Literacy and the practice of writing in the 19th century Tuesday, September 25, 2012 - 09:48
Literacy and the Practice of Writing in the 19th Century, a social and cultural history of writing, will be officially launched at London's Institute of Education, as part of the 10th birthday of the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy. The book contextualises the experiences of working-class men and women in the changing social attitudes, voluntary initiatives and policies towards popular education from the early 1800s to the establishment of universal elementary education in the last decade of the century.
The book's author, Ursula Howard, said:
"The widespread desire to learn at this time, the reasons people wrote and what they wrote were characterised by extraordinary diversity; by the material and psychological difficulties of the process, by the pleasure and pride they felt in learning, by the excitement about creative possibilities and by the need to overcome the pain of separation and loss from family and friends. At home and in the community, the desire to write was met with obstacles and indifference but, for some, also attracted help and inspiration.
One strongly shared belief emerges from the voices in this book: gaining literacy, whatever the personal cost, had transformative possibilities. For working class people who were not encouraged to learn literacy, yet who managed to persist, the process of writing, whether a simple letter or a whole life story, carried a significance which transcended its clear historical social meanings. Becoming a writer was no less than a fairy tale. Writers recalled, celebrated and sought to justify deep changes in identity, as well as the social dislocation and disturbed sense of belonging which writing brought.
This book interprets 19th century literacy in new ways, and will contribute to ongoing debates about its role in change. The argument that learning to write changed people's consciousness and subjectivity leaves the question: what about those people who did not learn? What can we know of their sense of self and ability to enact change? There is also controversy in suggesting that a writer, in an environment where writing is not part of the culture, is a person apart from family and community. Writing can be socially divisive."
Mary Hamilton, Professor of Adult Learning and Literacy at Lancaster University, said:
"Ursula Howard's enquiry into nineteenth-century working-class autobiography is an illuminating read, firmly rooted in questions that still burn strongly for adult educators today. The book makes a significant contribution to literacy studies - it is about writing, which is often ignored or subsumed under reading in policy and practice. Most importantly it is about the ‘unbidden' literacy practices of working class autobiography in an age where writing was not expected of ‘ordinary people'. Howard asks: why did writing matter so much to these authors that they went against the grain to record their thoughts and experiences? How did they do it and at what cost? This is a carefully and engagingly written book to read end to end. It is structured to take us through the broad social and political context of literacy in the nineteenth century, to the more local context of the community and social relationships within which individual working-class autobiographies were produced."