John Carey’s autobiography (2014) is subtitled An Oxford Life in Books. It is, as he explains in the foreword, ‘a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it,’ a case study in ‘what kind of upbringing produces a preference for some books rather than others’. One of the things that came of it is one of my favourite books, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) by John Carey, so naturally I was interested to see the upbringing and outlook that produced it.
While it is true that the story of a life that is utterly different to one’s own can be fascinating and challenging, I tend to agree with Carey’s somewhat ironic comment that the autobiographies of ‘people who share your own views, are of course, the best.’ Not that Carey’s life has been anything like mine – for a start, he was way cleverer, which is why he gets to write an autobiography people might want to read and I don’t. But I was fascinated by the comparison of his student life at Oxford, and mine at a provincial university in the colonies, where Oxford set standards that were never quite lived up to. Though maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Carey was a scholarship boy, the product of a good grammar school classical education; no one was exposed to that sort of education in post-WWII Australia, so a restrictive Oxbridge syllabus was fortunately never possible here. 1960s university Arts curricula may have cast wistful glances back at Oxbridge, but thank goodness we didn’t end our idea of ‘English Literature’ in 1834, as Oxford did when Carey was an undergraduate in the early 1950s. In later years he did much to change this, to the great annoyance of some of his colleagues. He also tried to ensure that students received better teaching, in terms of how to read, what to read and how to criticise – an area where some Australian academics might have benefited from following his lead.
Carey researched and taught at a number of Oxford colleges during his long academic career. From the first, he was aware of the class distinctions that operated in most of them, Balliol being an honourable exception. Of Christ Church, ‘just walking through it was an object lesson in how architecture can be used to make people feel small.’ At Keeble, he encountered one academic whom he loathed, seeing him as ‘a symbol of the monstrous injustice of Oxford, its crooked admissions policy and its shameless favouring of wealth and privilege.’ Of course he met with much intellectual honesty and generosity, as well as friendship. But it was the sense of superiority evinced by many of the academic staff that was the seed that germinated as The Intellectuals and the Masses.
Carey comes from a solid middle class background, of parents who had no particular aspirations towards high culture. His father was an accountant, understandably proud of his clever son. It occurred to Carey that people like the snobbish don he met at Christ Church – who pointedly refrained from ever addressing the young Carey – would despise his parents, and that thought eventually turned into The Intellectuals and the Masses. This is a study in cultural history of writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who created what is now called ‘modernist literature’. Carey argues that many intellectuals resented the ‘semi-literate masses’ produced by the compulsory education reforms of 1870. In response, they excluded them from high culture by creating a literature which the masses couldn’t understand, because it ‘cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions.’ Carey is not saying that this literature was necessarily bad; indeed he very much admires some of the work of D.H. Lawrence, one of the writers he uses as an example. Others he comments on are T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and H.G. Wells. Needless to say this analysis was met with howls of fury, but I found it wonderfully liberating.
Most of Carey’s early academic work is high quality commentary on Milton, Donne and Marvell; later he wrote about Dickens, Thackeray and William Golding. But he is more broadly known for his collections of reportage and science writing. More recently he again shocked his academic colleagues with a small book entitled What Use Are the Arts? (2005), in which he considers what is a work of art, and whether exposure to works of art makes you a better person? The answers he reluctantly arrives at are that anything can be so considered, and unfortunately ‘no’. But he concludes that what matters is whether a book – or a painting, a piece of music – gives ‘joy and satisfaction’, and surely there could be no better test.
You can read a little more about Professor Carey here, including a list of his major works, and an interesting profile of him here. If you don’t fancy the autobiography, try the Faber Book of Reportage (1987) – eyewitness accounts of history – or the Faber Book of Science (1995). Or, of course, The Intellectuals and the Masses.