The Literate Elite and the Rise of the Bourgeoisie

From the beginning -- from the invention of writing about 3,000 years ago -- literacy belonged first and foremost to the privileged classes. Literate activity demanded education, which itself was a luxury. Early on, we know, there was a class of scribes to document business and transcribe oral compositions (speeches, poems, etc.). But there was no guarantee that every aristocrat could read and write. In fact, until late in the Middle Ages, there were notable examples of kings and lords who could hardly pen their own names. However, this does not mean that such privileged people did not partake of literary culture.

For example, there was always a literary performer attached to royal and aristocratic households. The earliest literary performances were songs (poetry) accompanied by a stringed instrument such as a lyre or lute. Homer's Illiad and Odessey are the earliest known examples of literary compositions in the West (600 B.C.). Virtually all literary works were poetry until about 1700 A.D. We may find this surprising now, since we live in an age of prose. The age of poetry -- from about 600 B.C. to 1700 AD -- accounts for a much larger portion of history and underscores the oral, performative roots of literary culture.

For our purposes, "literary culture" comprises all activity surrounding the support and enjoyment of literary compositions, i.e., compositions meant for entertainment. We should remind ourselves that, until recently, entertainment was almost always associated with education and, more specifically, moral improvement. Middle English traveling plays, written for common folk, were often silly and even bawdy, but always they imparted a moral lesson, which is why we now call these works "morality plays." Literature for children, which was not invented until the 1700s, is still expected to deliver lessons on life and good behavior.

After the fall of Rome (circa 400 A.D.), literature took two paths: clerical and secular. Clerical was rooted in the Church. Secular was rooted in every-day life. All clerical writing was in Latin. Secular was in English, starting with Old English (400-1000), turning into Middle English (1000-1450), and then, in Shakespeare's time, Modern English. Latin was for the learned class, which meant that all privileged people studied and read it. This was the case as late as 1900, especially in England. Until the age of print, virtually all important works of literature and learning were in Latin. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1386) marked a change to literature in the vernacular (every-day language -- in this case, English).

Chaucer (1340-1400) followed the example of Francesco Petraca (1305-74), the Italian writer known as Petrarch, who made a big splash with his Decameron, short stories written in Italian, at a time when serious literature was written almost exclusively in Latin. In other words, the move to vernacular literature was happening throughout Europe. The significance of this change was that, now, common folk had access to literature and, in fact, could contribute to it without having had an extensive education. Shakespeare is the golden example of how this change gave people of modest means access to literature.

Until about 1700, Latin remained the primary language of learning (for science and philosophy), law, and religion. Keep in mind that, although literature was now in the vernacular, most people could not read or write. The notion of universal education did not arise until the 1700s. As you've begun to notice, the 1700s (eighteenth century) is a pivotal time, when the Western world experienced what we now call "the Enlightenment," which gave rise to both the American and the French revolutions. At bottom, these revolutions were about the value of the common man and woman. More specifically, they were about the rise of the middle/upper-middle class, known as the bourgeoisie (pronounced boorsh-wa-zee).

The bourgeoisie is a term still in use. Originally, it described a class of people who were not born to privilege but who did well enough to gain education and position that placed them well above the working class. The term now more broadly defines those people who have done well, period. In our country, this includes the upper-middle class. Broader education and greater job mobility (thanks to the industrial revolution) made the bourgeoisie possible, growing their numbers tremendously from 1750-1950. But we can trace their rise as far back as the Middle Ages, when the merchant class (textile traders, jewelers, bankers, etc.) began to prosper.

The rise of the bourgeoisie made the aristocrats nervous, for all the obvious reasons: the growing power and influence of those not born to power and influence unbalanced what had seemed to be the world's natural order. That order was all about hierarchy and every person being born to a certain place and position. For centuries and centuries, people had assumed that nobody had to right to question his or her position in the world. You were expected to do what your father or mother did, and no better. To mark their own superiority, the aristocrats derided the bourgeoisie as the nouveau riche ("the new rich") and accused these upstarts of having no "manners." In fact, we can locate our modern notions of manners, decorum, "class," and Culture in the divide that separated the born-rich from the new-rich.

