"The Classics in the Slums"
In the Autumn 2004 issue of City Journal, author Jonathan Rose explores the history of the engagement of lower economic classes with classic literature. His article, "The Classics in the Slums," offers evidence that contradicts those in the academy who espouse (to quote the article) "that classic literature was always irrelevant to underprivileged people who were not classically educated" and "'that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare do not figure significantly in the personal economies of [underprivileged] people, do not perform individual or social functions that gratify their interests, do not have value for them'" (italics in the original).
As history tells it, reading of the greats was, in fact, widespread and voracious among autodidact members of the working class in many cultures up until the mid-twentieth century. Rose writes: "In the mining towns South of Wales, colliers had pennies deducted from their wages to support their own libraries, more than 100 of them by 1934. . . . There were sophisticated literary debates down in the pits, where one collier heard high praise for George Meredith. That evening, he tried to borrow Meredith's Love in the Valley from the local miners' library, only to find 12 names on the waiting list for a single copy."
The full text of "The Classics in the Slums" is available on-line. [Posted January 2005, ALG]