Literature and the Threats from Commerce

Notes from The Preachers of Culture by Margaret Mathieson (1975)

Chapter 4 – Literature and the Threats from Commerce

This chapter briefly presents the fears about the corrupting influence of cheap press and film in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

  • Support for study of English Literature long before its acceptance by Oxford and Cambridge because it was seen as a subject that could protect its readers from the corrupting effects of cheap fiction and newspapers. It was hoped that English Literature would provide experiences which would lift pupils above the commercial world’s crude sensationalism.
  • D.J. Palmer has studied this and showed that the recommendation of good books as a defence against corruption has a long history: 1660 Charles Hoole, 1824 Rev. Vicesimus Knox, Rev. H.J. Rose given as examples.
  • As literacy spread and cheap press grew the study of Literature was recommended less generally against “loose behaviour” and the “pursuit of lucre” but specifically against the power of sensational fiction to deprave and corrupt.
  • One of the criticisms of the failure of the classical curriculum taught in the nineteenth century was that it failed to defend against the attractions of the popular press. Gothic novels identified as causing concern.
  • Quotes 1856 Bagehot‘s condemnation of sensationalism in fiction: “Exaggerated emotions, violent incidents, monstrous characters, crowd our canvas. They are the resource of a weakness which would obtain the fame of strength. Reading is about to become a series of collisions against aggravated breakers, of beatings with imaginary surf.
  • By 1850s publishers targeting younger readers and fear was that villains would be romanticised and wrongdoing imitated.
  • Increased anxieties encouraged recommendations to include more poetry in schools’ curriculum. Contributors to the Report of the Committee on Education 1895-6 advocated the inclusion of a wide range of authors in school libraries to combat the attractions of “pernicious matter”.
  • Edmund Holmes in What Is and What Might Be said that one of the prices being paid for the failure of elementary education was children’s surrender to “vicious and dealising literature”.
  • Mathieson: “There is little doubt that the advance of English as a school subject can partly be explained by the coincidence of spreading literacy with the commercial success of cheap fiction; literature, it was clearly hoped, would act as a defence against the penny-dreadful.
  • Mathieson gives examples from early 20th century where teachers are encouraged to challenge sensational popular literature. In promoting good books teachers were seen as developing good characters. Mathieson: “Part of the civilising experience of imaginative engagement with great literature was thought to be the resistance it created to the damaging effects of the second-rate.
  • W.S. Tomkinson presents a number of interesting assumptions:
    • Appeal of the visual (cinema): “Children who are reared on the strong meat of the picture palaces will come to the more delicate viands of literature with dulled palates and jaded appetites.
    • Tomkinson assumes that the life-style associated with appreciation of high-Art is desirable for whole population (he sees high Art as delicate).
  • 1921 Report on The Teaching of English in England deplored the mechanical way reading had been taught in Victorian elementary schools. Ignoring Literature had caused pupils to be “the help­less prey of anything which appears in print”.
  • Mathieson (on 1921 Report): “The Report’s criticism of nineteenth-century teaching methods is illuminating. It reveals the writers’ immense faith in the power of education and, importantly for the strengthening ideology of English teaching, contains their conviction that English, well taught, would provide successful defence against cheap fiction. Sharing Matthew Arnold’s belief in the moral power of literature, the Newbolt Report pleads a passionate case for the serious inclusion of English in every child’s timetable.
  • The 1921 Report accepted the notion of the superiority of art to the rest of life and strengthened anti-industrialism. Insisted on the inseparability of fine literature from quality of life: “Dissemination of liberal culture, traditionally the monopoly of the leisured classes, throughout the whole of society, was becoming defined as the special mission of the English teacher.
  • Statements about the good that English teaching could do plus the redemptive power of Literature plus the “threat” of commercial forces developed insistence on need for exceptional teachers.