Dr James McGrath, a lecturer in English, Creative Writing and Music at Leeds Met looks at the life of literary critic and pioneer of Cultural Studies Richard Hoggart, who died aged 95 earlier this month.
Richard Hoggart, the innovative literary critic and pioneer of Cultural Studies, died aged 95 on 10th April 2014. Although several tributes have since appeared in the UK and US media, their scarcity and brevity have been somewhat disproportionate to Hoggart’s influence not just on academia, but on culture itself.
In this post, I want to reflect in a bit more depth and detail on Hoggart’s legacy. In writing this, my hope is simply to promote interest in what may be less familiar aspects of Hoggart’s work and their relevance to the present day. I also want to discuss some of Hoggart’s later, lesser known writings, and revisit some often-overlooked arguments in Hoggart’s most famous book, The Uses of Literacy (1957).
Hoggart was one of the first academics from a working-class background to make working-class life itself central to his research. Most unusually for a literary critic, his work bore an equal influence on both scholars and literary authors.
In first half of The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart wrote in close, often bleak detail about daily working-class life as he had known it in the Leeds districts of Potternewton and Hunslet. In the second half, he discussed the relationship of the working-classes to media, culture and literature. Hoggart critiqued how the working-classes were sentimentalised in songs, radio shows, and magazine stories – the cheapest forms of entertainments, which were all that most could afford. These, he asserted, failed to engage with the emotional and economic realities of working-class existence, and thus failed to speak for or even to the majority of the population. He also attacked tabloid newspapers for their overblown chumminess to readers, stressing that most such publications were increasingly being controlled by massive publishing magnates.
Although, by the 1950s, literacy rates for the working-classes stood at an unprecedented high, the majority of people, Hoggart argued, were being culturally short-changed. His intended title was ‘The Abuse of Literacy’. On being informed by lawyers that his manuscript was the most libellous they had ever seen, Hoggart redrafted the work (omitting many references to specific publications) and retitled it The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life With Special Reference to Publications and Entertainments.
Hoggart and Literature
The cumbersome, dry title of Hoggart’s best-known work could hardly contrast more with the book’s content. In a series of beautifully-written chapters, Hoggart evoked the sounds, tastes, anxieties, philosophies and conversations of working-class life as he had known it in his Leeds upbringing. Parts of the study were drawn from an unfinished novel he had begun writing around 1946 (the manuscript of which has, sadly, never been recovered).
However, there was much more to Hoggart’s reminisces than mere description. His most distinctive technique was to adopt a literary-critical style of analysis to features of daily existence under poverty. In The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart treated what people ate, spent, enjoyed and feared not merely as symbolic, but as the lived consequences of much wider social and political forces.
Alan Bennett specified The Uses of Literacy as a crucial inspiration in his starting to write, because Hoggart had shown how seemingly ordinary working-class life can be made ‘the stuff of literature’. Hoggart’s influence is similarly apparent in the writings of poet Tony Harrison, one of whose most celebrated pieces, ‘Them and Uz’ [sic] references a chapter in Uses of Literacy and is partly dedicated to Hoggart.
Given Hoggart’s sometimes excessive hostility to mass culture, his work also showed influence in some more surprising areas. Tony Warren, creator of Coronation Street, told Hoggart personally that The Uses of Literacy as a key inspiration for the series.
Later generations of authors have commended him, too. The novelist and biographer D. J. Taylor recently paid tribute to Hoggart as a ‘hero’, whose work he first read in the 1980s, and whose death left him feeling desolate. (Taylor had also conducted Hoggart’s last interview, for a 2007 Guardian profile).
The New Uses of Literacy
As a tutor in Cultural Studies, some of the most original and successful work I have ever seen by students has been in direct response to The Uses of Literacy. I have recommended the book to students on modules including Life Writing, Poetry, Television Studies, Media & Politics, New Media and (though Hoggart would probably have disapproved) Theory.
Many students have told me in tutorials – though less often in seminars – that Hoggart’s commentary working-class home life still chimes with their own backgrounds. Yet while this sense of recognition might explain why I’ve seen so many students choose to focus on The Uses of Literacy in assignments, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it should so often lead to them producing some of their best work. Indeed, too close a sense of identification could be a disadvantage. But I think that what is happening here is simpler.
