Richard Hoggart and the Postmortem Obit

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“Postmortem obit” may sound redundant but bear with me here.

A few days ago I grabbed Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy from the shelf and leafed through it, then slotted it back in its little line of blue Pelican editions. I’ve been in a mood to read something about literature, rather than literature itself, but Hoggart’s book has always baffled me. It doesn’t feel like any particular sort of beast, fish or fowl or frog or whatever. It’s not quite literary criticism, and it’s not quite memoir — from what I can tell, anyway, as I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. The subject line on the back of the book is “Sociology & Anthropology” which sort of feels like the good folks at Pelican shrugging their shoulders and saying “Ehh?”

Since I couldn’t quite figure out whether the book would scratch my itch, or indeed even what sort of itch it would scratch, I moved on and read a chapter of William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral. No question whether or not that’s lit crit.

I had no idea Hoggart was still alive; but it was a near-run thing, as he died today at the hard-to-argue-with age of 95. In their brief news item, The Guardian validates my confusion about his most famous book, calling it “famously unclassifiable — part autobiography, part social criticism and part cultural history.”

The obituary proper is more meaty than the news item above. Both mention Hoggart’s WWII service with the Royal Artillery in North Africa and Italy (which always seems to me like the quintessential British soldier’s experience in WWII, racing around Libya on Rommel’s heels) as well as his orphaning at eight years of age. But I had no idea he’d been a key witness in the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial (the obit has a link to an excerpt of Dr. Who’s David Tennant fluently portraying Hoggart on the witness stand: “Fook it fook it fook it”). It’s also always nice to hear that a successful and respected writer “never found writing easy.” Join the club, buddy.

The obituary is itself a fine piece of writing, being particularly poignant on Hoggart’s childhood travails (a nervous breakdown from overwork at age thirteen!). But it’s the final touch that’s really brilliant: the obit writer died four years ago and has his own Guardian obituary. There’s a Borgesian recursiveness here, almost eerie in its irony: the subject of the obituary outlived the man who wrote it.

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