As has been a long established trend in working class autobiography, Harry West begins his work with an apology for having written it: “[T]here is no apparent reason why the biography of such an average man as myself should be recorded, or that anyone should read it, if it is.” (1) From this humble opening remark he segues into the real purpose of his prologue – to tell us why, despite the apology, the text is still worth writing.
West states his purpose quite clearly in his prologue; he wishes to give an account of the “circumstances of human life”(1) that he witnessed, circumstances which he believed to be rapidly changing, with the old ways becoming “impossible now.” (1) He goes on to suggest that aside from having lived through notable events, it is his “unusually discriminating” (2) responses to these events that make his personal narrative worth telling.
In this way West makes a distinction between himself and the working men that he lived side by side with. Having said that he sees his responses as unusual, West goes on to explain how this is so: “I was never swept off my feet by superficial appearances or conventions, and always wary of the contemporary and popular. (…) In my opinion the simpler age of my early life was more conducive to true organic, coherent evolution of the deeper faculties of the soul than is possible in the ferment and complexity of the modern world.” (2)
In her article ‘Social Atoms: Working Class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender’, Regina Gagnier notes that it was not uncommon for the writers of working-class autobiography to distinguish themselves in this way. She suggests that many, like West, would attempt to mark themselves out as more than just a worker by retaining a grip on their personal identity and refusing to become absorbed by the environment of their working world. West’s autobiography is certainly demonstrative of this trend, suggesting that part of his purpose in writing was simply to relay his own opinions on the world.
This interpretation of West’s purpose is supported by the frequent, and lengthy, passages given over to musings on science, religion and literature. West’s Epilogue is especially rich in these kinds of discussions, with topics as varied as evolution, the teachings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the presence of evil in the modern world. For every subject West is as impartial as he can be, imparting the fruits of his own education with his readers.
If West’s purpose can be well teased out from his introduction, then his intended audience is a little harder to pin down. In the first paragraph of his autobiography West tantalisingly mentions that he has been “requested to write.” (2) Unfortunately this request is never mentioned again, and neither is the person or group who made it. The slight formality to the writing, along with West’s intelligent considerations of various topics, suggests that his intended audience was someone other than his immediate family or closest friends. It is possible to determine, then, that West had a reader – and an educated reader – in mind when writing, but we cannot say who.
Throughout his work West is partly nostalgic for the age that has just passed and partly intrigued by the future, speculating on what it might contain. More than anything he is a man who is content with the way his life has taken shape, sharing the fruits of his experience with a wider world.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian
Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
West, Harry Alfred, ‘Autobiography of Alfred West. Facts and Comments’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745