In short, The Uses of Literacy, though still resonant, is also in many ways dated. In the 21st century, Hoggart’s arguments can still be incisive, but only if we critically adapt them towards more contemporary examples. It is, however, worth doing this.
The Uses of Literacy and current politicians
One of Hoggart’s most pertinent discussions in The Uses of Literacy concerned ‘personalization’. In particular, this involved singers, radio presenters and comedians overblowing their credentials as ‘ordinary working people’. Since the working classes constituted the majority, this, Hoggart discussed at length, was a means of appealing to a maximum audience.
This process of personalization continues to be evident around us, but two things have changed since The Uses of Literacy was published. First, the exaggeration of ordinariness is no longer clearly based on working-class identity. It is now more likely in the media to take the form of a celebrity allowing his or her faults to be publically shown. In this process, public figures can be made to appear transparent and trustworthy.
The second change with personalization is that it’s not just entertainers whose PR crews carefully hone an image of ordinariness. It is now much more apparent in politicians, Nigel Farage being an obvious example. Widely publicised photographs of Farage holding a pint of beer conform to an older tradition in election-time iconography. But more sinister is his tactic of appearing humbly and “amusingly” tongue-tied at least once in most of his filmed appearances (a habit proven winsome by Bush and, subsequently, Boris Johnson).
The relevance of Hoggart’s observations in The Uses of Literacy here is that they illuminate elements of how powerful individuals seek trust. Increasingly, politicians are entertainers. This can be less a matter of appearing on, say Have I Got News For You than of performing in a superficially hapless manner for a moment or two in most public appearances, guaranteeing repeated showings of a politician’s seemingly harmless, supposedly genuine side.
Of course, various writings in Media Studies, old and new, can illuminate such processes of the mass media; but The Uses of Literacy is a particularly prescient example.
The Uprooted and Anxious: When Experience and Expectation Clash
One of the most enduring sections of Uses of Literacy remains Hoggart’s chapter on the ‘uprooted and anxious’. The uprooted are those who are born into working-class families, but later find themselves working and/or living in middle-class settings. Hoggart wrote extensively on how working-class experiences are often asymmetrical to middle-class expectations. The result for many, he suggested, was an often painful self-consciousness surrounding manner, dress and conversation; for many, this could lead to painful introversion.
The uprooted are epitomised in Hoggart’s 1957 text by ‘The Scholarship Boy’ – a figure based on his own experience as a working-class grammar-school boy and later, university student and academic. But Hoggart was writing in the decade after the 1944 Butler Education Act. In making the Eleven-plus compulsory in most state schools, this Act led to unprecedented numbers of working-class youngsters attending grammar schools and universities. It also meant, Hoggart warned, that the British education was sifting out the most critically-minded (and thus, potentially radical) youngsters from the working-class, to be groomed by the grammar-school system towards bourgeois ideals.
Hoggart later said he received more correspondence from readers about his narrative of the scholarship boy than he did about any other aspect of his work. On one occasion, a troubled young man travelled from Germany to Hoggart’s home, convinced that the author was the only person in the world who understood the anxieties he was facing.
Although Hoggart concentrates particularly on class and education (and in a clearly gendered way), his discussion of uprooting can now provide an illuminating counterpart to theories of social identity and ‘passing’. His commentary can also be made relevant to further aspects of the self, including nationality; race; sexual identity; and gender. (My own current research adapts aspects of Hoggart’s commentary to consider factors of class as part of the social anxieties faced by adults with Asperger Syndrome and ‘high-functioning’ autism. I am also discussing the process of autism diagnosis in adulthood as a form of uprooting).
Hoggart was almost forty when he wrote of his own ‘scholarship boy’ complex, and his acute awareness of how his background differed from many of his academic peers never seemed to fully leave him. His later autobiographies gave far less detail on his achievements than his insecurities. In his last memoir, written as his memory was beginning to fail – Hoggart suffered with dementia in his final years – recollections of how working-class self-consciousness sometimes damaged his confidence still keenly punctuate the narrative.
