Critical Humanist Thoughts on the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography Nobody

Critical Humanist Thoughts on the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography Nobody

Critical Humanist Thoughts on the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography –‘Nobody wages war with Dostoevsky or Dickens’

Claire Lynch


Academic disciplines are notoriously territorial. For all that interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work is rightly lauded, traditional divisions stubbornly remain. Continued dependence on this is partially excused as a matter of practicality, for this is a tried and tested way to organise university departments, degree programmes, funding councils and publishers. Alongside this pragmatism stands the more zealous claim, that diverse approaches to studying the long-forgotten, the ill-understood and the not-yet-imagined are incompatible. Both a rejection and a reflection of these assumed divisions can be seen in Plummer’s claim that ‘Nobody wages war with Dostoevsky or Dickens,’as part of his reclamation of the ‘humanities for the human sciences’(Plummer 2001: 8, 7). He also links the previous neglect of human document research in the social sciences to a misplaced disciplinary loyalty when he claims that if unity of approach is to be found ‘it is with the humanities; literature and the arts not science and the experiment’(4). However, in lamenting this traditional bias towards science, he risks seeing the humanities through a romanticised gaze. At the very least, the claim that ‘Nobody wages war with Dostoevsky or Dickens’or as he goes on, ‘Austen or Auden’(6), makes literary studies not a mode of interrogation but more a practice of reverence.

That scholars treat texts differently due to disciplinary stances is unremarkable. While this chapter re-considers Plummer’s ideas about the humanities, and specifically literary methodologies, it is not a critique but rather a response to his call to maintain ‘self-consciousness about method’(Plummer 2001: 119). The Burnett Archive is a useful test case since it is a collection of documents of life, which might also variously be described as historical sources, literary works and autobiographical manuscripts. In re-evaluating how texts might be read and researched, the literary scholar and the social scientist should share a clear sense of what their various methodologies hope to achieve, while at the same time acknowledging the great complexities involved in documents of life research.

Since literary studies is particularly dependent on the study of documents, Plummer pays attention to writers and those who study them, arguing that their ‘mode of experiencing, feeling, interpreting and writing sets no standards, provides no models, makes no sense to a discipline that has always aspired to science’(Plummer 2001: 8). This lack of sense (nonsense?) might be read in two ways: freedom from the “oppression”of science or laxity on the part of literary scholars. Are those who study literature perhaps too timid to rise up against the poets and novelists who command them? Plummer clearly sees value in the humanities approach to document-based research, expressing a ‘longing for social science to take more seriously its humanistic foundations and to foster styles of thinking that encourage the creative, interpretative story telling of lives’(Plummer 2001:1). This admiration for the shared foundations of liberal humanism, however, fails to register the disciplinary history of literary studies regarding the impact of (post)structuralism and practical criticism, approaches quite distinct from this perception of it. It is significant that the same claim is made in both editions of Plummer’s landmark text. In 2001 as in 1983, ‘nobody’dared to look Dickens in the eye. In both editions, the statement seems to no longer be an observation but rather a challenge to the disputatious social sciences, or perhaps to any with a taste for literary warmongering.

The presumed disciplinary difference regarding documents of life and texts more generally, as well as the potential for re-reading documents from a new perspective, was something I had grown familiar with in my own research regarding the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. In the following discussion I shall use Plummer’s ideas as a framework to consider the original research project which established the archive and the current project which aims to revitalise it. The Burnett Archive’s collection of documents of life, once safe territory for social historians, has recently become the subject of, if not a disciplinary war, then at least a recognisable literary invasion.

The Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography: A Test Case

Held at Brunel University in London, the Burnett Archive contains over 230 autobiographies by working class authors who wrote in English and lived in England, Scotland or Wales between 1790 and 1945. The compilers, John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall, were highly attuned to the value of such documents of life, noting that:

In their different ways all working class autobiographers were building upon puritan assumptions about the significance of the inner lives of ordinary men and women, and about the necessity of understanding human identity in the dimension of time (Burnett et al 1984: xiii)

Prior to the establishment of the Archive, academic inattention to working class life narratives had often been justified by a supposed lack of available sources. A research project, of which the Archive was a by-product, sought to question the assumptions that illiteracy prevented self-reflection, or that an unpublished narrative necessarily meant an unpublishable one. By identifying previously unknown autobiographies, Burnett, Vincent and Mayall were able to contribute to a change in perceptions of working class autobiographies, in part because, as Harrison (1984: 16) wryly puts it, they had ‘deliberately gone out to look for them.’

