Richard Hoggart: cultural critic and educationalist, 24 September 1918 - 10 April 2014

Richard Hoggart, one of Britain's leading cultural commentators and public intellectuals, has died aged 95.

Michael Bailey
11 April 2014

Richard Hoggart, who has died aged 95, was one of Britain’s foremost post-war public intellectuals and cultural commentators. A literary critic by training, he published over thirty books and contributed to numerous policy documents, the sum of which represents an extensive and consistent engagement with normative questions and public discourses that continue to inform contemporary debates on a wide range of subjects, including popular culture, media literacy, educated citizenship, and social democracy.

Born in Leeds in 1918, Herbert Richard Hoggart was orphaned at the age of eight and subsequently raised as an only child by five adult relatives (his grandmother, two aunts, an uncle, and an older cousin) in a terraced back-to-back in Hunslet. Once a thriving working-class neighbourhood located just south of the city centre, the local habitation of Hunslet was to profoundly influence Hoggart’s later interest in working-class cultural habits, social rituals, and changing attitudes. His childhood was also to shape his enduring attachment to working-class cultural ideals and social practices and his emphasis on communal values and neighbourliness.

Like the lives of many working-class people who grew up in the urban north of England during the interwar period, Hoggart’s childhood was characterised by economic hardship and ‘having to make do’, an austere way of life that often depended on unofficial acts of charity, goodwill, and fellowship. As Hoggart himself noted more than once in his writings, ‘you had to stick together’. To fail to help one’s neighbours in times of need could result in their suffering and public humiliation, which could, in turn, all too easily befall one’s own family. Hence Hoggart’s oft-cited admiration for the friendly society tradition, a nineteenth-century, working-class mutual insurance institution built upon common need, public trust, mutual honesty, and social responsibility, in short, an individual and collective willingness to improve each other’s lot.

Hoggart’s childhood also explained his commitment to ‘the sense of family attachment’. Despite the emotional upheaval of having been orphaned and the isolation from his older brother and younger sister, Hoggart recalled the relief he felt when it was decided that he and his siblings would be cared for by the extended family rather than being sent to an orphanage: ‘We were “family” and we stayed family.’ This sense of ‘belonging to somebody’ resonated strongly in Hoggart’s writings. Time and again, he eulogised the family as a place in which we learn to love others, and not just to love ourselves. A family ‘can give us unique access to our own emotions, can constantly open the heart; if we will let it’. In other words, like neighbourliness, family life teaches us to be empathetic; in so doing, it broadens and enriches our social being and interpersonal connectedness.

This was lived experience that Hoggart took for granted, but it was to be challenged in the 1970s by academic sociologists who based an interpretation of family ‘structure’ in the Industrial Revolution on the assumption that industrialisation brought a transition from ‘normative’ to ‘calculative’ modes of working-class behaviour, only to be convincingly contradicted in their turn by the pioneer oral historian Elizabeth Roberts, whose research vindicated Hoggart’s ‘inherited’ knowledge. Family life, as Hoggart understood, thus provides a basis for a form of social responsibility that extends beyond contractual rights and obligations to a sense of shared moral and affective commitments, of feeling ‘members one of another’.

If ‘hearth and home’ was instrumental in shaping Hoggart’s deep-rooted sense of communitas, the world of ‘education and learning’ was to prove equally important in terms of his future commitment to critical discrimination in social and cultural matters. Despite failing the eleven plus examination he was educated at the local grammar school, thanks to a headmaster who thought Hoggart had talent and insisted the Local Education Authority (LEA) admit him to Cockburn High School. Financial assistance from the local Board of Guardians provided him with the opportunity to continue studying for his Higher School Certificate, a prerequisite qualification for entrance into university. Further assistance in the form of an LEA scholarship enabled him to take up a place in the English Department at Leeds University, where he was taught by Bonamy Dobree.

