Richard Hoggart: Writer, Critic and Educator


Dr Rob Spence, formerly Associate Head of English and History, Edge Hill University


16 October 2017


Sixty years have passed since the publication of Hoggart’s book The Uses of Literacy, and it is difficult to overstate the changes that have occurred since then, particularly in field of mass entertainment and communication. For example, very few houses had television: although the televising of the Coronation in 1953 had caused a spike in demand, possession of a set was still quite rare. ITV began broadcasting in London in 1955, but it was not until the sixties that it achieved nationwide coverage. Now, of course, virtually everybody carries an entertainment device in their pocket, with everything available on demand. A key aspect of Hoggart’s book is that he was writing on the cusp of cultural change, particularly in the field of popular culture. There’s a sense in which, by the time the book was published, the culture it described and analysed was already moving on.  Other aspects of the way of life he described were changing radically too, of course, as the transition to a service economy gathered pace. What Hoggart depicted, in formidable detail, was essentially the world of northern England in the thirties and forties, and a little way beyond.


The publication of The Uses of Literacy in 1957 may be said to mark the beginning of the modern discipline of media studies. Not that Hoggart was the first in this field.  From our perspective, six decades later, it seems clear that Hoggart was taking a line first explored by F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson in the thirties in their Culture and Environment, who in turn owed much to the Victorian Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, about the erosion of an elite culture. Leavis’s polemic on this topic, Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture had appeared in 1930. In it, he strikes an apocalyptic note: writing of an American work of anthropology, Middletown, he says  “we see in detail how the automobile has, in a few years, radically affected religion, broken up the family and revolutionised social custom…change has been so catastrophic that the generations find it hard to adjust themselves to each other.” He then goes on to lament the Americanisation of British life. Another precursor of Hoggart’s work was, of course, Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), but that sketch of depression era industrial England was based on just three months’ observation by the Eton educated writer. Perhaps the best example of a forerunner to Hoggart would be the little known Caliban Shrieks (1935) by Jack Hilton, a plasterer from Rochdale. Although ostensibly fiction, the book is clearly autobiographical, and was praised as such by Orwell. Hoggart was keen to distance himself from the obvious comparison with his predecessor, stating that Orwell ‘never quite got out of the habit of seeing the working classes through the cosy fug of the Edwardian music-hall.’


By the time of Hoggart’s study, the development of mass popular culture, fuelled by the wider availability of new technology was far more advanced than it was when Leavis lamented the demise of an elitist culture in the face of industrialisation and the growth of mass entertainment. Hoggart , then a fairly obscure extra-mural lecturer at Hull University, who had published a study of WH Auden, proposed to his publisher ‘a sort of guide or textbook to aspects of popular culture’ that would include the critical study of texts within an analysis of the already-formed culture of their readers. As he put it: ‘one had to know very much more about how people used much of the stuff which to us might seem merely dismissible trash, before one could speak confidently about the effects it might have.’ The book he proposed was to be called The Abuses of Literacy. The title change was at the insistence of a publisher rather fearful of legal action – which also led to some amusing invention by Hoggart in the text, as the publisher deemed it too risky to analyse actual examples of popular pulp fiction.


The book as published also differed fundamentally from his initial proposal in that the analysis now formed the second part, with the first part given over to a kind of memoir of working class life as it had been experienced by the author in the inter-war years of his childhood and adolescence. He emphasises more than once that the first part of the book is based on personal experience, and disavows the idea that it should be treated as a sociological or quasi-scientific study. Today, it might perhaps be seen as a branch of ethnography. He focuses, he says, on ‘one fairly homogeneous group of working-class people’, and attempts to evoke ‘the atmosphere, the quality of their lives by describing their setting and their attitudes.’ The people he describes live in traditional northern working-class districts such as Hunslet in Leeds(where he came from) or Ancoats in Manchester. (In fact Hoggart was born in Potternewton, to the north of Hunslet, but moved there later). So in some ways, it might be argued, he is setting an idea of a particular type of working-class community against what he sees as the erosion of that culture by mass entertainment. He is at pains to avoid being seen as nostalgic for a romanticised version of the urban past. His argument was not, as he put it, ‘that there was in England one generation ago, an urban culture still very much “of the people” and that now there is only a mass urban culture’. Rather, it was that the appeals made by what he called ‘the mass publicists’ were made ‘more insistently, effectively and in a more centralised 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 part an urban culture 'of the people' are being destroyed.’


Hoggart worked on his book from about 1952 to 1956, years in which the UK was beginning to readjust after the war, and in which some social mobility was challenging the traditional class hierarchy. As the novelist David Lodge put it, The Uses of Literacy was ‘a kind of Bible for first-generation university students and teachers who had been promoted by education from working class and lower middle class backgrounds into the professional middle class.’ 1956, as well as being the year of Suez and the Soviet repression of the Hungarian rebellion, was the year of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, a play which put working-class life firmly in the spotlight. The late fifties and early sixties were the years when the protagonists of best-selling novels (and later films) such as Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, John Braine’s Room at the Top, Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar and David Storey’s This Sporting Life were young, northern, and working-class.


