Secret Library

The Intellectuals and the Masses: Modernism against the Crowd

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits a classic study of modernist culture and snobbishness

John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 was published in 1992, over a quarter of a century ago now. The book explores how writers of the early twentieth century – intellectuals as such H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, E. M. Forster, and others – conceived of, and wrote about, the majority of their fellow human beings (the ‘great unwashed’ to use Bulwer-Lytton’s phrase), in disparaging and often jaw-droppingly unsympathetic terms. Carey’s book also shows how this idea of ‘the masses’ was useful to the intellectuals, such as the modernists, in providing them with a mainstream populism which they could then set themselves up in opposition to.

John Carey is one of the greatest living critics. His The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination is one of the few works of criticism on Dickens’s work which not only manages to enter into full imaginative sympathy with its subject but also succeed in actually being rather funny. I read it twice while I was studying for my MA. But The Intellectuals and the Masses is probably Carey’s best-known book, and deserving of a reappraisal now, especially given the widening gulf between the governing classes and the rest of the population, the richer and poorer, the elite and everyone else. Among the many insights Carey’s book provides, there is his fascinating account of the various ways in which H. G. Wells, a writer usually associated with left-wing causes such as socialism, imagined cataclysmic scenarios in his fiction – extinctions, mass plagues, alien invasion – as a way of conveniently getting rid of vast swathes of the population in one go. Carey also shows how the artist and novelist Wyndham Lewis championed Hitler, highlighting just how many crossovers existed between British intellectuals and Nazi Germany. (Pound’s support of Mussolini is also relevant here, although admirably, Carey doesn’t get side-tracked with that.)

Most of Carey’s conclusions are hard to disagree with, and he mounts his argument carefully and convincingly. One of the greatest sections in The Intellectuals and the Masses is the chapter on the popular writer Arnold Bennett, whom Carey brands the ‘hero’ of his book. Firing back at Virginia Woolf and her attack on Bennett’s ‘materialist’ brand of popular realist fiction in her essays ‘Modern Fiction’ and ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, Carey shows how intellectual and, indeed, de facto ‘modernist’ Bennett was in terms of his breadth of reading, his enthusiasm for continental literature, and – contrary to what Woolf liked to claim – his interest in the insides of people’s heads, in how people think as well as what they think. It’s long been acknowledged that Woolf was being unfair on Bennett in her attacks on him, but Carey’s is perhaps the best dismantling of her tendentious and wildly misleading case against the Staffordshire novelist.

Where I would seek to question Carey’s conclusions is his tendency to see all of the snobbery going one way: intellectuals like Wells, Woolf, Eliot, Lewis, and others may well have invented the concept of ‘the masses’ as a way of discrediting huge swathes of the populace, but anti-intellectualism is itself a very real thing, especially in British culture. (Anyone who has watched quiz shows where contestants are only too happy, when a literature round comes up, to announce with misplaced pride, ‘Yeah, I don’t read books’, will be able to vouch for this. The general distrust of academics and other experts, which appears to be on the rise, is also part of this, and a less frivolous example.) Perhaps that’s a subject for another book and Carey considered it beyond his purview here; after all, the issue at hand is modernists being snobbish about everyone else, rather than on how non-intellectuals view modernists. Nevertheless, I also don’t think that modernists necessarily produced difficult art because their chief aim was to alienate people not clever or educated enough to understand it: Woolf, for one, claimed to be rescuing fiction from the clutches of writers who had contempt for real people, fobbing them off with overly neat and simplistic representations of the real, while T. S. Eliot argued that modern poetry needed to be difficult because modern life was difficult, complex, and various. (A more recent poet, Geoffrey Hill, made a similar argument.) In fairness, this is not the chief thrust of Carey’s argument here.

Where such an objection does become relevant, though, is in his implication that Arnold Bennett could have written more self-consciously ‘intellectual’ fiction but instead chose ‘to narrow the abyss between himself and those from whom his intellectual orthodoxies estranged him.’ Here, it’s difficult to see how Bennett differs greatly from Woolf, whose intellectual orthodoxies similarly estranged her from many middle- and lower-class readers, but whose work is shot through with an attempt to get to grips with universal human emotions and conditions: madness, depression, shell-shock, trauma, boredom, curiosity, loneliness, and all the rest. She’s not writing about servants in the same way (although it’s been argued that the opening lines of Mrs Dalloway are focalised from the point of view of the Dalloways’ maid), but that is simply because that was not her natural milieu. And ‘narrowing the abyss’ too much invites the similar charge of dumbing down, and failing to do justice to life’s inherent complexity and difficulty. At this point one begins to wonder whether Carey’s attack on Woolf is in danger of ringing as hollow as Woolf’s on Bennett.

This is why The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 remains an important book. It invites debate as much as it stages one. It is also, more importantly, an eye-opening account of how the views of writers of the early twentieth century foreshadow those feeding into Nazism only a few years later.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.


  1. Pingback: The Intellectuals and the Masses: Modernism against the Crowd | collect magazine

  2. Thank you for the introduction. Have already purchased the book based on your review.

  3. I find this a fascinating subject, and your questions and observations land on some vital points. This happened in the U.S. too, but during this period my side of the ocean had some (more?) pushback. Walt Whitman being used as a model/Modernist founder for one. The 1930’s Popular Front leftism and it’s predecessor movements which formed their own artistic outlets in the Modernist age–and even where we find that effort lacking, Stalin-blind, or even sometimes humorous in it’s missteps, it was a counterforce to this. On your side of the ocean there was Herbert Read, even if he became more associated with visual-art modernism over time. Here in the US we got things like the Federal Arts project during the Depression which has had it’s writers section even if we now remember it more for it’s visual arts.

    That some of the leaders of this in England were happily ex-pat Americans may be a marker of the differences with how Modernism developed in the U.S. as apposed to abroad. They may have selected the side of the ocean to stay partly for this reason.

    Even given the world-wide impact of WWI, I get the feeling that that artistic impact of that war differed in England and the Continent vs. America. It completely staggered the American left for a decade or so as a political force, but did driving this activity underground politically lead to it leaking out more as a cultural force here?

    Lots about this I don’t know (and maybe all this is considered common knowledge) but fascinating questions because Modernism is how we got to where we are now as we ask ourselves where to go next.