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The literary imagination and the explanation of socio-cultural change in modern Britain

  • Paul Filmer

Much of the substance of the contemporary debate on the nature and consequences of ‘mass culture’ in Britain is to be found in the work of four English literary critics: T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams (1). Their work is in the Utopian tradition of social and aesthetic critical thought that has been termed “the English Dream: the ideal of the collective, unalienated folk society, where honest men work together and create together” (2); the ideal of the organic community, in short. Such a society is seen as composed of homogeneous, self-sufficient, stable and tradition-dominated communities, comprising a population which shares a common language and culture, and which is typified—but not exclusively bound—by a mentality attached to the tangible, local and known (3).

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(1) Cf. especially the following works: Eliot, T. S., The Idea of a Christian Society (London, Faber, 1939); Id.Notes Towards the Definition of Culture 2 (London, Faber, 1962); Leavis, F. R., Education and the University2 (London, Chatto and Windus, 1948); Id.The Common Pursuit (London, Chatto and Windus, 1952); Id. and Leavis, Q. D., Lectures in America (London, Chatto and Windus, 1969); Id. and Thompson, D., Culture and Environment (London, Chatto and Windus, 1933); Hoggart, R., The Uses of Literacy (London, Chatto and Windus, 1957); Williams, R., Reading and Criticism (London, Muller, 1950); Id.Culture and Society, 1780–1950 (London, Penguin, 1961); Id.The Long Revolution (London, Chatto and Windus, 1961); Id.Communications (London, Penguin, 1962).

(2) Wollheim, R., The English Dream, The Spectator (London), 03 10, 1961, p. 334. The tradition is documented extensively by Williams, in Culture and Society…, op. cit.

(3) Cf. e.g. König, R., The Community (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968), pp. 45.

(4) To add yet another definition of culture to the welter of those already in existence (cf. e.g. Gould, J. and Kolb, W. L., eds., A Dictionary of the Social Sciences (London, Tavistock, 1964), pp. 165168; Cowell, F. R., Culture in Private and Public Life (London, Thames and Hudson, 1959), passim; Kroeber, A. L., Anthropology: Culture Patterns and Processes (New York/Burlingame, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), pp. 6064) would seem to be a pointless as well as a perilous activity. A synthesis, embodying “the elements positively accepted by most contemporary social scientists”, is offered by Kroeber and Kluckhohn (in Gould, and Kolb, , supra cit. p. 165). A more restricted definition, subsumed in Kroeber and Kluckhohn's synthesis but widely used amongst literary scholars, regards the culture of a society as residing pre-eminently in its arts and epistemology. However, the synthetic meaning of the term is intended when ‘culture’ is used hereafter—unless it is prefaced specifically with the adjectives ‘artistic’ and ‘literary’.

(5) Cf. Report of the Committee on Broadcasting, 1960 (London, HMSO, 1962, Cmnd. 1753). Cf. also Hoggart, R., The Difficulties of Democratic Debate, The Critical Quarterly, Autumn 1963, pp. 197212.

(6) Cf. Williams, R., Towards a Socialist Society, in Anderson, P. and Blackburn, R., eds., Towards Socialism (London, Fontana, 1965), pp. 367397; Williams, R., ed., May Day Manifesto, 1968 (London, Penguin, 1968).

(7) Cf. e.g. Wollheim, R., Socialism and Culture (London, Fabian Society, 1961); Bantock, G. H., Education in an Industrial Society (London, Faber, 1963).

(8) E.g. Shils, E. A., Daydreams and Nightmares: Reflections on the Criticism of Mass Culture, Sewanee Review, LXV (1957). pp. 587608; Lowenthal, L. and Lawson, I., The Debate on Cultural Standards in Nineteenth Century England, Social Research, XXX (1963), pp. 417433.

(9) Quoted by Leavis, F. R. in Scrutiny, I (1932), no 3, pp. 209210 fn.

(10) Leavis, F. R., Under Which King Bezonian? Scrutiny, I (1932), no 3, pp. 207208.

(11) Id. The Literary Mind, Scrutiny, I (1932), no 1, p. 31.

(12) Id.Education and the University, op. cit. p. 146.

(13) Ibid. p. 143.