The American and French revolutions proved that the aristocrats did indeed have something to be nervous about. These national uprisings marked the end of a paradigm of aristocratic power -- kings and queens who presumed to speak for God -- that had been in place for a millennium. As a result, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were about the rise of parliamentary governments and the fall of monarchies. By 1900, for instance, the English monarchs were merely figureheads. In 1918, the Russians murdered their monarchs. This process continues today, most recently with the "Arab Spring" uprisings, which overturned dictator kings in Lybia, Egypt, and elsewhere.

As the bourgeoisie gained more wealth, they enjoyed more leisure and so they entertained ambitions of doing what the aristocrats did. This included reading and writing literature.

Book Culture

The rise of the middle class mirrored, and sometimes overlapped, the rise of the bourgeoisie. Both classes aspired to "better" themselves through education and cultural refinement. Their efforts produced a number of notable developments:

Universal Education = Universal Literacy:
The newly created United States of America touted its near universal literacy as a point of pride. But, at the time, this was no great achievement, since the nation was quite small and thoroughly homogeneous (with the exception of the ostracized indigenous population). As the Republic matured, it welcomed large numbers of immigrants, whose numbers drastically lowered the nation's literacy rate and raised questions about universal education. From the start, the Founding Fathers "repeatedly stressed the need for an educational system that would reinforce political quiescence and social order." In other words, education would make citizens obedient. This notion gained renewed power as immigrants flooded into the country, many of them illiterate and, worse, unable to speak English. The great fear was that these foreigners would take over somehow. So, it seemed of utmost importance to make them "American" as quickly as possible.

Colleges and Universities
The kind of university education you now enjoy was wholly unknown in the nineteenth century. Until about 1900, university education focused on lectures, rote memorization, and learning Latin and Greek. Reading was limited, often restricted to the ancient classics (Plato, et al.) because "the works of the ancients contain the most noble nourishment." It was thought that too much reading would confuse a student and possible make him unteachable. Consequently, students had limited access to university libaries. Independent thought was discouraged. Discussion was absent in the classroom. Rules were strict and students, as a result, were rowdy outside of the classroom.

In 1862 and 1890, the U.S. government donated land to many states in order to establish "land grant" college and universities. These schools vastly expanded the nation's capacity to educate students and broadened admissions practices. These schools' emphasis on agriculture, science, and engineering created a more practical approach to education.

By the late 1800s, market pressures and student complaints forced universities and colleges to alter their rigid, tradition-bound curricula. By 1900, many were offering courses in English literature and most were teaching English composition (before this it was only Latin composition). By 1920, reading American and English classics was integral to most curricula. By 1950, many universities were offering courses in contemporary literature. The inclusion of contemporary literature was groundbreaking, as it began to alter or undermine the "great books" notion of the past.

Although Americans have never gone to college in great numbers, it is worth noting that, between 1940 and 1960, enrollments increased by 40%. Now, approximately 25% of American adults attend college (but don't necessarily graduate). This population has potentially a large impact on the book market, especially when we consider that they have been trained to read and appreciate "literature."

Circulating Libraries
Libraries have been around almost as long as writing has. Until recently, most libraries were private institutions. Some opened to the public for a fee. With the exception of the Library of Congress (founded in 1800), the first public library in this country was Boston's, opened in 1854. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw a burgeoning of public libraries, many funded by philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie. Still, fee-based circulating libraries did not disappear until the early twentieth century.

In the twentieth century, public libraries acted as an educational hub for many communities, offering lectures, readings, and classes. Despite a fear that digital media would put libraries out of business, libraries in fact have never been busier.

The Great Books Program
In the 1920s, a group of college professors started the Great Books movement in order to counter what they saw as the growing pragmatism of university curricula. Great Books operates on the assumption that there are a finite number of timeless, great works of literature. These books contain the best ideas that civilization has to offer. The three criteria for picking great books were:
1) contemporary significance: the book has relevance to the problems and issues of our times
2) re-readability: the book is inexhaustible -- it can be read again and again with benefit
3) relevance to great ideas: the book illuminates many of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.[

The list of 433 works by 74 writers included no works by living authors. These books were published as a 54-volume set by Encyclopedia Britannica and sold for about $100 a set. Over one million were sold by 1960, proving that middle class America was hungry for self-improvement. The success of Great Books underscored the commodification of knowledge and established the notion of a monolithic canon of classics. "Canon" originally referred to church law. As applied to books, it refers to books that have been granted the highest regard by academics. The canon supposedly contains the gold standard of literature.

