Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Jamie L. Bronstein's "The Happiness of the British Working Class"

Jamie L. Bronstein is Professor of U.S. and British History at New Mexico State University.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, The Happiness of the British Working Class, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Happiness of the British Working Class lands the reader smack in the middle of one of the thematic chapters of my book, each chapter's theme drawn from nineteenth-century British working-class autobiographers' descriptions of their own happiness. On that page, part of a chapter about the environment, autobiographers reminisce about the way in which, as children, the natural world offered them spaces for unstructured play, the raw materials for simple playthings, and even food that didn't need to be paid for. The page is a microcosm of a chapter that explores working-class environmentalism generally—an overlooked topic—and is a microcosm of the book in that working people speak for themselves, sometimes at length, about the things that contributed to their joy. Samuel Bamford, walking through the countryside with his father, stopped for a rest and “luxuriated amongst the buttercups and daisies, and the glint of a little peeping primrose or two cast a whole stream of sunny thoughts and pleasant feelings into that happy moment. The trees seemed to wave a broader and richer foliage; the air was balmy and refreshing; the sun itself was more life-fraught, then when I felt it shining against the high walls and flagged yards of the workhouse.”

How well the 99th-page test works for The Happiness of the British Working Class depends on how one interprets the word “quality” in Ford Madox Ford’s quote. If by “quality” he meant “essential nature,” the test fails utterly because the chapters build on each other. A reader would not know from the single page that the book starts with a consideration of the ways that responsible historians have to think about autobiographies, or that the book contains chapters on childhood, community, work, and self-cultivation. The reader would also be very surprised to know, on the basis of that page alone, that the book considers some alternate values that emerged from the autobiographies, like the importance of religious observance or social duties. The last chapter of the book, which engages in dialogue with the modern philosophical and psychological literature on happiness, using the autobiographies as evidence, is probably the most surprising of all, because that's normally not a direction that historians take. On the other hand, if by “quality” he meant an assessment of whether the book is worth reading, I would venture to say page 99 passes the test. It's a fun read.
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--Marshal Zeringue