Writing of an academic conference in which he participated decades into his career, Hoggart recalled: ‘I felt like a mongrel among thoroughbred bulldogs.’ Hoggart suggested that a working-class background might render some students and academics uneasy with face-to-face scholarly debate, because ‘they do not so easily distinguish between a quarrel and an equable argument, and fear the second may develop into the first.’
Quarrels and ‘rows’, Hoggart once said, were a continual, ‘terribly unhappy’ part of his childhood in a small house shared with his Grandmother, two aunts (one of whom ‘had a violent temper’) and an uncle (who ‘took to the bottle’).
A limitation of Hoggart’s writing on class was that it focused somewhat insularly on his personal observations. Consequently, as in his discussion of academic quarrels, he sometimes appeared to be generalising an experience that may have actually been more particular. Writing The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart utilised his experiences of living or working mainly in Leeds, but also areas of Hull, Manchester and Sheffield. Had he spent time in Liverpool, where his late mother was raised, his definitions and discussions of working-class life might have been more diverse regarding nationality, race and religion. A most problematic gap in his discussion of the working-classes was his failure to consider immigrant workers.
It is also telling that most authors to claim Hoggart as an inspiration have been male. A most anachronistically unquestioning section of The Uses of Literacy is Hoggart’s portrait of working-class women. His lengthy discussion of working-class mothers begins by stating that these are individuals of whom ‘once can have little but admiration’. But while Hoggart’s commentary on working-class housewives was undeniably loving – and he was raised without a clear father figure – it was, in places, conspicuously presumptuous and patriarchal. For example, Hoggart asserted in The Uses of Literacy that the father’s position as the boss and ‘master of the house’ was a tradition which housewives would not want to see changed.
Aside from Hoggart’s overlooking how this made working-class women the most burdened people of all, such passages exemplify a deeper problem inThe Uses of Literacy. At times, Hoggart celebrated the strength and dignity of the oppressed and exploited, rather than questioning the wider systems that kept them in such positions.
Hoggart and the Left
Hoggart’s first book was Auden: An Introductory Essay (1951), one of the first extended studies of the poet. Although clearly admiring of W. H. Auden’s work, Hoggart’s monograph criticised him on one particular point. While he appeared broadly sympathetic Auden’s broadly Marxist stance in the 1930s, Hoggart asserted that the poet was nonetheless guilty of a ‘bourgeois idealisation of working-class life.’
This observation proved prescient. In The Uses of Literacy (his second book), Hoggart gained himself several critical enemies by characterising most Marxists as ‘middle class’, and reasserting that they overestimated the radical sympathies of the working class.
Numerous Marxist critics (most scintillatingly, Colin Sparks) would later attack Hoggart’s assumption that the working-classes were predominantly apolitical. But in this way, Hoggart’s harshest Marxist critics may have missed the point. Although not a Marxist, Hoggart was himself firmly Left-wing, and reiterated throughout The Uses of Literacy that he was concerned with a seemingly widespread passivity amongst the working classes. He was referenced his own background, and scrutinised the relationship between mass media and working-people, because he felt the reasons for supposed apoliticism needed to be better understood.
Hoggart wrote in 1990: ‘I am a once-born socialist and will remain one’. He quietly belonged to the steadily expanding tradition of alternative honours in British society, refusing a knighthood, and later, a peerage. But Hoggart’s ideals often seemed decidedly more moderate than what might be expected of a ‘once-born socialist’. His late son, Simon Hoggart, wrote in 2013 that his father had rejected communism once the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao had been exposed. Richard Hoggart wrote in 1978 that he considered himself ‘a reformer rather than a believer in revolutionary change’. He demonstrated commitment to these ideals through orthodox routes of committees and quangos.
However, Hoggart was often the most radical (and influential) member of such organisations. In 1976, he became Vice Chair of the British Arts Council – a post from which Margaret Thatcher sacked him in 1981. Hoggart had an impressive track record of swaying panels towards his views on culture and its importance for the working classes.
