The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth Century British Fiction

Patrick Brantlinger, Author Indiana University Press $39.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-253-33454-1
Dour pundits witness the explosion of popular entertainment for the masses and predict the end of Western civilization. Fine literature and intelligent thought has been debased, these Jeremiahs proclaim, by floods of ill-educated consumers who want only sensation, sex and violence. Sound familiar? Such predictions were inspired not by today's boob tube and high-concept action movies but by the cheap fiction and rapidly increasing literacy among the masses that provided Victorian Britain with its own threat of cultural decline. Brantlinger, longtime editor of Victorian Studies and author of Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay, argues that anxieties about degraded popular literacy powerfully affected the novels written in the 19th century. Brantlinger trains his critical lens on a broad range of British fiction: he reads Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as an allegory of middle-class fears of mass literacy; Dickens's Oliver Twist as staging a conflict between ""criminal reading"" and edifying reading; Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a response to ""the commercialization of literature and the emergence of a mass consumer society in the late-Victorian period."" Sounding at times like he is giving a lecture survey course, Brantlinger covers so much ground that he can be reductive. But his writing is admirably lucid, his knowledge impressive and his thesis a welcome reminder of the class bias that so often accompanies denunciations of popular fiction. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 11/30/1998
Release date: 12/01/1998
Paperback - 264 pages - 978-0-253-21249-8
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