Historically Thinking

Historically Thinking

Episode 228: The Intellectual Life in Difficult Circumstances

October 18, 2021

Joseph Wright, a native of the West Riding of Yorkshire, started working in a factory at the age of 6. He did not learn to read until he was 15, inspired to do so by a workmate who read news bulletins about the Franco-Prussian War. Wright was taught by another worker who used the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress as texts. He then attended night school, for six pence a week;  practiced shorthand by taking down sermons in the Methodist chapel his family atteneded; was part of a Sunday school where he organized a lending library; and at the age of 18 started his own night school. But the time time he was 21, he had saved up enough for a term at the University of Heildelberg, to which he walked 250 miles from the port of Antwerp in order to save his money. Eventually he earned  a PhD from Heidelberg in comparative linguistics, and from 1901 to 1925, Joseph Wright was Professor of Comparative Philology at the University of Oxford, a pioneer in the study of regional English dialect, and taught among others J.R.R. Tolkein.

While his eventual profession might make Wright extraordinary, many of the particulars of his education were absolutely typical, as Jonathan Rose makes clear in his monumental book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Published in 2001, it won the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History, the Longman-History Today Historical Book of the Year Prize and the British Council Prize. Its third edition is published this fall by Yale University Press.

Jonathan Rose is the William R. Kenan Professor of History at Drew University. He served as the founding president of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, and also as the president of the Northeast Victorian Studies Association.