The original research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, gathered working class autobiographical documents of life from local history libraries and record offices, ‘but also extant private memoirs, many of which remained hidden in family attics, known only to the author or a handful of relatives’(Burnett et al 1984: xxix). Requests for autobiographies were also made via the national press and, most successfully, BBC Woman’s Hour in 1978, leading to 800 men and women contacting the project. The outputs from the research were various and widespread, perhaps the principal of which is the annotated critical bibliography The Autobiography of the Working Class (Burnett et al 1984), published in three large volumes and widely considered to be an influential resource.

The limits of the original study are outlined in the introduction to Volume I of the critical bibliography, including its use of the geographical boundaries of England, Scotland and Wales (although, in fact, several other countries are mentioned in the context of emigration, war and so on). The volumes are divided by date, so that in the first volume the autobiographies refer to events which fall between 1790 and 1900, meaning that authors must have been born before 1896. All texts are in the English language, excluding other native languages of the British Isles. While the searches conducted were wide-reaching and thorough, the editors acknowledge that problems of literary classification, such as that biography and autobiography are merged under the same category heading in some local libraries, may have impeded their work. Nevertheless the scale is still to be marvelled at, with Volume I comprising the abstracts of 804 autobiographies and a further nine appendices.

As the editors also note, one of the most challenging aspects of the original project was establishing definitions for the terms autobiography and working class. Indeed, in an attempt to evade these problems, some texts which are considered to be not quite within these slippery categories are included in the appendix. The editors in fact abide by approaches traditionally thought to apply to the social sciences. Their focus is on the (social) subject, not the (human) document, since they were primarily concerned with the text as evidence of the author as a working class subject. The published research presents the resultant patterns, trends and overviews, which can be taken as their overall findings. In delineating this as a collection of working class lives, the editors are self-evidently interested in the nature of work itself and can barely disguise their disappoint when they discover that:

Work, it seems, was not a central life-interest for the working classes. For most it was taken as given, like life itself, to be endured rather than enjoyed; most were probably glad enough to have it at all, and to expect to derive satisfaction or happiness from it was an irrelevant consideration (Burnett 1974: 15)

Nevertheless, paid work continues to be the means by which these lives are classified. They are indexed and arranged by British census employment categories, and in the series of related publications they are classified by types of work and divided into chapters as unskilled or skilled labourers, domestic or agricultural workers and so on. I was surprised to find, when I first came to look at the Archive, that there seemed to be a rather important category of work missing, that of writers. The omission suggests an ideological distinction. If work and science are concepts of the “real world,”productivity and applicability, then writing one’s own life is perhaps esoteric by comparison, self-indulgent even. The exception emerges when such writing can be seen to contribute to the work of others. As the editors acknowledge, writing is hard work, observing that:

Whether they were composing with a practiced hand or laboriously constructing sentences for the first and last time in their lives, these autobiographers were asserting the right of the labouring poor to make their own history (Burnett et al 1984: xvii)

Assertive as it may be, these working class writers, writing their “own history,”seemingly must have their work organised and interpreted by historians before it is seen as valuable. Writing, in this analysis, is understood as a social and not an artistic act, as the production of valuable source material for historians but not it would seem works of literature. Why is this writing classified as utilitarian rather than as artistic? Is there an assumption that the author-subjects are incapable of literariness, or are such possibilities overlooked by the researchers? The distinction again seems to be disciplinary; detail over embellishment, people over characters, historical fact over literary fiction.

The first edition of Plummer’s (1983) Documents of Life was published just a year before The Autobiography of the Working Class (Burnett et al 1984),while Plummer’s (2001) second edition references Burnett et al’s work in the bibliography, listing it as suggested reading in Chapter 4 on ‘The Auto/Biographical Society’under the heading of ‘specific kinds of voices’and on the topic of class. More significant than these cross-references, however, is the way in which the work of Burnett, Vincent and Mayall directly highlights some of Plummer’s concerns. Strikingly, Burnett et al note the impossibility of the autobiographies conforming to the specifications of the social sciences, claiming that while their work ‘may have transformed the known dimensions of this category of evidence,’it will regrettably ‘never be possible to approach the autobiographies as a statistically accurate cross-section of all, or any part of the population’(Burnett et al 1984: xix). Indeed, anxiety over meeting disciplinary expectations appears to have dogged Burnett et al throughout the project, elsewhere, for example, fearing that ‘in the bosom of the historian, doubts will arise’when reading these narratives (Burnett et al 1984: xvii). Of course, such concerns about accuracy, representation and objectivity are now routinely dispelled by autobiographical theorists of a more literary bent. As Laura Marcus (1994: 3) puts it, ‘very few critics would demand that autobiographical truth should be literally verifiable,’due to the implicit complexity of the ‘truth of the self.’Yet even those who are at ease with the delinquency of auto/biography may still be surprised by the contradictions which emerge as the editors describe their work; at one moment strictly the preserve of the historian, the next a literary orgy in which ‘Writer and reader, story-teller and historian, are bound together by a common fascination with the detail of an unfolding life’(Burnett et al 1984: xvii). A ‘common fascination’there may well be, but is there a common understanding of the way a life unfolds in document form as story or history? Is this either or both? More to the point, need there be such an understanding? It is clear from the systematic way in which these texts were collected and anthologised that historical and social concerns were paramount. The plot of the unfolding life was enticing to be sure, but the need to record and organise data in print curtailed any creative re-telling of these stories. In fact it is precisely Plummer’s (2001: 9) proposal that documents of life researchers should ‘side with the uniquely subjective’and as a consequence ‘dismantle the model of social science’that Burnett et al. avoid in their study of life stories.


