravagant yet thrifty, puritanical yet promiscuous. They are innately mistrustful of people in authority and fatalistic about the implacable hardships of poverty. They are given to the occasional indulgence in chauvinist superiority (“Britain’s Best!”) but are rarely properly patriotic (“military service is a fool’s game”). They can be widely tolerant in some matters (“To each his own” and “Living and letting live”) while at the same time cultivating a strongly conformist group sense that tends in a more general way toward conservatism.

Indeed, the evenhandedness with which Hoggart portrays his working-class subjects is perhaps the book’s most enduring achievement. The Uses of Literacy is caring, sensitive, vexed, and suspicious by turns. Much of the early going is spent fending off the long series of established errors committed by others when speaking of the working class. Hoggart’s targets here run the gamut from middle-class romanticism and upper-class condescending quaintness — no virile peasants or dumb “plain folk” here — to common tropes in radical left-wing political discourse that tend to either overly lionize working people and their consciousness as the “motor of history” or disregard them in frustration as a vast apathetic and unthinking mass. In this regard, part of the book’s historical importance is the way it brought forth, for perhaps the very first time, a serious and sensitive critical investigation of working-class culture. This was no small achievement given the context of a literary and intellectual establishment whose hitherto most vocal advocate of working-class issues, George Orwell, was given to making compulsive remarks about their foul smell.

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After a brief interregnum during World War II, Hoggart found his way back to education via English studies. Upon leaving the army he soon found work in the extramural adult education movement teaching evening classes in community spaces like churches, working-men’s institutes, or village halls up and down the Yorkshire coast. In this regard, his life parallels that of two other key figures in the history of cultural studies, Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson, who were active in the adult education movement at around the same time. Unlike Williams and Thompson, however, Hoggart had not completed his study at Cambridge, and his professional path to academic security was not as clear-cut. It wasn’t until 1958, having worked his way up from extramural instructor to a position as a senior lecturer, and achieving a considerable amount of notoriety surrounding the publication of The Uses of Literacy, that he was able to finally secure a successful application and appointment in the English department at the University of Leicester.

The commercial success of The Uses of Literacy was significant, especially for an unconventional academic book from a virtually unknown professor of literature. Inglis reports that in its first year the hardback sold 8,000 copies, and shortly after, one of Hoggart’s acquaintances helped secure a deal with Allen Lane for a Penguin paperback edition which moved 33,000 copies in six months, and a further 20,000 annually from 1960 to 1970. In addition to these impressive sales, the book garnered positive reviews from prominent intellectuals like Dwight Macdonald. Hoggart also received many private expressions of adulation from contemporaries like the novelist John Braine, whose first book, Room at the Top (released the same year as Uses), depicts the class-bound anxieties and struggles of an upwardly mobile young man from Yorkshire, and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose own writing in Tristes Tropiques shares some resemblance with Hoggart’s quasi-autobiographical style.

The book’s immense popularity catapulted Hoggart’s public and professional profile. In 1960 he was called as an expert witness on behalf of Penguin Books in the highly publicized Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial. He was also invited to participate in the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting, a body charged with investigating questions of governmental policy whose recommendations resulted in, among other things, the creation of BBC2. And in 1964, he established the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham with the assistance of an initial endowment from Allen Lane at Penguin Books, before leaving to pursue a position as Assistant Director-General for Culture at UNESCO. The high-profile connections that accompanied the success of The Uses of Literacy made Hoggart’s academic career, and he suddenly found himself established as a go-to authority on questions concerning the social consequences of cultural matters.

While the question of “culture” had been a dimension of political and social debates in Britain since at least the Victorian era, by the late 1950s a new discourse around the idea of a specifically mass culture had become increasingly central to political discussions of all kinds. This was signaled in part by a great panic among the British left that old class distinctions were dissolving as the harshness of the austerity years waned and material constraints of all kinds softened. A new wave of consumerism, supported by the affordances of emergent mass media apparatuses, wrought profound changes in the material lifestyle and standard of living for people at all levels of the social hierarchy. The Uses of Literacy shares this concern and approaches the problem by scrutinizing the effects that these new social forces and mass forms have, not on the political commitments of working-class people, but on their moral values and general attitudes.

Throughout The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart opts for a view of working people that acknowledges the real and important gains reaped from the political activism and organizing of what he calls an “earnest minority” within their ranks, without overrating the overall position and importance of political activity within the full scope of working-class life. For many on the left in 1957, this kind of argument had deeply troubling political implications. Hoggart’s view seems to flatly reject the idea of the working class as a structurally unified group whose sense of identity, if properly articulated in relation to their economic position, might manifest itself as a new form of revolutionary class consciousness and open the road to political and economic liberation. Instead, The Uses of Literacy stresses the aspects of working-class life that do not find their motivation or intent in a strictly political or economic basis. Furthermore, the emphasis he places on the role and importance of “exceptional individuals” in working-class communities cuts against certain radical ideals of egalitarianism. To this end, when speaking of the working class, he was always careful to avoid, as he puts it, “over-stressing the admirable qualities of earlier working-class culture” as well as “its debased condition today.” By doing so, Hoggart hoped to safeguard what he understood as the genuine virtues of working-class culture, while still decrying the more troubling tendencies of its present development.