Under the tutelage of Dobree, Hoggart extended and refined his literary and analytical skills. Dobree also introduced Hoggart to different forms of social conduct and manners, many of which would have been unfamiliar to someone from a working-class background. The combination of cultural development and changing social habitus was to fill Hoggart with a deep ambivalence and uncertainty. On the one hand, education (meant here in the broadest possible sense) provided him with unimagined opportunities for learning and upward social mobility. On the other, education exacerbated his self-consciousness about class, not least his self-confessed obsession with his own cultural proficiency compared to that of his peers, many of whom were solidly middle class.

The experience of being betwixt and between two social classes, the consequent sense of loss and self-doubt, left Hoggart feeling ‘anxious’ and ‘uprooted’. This sense of unease and dissatisfaction was present throughout his childhood (a result of being ‘marked out’ among his peers from an early age), but it was accentuated as he became progressively detached from the vitality of his working-class past. Not unlike one of Matthew Arnold’s ‘aliens’, he was no longer one of ‘us’, but nor did he feel himself to be one of ‘them’, something he was to reflect upon when writing about his experience of being a ‘scholarship boy’:

Almost every working-class boy [sic] who goes through the process of further education by scholarships finds himself chafing against his environment during adolescence. He is at the friction-point of two cultures . . . As childhood gives way to adolescence and that to manhood this kind of boy tends to be progressively cut off from the ordinary life of his group . . . He has left his class, at least in spirit, by being in certain ways unusual; and he is still unusual in another class, too tense and over-wound . . . He is sad and also solitary; he finds it difficult to establish contact even with others in his condition.

This deep-rooted sense of alienation led Hoggart to transcend some of the ideas, customs, and habits both of the class to which he nominally belonged as a child, and the professional class he was to later join as an adult; he chose instead, adopting Arnold’s example, to be led ‘by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection’, to perfect one’s ‘best self’ not only for oneself, but also for the greater good. This also explains Hoggart’s refusal to follow any form of Marxism, despite his obvious socialist leanings: his version of socialism was ethical, rather than materialist, driven by a sense of fairness and shared entitlement, perhaps a secularized form of Christian Socialism. Hence his insistence that ‘we should feel members one of another, but also retain all we have of sparky, spikey individuality’.

After completing his undergraduate studies (and a rushed MA thesis on Jonathan Swift) Hoggart embarked on five years active service in wartime North Africa and Italy. Towards the end of the war he became involved in adult education, which also served as an opportunity to rekindle his three main intellectual interests: politics, documentary, and literature. His initial exposure to the world of adult learning was through the Army Education Corps and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. It was here that Hoggart first witnessed the liberating experience of uneducated adults giving meaning to their lives in and through the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. As it was for many of his contemporaries who had a strong moral sense of social purpose (for example, Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, Roy Shaw, S.G. Raybould, Asa Briggs, to name but a few), the ‘Great Tradition’ was as much a calling as it was a career.

Not surprisingly, much of Hoggart’s writing during the immediate post-war period was for adult education journals, such as The Tutor’s Bulletin, Adult Education, and The Highway. Many of the articles were simply about ‘aims’, ‘first principles’, and ‘methods of teaching’. However, literature (poetry in particular) remained his main love. Apart from the writings of William Shakespeare, William Blake, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence, and even the supposedly more ‘middlebrow’ J.B. Priestley, Hoggart was greatly influenced by a handful of living poets, among them T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Cecil Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice.

Foremost amongst these was W.H. Auden, whose work Hoggart had first encountered in the 1930s. Although Auden’s reputation was waning by the late 1940s, his poetry continued to captivate Hoggart, who began writing a study of his work. The resulting book was published by Chatto & Windus in 1951. Auden: An Introductory Essay was not only Hoggart’s first monograph but also the first book-length analysis of the poet’s work. It marked the beginning of Hoggart’s career as a public intellectual too. Following some good reviews in literary journals and newspapers, Hoggart started to receive invitations to contribute to edited publications and to speak at conferences. He was even asked to broadcast a programme about Auden for the BBC.