In the simplest sense, my research is a reconsideration of these documents of life which began where Burnett et al had left off, that is, with the title. Whereas in the original research project the focus was very clearly the working class aspect, I now began to re-consider the role of autobiography as a mode of literary production. This occurred at two levels: firstly, regarding the products of the earlier research, the published research works; and secondly, concerning the autobiographical manuscripts which had provoked them. In this sense, the autobiographies took on a dual identity as documents of life to be approached afresh but also as off-shoots from a previous analysis. As Starn (2002: 388) has noted, an archive is both ‘temple of fact, objectivity and omniscience,’and also ‘the factory of deceit, distortion, and prejudice.’Far from disturbing critics of autobiography, this ambiguity is sought out; as Olney (1980: 4) puts it, ‘one always feels that there is a great and present danger that the subject will slip away all together,’because ‘there is no way to bring autobiography to heel as a literary genre with its own proper form, terminology and observances.’If archives purport to be repositories of the ‘true records’in some general sense, an archive of autobiography, with ever-attendant questions about fictionalising in these, is in some sense the perfect setting for documents of life research. By returning to the manuscripts within this framework, my intention was to excavate not what a particular autobiography might tell about bricklaying or train driving, as had previously been focused on by social historians, but rather, what it meant to that individual to be a bricklayer or a train driver in the context of their own life. More importantly still, my approach focused on the exact way in which the experience has been put into words and represented. In the first edition of Documents of Life, it is proposed that the ‘modern biographer ... is as much of a researcher as a literary writer’(Plummer 1983: 10), thereby legitimising the fictive, linguistic and emotive by permitting a methodology which focuses equally on the story and the history.

My justification for adopting a ‘literary’approach is connected with Plummer’s query whether ‘it goes too far to suggest that many of our earlier literary classics are versions of ethnography and life story’(Plummer 2001:10). If they are, then might it not equally be possible that ethnographies, case studies, public records and so on are versions of neglected literature? “Literariness”is not present only and solely by design, and although proposing that all writing is in some sense literature is arguably more reductive than inclusive, recognising the breadth of the term expands what are seen as possible and permissible analytical approaches to documents of life. The term “document,”for instance, implies something different from a book. A document is the current draft, loose leaf pages or computer file, still editable but nonetheless significant. Literary archives, that is, those of poets, novelists, playwrights and critics, often contain the documents which subsequently become books: their notes, drafts, and letters. These are documents which are simultaneously post- and pre- the literary product, written in its genesis but surviving after its publication. Larkin’s (1983: 99) explanation of the magical and meaningful nature of archives trades on this in his observation that the ‘magical value is the older and more universal: this is the paper he wrote on, these are the words as he wrote them, emerging for the first time in this particular miraculous combination.’In other words, it is not simply the content, but the nature of archives which matters; not just what is written, but the presence of the writing life, hinted at in handwriting and fingerprints on faded notepaper. To ignore such qualities would stifle both the magical and the meaningful and thereby diminish its content and overall value. This is not to say that a document’s inclusion in an archive should be taken as evidence that it is indeed meaningful or valuable. As Steedman (2001:68) sensibly notes, an archive is ‘made from selected and consciously chosen documentation from the past and also the mad fragmentations that no one intended to preserve and that just ended up there.’This happenstance which characterises archival material is understandably alien to the scientist for whom the need for “control”is vital. Nevertheless such material can not only be read as literature but also inspire or even contribute to the creation of such.