(14) Ibid. pp. 143–144.

(15) Id.Under Which King Bezonian? op. cit. p. 207.

(16) Loc. cit.

(17) Cf. Leavis's quotation of the arguments of I. A. Richards in support of this contention, in Education and the University, op. cit. p. 144. Cf. also F. R. and Leavis, Q. D., op. cit. p. 24.

(18) F. R. and Leavis, Q. D., op. cit. p. 7.

(19) Loc. cit. (The remarks refer specifically to Dickens).

(20) Leavis, F. R. and Yudkin, M., Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow (London, Chatto and Windus, 1962), p. 27.

(21) Leavis, and Yudkin, , op. cit. p. 28.

(22) F. R. and Leavis, Q. D., op. cit. p. 24.

Leavis, F. R., What's Wrong with Criticism? Scrutiny, I (1932), no 2, pp. 145146.

(24) Leavis, and Thompson, , op. cit. pp. 12.

(25) Cf. Gellner, E., Thought and Change (London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1964), p. 154.

(26) Ibid. p. 154 and footnote.

(27) Leavis, F. R., What's Wrong… op. cit. p. 137.

(28) , R. S. and Lynd, H. M., Middletown2 (New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1956).

(29) Leavis, F., Education and the University, op. cit. p. 146; Maurice Halbwachs has said of the Lynds's study of changes in religious behaviour that “the enquiry was carried out in only a few medium-sized towns and was no more than a sample. Figures for the past depended on the vague memories of elderly priests” (The Psychology of Social Class (London, Heinneman, 1958), pp. 129 fn). Since Leavis's argument is concerned with the catastrophic effects of change, the validity of the figures for the past are of crucial importance to the validity of his argument. However, it is presumably the socio-critical intention with which the Lynds conducted their study that interests Leavis, for it enabled them to stress “the constant sameness, the standardization, and the desolation of existence where it is lived without any historical tradition, exclusively according to economic laws, and under the conformist pressure exercised by an established society in which men earn their living” (Adorno, T. W. and Dirks, W., Soxiologische Exkurse (Frankfurt 1956), p. 135; cited in König, R., op. cit. p. 173).

(30) Leavis, F. R., Education and the University, op. cit. p. 146.

(31) , F. R. and Leavis, Q. D., op. cit. p. 12.

(32) Leavis, F. R., What's Wrong… op. cit. p. 137.

(33) , F. R. and Leavis, Q. D., op. cit. pp. 1112, 2021. Indeed, Leavis appears to extend a qualified welcome to the rise in the material standard of living of the majority, and in the leisure time available to them, that have accompanied industrialisation. Cf. , F. R. and Leavis, Q. D., op. cit. pp. 45; Leavis, F. R., Education and the University, op. cit. pp. 146147.

(34) , F. R. and Leavis, Q. D., op. cit. p. 13.

(35) Leavis, F. R., Education…, op. cit. pp. 2223.

(36) , F. R. and Leavis, Q. D., op. cit. p. 5.

(37) Ibid. p. 13.

(38) Cf. Leavis, F. R., Under Which King Bezonian? op. cit. p. 210.

(39) Id. What's Wrong…, op. cit. passim.

(40) The term is used by Leavis, Q. D. in her study Fiction and the Reading Public2 (London, Chatto and Windus, 1965).

(41) Leavis, F. R., What's Wrong… op. cit. p. 138.

(42) Id.Education…, op. cit. chaps II and III.

(43) , F. R. and Leavis, Q. D., op. cit. p. 23.

(44) Cf. The Idea of a Christian Society, op. cit. passim, and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, op. cit. pp. 15, 27–34.

(45) Cf. Notes Towards…, chap. II; also Bottomore, T. B., Elites and Society (London, Watts, 1964), pp. 140141.

(46) Cf. Leavis, F. R., Education and the University, op. cit. p. 146.

(47) Cf. e.g. Argyle, M., Religious Behaviour2 (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965); Fletcher, R., The Family and Marriage2 (London, Penguin, 1968).

(48) For a summary of Eliot's proposals see Notes Towards…, op. cit. pp. 14–20.

(49) Culture and Environment, op. cit. and Education and the University, op. cit.