In the 1960s, educators and critics began debating the issue of what is and isn't, what should and should not be, canonical literature. As a result, the Great Books movement lost ground. However, it gained some traction again in the 1990s as a result of the Culture Wars (see below).

The Ideal of Self-Improvement
Central to the growth of literacy and the growth of the publishing industry was the ideal of self-improvement, which compelled ambitious people to buy or borrow books in order to educate themselves. The roots of self-improvement go back to the Old Testament and the notion that humans must work hard to regain the righteousness they lost when Adam and Eve were cast from Paradise. Western religion has always emphasized humankind's need to be ever-vigilant of its behavior and ever studious of the Bible. This notion gained renewed momentum during the Reformation (1500s) as millions of Christians left the Catholic church in order to secure a more meaningful relationship to God.

These Protestants believed that every man and woman could apprehend God's will without the mediation of a priest (who spoke in Latin, no less). This direct relation to God introduced a more personal approach to religion and, in turn, encouraged private study of the Bible. Private study was revolutionary at the time because it undermined the authority of the priests, who were supposed to tell parishioners what to do and how to think. Without the priests' guidance, a Christian had to decide how best to study and interpret the Bible for him/herself.

It would take several centuries before this initial call for independence expressed itself in such concepts as "the self-made man." Again, the 1700s was the century in which so much of this came together, culminating in two revolutions that championed (or seem to champion) the commoner. Shortly after this, significantly, arose a solider of modest origins -- Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) -- who would become Emperor of France and, for a time, almost rule the world. Talk about a self-made man!

A few key factors that contributed to such change were greater social mobility created by a growing middle class, greater job mobility created by the industrial revolution, and greater individualism encouraged by competition in a free-market economy. In the nineteenth century, these forces helped create the wide-spread assumption that any man could take himself from rags to riches through hard work. America was full of such examples.

Horatio Alger, Jr., (1834-99) made his fortune writing novels about poor boys who, through pluck and honesty, win their fortunes. His stories were so popular that the term "Horatio Alger story" became synonymous with a "rags-to-riches" story. The Gold Rush of 1848 -- which made the fortunes of many men who were willing to brave the trip West and the hardships of mining -- seemed to prove to the world that America was the "land of opportunity." Generally, Americans' "pioneer spirit" was a badge of honor that encouraged self-reliance and risk-taking among those born without privilege.

Two other significant forces in the nineteenth century were charitable organizations, like the Salvation Army, and value-building organizations like the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) contributed to the ideal of self-improvement by insisting that anybody, no matter what his or her sins or mistakes, could start anew. Related to these efforts were educational programs that sought to civilize immigrants. If immigrants could learn to read and write English and become model citizens, then why couldn't any American learn to better him/herself?

By the mid-nineteenth century, literary societies, lecture series, and other adult educational programs began springing up all over America. The Lyceum movement was an early example. Founded in 1826 by a teacher who believed that education was a life-long pursuit, the Lyceum movement created tours of plays, lectures, classes, and debates for adults. These traveling educational attractions brought culture to towns and villages that otherwise would have enjoyed little intellectual stimulation. A later example was the Chautauqua Institution, established in 1871 in southwest New York, by the lake of the same name. It was a cultural/educational retreat that gave birth to numerous traveling Chautauquas in other states. In fact, the Chautauqua Institution functions today pretty much as it did 150 years ago.

How-to literature was another strain of the self-improvement movement. The earliest forms of how-to literature were tracts or pamphlets, usually on religious topics and specifically on ways to lead a righteous life and save one's soul. Relgious tract societies grew numerous in the nineteenth century and published hundreds of thousands of tracts, which went a long way in helping people develop an appetite for reading. One kind of specialized tract belonged to temperance societies, organizations that preached against drinking. These societies triumphed ultimately by changing public perception to the extent that Congress made drinking illegal: Prohibition became the 18th amendment of the Constitution in 1920.

