Richard Hoggart: Virtue and Reward

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Last week I read Fred Inglis’ new biography Richard Hoggart: Virtue and Reward. It’s a really revealing piece of work. Inglis has kept it short and punchy, the book is 250 pages and its focus on the key moments works really well. I often find that the most engaging sections of biographies tend to come in the sections that account for the early successes or breakthroughs of the central character. This book is no different, and its direct approach means that it soon gets into the details of these moments without getting bogged down in too much background or context. I discovered that I knew very little about the vast experiences that Hoggart crammed into his rich life. I only knew some of the headline moments, but this book brings to life these headlines and beyond.

After leaving the army, which he joined immediately following his Masters degree and served in for several years, Hoggart’s early forays into academia are fascinating. He spent years teaching evening classes on adult learning courses. As many will know, he was associated with the University of Hull, but these evening courses found him travelling all over the north east. The stories of his struggle to manage and negotiate this workload give some real dimension to Hoggart’s later achievements – whilst at the same time revealing much about higher education in the 1940s-50s.

Of course, it was with the publication of Hoggart’s second book, The Uses of Literacy, that we see his star rapidly rise and the new opportunities that came with it – including moves to Leicester, Birmingham, UNESCO (with a base in Paris), a brief visiting post at Sussex and the finally to Goldsmiths. The scale of the instant impact of The Uses of Literacy is not something that is easy to comprehend today. It sold tens of thousands from the outset, and its sales held up over time. It was an instant classic. Hoggart returned to its successes from a year long visiting post in New York. And it was clearly a career changing moment. Hoggart was already gaining significant respect before that, but the recognition of this book brought him significant attention. It also seems it was hard to follow such a work, particularly as his time was swallowed up by the calls for his attention and input that followed the book’s success. As well as telling us about Hoggart and the nature of academic system – including the congenial phonecalls offering posts and new opportunities – these pages also reveal the glacial speed of publishing. This must have been frustrating. But what is more interesting is the scale of response. Books published then were widely reviewed, and reviewed by different types of publication. It would force is to ask if reviewing books is becoming a bit if a lost art (and may be victim of the pressures towards certain types of writing placed on academics today).

The publication of The Uses of Literacy and the emergence of Hoggart as an intellectual force provide the most immersive passages if this book. Problems of potential litigation and the subsequent reworking of the book give the work a new gloss. Hoggart had to substitute real newspaper and literature passages for imitations, which he quickly wrote and substituted to get the work through to publication.

Alongside the discussions of Hoggart’s most successful publication and Inglis’ helpful and balanced critique of his other books, the stories of Hoggarts institutional mobility and involvement provide a contextual backdrop to these works. Hoggart appears to have become caught up and diverted by his involvement in various boards, bodies and groups. As a result the book hits a little bit of a lull towards its conclusion. Being on committees shows the commitment of Hoggart, but these occupations provide little material for Inglis to work with. These were often powerful and worthy committees, but it is hard to find something eye-catching with them. They do however, in Inglis’ skilled hands, provide us with insights into Hoggart’s personal approach and changing practices. We understand Hoggart from imagining his massive administrative workload. At the same time they also help us understand the sense of freedom and liberation that came with retirement. Plus, we can add that some of the committees provide great moments, such as the image conjured by Hoggart’s collaboration with Laurie Taylor dealing with appeals over the classification of adult films.

The time at Birmingham initiating and developing the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies is an obvious high point. It becomes clear just how radical this was, if we were uncertain of how powerful academic and disciplinary conventions can be. Hoggart’s powerful personal initiative are very apparent I his establishment of this centre. The reader even ends up feeling disappointed that Hoggart left the CCCS after only six years to move to UNESCO (temporarily, but he didn’t fully return to the CCCS). Even though reading a historical story, the reader at this point almost wishes Hoggart to stay with the CCCS, particularly as he then appears to take on a role that appears to provide little intellectual satisfaction.

Finally, in the chapter before that describing Hoggart’s massively productive retirement, Inglis provides a brilliant description of his time as Warden of Goldsmiths. Again, we a find that this chapter tells us as much about the higher education of the time and then places Hoggart into this context. The unusual history of Goldsmiths is shown to play into its unusual and outstanding qualities today. The struggle for institutional recognition plays a part in this history. We see in this chapter, which covers Hoggart’s eight year oversight of Goldsmiths, the way in which creativity and intellectual curiosity can be harnessed and managed. The creation of a new media course proves to be the hook to the story of Hoggart at Goldsmiths. The need to be responsive and not dogmatic, shows its value in nurturing academic achievement. We also learn that accepting new ideas, innovative approaches and unconventional perspectives can facilitate outstanding and leading spaces for thinking. Inglis’ book is an excellent account of this important individual, Richard Hoggart, but it also reveals a great deal about the study of culture a d the conditions that are needed for such study to thrive.

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One Response to Richard Hoggart: Virtue and Reward

  1. Pingback: The 25 most important academic books of 2013, plus a few of my own choices | Thinking culture

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