According to The Classics in the Slums, by Jonathan Rose, academics like Barbara Herrnstein Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, are wrong. It is not an undeniable “fact that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare do not figure significantly in the personal economies of these [underprivileged] people, do not perform individual or social functions that gratify their interests, do not have value for them.” In fact, “Until fairly recently, Britain had an amazingly vital autodidact culture, where a large minority of the working classes passionately pursued classic literature, philosophy, and music.” For example:
Will Crooks (b. 1852), a cooper living in extreme poverty in East London, once spent tuppence on a secondhand Iliad, and was dazzled: “What a revelation it was to me! Pictures of romance and beauty I had never dreamed of suddenly opened up before my eyes. I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land. It was a rare luxury for a working lad like me just home from work to find myself suddenly among the heroes and nymphs of ancient Greece.” Nancy Sharman (b. 1925) recalled that her mother, a Southampton charwoman, had no time to read until her last illness, at age 54. Then she devoured the complete works of Shakespeare, and “mentioned pointedly to me that if anything should happen to her, she wished to donate the cornea of her eyes to enable some other unfortunate to read.” Margaret Perry (b. 1922) wrote of her mother, a Nottingham dressmaker: “The public library was her salvation. She read four or five books a week all her life but had no one to discuss them with. She had read all the classics several times over in her youth and again in later years, and the library had a job to keep her supplied with current publications. Married to a different man, she could have been an intelligent and interesting woman.”
In the nineteenth century, Shakespeare could still attract enthusiastic, rowdy working-class audiences, who commented loudly about the quality of the performances. Caravans of barnstorming actors brought the plays to isolated mining villages. In response to popular demand, Birmingham’s Theatre Royal devoted 30 percent of its repertoire to the Bard and other classic dramatists. In 1862, a theater manager provoked a near-riot when he attempted to substitute a modern comedy for an announced production of Othello.
Shakespeare provided a political script for labor leaders like J. R. Clynes (b. 1869), who rose from the textile mills of Oldham to become deputy leader of the House of Commons. In his youth he drew inspiration from the “strange truth” he discovered in Twelfth Night: “Be not afraid of greatness.” “What a creed!” he marveled. “How it would upset the world if men lived up to it.” Later, reading Julius Caesar, “the realisation came suddenly to me that it was a mighty political drama” about the class struggle, “not just an entertainment.” Once he overawed a stubborn employer by reciting an entire scene from the play: Clynes, as a friend put it, was “the only man who ever settled a trade dispute by citing Shakespeare.” Elected to Parliament in 1906, he read A Midsummer Night’s Dream while awaiting the returns.
An argument for reducing the duration of copyrights:
Working-class autodidacts read the classics in part because contemporary literature was too expensive. A 1940 survey found that while 55 percent of working-class adults read books, they rarely bought new books. An autodidact could build up an impressive library by haunting used-book stalls, scavenging castoffs, or buying cheap out-of-copyright reprints such as Everyman’s Library, but these offered only yesterday’s authors. Thus Welsh collier Joseph Keating (b. 1871) was able to immerse himself in Swift, Pope, Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Dickens, Thackeray, and Greek philosophy. There was one common denominator among these authors: all were dead. “Volumes by living authors were too high-priced for me,” Keating explained, but that did not bother him terribly. “Our school-books never mentioned living writers; and the impression in my mind was that an author, to be a living author, must be dead; and that his work was all the better if he died of neglect and starvation.”