Commentary Magazine


Literature & the Press, by Louis Dudek

The Taste of Print

Literature and the Press.
By Louis Dudek.
Ryerson and Contact Press. 238 pp. $5.00.

These days print seems ubiquitous. Institutes have sprung up throughout the country to teach adults to read faster. Who otherwise could manage to keep pace even with the comparatively few new pages that concern themselves only with one’s most personal interests? So it is that every now and then there comes upon one a weariness with reading—a new fact, another novel, yet a grander theory—and such a repugnance for print that the simple act of not reading becomes as soothing as the most restful sleep. And so one goes to the movies. But the mad, modern lust to read will not be quelled; and the result, in simple fact, is this review, and this issue of this magazine—and the issues last month of every other magazine, and next month’s issues as well, and the ones after that, and all the issues and editions of the magazines and books still unborn but as certain to be as are the seven hundred-odd words on this one single page. How did it all begin? What does it mean? Where will it end?

Literature and the Press, by Louis Dudek, mainly concerns itself with the development of print in England. Dudek argues that the deluge began after 1800. Though Gutenberg had invented movable type around the middle of the 15th century, his press was both hand-operated and made of wood, an extremely short-lived material. The increase of printed matter during the next three centuries was gradual. The thirteen hundred copies of the unusually large first edition of Paradise Lost took seven years to sell, and from that epic Milton earned approximately ten English pounds. By 1800, about six hundred books in average editions of six hundred copies were being printed each year.

In 1798, the third Earl of Stanhope, “an excellent amateur scientist, republican, and inventor of musical and scientific instruments,” devised the first major improvement since Gutenberg: an iron press. Though still hand-operated, the new press was infinitely more durable than Gutenberg’s and doubled the size of the paper that could be struck off at one time. Other improvements followed rapidly: steam power was applied to running the press in 1811 and to the making of paper in 1816; wood pulp was developed around 1850 to replace the rag used, until then, for the manufacture of paper.

The total circulation of all English newspapers in 1711 had been slightly over 2 million; by 1836 it had jumped to around 39 million. Dudek makes the point that until 1815, the circulations of the leading newspapers were “virtually equal to the capacity of the printing press,” but that their growth had been constrained from 1815 to 1836, for political reasons, by a Stamp Tax that made their price prohibitive. With the tax reduced, circulation mushroomed; by 1854, it had increased to approximately three times the 39 million of 1836. Magazines grew at a comparable pace, books less dramatically. Even so, the estimated 36,000 volumes during 1800—six hundred copies each of six hundred books—rose to about one million by 1827.

This history of printing indicates how one development of the industrial revolution led to another. Without iron, Stanhope could not have built his press; without steam, the press could not have been mechanized; without the enormous growth of the textile industry, there would not have been enough rags for paper. But what, then, were the consequences of the printed word? About thirty-five years ago, the well-known sociologist Robert E. Park, in a short essay, “The Natural History of the Newspaper,” suggested one relatively recent, but perhaps characteristic, effect. “In a sense,” he wrote, department stores were “a creation of the Sunday newspaper”: women read the Sunday papers before they read the dailies, and “the women are the buyers.” But Dudek does not focus upon such social effects of print; his foremost concern is with the effect it has had on literary art and popular taste.

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Literature and the press argues that the mechanical perfection of printing—for reasons of profit—has worked to oppose the creation of individual works of art and has led instead to the issuance of huge masses of print which, in turn, have steadily barbarized literature and popular taste. “We are passing now through a time of erosion of literary values worse than any which can be recalled in Western civilization . . .; and this destruction threatens, in a period of mass cultures and highly organized power, to become permanent. Whether we can stop this . . . is the question for our age.” While the newspaper “encourages a uniform group outlook and emotional response among millions of readers, and leaves the independent minority helpless against its mass influence,” literature (by which Dudek means individual creations of worth) has gradually lost its audience; only the “independent minority” remains. As a result, Dudek goes on to argue, modern literature has become increasingly difficult and personal; its first appearance is usually in “little magazines,” the response of a minority to quantity production and the profit system. The best is no longer the most popular; and the most popular is rarely the best. Between the artist and his potential audience stands the profit-making press.

Dudek devotes three long chapters to the careers of Dickens, Thackeray, and Carlyle, to exemplify how each of these men was affected differently by the pressures of mass printing—in either choice of subject matter, development of style, or control over output. Considerations that had nothing to do with the value of their work became determinants of that work: each man had to maintain a sufficiently large audience to earn enough money to warrant publication.

