Harry Young (B.1901-1996): Life Writing, Class & Identity

Black_and_White-1In a wide sense, Harry’s memoirs recount many rare experiences and opportunities which he felt lucky to experience and these memoirs are definitely worth reading, however I don’t believe Harry speaks for others (i.e the other working classes) in his memoirs. His story is extraordinary and that is the reason why it cannot be representative of the working class – the path he took was one consisting of rare opportunities at a time when opportunity was unlikely. His memoirs are also unique as he writes of what opportunities he was given as opposed to how his upbringing held him back. His drive to look at the positives and not be restricted by class seems to be how he managed to end up in this unique position. At the same time, his familiar working class upbringing shaped his beliefs and ultimately paved the way for his future endeavors. He was aware of where he came from and the struggles of the people around him, and through joining the CP, found both a way to escape the situation whilst also representing the struggling class.

Regeina Gagnier’s ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ states that working class writers begin their autobiographies ‘with an apology for their authors’ ordinariness'[1] . This is not so for Harry as, despite originating from the working classes, he is well aware that he is not ordinary, that his story is one of rarity and intrigue. She also states that ‘they had also to justify themselves as writers worthy of the attention of others'[1] again, this is not the case for Harry as through the pleas of others he has written his memoirs. He is well aware that his story is worth attention. This memoir seems to go against all the conventions that Gagnier set for working-class writers, yet it’s indisputable that he is working class, though he is unapologetic and unafraid of what others may think.

His memoir does align with Nan Hackett’s ‘A Different Form of Self’ as she writes that working-class authors ‘insisted on identifying themselves as members of the working class, no matter what later success or wealth they enjoyed.’[2] Despite Harry’s relative success in his life, or rather the improvement in his situation, his main reasons for this success are down to his class and his beliefs. Hackett also writes how autobiographies were ‘primarily “testimonial”; its purpose was to document a way of life'[2] This aligns with the tone and intent of his memoir as he chooses to document his experiences. His experience of self-discovery and character are never explicitly talked about except possibly one or two short sentences in the entire memoir. Instead, he places himself as a person who witnessed great changes around him and extraordinary events and sees himself as being lucky to recount these historical events, which are of much greater importance than himself.

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Aside from his unique experiences, his memoirs do represent some of the working class life. His recollections of childhood and of Islington, and his return to England trying to get whatever job was available was probably a story told by many. His experiences with women, his love of adventure and the comradeship with his friends is also relatable on many levels. Despite his individual experiences, there are many things in his life that are easy to relate to and could easily be an anecdote heard by today’s youth!

 

[1] Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian
Studies
30.3 (1987): 335-363

[2] Hackett, Nan. ‘A Different Form of “Self”: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-class Autobiography’. 12.3 (1989): 208-226
Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography vol. 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. YOUNG, Harry 2-858

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