Reginald Pound's history of The Strand Magazine probably qualifies as literary criticism, but really it reads more like a memoir. After all, Pound ope...moreReginald Pound's history of The Strand Magazine probably qualifies as literary criticism, but really it reads more like a memoir. After all, Pound opens his account of The Strand with personal descriptions of interviewing Sir Winston Churchill, who regularly contributed articles to the popular monthly magazine. The book reminds me a lot of Amy Cruse's book The Victorians and Their Reading in that both books have a very chatty, intimate tone towards these now long dead authors, illustrators, and editors.
Pound's books is probably not the place to go for a really detailed analysis of editing practices or circulation figures (for example, the impressive figure of 400,000 copies a month regularly gets inflated a bit to "half a million" without much fuss). That said, the book is a gold mine of anecdotes about Victorian and Edwardian cultural and political figures. One does not regularly encounter in more contemporary literary criticism, for example, the story of a waiter stealing a chicken bone from Anthony Hope's lunch plate to give to his girlfriend. Or about how Sir George Newnes (the publisher of The Strand) had to open a vegetarian restaurant in order to fund what would become the immensely popular magazine Tit-Bits, only to be caught eating at chop-houses.
A book by no means hard on the eyes, although probably really only of interest to Baker Street Irregulars and those of us who can't get enough of Victorian publishing history. Still, good fun, as far as literary criticism goes. (less)
Altick's survey of the history of reading in the 19th century has remained a mainstay for anyone interested in the literature, print culture, or socia...moreAltick's survey of the history of reading in the 19th century has remained a mainstay for anyone interested in the literature, print culture, or social history of the Victorian era. It is also a remarkably accessible study, given that so much of it is based on texts no longer read much even by Victorianists. The book examines a number of influences that contributed to reading practices among the working classes. Perhaps most importantly, Altick reveals that our own assumptions towards public education as a necessary good developed out a 19th century context that was more ambivalent towards literacy for the working classes and saw reading as potentially subversive and dangerous. As the ruling classes found themselves confronted with first the French Revolution and then later the Napoleonic Wars, the idea of teaching the rumbling working classes to read such works as Thomas Paine's Common Sense was hardly an attractive one. Literature might have the power to soothe the working classes into a state of complacency, in which the ills of alcohol, lust, and crime would have no appeal, but it might also have the power to rouse dissatisfied, hungry crowds into a frenzy. Erring on the side of protecting their own interests, the ruling classes frustrated attempts at public education, voting reform, and the repeal of the "taxes on knowledge" (i.e., stamp and paper duties that made it all but impossible for working and lower-middle class people to buy reading material) until essentially the mid-century.
The subject matter is replete with anecdotal material of the type that opens all kinds of doors into how people actually lived, versus how we often see them represented as living. So, for example, Altick explains that a number of factors held back the working classes from reading, even if they were literate and had access to reading materials. Candles, for example, were expensive and houses were crowded; for a single reader to monopolize a candle (instead of a rush lamp, which gave off weaker light) was expensive and unlikely. The chances of using natural light were slim, as well, given the taxes on windows. The issue of windows is obliquely referred to later, as well, when Altick recounts a window as one of a family's prized possessions--the window was removed from the house each time the family relocated.
Altick's sympathies are clearly with the working classes and those who fought for their rights. It is a bias that is particularly clear in the footnotes, where Altick allows his ironic, dry humor freer reign. In discussing the evangelical push for public education, and the arguments repeatedly used in favor of reading as a bulwark against crime and sin, Altick notes:
"Contemporary advocates of adult schools found it easier to dwell upon the reformation in manners and morals that the institutions accomplished. A man who had lived with a woman for twenty years, suddenly becoming 'convinced of the sinfulness of his conduct,' married her. Another man, eighty-eight years old, who had learned to spell words of two syllables, was reported to be 'much improved in his moral character' since he had gone in for education--though one doubts that a man of his age was capable of vice on any really impressive scale." (149)
Altick is clearly exasperated at points by the prejudices and biases that resisted public education, the spread of literacy, and the suppression of the working classes, and most particularly by those who professed to support the rights of the laborers. But the book ends with an utterly optimistic view that contemporary scholars today will find in the past the methods of avoiding similar mistakes in the future. It is a hope, although most likely felt by current academics, not often expressed in academic titles. Altick's style and tone are figments of a bygone era of scholarship and yet the work has endured, and rightfully so.(less)