Hoggart’s book, subtitled “Aspects of working-class life, with special reference to publications and entertainments” is divided into two parts. The first,  ‘An Older Order’ is largely autobiographical, and chronicles his life in Hunslet in the inter-war years, emphasizing the life-changing consequences of his selection as a scholarship boy at the local grammar school. The second part, ‘Yielding Place to the New’ concentrates on the analysis of contemporary working-class life, with a focus on cultural consumption, particularly of books, magazines, films and music. Those headings suggest a kind of nostalgic or valedictory tone, but Hoggart insists that he is not claiming special status for the culture of his youth. His analysis, however, sometimes betrays that intention, and his criticism does tend to compare current mass culture unfavourably with what he sees as the more holistic culture of the past.


In the first part of the book, he examines Peg’s Paper, a women’s magazine aimed at, according to Hoggart, ‘adolescent girls and young housewives.’ It is significant that this passage is in part one – it represents an older order which is now dying, and which Hoggart will contrast unfavourably with the modern family magazines that he examines later.  Although his close reading leaves us in no doubt that the stories contained within have no value in a literary sense, he finds a pleasing sense of moral rectitude in the world they portray, which is based around traditional family values, and where people get their just desserts. Similarly, he makes no great claims for the music-hall songs of his youth as great art, but sees them as representative again of cherished values, now threatened by the rise of crooners and other American imports.


Indeed, when it comes to the latest manifestations of popular culture, Hoggart (who was, it is worth pointing out, approaching 40 at the time) seems bewildered. In a section called “The Juke Box Boys” Hoggart defines his subject as those who ‘spend their evenings listening in harshly lighted milk bars to the nickelodeon.’   These milk bars, according to Hoggart  ‘indicate…in the nastiness of their modernistic knick-knacks, their glaring showiness, an aesthetic breakdown so complete that the layout of the living rooms in some of the poor homes from which the customers come seems to speak of a tradition as balanced and civilized as an eighteenth century town house.’  The music on offer in these neon-lit temples of youth is lacking in the qualities Hoggart feels the masses should enjoy, and in particular the quality of Englishness: ‘The records – almost all are American – almost all are ‘vocals’ (Hoggart’s scare quotes) and the styles of singing are much advanced beyond what is normally heard on the Light Programme.’


Ultimately, then, Hoggart echoes his predecessors Arnold and Leavis by arguing for an elitist view of culture, but does so from a position of deep loyalty to the traditions of his class, and a genuine affection for the older urban culture. In his later career, Hoggart went on to found the pioneering Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, which launched many distinguished careers. He was also a key witness in the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960, which overturned the law on obscenity. Hoggart defended Lawrence’s use of Anglo-Saxon terms as part of what he saw as a ‘puritanical’ outlook. His influence at this point, along with that of other figures in court defending Lawrence’s book, was decisive.


Hoggart later published a three-volume autobiography, of which Volume One, A Local Habitation:  Life and Times 1918-1940 can be particularly recommended. It gives an account of what it was like to be brought up in searing poverty, his father having died when he was three, and his mother when he was ten. The key figures in his life thereafter were his grandmother and his Auntie Ethel, both formidable ladies and the headmaster of his primary school, who picked him out as a boy of unusual intellectual distinction.  In spite of a long career post-1957, including acting as Assistant Director General of UNESCO (1971–1975) and Warden of Goldsmith’s between 1976 and 1984, it is for The Uses of Literacy that he will always be remembered. Its influence on a generation of readers and critics is a suitable monument to the scholarship boy made good.


© Dr Rob Spence 2017, with some additions by Dr Robert Blackburn


A short bibliography

Inglis, Fred - Richard Hoggart: Virtue and Reward; Polity, 2013

Hoggart, R. - The Uses of Literacy; London: Chatto and Windus, 1957

Hoggart, R. - Only Connect: On Culture and Communication; BBC Reith Lectures, 1971

Hoggart, R. - Speaking to Each Other, Vol One: About Society and Vol. Two, About Literature; Chatto and Windus, 1970

Hoggart, R. - An English Temper: Essays on Education, Culture and Communication; Chatto and Windus 1982

Hoggart, R. - Mass Media in a Mass Society; London: Continuum, 2004

Leavis, F.R. - Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture; Cambridge: Minority Press, 1930

Owen, S. (ed.) - Richard Hoggart and Cultural Studies; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Widdowson, P. - Re-Reading English; London: Routledge, 1992

Williams, R. - ‘Working Class Culture’ Universities and Left Review; Summer 1957,

Vol 1 no. 2, pp. 29 – 32 (online at )