Despite the success of this first substantial venture into literary criticism, or what F.R. Leavis once referred to as the ‘common pursuit of true judgement’, Hoggart’s approach to his subject was to change radically over the next few years. Partly as a result of his own intellectual restlessness and isolation from the mainstream but also because of his experience of teaching adult learners who readily challenged received wisdoms and pedagogic conventions, Hoggart began to rethink the importance of literature (or, more precisely, literacy), particularly in relation to the rapidly changing milieu of popular culture (or what he was to famously call ‘the newer mass art’) in what is undoubtedly his most celebrated and important publication, The Uses of Literacy.

Originally entitled The Abuses of Literacy, the book started out as a series of related essays and lectures about changes in working-class culture, especially in relation to publications aimed at a ‘mass’ market (for example, newspapers, magazines, sex and violence paperbacks). Unlike many of his contemporaries, who dismissed all forms of popular literature and art as vulgar and corrupting, Hoggart argued that it was important for literary critics and educationalists to base their judgements about the likely effects of such cultural forms on a more detailed understanding about ‘what people might make of that material’. Even those colleagues whom Hoggart admired, and who had written extensively on the popular arts (the Leavises for example), failed to understand the changing relationship between literature and society, because of their elitism and misplaced nostalgia for a mythical ‘organic’ pre-industrial culture.

Yet, along with the advances that had undoubtedly enhanced the overall quality of working-class life during the first half of the twentieth century (improved living and working conditions, better health provision, and greater educational opportunities), Hoggart saw a simultaneous undermining of traditional working-class attitudes and social practices, a worsening of a certain valuable ‘way of life’ that genuinely concerned him. He much preferred what he famously referred to as an urban culture ‘of the people’ to the ‘culturally classless society’ that he described as emerging from the 1940s onwards. Notwithstanding these concerns, Hoggart did not lament the complete decline or disappearance of an older working class, consistently maintaining that working-class people ‘still possess some of the older and inner resistances’.

My argument is not that there was . . . an urban culture still very much ‘of the people’ and that now there is only a mass urban culture. It is rather that the appeals made by the mass publicists are for a great number of reasons made more insistently, effectively, and in a more comprehensive and centralized form today than they were earlier; that we are moving towards the creation of a mass culture; that the remnants of what was at least in parts an urban culture ‘of the people’ are being destroyed; and that the new mass culture is in some ways less healthy than the often crude culture it is replacing.

An effective response to this process demanded the development of a set of analytical tools that would enable critics to interpret new technologies, media, and forms of social organization, and Hoggart argued that ‘the methods of literary criticism and analysis’ ought to be made ‘relevant to the better understanding of all levels of writing and much else in popular culture, and of the way people responded to them’. His objective was not merely to identify or even explain contemporary cultural practices, though, but to discriminate between them, to distinguish the ‘healthy’ and ‘less healthy’, and his work upheld the Arnoldian belief that people ought to have access to the ‘best’.

After brief spells as an extra-mural lecturer at the University of Hull, and as Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Leicester, Hoggart was offered a chair at the University of Birmingham. It was here that he established the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in 1964, an interdisciplinary postgraduate research centre that sought to synthesize literary studies with sociological ideas and analytical methods. Though Hoggart’s personal instinct was to teach students a literary approach to understanding popular cultural texts (written and visual) the Centre soon established a reputation as a hotbed for critical theory, sustaining active, sometimes volatile, debates on Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, and other politically engaged methods of analysis. The work of the late Stuart Hall was exemplary in this respect, and though he and Hoggart’s different approaches to popular culture complemented one another, and it was Hoggart who had recruited Hall, the latter’s influence on the Centre was to take it in a very different direction to that originally envisaged by Hoggart, who, by the 1970s, had in any case become increasingly occupied with cultural policy and administration.

