Intellectual History from Below

by Emily Rutherford

When he came to give a lecture at Columbia University last month, Chris Hilliard was introduced as “an intellectual historian from below.” “From below” is a term to conjure with in modern British history: a field whose forebears include E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Raphael Samuel, Christopher Hill, and others; a field in which class as a category of analysis is never far from the foreground. But “intellectual history from below”? Isn’t that an oxymoron? To judge from classrooms, conferences, even the pages of (ahem) a certain journal, it would seem that there is a rather specific and narrowly-defined vision of who gets to be a subject of intellectual history. But if, as Joyce Chaplin suggested in her Lovejoy Lecture earlier this month, intellectual historians might attune themselves to the nonhuman, surely they might also profit from inquiries into less elite, less educated subjects—even illiterate or barely literate ones. I am going to tell you a bit about how Hilliard has done this in his work. And then I am going to get a bit polemical. “Intellectual history from below” means two things: it refers to the subjects the intellectual historian investigates; but also to the culture of the field itself, which could be made more equitable and welcoming by a rethinking of what sort of subjects constitute intellectual history. As an editor of this blog, I have had probably a hundred conversations with potential writers who say, “What I do isn’t intellectual history/history of ideas. It’s not clever enough. It’s too far from political thought or the history of philosophy.” This perception is widespread and it is holding intellectual history back. Hilliard’s work shows us how it can be changed.

Hilliard’s first book, To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (2006), is about how writing emerged as a pursuit for ordinary, working-class people in Britain in the interwar period. In his introduction, he clearly frames his project as “literary history from below,” taking seriously the literary aspirations of ordinary people and the magazines, clubs, and interest from democratizing publishers and agents that sustained them. His second book maintained his interest in the world of twentieth-century literature and literary criticism, but turned to F.R. Leavis and the literary-critical movement of which he was a leader, in English as a Vocation: The Scrutiny Movement (2012). Previous accounts of Scrutiny had tended to emphasize the centrality of Leavis, with other figures understood as disciples who sought simply to apply his methods to their reading, writing, and teaching. But Hilliard gives us a more contested and diffuse landscape, in which non-elite individuals such as schoolteachers and adult-education lecturers reinterpreted Leavis’s and other critics’ ideas to suit their own political and pedagogical ends, often with consequences for thought and action that the critics could not have predicted or intended. Hilliard’s creative use of sources makes both books stand out: he turns to documents, such as the records of provincial writers’ clubs or of adult education colleges, that others had not thought to use and in many cases did not even know existed. He reads those sources in original ways, revealing the idiosyncrasies in how individuals develop ideas about writing, politics, or the world around them.

So too last month at Columbia, when Hilliard opened his lecture by challenging himself to tell a literary history of the most unlikely subject: a poison-pen letter-writer who, in 1920s West Sussex, attempted to frame a neighbor for the obscene and threatening letters she sent to residents on their street, including herself. Ranging over the uses of literacy in a criminal libel investigation of the period, Hilliard concentrated in particular on the contents of the letters: the handwriting, a key aspect of the criminal investigation; and also the kinds of obscenities the letter-writer used. Swearing was a distinctly masculine practice in interwar England, and so by being a woman who swore in letters sent to both men and women, the letter-writer was violating an important cultural taboo. Hilliard showed how this could be why her syntax seemed so irregular. She mashed obscenities together in compound forms, used verbs as nouns and vice versa, in a manner not attested in any other records of slang or swearing of the time, because she did not have access to the masculine environments in which she might have heard swearing regularly used. She was not, as Hilliard put it, a “native speaker” of obscenity.

What does this have to do with the kind of history JHI represents? In a seminar Hilliard held with graduate students later that week, we came back to Scrutiny, and to the present-day consequences of how topics like mid-twentieth-century Cambridge literary critics are understood. Political thought has recently been experiencing a revival of interest in modern British intellectual history, with investigations into other academic disciplines (such as literary criticism, history, economics, or anthropology) often understood as closely connected to the political questions facing, predominantly, the New Left—and thus to political questions that we face today, as we re-evaluate the welfare-state settlement of a period that our discussion demarcated as 1942-63. Historians of the United States in the same period might notice a similar trend. This is a topic that can be pursued skillfully (and is, by several of my contemporaries), enhancing our critical historical understanding of politics and political thought in the twentieth century. But it is also a topic that can lend itself to a peculiar kind of nostalgia, expressed by young people who were born long after the mid-twentieth-century settlement unravelled through challenges on a variety of fronts: not only from neoliberalism, but also from other left-wing political perspectives, foremost among them feminism, that challenged the profound limitations of the mid-century New Left perspective. Understanding this genealogy has allowed me to observe a certain collapsing of past and present: when some young intellectual historians admire the pre-1968 Left for its commitment to a socialist ideal from which our present world has fallen, they also naturalize the culture in which the subjects of their research operated. I’m just going to come out and say it: the history of leftist political thought and allied disciplines, operating within the pre-feminist paradigms of the subjects it studies, is not a comfortable atmosphere in which to be a woman—particularly when it is the main arena for young scholars interested in history of ideas. The intellectual history of other times, places, and political orientations is often no better, similar enough to academic philosophy to mirror many of the social and cultural barriers to women’s participation in that field.