Hoggart’s influence on culture and its study
In 1960, Hoggart was one of nine academic witnesses called to the Old Bailey to defend Penguin Books against charges of obscenity. Penguin had recently attempted to publish an unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It was Hoggart who most boldly and successfully defended the novel.
He was similarly influential in the creation of BBC2. As part of the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting (1960-62), Hoggart successfully argued that the next television channel introduced in Britain should be non-commercial, and should offer educational alternatives to mainstream programming.
He was also one of the two major pioneers of Cultural Studies as an academic discipline in Britain. On being appointed Professor of English at Birmingham University in 1962, Hoggart, with Stuart Hall, co-founded the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Defining what ‘Cultural Studies’ actually meant, Hoggart explained in 1963 that was a combination of historical, sociological, philosophical and, at the core, literary approaches to texts. And, as Hoggart had shown in The Uses of Literacy – not unlike Roland Barthes in France, writing at the same time – anything can be a text, and used to illuminate wider social and political patterns.
Hoggart’s Later Years
In 1984, Hoggart retired from his final academic post as Warden of Goldsmith’s College, London, and continued writing prolifically. However, in contrast with his two main contemporaries in Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, Hoggart resisted close engagement with literary and cultural theory. By the 1980s, this refusal meant that Hoggart’s work lagged behind not only the thinking of fellow academics, but many students, too.
By 2003, The Uses of Literacy was, for the first time, out of print in the UK. Nonetheless, Hoggart’s Mass Media in a Mass Society was published in 2004. Its most substantial chapter compared media responses to the deaths of five women from 1997-2002: Princess Diana, Jill Dando, Paula Yates, Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother. Although his commentary on these representations was actually quite vague in discussing gender itself, Hoggart’s various observations in this little-known chapter on media and class may still interest researchers focusing on media coverage of death and celebrity.
An abiding feature of Hoggart’s work, whether in print or on committees, was his tendency to support – sometimes riskily – his arguments by citing personal experience. In this way, most of Hoggart’s work was, in some deep sense, autobiographical.
Yet, in his acclaimed three-volume autobiography Life and Times – subtitled A Local Habitation (1988), A Sort of Clowning (1990) and An Imagined Life(1991) – most of Hoggart’s narrative is actually less devoted to himself than to those who surrounded and influenced him.
In The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart cited the sayings of his Grandmother, local shopkeepers, and singers in working-men’s clubs as readily as he did quotes from Shakespeare, Arnold and Orwell. Defending Lady Chatterley’s Lover in court, Hoggart referred to his former workmates on a building site with as much pertinence as he did to Lawrence himself. Though the academic and autobiographical often merged in Hoggart’s work, both aspects conveyed a serious commitment to the cultural welfare of others – most immediately, the working classes.
However, towards the end, Hoggart utilised personal experience and observation to reflect on another vast, yet problematically marginalised social group: the elderly. Hoggart’s final published writing appeared in September 2005, the month of his 87th birthday. This was a fourth memoir,Promises to Keep: Thoughts in Old Age, but – somewhat symbolically – it was not presented as a nominal addition to Hoggart’s Life and Times series.Promises to Keep was not merely a record of further (and nearer) memories, but a quietly questioning, tacitly anxious reflection on memory itself. It also presented a series of haunting observations on a society and culture yet to adequately recognise the individuality, needs, and sheer numbers of people past the age of 80.
Hoggart lived to see the beginnings of a renewed interest in his achievements. International conferences on his work took place at the University of Sheffield in 2006, and Leeds Metropolitan University in 2009. Hoggart has since been the subject of scholarly books by Michael Bailey & Mary Eagleton, Sue Owen, and Fred Inglis. In 2010, Penguin reissued The Uses of Literacy.
Richard Hoggart died on 10 April 2014, leaving behind a far-reaching legacy of eccentric, uneven, but in so many ways, vital work.
Please note that this post previously appeared on the Rowman & Litterfield International website – http://www.rowmaninternational.com/news/richard-hoggarts-legacy-and-the-new-uses-of-literacy
Dr McGrath’s book ‘The Naming of Adult Autism’ will be published by Rowman and Littlefield International in January 2016.