In twentieth-century Britain the literary landscape underwent a fundamental change. Aspiring authors--traditionally drawn from privileged social backgrounds--now included factory workers writing amid chaotic home lives, and married women joining writers' clubs in search of creative outlets. In this brilliantly conceived book, Christopher Hilliard reveals the extraordinary history of "ordinary" voices.
Writing as an organized pursuit emerged in the 1920s, complete with clubs, magazines, guidebooks, and correspondence schools. The magazine The Writer helped coordinate a network of "writers' circles" throughout Britain that offered prospective authors--especially women--outside the educated London elite a forum in which to discuss writing. The legacy of Wordsworth and other English Romantics encouraged the belief that would-be authors should write about what they knew personally--that art flowed from genuine experience and technique was of secondary importance. The 1930s saw a boom in the publication of so-called proletarian writing, working-class men writing "in my own language about my own people," as Birmingham writer Leslie Halward put it. During World War II, soldiers turned to poetry to cope with the trauma of war, and the popular magazine Seven promoted the idea that anyone, regardless of social background, could be a creative writer. Self-expression became a democratic right.
In capturing the creative lives of ordinary people--would-be fiction-writers and poets who until now have left scarcely a mark on written history--Hilliard sensitively reconstructs the literary culture of a democratic age.
This strikingly original book is a tour de force. Its appeals are many: the surprising evidence Christopher Hilliard turns up in the most unlikely places; the easy way in which he moves from larger themes to specific examples; a great breadth of knowledge and sensibility. A profoundly democratic work, it shows how ordinary people learned about literature and then, armed with that knowledge, worked out what was on their minds.
Anecdotal color and a knack for letting history speak with spirit are the signature graces of Hilliard's debut work. A lecturer at the University of Sydney, Hilliard has produced a "literary history from below" that focuses on three social categories--the working class, the lower middle class, and those of the middle class without higher education--and their contributions to British letters, the "culture industry" and 20th-century mass society.
In this splendidly researched monograph, Christopher Hilliard sets out to rescue forgotten working and lower-middle-class writers from historical neglect...He excavates a seam in British culture ignored by previous historians; constructs a nuanced argument buttressed by an impressive array of evidence gleaned from archives on two continents; and brings to life individuals whose often failed literary efforts illuminate a frame of mind moving in its dedication to a difficult craft.
Christopher Hilliard--who teaches modern European history at the University of Sydney--has put together a veritable treasure trove of information about amateur and aspiring authors in the 20th century and the ways in which they sought encouragement, solidarity, mutual benefit, money and fame. Opening up the book is like unlocking a trunk--or perhaps a cardboard suitcase--of broken dreams. Hilliard's extraordinary riches are plundered from numerous sources.
Drawing on numerous previously unexamined local archives, Hilliard evocatively captures a popular enthusiasm for writing that will be of great interest to historians of leisure, consumerism, literature, and journalism, as well as class relations and popular culture more generally...Hilliard has written an important and gripping book that substantially revises our understanding of popular intellectual life in twentieth-century Britain.
[Hilliard's] analysis is balanced and intelligently complicated...Hilliard's book represents a triumph of archival research. Unpublished proletarian novelists and ephemeral writers' schools leave behind few records, but Hilliard has found enough material to reconstruct a subculture most scholars scarcely knew existed...Hilliard excavates unusual sources, such as the magazines produced by British prisoners-of-war, which suggest that German and Japanese camp commandants were either far more tolerant or far less attentive than we have generally assumed. That kind of offbeat research makes To Exercise Our Talents an unexpectedly intriguing tour through the suburbs of literature. Never sneering or glamorizing, Christopher Hilliard respects workaday authors and understands that, by their own lights, they did achieve something worth remembering. Their writing may have been dreadful, but their story is fascinating.
Christopher Hilliard offers a measured, sober account of attempts to democratize the practice of creative writing in the twentieth century, concentrating on the years between the twenties and the seventies. Meticulously researched, his book discusses countless ordinary novelists, poets, and dramatists from beyond the literary mainstream. These range from the now relatively well-known (such as Sid Chaplin and Jack Common) to the serially unpublished, to obscure and sometime unknown hands such as those that created prison-camp ephemera during the Second World War.
- 400 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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