Organized campaigns of improvement of the mind, body, and soul inevitably supported self-education, which generated the publication of popular encyclopedias and dictionaries for use at home. The best known today are the Encyclopedia Britannica, first published in 1768-71, and Webster's dictionary, first published in 1828. All encyclopedias and many dictionaries were published serially (one volume at a time to make them more affordable) and sold by subscription. A huge number of scientific books were published in "popular" editions -- "popular" meaning for everyday folk. Increasingly, the public was eager to read such subjects as geology, zoology, and archeology, for new explorations and advances in the sciences were making the once-mysterious world more accessible and fascinating.

The ultimate expression of the self-improvement ideal were correspondence courses that allowed people to take classes through the mail: these were the earliest versions of what we now call "distance learning." As this form of education was unregulated, anybody could offer the pubic a course in just about anything. Correspondence courses usually focused on low-end technical trades, like drafting, drawing, book-keeping, shorthand, etc. because these were easiest to teach via pamphlets. By the early decades of the twentieth century, it seemed you could buy just about any kind of self-improvement plan through the mail: everything from weight gain ("Who wants to be skinny?") to flower seed sales to detective work. The ideal of self-improvement prevails today, most notably in the marketing of online education and innumerable fitness and weight-loss programs.

Book Clubs and Reading Groups

Book clubs were yet another form of the self-improvement program, for they offered the common reader guidance by selecting which books to read. The first book clubs (circa 1800) were actually reading groups -- small groups of privileged readers who gathered to discuss a book. Like so many practices started by the literate elite, it was just a matter of time before people of more modest means (i.e., the middle class) adopted these practices. By the 1920s, there were numerous mail-order book clubs in the U.S., the most famous of which was the Book-of-the-Month Club. In 1928, just two years after it started, the BOMC had 100,000 members. Reading groups often sprang up around book club membership, providing a community of readers to share and discuss books.

The original reading groups of the nineteenth century gave literate activity a social center of gravity. The most informal of these amounted to little more than friends gathering to hear one member read aloud. Families partook of similar activity, which underscored the fact that, from 1850-1900, reading was a premium form of entertainment, as well as self-improvement. It would never again have so wide a reach, for soon it would be eclipsed by radio, motion pictures, then television and now digital media.

High Brow Vs. Low Brow Culture

"Low-brow" refers to the physiognomy of our apish cousins, whose foreheads do not rise nearly as high as ours. The term dates from the late nineteenth century when evolution was being debated and people were thinking a lot about humans and apes and inevitably comparing the two. Also, it was a time when physiognomy was considered a science and the study of facial features seemed to reveal a lot about intelligence and moral soundness. When cavemen fossils were unearthed, scientists were puzzled. Who were these low-browed people? Not humans, surely!

It was only a matter of time (circa 1900) before the terms "high-brow" and "low-brow" were applied to culture. However, this divide between the so-called refined arts and the so-called crude arts had been in place for centuries. From the beginning, the literate elite felt their significant difference from the illiterate masses. This gave rise to debates about English usage (spelling and grammar) and even pronunciation, among other things. The upper-crust accent we now associate with British aristocracy was actually an artifice developed in the 1700s to further establish this difference between the privileged and the common folk. In Shakespeare's time, everybody sounded pretty much the same.

The Novel Revolution
Because it was so popular and appealed broadly to readers with limited education, the novel was revolutionary. Invented in the 1700s and well developed by the 1830s, the novel undermined established authority, especially the authority of the Church. In most villages and small towns, the local minister was the most educated person and, as such, acted as the go-to authority, everybody's window on the world. But now, with the arrival of novels, there were a myriad of windows on the world and all of them were accessible to anybody who could read. As scholar Cathy Davison puts it:
The novel did not rhyme or scan. it required no knowledge of Latin or Greek, no intermediation or interpretation by cleric or academic. It required, in fact . . . virtually no traditional education or classical erudition, since, by definition, the novel was new, novel.

