Piston, Pen and Press

Our autumn issue, 28 3, contains an important Round Table, Piston, Pen and Press, covering new scholarship on nineteenth-century working-class literary cultures, from Mechanics Institutes to periodical poetry. The convenors of Piston, Pen and Press remind us that JVC has a rich tradition of publishing work on labouring class culture. Our very first issue included Carolyn Steedman’s  ‘Linguistic Encounters of the Fourth Kind’, 1.1 (1996), an important intervention in the debate surrounding the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ in History. Katherine Newey’s ‘Climbing Boys and Factory Girls: Popular Melodramas of Working Life’, 5:1 (2000), explored the representation of industrial workers in theatrical melodrama from the 1830s, and argues that these plays exerted an influence on the ‘Condition-of-England’ literature which followed in the 1840s and 1850s. Ian Haywood’s ‘George W.M. Reynolds and ‘The Trafalgar Square Revolution’: Radicalism, the carnivalesque and popular culture in mid-Victorian England’, 7:1 (2002), follows Newey in looking at ‘low’ forms of literature.  His article focused on elite fears regarding the existence of cheap publications and ‘unregulated readers’, suggesting that ‘low’ literature offered types of ‘radical pleasure’ which were subsequently relegated to the ‘underworld of Victorian culture’ as notions of respectability and self-improvement came to the fore in public discourse and literature. John Belchem’s ‘Radical Language, Meaning and Identity in the Age of the Chartists’, 10:1 (2005), offers an interesting complement to both Steedman and Haywood. His insistence on context as a key component of meaning reminds us that there is an outside to the text or, at the very least, a specific context for the utterance, while his analysis of liberalism’s construction of citizenship around the notion of ‘moral entitlement’ not only helps to explain the working classes’ commitment to literature throughout the second half of the nineteenth century but also adds an important nuance to those debates around respectability and self-improvement identified by Haywood.

Although the nineteenth century offers examples of illiterate rhymers who relied on amanuenses to record their work, most of the poets collected by Piston, Pen & Press could write. Ever since R.K. Webb’s The British Working Class Reader (1955) the extent and nature of working-class literacy across the nineteenth century has been the subject of extensive debate. Through a detailed examination of prison records from the 1840s through to the 1870s, Rosalind Crone’s ‘Reappraising Victorian Literacy through Prison Records’, 15:1 (2010) argues that the development of working-class literacy was both more uneven than previously acknowledged and only loosely connected to developments around formal schooling. More recently Sarah Comyn’s ‘Literary Sociability on the Goldfields: The Mechanics’ Institute in the Colony of Victoria, 1854–1870’, 23:4 (2018) discusses Mechanics’ Institutes in Australia. Comyn identifies ‘literary sociability’ as a key element in the founding and development of Mechanics’ Institutes. Moreover, Comyn argues that Mechanics’ Institutes were also central to processes of moral, social and educational improvement in the Goldfield towns.  This conjunction of industry, literature, and cross-class relations evident in Comyn’s findings is broadly similar to the experience identified by our Piston contributors, though women perhaps played a more important role in Australian Mechanics’ Institutes.

More recent work in JVC includes Laura Mair’s work on literacy in the ‘Ragged Schools’ (24:1, 2019); Helen Rogers’ on working-class autobiographies (24:4, 2019) which also discusses the use of the digitisation of the Burnett archive to underpin an innovative undergraduate course (work from which can be seen at http://www.writinglives.org); Simon Rennie’s work on the poetry of the Lancashire Cotton Famine (25:1, 2020), and Arunima Datta’s fascinating study of the role of the ‘Knocker Up’ in industrial towns.

Header image: Workers on the second Tay Bridge, Dundee. Copyright of the Wilson Collection, Dundee Central Library, Wellgate, Dundee.



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