In between publishing Uses, the setting up CCCS and his eventual departure for UNESCO (1971–1975), Hoggart was engaged in various civic duties. One of the earliest examples of his meteoric rise to fame as a public intellectual was the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial in 1960, during which Hoggart appeared on several occasions as an expert witness for the defence, the publisher, Penguin Books. When asked if he thought the book ‘vicious’, Hoggart replied by famously declaring the book (and its author D. H. Lawrence) as ‘virtuous’, ‘if not puritanical’. Flummoxed by this paradoxical description, the prosecution soon collapsed and Hoggart was widely celebrated as the person that had turned the case around in favour of the defence, resulting in admiration and critical acclaim from literary figures. What’s more, it was his first of many run-ins with that body of people (for example, the clergy, social do-gooders, columnists, moralists) he was to call the ‘Guardians’.

The defining moment in Hoggart’s career was arguably the part he played in debating and influencing the recommendations of the Pilkington committee (1960-1962). Set up under the chairmanship of British industrialist Sir Harry Pilkington, in order to consider the future of broadcasting in light of the introduction of independent television in 1956, the resulting report severely criticised ITV for being too commercial and trivial in its programming; and it was largely because of this that the BBC was awarded a second channel. More crucially, whilst the report was unanimous in its recommendation, it was widely felt that Hoggart had exercised an undue influence during the course of the committee, prompting the press to dub the report the ‘Hoggart Report’. Even with Pilkington’s best efforts to assure the public that the report’s findings were based on facts, the report was rounded upon by the national popular press, which thought the report ‘nannying’, ‘elitist’, ‘grundyish’, ‘superior’, ‘schoolmarmish’.

The one sentence that all critics seized upon was the statement that reminded broadcasters that they were ‘in a constant and sensitive relationship with the moral condition of society’, which many took to epitomise the moralising tone of the report. However, Hoggart defended this particular clause on the grounds that it was intended to give broadcasters a ‘responsibility difficult to define but not easy to shrug off’. It was also a reference to the not unreasonable claim that, ‘the quality of the life of a society as expressed in its texture — its assumptions and values as bodied out in its habits and ways of life … will be reflected and to some extent affected by broadcasting as by other forms of mass communication’. It was an argument that Hoggart pursued whilst chair of the independent, plurally funded Broadcasting Research Unit throughout the 1980s, by which point he was a minority voice in his efforts to ensure that democratic broadcasting remained at the forefront of public and academic debate.

After retiring as Warden of Goldsmiths College (1976-1984), Hoggart continued to write from his home in Farnham, including a three-volume autobiography (collectively entitled Life and Times), which has been widely celebrated as a rich account of English life in the twentieth century. In it, he discussed the particular value and functions of the arts, the cultural expression of ‘Englishness’, and the ideas and aspirations of his generation, who witnessed unprecedented politico-economic turmoil and socio-cultural change. The three volumes established Hoggart’s reputation as an exceptional autobiographer and social chronicler who used his own life to analyse the experienced complexity of wide-ranging processes of cultural change.

Similarly, though he became increasingly preoccupied with the uncertainties of old age and thoughts of death, his final publication, Promises to Keep (2005), can be read as a critical commentary on the condition of England and a call to keep ‘going on going on’, with ‘hope’, with ‘love’ and with ‘charity’. And while his general argument may seem dated, sometimes patronising, and occasionally contemptuous, his criticisms against inter alia ‘dumbing down’, ‘levelling’, ‘relativism’ and ‘popularism’, represent an increasingly important engagement with the idea of public culture as a primary facilitator of democracy. This is particularly important in light of the current political climate, where the governmental usage of financial markets and private corporations would seem to be the preferred technique for regulating socio-cultural relations and processes.

Altogether, the uses of Hoggart are considerable and his work continues to inform our understanding of a variety of historical and contemporary lived cultures, literary forms and institutional practices. Whereas other cultural commentators have long since given up on the idea of ‘a culture for democracy’, Hoggart’s writings appeal to the best in each of us and remind us of that which we ‘do not yet know, and might not like, but should know for its sake and ours’. Above all, not unlike the example of Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, Hoggart’s gift is to teach us that culture and education are best understood as social, dialogical processes to which we all contribute, no matter how fleetingly. Hoggart’s own legacy is nothing but exemplary. ‘Take it, feel it, and pass it on’.

Richard Hoggart, cultural critic and educationalist, born 24 September 1918; died 10 April 2014

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