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Dent's Everyman's Library

While Richards’ ‘World’s Classics; or, bound books for the million’ was pioneering, and its afterlives at OUP (1906 to present) and George Allen (between 1907 and 1912) contributed significantly to educational publishing, the number of classical texts printed before 1939 is relatively small; the series is not named by working-class autodidacts.,7Joseph Malaby Dent’s Everyman’s Library, however, launched in 1906, took cheap-reprint publishing and cross-class access to the Greek and Roman Classics to another level. (Figure 3.5.) The scale of this maverick publisher’s achievement matches only his ambition. While other publishers were releasing one title at a time, Dent swamped the market with 50 new titles a year. This produced savings on materials, but also an intense workplan for the editors.

Everyman’s Library printed 1,000 titles in its first 50 years. Forty-six titles are listed as ‘classical’ in genre; they include most standard works of Greek and philosophy, poetry and prose, from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (the first classical text released), through the dramatic works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, to the epics of Homer and Virgil. The classical genre also includes Winifred Margaret Lambart Hutchinson’s three-volume The Muses’ Pageant: Myths & Legends of Ancient Greece (1912, 1914), a ‘patchwork’ narrative of Greek myths which aimed ‘to give a bird’s-eye view, so to speak, of the “realms of gold’”,98 and became one of the century’s most widely read works on classical mythology. Hutchinson (born 1868), an associate of Newnham College, Cambridge, authored Aeacus, a Judge of the Underworld (1901) and The Golden Porch (1907, ‘a book of Greek fairy tales’ for children), The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy (1911), Evergreen Stories (1920), and Orpheus with his Lute (1909); she revised William Melmoth’s eighteenth-century translation of Pliny’s Letters (1921-1927). In 1909 she edited five books of Cicero’s On the Ends of Good and Evil (1909).

Joseph Malaby Dent (1849—1926) by Alfred Reginald Thomson (1974), reproduced courtesy of Darlington Library

FIGURE 3.5 Joseph Malaby Dent (1849—1926) by Alfred Reginald Thomson (1974), reproduced courtesy of Darlington Library.

The only ancient author in the ‘oratory’ genre is Demosthenes. The three-volume Plutarch’s Lives were sold as ‘biography’, but his Moralia as ‘classical’. Josephus (1 volume), Livy (6 volumes) and Tacitus (2 volumes) appear in the ‘History’ category, alongside the 12-volume Grote’s History of Greece (1906), which had always been popular amongst working-class readers on account of its pioneering defence of Athenian democracy,’9 the 6-volume Gibbon’s Roman Empire and Charles Merivale’s 1-volume History of Rome (1912).

In 1904 Dent built his Temple Press, a book factory, in the new Garden City of Letchworth. The New York booksellers Messrs E. P. Dutton and Co. bought 2,000 copies of each volume as they were issued.10“ By his death in 1926, Dent had sold over 20 million Everyman books.101 By 1975 more than 60 million copies (from a list of 1,239 volumes) had been purchased.102 As Rose maintains, we cannot tell how many of these were bought by British working people, but they immediately became the standard texts for adult learners, including those many thousands engaged in Workers’ Educational Association courses, which we will address in Chapter 9.1M

Dent was the son of a Darlington painter-decorator. He wanted to run away with a travelling theatre, but after joining a Mutual Improvement Society caught the literature bug. Raised in a working-class family with 11 siblings and educated by Wesleyan Methodists, Dent was apprenticed to a printer, which led to the discovery that he had a talent for bookbinding. Against his parents’ will, Dent used to sneak out to the old Barn Theatre in Darlington, where his threepenny coin bought him a gallery seat and transportation from the daily grind. Theatre broadened his cultural horizons:

I still remember the first night I found myself there, fascinated by a play which I think must have been Sheridan Knowles’s Virginius, for it had a Roman setting, and took me far away from things mundane into a world of imagination which has haunted me ever since.104

Knowles’ Roman plays are discussed in detail in Chapter 7.

As often, it was the remunerative work in which the printer’s apprentice Dent was engaged that brought him into contact with ancient literature.10’ Surrounded, however, like Barclay, Adams and Selver, by the emerging cultural and educational institutions of the later 19th century, Dent’s path to the classical was less unusual than those of his predecessors. Inspired by preparing an essay on Boswell’s Life of Johnson at the local Mutual Improvement Society, Dent realised the importance of literature. He often expressed his escapism through reading in classical imagery, his lifelong association with literature as a ‘supreme happiness ... even though only as a door-keeper of the Temple’.106

Alfred Reginald Thomson’s colourful portrait, painted in 1974, (Figure 3.5) well commemorates Dent’s contribution to 20th-century literature.107 The avuncular Dent sits holding a stack of Everyman books in his lap. Behind him is a map of the world representing his global achievement. The sales figures grew exponentially because of exports to America and the British Empire and the expansion in homegrown readerships through improved educational provision and population growth.108 In the topmost corners are depicted readers of various nationalities, including a cowboy, an Eskimo, a London banker and what may be an African tribal woman, all with book in hand. To his left and right, either side of two studious children, are outdoor reading scenes; on Dent’s right, an aristocratic couple read in the garden of their rural mansion; mirroring them, on his left, sit two working-class men, a pipe-smoking and aproned butcher or grocer and a moustachioed mechanic. All four hold the same editions of Everyman’s library. Dent’s pioneering series, providing high quality and well-produced literature at affordable prices, had trans-class appeal.

