Barely a page of Harry West’s autobiography goes by without reference to one of the many literary texts that impacted on his life. Certainly every chapter dedicates a certain amount of space to describing the books that he was reading during the period of his life being discussed. As a child it was “suitable passages from Dickens and reputable authors, fairy tales, “Alice in Wonderland”, Hans Anderson, “Uncle Remus” and others” (8), read aloud to him and his siblings by their father. As an adult it was the recommendations from his friend Mary, “blurted out in his impulsive way “I say Westy, read Ruskins “Sesame and Lillies” and Carlyles “Sartor Resartus”.” But whatever it was, the literature Harry West consumed seemed to be of the utmost important in helping to form his opinions of the world.
West writes at length about his first literary revelation at the age of ten: “My tenth birthday registered one of the most formative periods of my life. Its effects still persists, more than seventy-five years later. On that birthday, when I came down to breakfast, my father handed me my SOLE birthday present. (…) My SOLITARY PRESENT was a copy of the first part of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, value about two shillings. Imagine a modern boy receiving that! Yes, but also imagine a boy’s present having such an enduring interest, moral and spiritual effect as seventy-five years.” (11)
As with so many of the texts read and loved by West, he felt that Pilgrim’s Progress had an almost spiritual impact on his life. He tells us: “As a boy I could not have expressed in words it’s effect on me. I don’t know that I can do it adequately now. Its reading was not merely a pasttime. It spoke directly into my very soul. Life was an adventure, it called for mental and spiritual effort.”(12) In his essay ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences’, Jonathan Rose discusses the question “How do texts change the minds and lives of common (i.e., nonprofessional) readers?” (Rose, 48). With West’s detail in describing how books like Pilgrim’s Progress effected him, it seems he answers this question for himself.
West’s family had not been able to afford to send him to secondary school, so books represented a way to get the education he badly craved. He describes making the decision “I will educate myself.”(27), and using books from the local library to fulfill this ambition. As an adult West began to take a more professional approach to his reading, giving lectures and classes about this favourite texts. Pilgrims Progress retained it’s important status, as he writes “I lectured many times on a “Modern Approach to Pilgrim’s Progress” to many societies and evoked interest, and I hope, with some profit to the audiences. It all commenced with that birthday present at the age of ten!”(15)
Elsewhere, West’s literary tastes belong firmly in the literary canon. He writes of authors such as Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle with the highest acclaim, and found “a lot of enlightenment”(31) in reading their work. This supports Rose’s claim that “Authors that we now regard as “elitist” frequently had a far greater influence on the mass reading audience than “popular” authors, even when the latter clearly sold more books. Uneducated readers were often capable of discovering the “great books” on their own, without following the lead of educated opinion.”(Rose, 49) and suggests that the reading tastes of the working classes were frequently grounded in tradition and high literature.
West’s love of literature seems to have influenced his writing both in style and content; although he doesn’t attempt to emulate a literary style, he writes confidently and frequently uses quotations to support his points. As well as writing about the texts themselves, he gives his own opinions on the issues and themes presented by his favourite authors. Reading is not just an important part of West’s life, but something that helps him educate himself and ultimately define himself.
Rose, Jonathon. ”Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences’. Journal of the History of Ideas. 53:1 (1992) pp 47-70
West, Harry Alfred, ‘Autobiography of Alfred West. Facts and Comments’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745