A primary element of the novel's revolutionary impact was that it appealed mostly to women. More novels were read by women than men in the nineteenth century. This was the century of the romance. Yes, the romance novels we know today were invented in the nineteenth century. They were sensational and suggestive and many critics, the church authorities foremost among them, disapproved. Said one critic in 1845, "It is romance reading, more than everything else put together, that has so thoroughly corrupted the taste of the present age."

Remember that, until this time, most writing had been in the service of religion. The change started in the 1700s as the middle class grew, education spread, literacy and the population increased tremendously, and industrial jobs and larger cities made it harder to control people. The novel, often written and read purely for entertainment, was a form of liberation, especially for women, who had little power and few social outlets. The argument against novels was that they encouraged fantasy and made readers unfit for the real world. In an effort to counter the novel's influence, critics, reviewers, and other authorities promoted "serious" literature that took on big issues (like morality), offered intellectual challenge, dealt with "realism," and offered a message. As a result, by the twentieth century there were two kinds of novels: the popular and "the literary."

Coffee Houses and the Literati
You may think that your favorite coffee shop, with its comfy couches for reading or internet surfing and its no-hassle I-might-stay-here-all-day atmosphere, is a newish thing. But it's not new at all. Coffee houses got their start in England as early as the 1650s. They quickly became social centers for men. (Women were not allowed.) By the 1700s, coffee houses were intellectual homes to writers and artists, politicians and lawyers. Central to life in a coffee house was the many newspapers available there. Reading in the coffee house encouraged debate and conversation and thus coffee houses became incubators of ideas and influential in matters of taste. In short, they became de facto centers of learning.

The richest examples of this come to us from the Augustan period (1690-1744) in England, when so many famous men of letters -- Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, joseph Addison -- gathered in coffee houses and produced work that enriched coffee house life. It is said that American democracy was drafted in coffee houses. In the 1950s-60s, American coffee houses were homes to poets and other writers, as well as artists and musicians. Today, coffee houses continue to carry their association with literary activity, though on a more modest scale, as would-be novelists compose feverishly on their laptops, their mocha lattes steaming nearby.

Coffee house literary life was always associated with high-brow culture. It stood in opposition to popular culture, which in the twentieth century favored "trashy" novels, TV, movies, and other forms of "mindeless entertainment."

Literary Magazines
Literary magazines in America are a product of the democratization of literate activity. They began, circa 1800, as an expression of America's newfound (post-colonial) literary freedom and, too, as the beneficiary of growing literacy and leisure. They are called "little" because they have small circulations (50-5,000) and their size is usually small (duodecimo vs. the standard quarto size of books). They are often small, too, in their scope: that is, they are often specialized. Some literary magazines restrict their focus to a certain genre, like poetry. Others focus only on a particular topic, like peace studies or dog stories.

Typically, a literary magazine would publish quarterly. But some would publish just once a year. Because they demand little overhead, literary magazines have often been at the forefront of literary innovation. Many literary magazines espouse a certain aesthetic bias in order to promote a new way of looking at writing. The Kenyon Review, for example, was founded inthe 1950s to promote the precepts of New Criticism. The online magazine DIAGRAM, founded in 2002, promotes mixed media writing.

Thanks to their innovations and their wide variety, literary magazines have thoroughly enriched the literary landscape of American writing. They now number over 500 in print versions and easily that number online. Since the corporatization (vertical integration) of big-press publishers, literary magazines have filled the void and kept American writing vibrant and varied, often publishing works the corporate publishers deem too risky.

Because literary magazines are small in scope and often cutting-edge, they have always been part of high-brow culture. You'll notice that high-brow prefers the difficult over the easy, the complicated over the simplified, the obscure over the obvious. In other words, the high-brow project is about preserving the elite (hard-to-access) status of the "literary": writing. You can see a sampling of literary magazines here.