Dent progressed through the great literature of the world in translation, including—of course—the Greek and Roman Classics. He believed that the world could be improved if people read such authors, so the format had to be affordable. In 1906 he expressed his ambition that the series, edited by the industrious Ernest Rhys, would reach 1000 volumes. Rhys remembered the struggle to prepare the first 150 books back in 1905-1906, ‘barricaded by huge piles of books at the British Museum’. Dent ‘expected me to sweep all the books of the world into his net’:

The old Chief was really magnificent in the courage with which he planned that first year’s campaign. He felt that no dribbling out of books in small batches would suffice to capture the big public. No-he must have it carried by great battalions, fifty volumes at one swoop ... Estimate what that meant for an editor who had no editor’s staff: only one hard-working little woman, Marian Edwardes, who knew the ropes at the British Museum, and was a skilled transcriber, and two or three clerks, a clever boy among them-Frank Swinnerton, the future novelist.109

Fifty years after the first Everyman book was sold, Everyman fulfilled Dent’s goal by printing their thousandth title, Aristotle’s Metaphysics. It was through Dent’s vision that the majority of the British reading public encountered the greatest poetry and prose composed by the ancient writers of Greece and Rome.

Altick has warned historians against equating accessibility with popularity.110 Publishers reissued works repeatedly to get their full money’s worth from the investment of time spent in the original preparation of an author’s texts and plates. The amount of publishing of classical texts might suggest that, through cheap vernacular classics, everybody was reading the Greek and Roman texts, but just because the texts were now within the workers’ reach does not necessarily mean that they bought them. Even sales figures do not equate with reading experiences, since there is a difference between buying a book and reading it. A cynical writer in the Academy observed in 1903 that the works of the ‘Great Authors ... are regarded as part of the necessary furniture of the house—not the mind’.111

But there is some limited evidence of working-class reading of Everyman’s Library. Born in 1892, Vero Walter Garratt worked in a factory, but his passion was for books:

Every available evening I spent in the reference room [at Birmingham Central Library], searching for books which put me in company with the literary giants of the past. The Iliad and Odyssey, the advice of Epictetus, the principles of Longinus and the logic of the Dialogues of Plato I studied with particular relish for their wisdom seemed to be capable of modern application.112

By 17, Garratt’s ‘passion for reading had become so intense that a few hours during the evening seemed totally insufficient’.113 He used to keep his ‘pockets stuffed with a volume or two for the purpose of reading when I ought to have been working’. ‘Chief among these first purchases’, he explains, ‘were the volumes from Everyman’s Library’.114

What a boon they were! A handy size for the pocket, they introduced me to Emerson’s essays, Marcus Aurelius, Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Carlyle, and to other writers. Now that the Library has grown to be the greatest treasure-house of knowledge in the world, the influence it has had in helping to raise the general standard of learning must be beyond calculation. In my formative years, “Everyman” was “Guide, Philosopher, and Friend,” and I cherish an unfading gratitude to those who promoted this epic of publishing.

With the vast scale and uniformity of the Everyman series, classical texts share the field with other world literature titles. World literature’s psychological impact as a package has diminished temporal and spatial borders, allowing Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (no. 9) to stand alongside Coleridge and Emerson. It is no longer an ordeal to access his thinking, as it had been for the uneducated classes for centuries.

Garratt is the most committed and ingenious workplace reader we have encountered. To protect his open book from view he would erect, on the shop floor of his factory’s sheet-metal department, ‘a screen by putting boxes of fittings (ostensibly for use) on the vital part of the bench, fixed a small mirror in line with the door of his [the foreman’s] office’.115 He propped up his Everyman’s edition of Thomas Carlyle’s 1836 Sartor Resartus (which itself has a workman intellectual, a philosophising tailor or sartor at its centre) and ‘alternated spasms of sumptuous reading with arid efforts at soldering or riveting, which I accomplished with about half the attention I gave to the print’.116 Garratt also worked out how to read up a storeroom ladder. This was made just about feasible by the reduced size and price of the cheap reprint series, which found their acme in Everyman’s Library.

The readers discussed in this chapter would be considered, by Richard Hoggart, untypical members of the British working class. Working-class intellectuals, he wrote,

are exceptional, in their nature untypical of working-class people; their very presence at Summer Schools, at meetings of learned societies and courses of lectures, is the result of a moving-away from the landscape which the majority of their fellows inhabit without much apparent strain. They would be exceptional in any class: they reveal less about their class than about themselves.117

From the mid-19th century, however, increasingly favourable conditions for such exceptional behaviour widened social engagement with cultural materials, such as classical texts, traditionally considered to be the preserve of the expensivelyeducated elite. To what extent this ‘massification’ of culture was imposed on the working classes from above, and whether or not this was to the detrimental marginalisation of grass-roots cultural practice, are questions that merit further exploration.

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