Jon Klancher, in The Making of English Reading Audiences, demonstrates how acts of reading and writing are intricately connected and dependent on class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He also illuminates the ways in which readers and writers display self-consciousness about language and knowledge production. What constituted “truth” and in what way it was to be communicated to the reading public was a pressing concern in a period of newly developing print technologies. The periodical is an example of one such technology. It served to expand the concept of the public sphere. According to Klancher, periodicals such as the Bee claimed that it enabled a “portable coffeehouse” in which likeminded writers and readers engaged in “periodical performance,” a fluid process that allowed readers and writers to exchange roles. Additionally periodicals such as the Monthly forged specialized readerships that “regroup[ed] readers…according to new divisions of intellectual labor” (40). This early method of dividing readers translates into the modern day professional/academic journal. What’s important, as Klancher emphasizes, is that these periodicals not only positioned readers within similar social groups but also “became actively ideological and reshaped the very contours and self-definitions of the readerships they addressed (40). Thus, it is via their position within their audience and their relationship to socially competing audiences that readers adopt “the reading habit” (45).
In chapter two of his book, Klancher elaborates the ways in which middle class readers are self-aware of the morphing scene that audiences inhabit. Writers of Blackwood, for instance, express anxiety about the language of nonfiction writing. Is it possible, they question, to essentialize meaning and arrive at universal principles, when various professional fields function according to their own “internal principles?” (58). In other words, can we call speak one language that would function as the language of the “Mind” (60). For the purpose of making a profit, Blackwood claims that we can so not only do they divided readers in their respective social groups but they also caters to a larger priviledged intelligencia. Ultimately, as the New Monthly Horace Smith suggests, the ideal reader must “textualize” (68) class in order to rise above it. Thus, they have to learn to become expert readers of culture. They can one-up both the rude bourgeoisie, a new breed of cultural capitalists, and the innocent uneducated classes by “discover[ing] how to read social classes as instructive, interpretative signs (67). Periodical writing encourages this type of reading but so does fiction as it teaches readers how to interpret and manage social scenes. Jane Austen’s novels, for instance, are pedagogical writings aimed at creating “readers of social texts,” (62) a phrase Klancher coins to identify periodical readers, by providing a manual in which middle-class readers can navigate social sign systems.
Klancher faults the romantics for instituting a model of reading that pervades our definitions of high and low culture. We might give Wordsworth the credit for establishing poetry as an enclosed system of reading and writing that exists in reality outside of society, becoming a metaphysical language accessible to only a priviledged few. Wordsworth insists that it is print culture, or the “influence of books upon men,” (138) that corrupts language, making it difficult to distinguish “‘true’” from “‘false’” signs. Thus, he resorts to the language of the peasants as it has remained uncorrupted from an alien urban and print culture. Minus its “gross provincialisms and profanities” (140), rural languages can give readers an outlet to a universal language of human understanding that will enable us to escape the restrictions of our class-structured sign systems (140).
Wordsworth views the dynamic interaction between class and language as a “prisonhouse” but periodical writers of the early nineteenth century view it in more positive terms – one need not be defined by one’s class if one has the interpretative skill to defy it. In other words, the better readers we become, the easier it is for us to think outside the scope of our distinctive social and cultural environments.