Don of cultural studies
Reviewed by Shelley Walia

Richard Hoggart: Virtue and Reward
by Fred Inglis.
Cambridge/Polity. Pages 259. Rs 2,372

Richard Hoggart: Virtue and RewardIt took a long time coming. The first biography of probably the most eminent cultural critic of the last century brilliantly captures the far-reaching and profound influence of Richard Hoggart and his enduring concern for the ethical quality of human existence. Fred Inglis vividly narrates the gripping story of a young lad who grew up into a "figure of great significance to anyone who cherishes the stuff of culture."

He is remembered by many of us for his clinching defense for the publication of the controversial Lady Chatterley's Lover. His contemporaries Raymond Williams, E. P. Thomson, and Stuart Hall, whom he is often bracketed with passed away many years ago. Hoggart died this April leaving behind his wife with whom he lived for many years in a care home. Both suffered from advanced dementia. His death went shockingly unreported in the Indian press. I surmise very few knew of his eminence or his indelible contribution to culture and education.

Born in Leeds in 1918, Richard Hoggart went for various teaching assignments at the University of Hull and Leicester. His pioneering of the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1963 at the University of Birmingham was perhaps his most remarkable achievement, where he remained director for over half a decade and which has been singularly responsible for initiating a deep and far-reaching interest in institutionalising of cultural studies programme around the world.

Though he wrote about W. H. Auden's poetry as well as society and mass media, his reputation continues to be founded on the great classic, The Uses of Literacy that provided an in-depth analysis of working-class attitudes and morals. This seminal work is a direct reflection of his growing days in school when he experienced the traditional cultural environment of the 1930s, a period that he sets apart from the mass culture that was overtaking the world. He sees a divide between the traditional culture of the 1930s and the "bad inauthentic mass culture" overtaking the West in the 50s.

Richard Hoggart played a significant role in institutionalising cultural studies programme around the world
Richard Hoggart played a significant role in institutionalising cultural studies programme around the world

What is so utterly honest of a scholar like him is that he admits to having a slight bias for the culture of his youth, and that it might be historically incorrect to divide the history of the first half century into these two periods when, understandably, continuity in time and ideology cannot be ignored. However, he is of the conclusive view that there has been no moral decline of the working class. It is the quality of the culture provided for the working class and its lack of moral gravity that has been the cause of this cultural upheaval.

What makes Hoggart's work rather interesting is its polemics with the Leavisite tradition, which considers the working class as passive under the manipulative ideology of the ruling class. Hoggart argues against the view of F. R. Leavis, upholding instead the inherent working-class resistance to cultural exploitation. They are, writes Hoggart, "just not here, are living elsewhere, living intuitively, habitually, and verbally, drawing on myth, aphorism, and ritual." It is this kind of response that helps in warding off the ill-effects on their cultural well-being. As Raymond Williams would argue later, Hoggart feels that the working class believes in the "ordinariness" of culture or, in other words, that "ordinary life is intrinsically interesting" as opposed to an Americanism that is "full of corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions." Such a culture deep-rooted in tradition is not for the people but "of the people," underpinned as it always has been by a deep sense of community and "cooperative kinds of enjoyment."

This critique of "the barbarians of wonderland," with their mindless hedonism and debilitating love for "candy-floss" and "juke-box "culture, conspicuous by its "glaring showiness" and painful loudness, has behind it his working-class upbringing. Hoggart remained conscious of his non-Oxbridge education and tried to overcome this lack with a lifestyle of rigour and discipline. As his son, Paul Hoggart, writes, "He remained unusually sensitive to slights and simply could not bear to feel he might be in the wrong. This could make him vehemently dogmatic at home and at work." His punishing work ethic would blind him often, but despite his state of dementia, he remained devoted to his wife.

Though it is difficult to categorise his work, its focus has been undeniably in support of the ordinary people who should not be taken lightly, "underestimated" or "sold short". The loving father, says Paul in the preface, retained his sense of humour till the end and "laughed happily (when teased) in the old way." He undoubtedly taught successive generations of academics "All that now threatens our best national (and international) forms of expression: Our art, our culture, ourselves." His work has as much bearing on contemporary times as it had on the 50s' condition of "obediently receptive passivity eyes glued to television sets, pin-ups and cinema screens."