Censorship and The Culture Wars
Governments have found many ways to censor literary activity and thus silence dissenters or dissidents. We might start with the monopoly on publishing imposed by the English crown in 1557, with the formation of the Stationers' Company. Obviously, there is always a political reason for censorship. The Stationers' Company was a means of suppressing Protestant propaganda. (Those are the same protestants, derided as "round heads," who would make their way to the New World a century later in order to find some relief from persecution.) Among the ways governments have sought to disguise their censorship of rivals are licensing restrictions, libel laws, obscenity laws, postal regulations, manufacturing restrictions (e.g., you can't use a certain kind of paper without permission), and so on. There's always a way. Censorship in colonial America led to its banishment in the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

The Catholic church has had a heavy hand in censorship from early on (300-500 AD), condemning and burning heretical texts and killing those who would dare own them. Always, the church's rationale was to eradicate heresy, which was not only an affront to God but also a crime against humanity. The church's most notorious campaign of censorship was the Inquisition, which lasted in various permutations until late in the nineteenth century and accounted for thousands of deaths and untold destruction of books. The Catholic church issued its list of forbidden books -- Index Librorum Prohibitorum -- until 1966.

Unofficial means of censorship usually take the role of a concerned citizen who wants to safeguard the public from pernicious influences. In 1807, an English physician, Thomas Bowdler, published The Family Shakespeare, the complete works of Shakespeare expurgated of all obscenities, blasphemies, and suggestive language. For example, every time the exclamation "God!" appeared, Bowdler changed it to "Heavens!" (Apparently, he was oblivious to the demands of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter.) Eventually, "to Bowdlerize" came to mean the gutting of a literary work with ridiculous, heavy-handed censorship.

We can see in Bowdler's efforts a self-righteous presumption that incites fury in those who feel that a literary work is sacrosanct and meant to live unaltered -- as the author's world view -- for all time. Censorship always begs the question, "Who are you to tell me what I should or should not read?" And: "Who are you to alter the words of any writer?"

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most banned book in America. Usually, the objection is that, because it uses the "n" word, it is prejudiced and a bad influence on school children. Literary historians are quick to point out that, when the book was written, the "n" word was not a sign of prejudice and so we shouldn't judge the book according to our current standards.

One of the most famous censorship cases involved James Joyce's Ulysses, published in 1922 and banned for obscenity until 1936, when the ruling judge proclaimed, ""We think 'Ulysses' is a book of originality and sincerity of treatment, and that it has not the effect of promoting lust." Another famous case involved D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, published in 1926 and banned for obscenity until 1960. In both cases, the defense received support from literary scholars, who helped by interpreting the books' methods and themes.

The profession of literary scholar/literary critic in the twentieth century announced the strength of high-brow culture in the U.S. Professors and critics and book reviewers were arbiters of taste, the literati. Often, they promoted works that the general public could not understand and, regardless, did not want to read. It seemed to the literati the common folk were clueless and, as a result, dangerous because, without a second thought, they would abridge a book just to make it a faster read (as Readers' Digest did on a grand scale). The differences between the literati and the common folk would eventually be called the "Culture Wars."

The Culture Wars announced themselves in the 1980s and took two forms: the war among the literati themselves -- between the traditionalists and the new-comers; and the war between the literati and the common folk. The war among the literati themselves centered on the question of what were the great books, who were the great authors? The literary canon in high schools and colleges had been in place for nearly a century and the traditionalists were not inclined to change it. But the newcomers (students and mostly new/young faculty) thought it was time for a change. Their complaint was that the literary canon supported the status quo of "dead white men" and was no longer relevant. The canon needed more diversity, more writers of color especially.

The other war, between the literati and the common folk centered on the common folks' insistence that the literati were pampered snobs who were trying to force their tastes onto an unwilling nation. This came to a head when conservatives in Congress attempted to eradicate all funding to the National Endowment for the Arts because it grants money to writers and artists who are making obscene and useless works. The literati charged that this was censorship, that artists should be allowed to make whatever they wanted to make because that freedom was essential to art. The conservatives charged that, if artists were going to get government funds -- money from the electorate -- then they would have to be more responsive to the pubic good.

The NEA survived, but barely. And the culture war/s continue in various ways, generally announcing itself in an us-versus-them scenario that either makes the artist or the taxpayer a victim


1) Independent Presses and "Little" Magazines

2) The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses

3) History of Censorship

4) What Muncie Reads

5) The Coffee House of the 1700s

6) The Digital Divide

7) the New Librarians

8) American Book Awards

8) Zines

9) How Literary Culture Became Pop Culture

10) Literary Cultures

11) History of Self-improvement (read preface only)

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