As in philosophy, I believe that many of the gatekeepers in intellectual history would not like to imagine themselves as people who contribute to their discipline being a hostile environment for women, and are eager to remove barriers to women’s participation. Unfortunately, such discussions tend to cohere around topics such as parental leave, work-life balance, and unconscious bias in hiring or grant decisions—which, if important issues, seem to me to have little to do with the reasons that I and other young, early-career women feel socially and culturally unwelcome among groups of intellectual historians. We are intelligent, opinionated people who are experienced at historical research and have opinions about ideas and their history, but the conversation that is going on around seminar tables and in the pages of journals is too narrow and uncritical to be an interesting one, while joining or starting alternative conversations usually entails reaching the decision, “I’m not an intellectual historian. Intellectual history is not for me.” Put simply, intellectual history is as much of a boys’ club as the Universities and Left Review, and when there are so many other subfields in our discipline which are not, why would we stick around?

How to change this? We can turn not to HR practices, but to our research itself and how we talk about it. We can take a leaf out of Hilliard’s book—as, indeed, we editors have sought to do since we began this blog—and define intellectual history as widely as possible. It is a subject which can be studied above and below, and one which can include the widest possible variety of individuals, who do not necessarily conform to our preconceptions of someone who is capable of having “ideas.” We must be unfailing in our commitment to situate ideas and their authors in their social and cultural context, and thus avoid temptations to naturalize our actors’ analytic categories and political programs or to collapse the distance between their time or their subjecthood and our own. We must take seriously those whose primary subject of study is the social and cultural context: we must not marginalize them as helpmeets to “real” intellectual historians, but must make sure that our conversations about intellectual history, at least when they occur in public, demonstrate awareness that ideas do not exist in a vacuum, in the past or in the present. As Hilliard’s sources and methodology demonstrate, the circumstances in which ideas appear can involve unintended consequences, or unexpected meetings of “high” and “low.” They can challenge us as humans to treat new interlocutors with dignity and seriousness. Making room in one’s scholarship for unexpected interpretations of Scrutiny outside the academy, or for a West Sussex housewife’s profanities, is not after all so different from making room for an intelligent and inventive colleague who has not read every word of Gramsci or Foucault, and may still have something important to say.


  1. Emily, I’m delighted that you share my high opinion of Chris Hilliard’s work. But historians of reading have been studying intellectual history “from the bottom up” for some time now. In the pages of the JHI, I published a manifesto about this (“Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences”) back in 1992, and that article was in turn an updating of Richard Altick’s 1957 book “The English Common Reader 1800-1900”. Since then a vast body of scholarship on this topic has been created, much of it by women (Elizabeth McHenry, Kate Flint, Beth Luey, to name just a few). And you’ll find a very hospitable home for scholars in this field in the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (

    If I could put in one more plug, I coedit a journal (Book History) and a monograph series (New Directions in Book History), both of which are wide open to work on ordinary readers and writers. So if anyone out there is doing research on these subjects, please keep these publication venues in mind.


    1. Jonathan, thank you for your comment. I’m familiar with much of the great work in the history of ordinary readers and writers in my field of modern British history. In my research group, there are women writing on fascinating, related topics like working-class autobiography and the history of everyday life–though they sure wouldn’t label themselves intellectual historians. But this is precisely the point, right? If folks who work on intellectual history more narrowly defined would like to overcome their image problem, they (we?) need to recognize that people’s interest is elsewhere.


  2. I take your point, Emily. Bob Darnton and I do define ourselves as intellectual historians, but I admit we’re outliers and oddballs. And I don’t think the JHI ever followed up on my 1992 article.


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