Skip to content

“The Intellectuals and the Masses”

I just read “The Intellectuals and the Masses,” a book from 1992 by the literary critic and English professor John Carey. I really liked the book, and after finishing it I decided to get some further perspective by reading some reviews.

I found two excellent reviews online, a negative review in the London Independent by Blake Morrison and a positive review in the London Review of Books by Ian Hamilton.

I’ll summarize the book and the two reviews, then share my own thoughts.

John Carey, “The Intellectuals and the Masses”:

Leading Mondernist literary intellectuals in England (D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, and a few others) had strongly elitist and racist views. Really strong views: not just thinking that they and their friends and fellow rich northwestern Europeans were better than everyone else, but racist to the extent of fantasizing about masses of lower-class people being killed.

The story is complicated, though, because many of these authors expressed liberal views in their writing and in aspects of their life. Carey frames some of this as a contrast between their social ideologies, which were rigid and often violent, and their writing, which had a logic of its own. Interestingly, Carey argues that in many case the logic and human sympathy of the imaginative writing made more sense than these authors’ political and quasi-scientific pronouncements. This argument of Carey’s makes sense to me, as it’s consistent with my idea that fiction can be viewed as a sort of prior predictive simulation, a working out of the full implication of some ideas. And I like the paradox that writers can be closer to truth in their fiction than in their purported nonfiction.

In summary, Carey’s point is not that these authors are bad guys (except for Wyndham Lewis, who really does seem pretty horrible) but rather that they were living within a class system and, even when they tried to escape it, were still stuck there. I wish he’d give a bit more credit to the efforts that Orwell, Lawrence, Woolf, etc., made in their struggle to escape this trap.

Carey also makes a connection to Mein Kampf, noting that many of Hitler’s views on the superiority of the artist, the unimportance of the common man, the disparagement of lesser races, etc., fit in just fine with many of the views of the modernists. After quoting a historian as describing Hitler’s ideas on culture as “trivial, half-based, and disgusting,” Carey argues that those ideas are on par with the influential cultural ideas of Wells, Eliot and the rest.

One indirect thing I got from Carey’s book is a better understanding of George Orwell. Remember that famous line in Animal Farm when the man says to the pig, “If you have your lower animals to contend with, we have our lower classes”? I always thought of this as representing Orwell mocking a plutocratic attitude, but, after reading The Intellectuals and the Masses, I’m now thinking that Orwell was implicitly criticizing a general view of his literary contemporaries and predecessors. I hadn’t realized how much this elitism and racism was in the air at the time.

Blake Morrison’s review:

Morrison describes Carey’s book as “Witty, passionate, entertaining and deeply wrong.” Even after reading this review, I still like Carey’s book, but Morrison makes some good points.

First, Carey doesn’t fully explore the contradictions in his thesis. For example, sure, Hitler shared aestheticism and racism with those modernist writers—but Hitler and the Nazis were also notorious for hating intellectuals, burning books, and banning modern art. So there’s some twist here that Carey is missing.

There’s some irritant in modernism, some spirit of rebellion that the totalitarians could not stand. This relates to Carey’s idea that the modernists were truer in their art than in their politics.

Speaking of politics, there’s this sense that modern art is simultaneously left-wing and elitist. But why isn’t modern art viewed as right-wing? Eliot and Pound were key modernists, and they were right-wing. Modern art was designed not for the masses, but for the few: that’s conservative too, right? The paradox, or internal contradiction, here, is that modern art was both elitist and rebellious.

Morrison continues:

For all his populist protestations, it’s obvious Carey would much rather be reading Lawrence and Orwell, Gissing and Wells than Jeffrey Archer, Catherine Cookson and their early 20th-century equivalents. Whether this doesn’t imply the superiority of ‘high’ art, whether works like The Waste Land or Women in Love remain undamaged, artistically, by the attitudes underpinning them: these are questions he never faces, just as he never acknowledges the possibility that the ‘difficulty’ of Modernism was a genuine artistic endeavour rather than class warfare – ‘an attempt,’ as Eliot said, ‘to put something into words which could not be said in any other way’. Eliot also wrote that he liked to think his poetry might be ‘read and declaimed in the public house, the forecastle and the shipyard’, that the ‘uneducated’ might appreciate it, and that ‘the audience for the more highly developed, even for the more esoteric kinds of poetry is recruited from every level’: this may have been hopelessly fanciful of Eliot but it doesn’t sound like a conspiracy to exclude proles.

Carey circles around some of these contradictions in his books but doesn’t really address them head on. Carey argues that the notorious difficulty of modernist writing can be explained by the modernists’ desire to exclude the masses, but I’m doubtful: I’m guessing that any disparagement of the mass public was more bravado than anything else, and that these authors would’ve loved to have more readers, had that been possible.

Even so, I still like Carey’s book, and we can get some sense why by turning to . . .

Ian Hamilton’s review:

Hamilton writes:

These Modernists were obsessed with the state of the literary culture: they pronounced on the subject endlessly, and their works can often be read as lamentations over the sorry condition of a world that has no place, no privileged or central place, for works like theirs.