(50) Bourne, George, The Wheelwright's Shop (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1923), and Change in the Village (London, Duckworth, 1912).

(51) Cf. Leavis, F. R., The Great Tradition (London, Chatto and Windus, 1948).

(52) Cf. Leavis, and Thompson, , op. cit. p. 87.

(53) Williams, R., Culture and Society…, op. cit. pp. 252253.

(54) Id. Literature and Rural Society, The Listener, LXXVIII, no. 2016, p. 630.

(55) Id.Culture is Ordinary, in Mackenzie, N., ed., Conviction (London, McGibbon and Kee, 1958), pp. 82 sqq.; cf. also Culture and Society, op. cit. p. 253. For a similar view, cf. Hoggart, R., The Uses of Literacy, op. cit. Part I, chap. I and II.

(56) Williams, R., Culture and Society…, op. cit. p. 253. For evidence of these aspects, cf. Laslett, P., The World We Have Lost (London, Methuen, 1965), chaps III–V.

(57) Cf. Bourne, George, Change in the Village, op. cit. chaps, XVIII–XX.

(58) Williams, R., Culture and Society…, op. cit. p. 153.

(59) Leavis, and Thompson, , op. cit. p. 3.

(60) Williams, R., Culture and Society…, op. cit. p. 13.

(61) Id. Towards a Socialist Society, op. cit. p. 375.

(62) Ibid. p. 395.

(63) Id.The Long Revolution, op. cit. p. xiii.

(64) Loc. cit.

(65) Ibid. p. xi.

(66) Id.Communications, op. cit. p. 99.

(67) Ibid. p. 19.

(68) Williams, , Communications, p. 99.

(69) Loc. cit.

(70) Loc. cit.

(71) Loc. cit.

(72) Id.Culture and Society…, op.cit. 321.

(73) Principally Marxist arguments, cf.

Leavis, F. R., Under Which King Bezonian?, op. cit. and Williams, R., Culture is Ordinary, op. cit.

(74) Cf. Kroeber, A., op. cit. p. 64.

(75) Ibid. pp. 65, 94–96, 219–223. Striking exceptions to the general, inter-societal validity of this contention are to be found in complex societies wherein distinct and separate sub-cultures, developed by minority groups of significant size, are in open conflict with a politically and economically dominant majority culture. The separateness of the sub-culture becomes particularly acute, and leads to the phenomenon of culture clash, when reinforced by any or all of linguistic, religious, ethnic and regional distinctions (e.g. French in Canada, Negroes in U.S.A.). The contention holds in the case of British culture, however, since none of these distinctions reinforces the separateness of a sub-culture significant enough to precipitate culture clash.

(76) Of the forty writers discussed at length, twenty-eight can be grouped in at least one of these rather arbitrary categories.

(77) Cf. especially: Culture is Ordinary, op. cit.; The Border Country (London, Chatto and Windus, 1960), and Second Generation (London, Chatto and Windus, 1964).

(78) Williams, R., Reading and Criticism, op. cit. p. 107.

(79) Ibid. p. 100.

(80) Ibid. pp. 100–101.

(81) Ibid. p. 106.

(82) Williams, , Reading… p. 106.

(83) Ibid. p. 107.

(84) Cf. e.g. Altick, R. D., The Sociology of Authorship: The Social Origins, Education and Occupations of 1,100 British Writers, 1800–1935, The Bulletin of the New York Public Library, LXVI (1962), 389404; Laurenson, D. F., A Sociological Study of Authorship, The British Journal of Sociology, XX (1900), 311325.

(85) Williams, , Reading and Criticism, op. cit. p. 101.

(86) Cf. Altick, , op. cit. and Laurenson, , op. cit.

(87) Cf. e.g. Laslett, , op. cit.

(88) Leavis, , Education and the University, op. cit. pp. 6971.

(89) Coleridge, S. T., Biographia Literaria (London 1817), vol. II, p. 2.

(90) Principles of Literary Criticism, p. 61, quoted by Leavis, , Education and the University, op. cit. p. 144.

* I am very grateful to Professor I.C. Jarvie of York University, Toronto, Canada, and to David Walsh of University of London Goldsmiths' College, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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