In our own era, The Uses of Literacy is likely to spark political objections of a very different kind. The book is completely silent on the question of race, for instance, as well as on the wider role of empire in the lives of working-class Britons. This seems particularly surprising in hindsight, as Hoggart was writing at a time in which the demographic makeup of working-class people in Britain was undergoing a sizable shift. With the landmark moment represented by the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 carrying the first postwar immigrants from the West Indies, a new and an unfortunate era of racial tension and political upheaval had been underway for a decade by the time of The Uses of Literacy‘s publication, ultimately coming to a head in the violence of the Notting Hill race riots a year later. This is to say nothing of the sustained presence of ethnic minority communities, particularly from Pakistan, who migrated to work in the textile industries of Northern England following World War II and the partition of India. For that matter, neither does the book grant much time to the consideration of working-class Londoners: Hoggart’s working class is a regionally circumscribed category as much as it is an ethnically circumscribed one.

For all these limitations, The Uses of Literacy still managed to make an indelible contribution to the politics of its time. Moreover, it retains some important lessons for us today about the experiences and expressions of working-class people, and that is suggestive about their wider effects on the prospects of progress and democracy. One enduring lesson is that we should be careful not to equate material gains with an enlargement of democracy. The threat posed by the “spicy magazines” and “newer mass art” that Hoggart pilloried back in 1957 was the way that they preyed upon key attitudes already established in working-class life and amplified them in ways that reinforced and perpetuated their worst tendencies: conformity over tolerance, blunt chauvinism over skeptical patriotism, consumerist egalitarianism over real social progressivism, and a cynical indifference to machinations of authority over a productive and humorous discrediting of its failings. In the context of Britain’s newly affluent postwar society, the material conditions of working-class people saw significant and rapid improvements over the span of a generation or two, and social “progress” seemed achieved. Meanwhile, the realization of democracy remained elusive, as within the corridors of established authority (i.e., government, commercial industry, and news media) old class exclusions and agendas persisted, leaving working people, though they may have been afforded a more modern mode and standard of living, no greater a share of real political power or social autonomy than they had ever had. Holding fast to these distinctions between simple material gains and real democratic ones is a prerequisite for any genuinely progressive politics.

In his own time, Hoggart placed his hopes for building a progressive politics in the prospects for new modes of cultural communication. The Uses of Literacy stands as an effort to initiate a new kind of communication about the intersection of class and culture, asking us to reconsider not only our own attitudes or perceptions of working-class culture, but also prompting us to reflect upon the classed dimensions of our own cultural participation: in our community relationships, in our community’s general values and attitudes, or in our individual reading habits and moral positions. A closer look at the book’s mode of address illustrates this. For all its working-class credentials, the book itself is not primarily written for working-class people, really. In it, Hoggart speaks of the working class at length, and from among them, most certainly, but not exactly to them. Many working-class readers no doubt found much to appreciate in its pages, such as the balance of its portrait of working-class attitudes, or the force of the political conclusions drawn from its analysis of contemporary pop culture. It is unlikely, however, that many would have found anything unknown or particularly surprising in its detailed description and testimony.

Instead, The Uses of Literacy served to present a new vision of the relationship between culture and class, in the hopes of establishing the basis for newly effective lines of communication in British society about social difference. In this sense, the wider communicative aim of the book is to enlighten those outside of the working classes about the true character of their cultures and point the way toward new and more progressive ways of making appeals on behalf of, and to, working-class people. These appeals rest on the second lesson that we might still take from Hoggart: that so long as social inequality persists, our cultures and their values will be classed in obstinate and complicated ways. This classing of culture reflects the material facts of social difference as an imposition of history, but it also expresses the ongoing process of identity formation and community belonging that emerges, adaptably as it were, in response to the experience of those historical impositions. The recognition of this mutually constitutive relation between class and culture has been a guiding principle for cultural studies, and The Uses of Literacy provides its foundation in theory, as well as perhaps its finest example in practice. It remains an indispensable lesson for any attempt at constructing lines of productive communication about class inequality and social difference today.

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In the preamble to Culture and Anarchy, the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold remarked that he was, “above all, a believer in culture.” This is how Hoggart, too, might most aptly be remembered. In many ways, Hoggart was Arnold’s chief intellectual successor in postwar England, and his thought can seem as hopelessly fusty and quaint to us now as Arnold’s must have seemed to many readers in the 1950s. However, rather than prescribing that the working class lift themselves up by imbibing “the best that has been thought and said,” Hoggart put his faith in communication across social and cultural borders, which requires us to discover people where they are, and how they are. For Hoggart, this meant appealing to the “still considerable moral resources of working-class people” without exploiting them for commercial gain or political expediency. In his own day, he feared this communicative ground had been almost entirely ceded to the capitalist forces driving the production of mass popular culture and conservative hacks stirring up resentment in the popular press.

From our vantage point, the danger of mistaking real “material gains” for democratic progress may seem a tragically distant concern. Such gains are, in the first place, increasingly hard to find for those of us resigned to an economic life wracked with perpetual debt and precarious employment. However, in many ways the need to cultivate a communicative politics about class seems more acute than ever. In radical intellectual circles there has been a recent push in the opposite direction, as critical voices are increasingly making an effort to untie the knot of class and culture that Hoggart’s work first made fast, reasserting the experience of class in purely structural economic terms. Meanwhile, across mainstream media channels we’re still dogged by old tropes of class difference that reinforce easy misapprehensions about the correspondence between social location and political perspective. When we examine the appeals regularly made on behalf of, and to, the “white working class” in the United States today, one can’t help but feel that we’ve missed this central lesson of Hoggart’s intellectual labors. Perhaps there is still time to learn?

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Steven Gotzler is a PhD candidate in the Literary and Cultural Studies program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

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