Parts of this complex argument are true enough. In the past century and a half, individual artists have experienced either an increasingly vague sense of their audience, or have felt it growing smaller and smaller. The best in literature during this time has certainly not made the most money, and very often the best has become a type of private art rather than a “public” communication. But the general terms that Dudek uses to explain the effects of these phenomena often seem to me to confuse moral and aesthetic judgments with social analysis. In this respect, Literature and the Press does not differ from any number of current discussions of popular taste, or mass culture, or our vanishing arts. The “decline” of literature is one question; the significance of this decline another.

What does it mean to speak of the barbarization of taste? In such phrases as “the present stage of barbarous levelling down,” “a time of erosion of literary values,” and “popular taste today is even more commercialized and barbarized [than in the Victorian age],” Dudek seems to use the concept in two more or less distinct ways: first, that in 1800 ten people read the best books, while now (give and take the proper proportional adjustments) only five people read them; and, second, that the “average” reader knew and cared more about literary standards in 1800 than he does now. It is clear that both propositions assume the acceptance of aesthetic criteria concerning what is best in literature; and both imply, as do Dudek’s own phrases, the existence of a body of relatively clear supporting evidence. As for the first assumption, I would only say that aesthetic judgments are much less debatable when they concern literature which is a hundred years old than when they concern contemporary works, and, moreover, that standards relevant to the former are not equally or even necessarily relevant to the latter. (Typically enough, Literature and the Press leaves its aesthetic criteria unexplicated.) As for the second assumption, I find the evidence neither certain nor clear. Is the shifting number of readers or the change in prose styles during the past hundred years, or the current availability of paperbacks, sufficient proof of either a declining or a rising taste? None of these phenomena has a definite unambiguous meaning. Dudek himself writes: “There are a great many good books written and published, and there are many readers for such books today.”

Yet these particular problems, though seldom taken into account, are obviously manageable. But the notion of “barbarization” contains a considerably more significant assumption: that the average readers of 1800 and 1961 make up comparable groups. Here the problem is a conceptual one. For the growth of cities, the expansion of industry, the development of public education, the absorption of women into the business world—these changes have created an entirely new “average” audience. It did not develop out of (or degenerate from) a “higher” group of the 19th century. Yet the proponents of barbarization treat any estimate of the new audience’s inferiority as if it were solid evidence of a continuing corruption. In terms of the old audience, the new may represent a profound falling-off in taste; but in terms of its own taste of twenty-five years ago, the new audience may now be more sophisticated. This second comparison is as relevant to the theory of barbarization as the first.

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In another sense, however, the entire argument of Literature and the Press presents the reader with nothing less than an ostensibly clear-cut choice between art and non-art (the book’s title amounts to the neatest formulation of this alternative). “The issue, for us, is the survival of the literary art, as against script writers and newspaper men, in the mass communications society of the future.” I do not believe the history of print can be summarized so simply. An important part of that history has been the development of new genres to satisfy the demands of new publics. One such genre was the novel; another, more recently, has been the comic strip. (Dudek’s ultimate alternatives are still relevant, of course; all literary forms do not embody equally profound or complex insights, and a great novel surely provides a more satisfying experience than a great comic strip.) The argument of Literature and the Press implies such juxtapositions as Dickens and Mickey Spillane, Addison’s Spectator and the Daily Mail; but its art/non-art terminology obscures the full implications of these contrasts. Thus, one juxtaposition is never implied, the juxtaposition of genres—of Dicken’s novels, for example, with Walt Kelly’s Pogo. Partly because of this lapse, the book completely disregards the crucial fact that different genres are the products of different social conditions. And by avoiding such issues, the basic question raised by Literature and the Press is reduced, finally, to only a matter of snobbery.

The importance of Dudek’s book lies in its factual history, which it relates and details with skill. (For example, in underlining the different rates of growth between newspapers and magazines, on the one hand, and books, on the other, it suggests something about the composition of the new publics after 1800.) Dudek’s conclusions follow less from his understanding of this history than from the facts themselves, and his final comments have an interest of their own. He suggests in passing that “if the new visual and sound machines succeed in attracting the millions from newspapers, magazines, and the kinds of books which are now popular, the result can only benefit printed books and literature as a whole.” But Dudek takes this possibility to be little more than an unrealistic hope. He believes the grounds for the “darkest prophecy . . . that the book is disappearing from our midst,” are quite strong. He has no doubt that unless the press’s assault on literature can be stopped, literature will not survive.

As incidental support for his conclusions, Dudek mentions the predictions of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian student of popular culture. McLuhan foresees a demise not only of literature but of book culture altogether. Yet, unlike Dudek, he does not expect a cultural apocalypse—and is reasonable not to, I think. If books in general, good and bad, were to lose their influence, and a number of presses were, in fact, to find themselves out of business, how cataclysmic would the result be? That culture then, would it really belong to the barbarians?

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