Interesting. He’s turning Carey’s thesis around. Instead of saying that the modernists were elitists and disdained the common reader, he’s saying that the modernists were disdained by the common reader and then became elitists in a dog-in-the-manger maneuver.

That said, this doesn’t explain H. G. Wells, who had a wide readership and didn’t write in a modernist style and was not a political conservative, but shared much of the elitism and disdain of the masses that was so evident in Pound, Eliot, Woolf, etc.

Hamilton makes another interesting point:

When Victorian literary men mused on the forthcoming challenge of Democracy, they tended to assume that, however rough things got, there would still be aristocrats and peasants: in literary-cultural terms, it would be the task of the intellectual/aristocrat to provide an ‘adequate ideal to elevate and guide the multitude’, the reader/peasant. The intellectual’s prestige in the new order would thus be enhanced rather than diminished. His writings, widely available at last, would be acknowledged as the civilising force. A newly literate multitude would turn with gratitude to its ancient tribal leaders, hailing them as prophets, sages, magicians, witch-doctors, druids, take your pick.

But, of course, it didn’t happen that way: the mass press took over.

Again, one can see the theme of elitism coming from frustration at loss of social position.

I can also relate to this passage from Hamilton:

It is as well that the down-with-dons essay was written by a don. Similarly, this polemic against highbrows can the more easily be swallowed, indeed savoured, because it was written by a highbrow.

Similarly, as a quantitative social scientist teaching in the Ivy League, I feel a duty, almost, to criticize the abuses of the form, to stand with the general public and fight the credentialed B.S. vendors from Harvard and the like who are filling our Ted talks and NPR channels with junk science.

OK, ok, I just made it all about me, so forget that part. The point is that Carey is himself engaged in a contradiction, an intellectual being an intellectual speaking against intellectuals, an anti-modernist who, truth be told, might actually prefer some modernist art to some of its overwrought Victorian predecessors, etc. But, in his contradictions, Carey is well qualified to write about the contradictions of the modernists, and perhaps this can give us insight into the contradictions of today.

The writers of the 1900-1930 period were unhappy with their declining importance. But things are much worse for writers and artists now. Who are today’s heroes? Not writers or even musicians? No, our pantheon of culture heroes are: rich men, athletes, some movie and TV stars, a few politicians, some offbeat intellectuals like Nate Silver and Nassim Taleb . . . and that’s about it. Maybe a couple other people I’m forgetting.

Anyway, I enjoyed Carey’s book. It provoked many thoughts. As the saying goes, it’s the kind of book where you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. In particular, I’d like to ask why he didn’t mention Richard Hoggart’s classic The Uses of Literacy, as this would seem to relate strongly to his (Carey’s) theory that the modernists purposely wrote in obscure styles in order to reduce the ability of lower-class readers to follow their stuff.


  1. Zhou Fang says:

    I really think an important factor is non-representative sampling. It’s not so much that these authors deliberately alienated mass audiences, but rather the platforms that discussed and promoted their writing (intentionally and unintentionally) favoured more “sophisticated” writing that served to prove that the reader is in turn more sophisticated and educated and elite. Meanwhile a different genre is promoted towards the masses.

  2. Matt Skaggs says:

    “The Intellectuals and the Masses”

    “There are two kinds of people in this world, those who think that there are two kinds of people in this world, and those who don’t.”
    -Molly Ivins

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Ah, but there are (at least two interpretations to the statement, ““There are two kinds of people in this world”:
      One is “There are only two kinds of people …” and the other is, “There are at least two kinds of people…”

  3. Joshua says:

    Andrew –

    Interesting post, Thanks.

    For some reason it got me thinking about a contemporary – H.L. Mencken – and the contradictions in how he was an elitist (and racist) and critic of elitism at the same time.

    So I asked Mrs. Google to look up Mencken and Wells at the same time and some interesting connections came up. For example:

    > Prejudices: First Series (1919), the first of six volumes (published 1919-1927) collecting his short essays, includes Mencken’s characteristically scathing yet humorous assessments of various literary and artistic figures as well as more general ruminations on American culture. He opens with “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism,” a piece deriding contemporary criticism’s tendency to lapse into what Mencken terms “pious piffle,” whereby an artist is judged by the “rightness” of his orthodoxy rather than his artistic or technical merits. Mencken assaults literary and cultural critics for demanding that artists become “Great Teachers” rather than dutiful reporters on human nature. Furthermore, a “genuine critic of the arts” must act as a catalyst, triggering the spectator’s reaction upon encountering the work of art.

    Mencken’s satire targets specific literary figures, and he shamelessly attacks H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, William Dean Howells, Thorstein Veblen, Hamlin Garland, and others unfortunate enough to attract his ire…


  4. oncodoc says:

    We in the US are very Anglophilic. The idea that much of British high culture in that era rested on a bedrock foundation of an ugly belief in the general superiority of Englishmen over lesser peoples would not have come as a revelation in Dublin, Tel Aviv, Mumbai, or Nairobi. If we want to review the merits of Britain, we should at least glance at what people who were fighting to get rid of them had to say.
    Full disclosure, some of my relatives worked to establish Israel both legally and illegally; they thought that the fine clothes of Britain covered a diseased body. I have absorbed some of their ideas.

    • jim says:

      Significant elements of the British aristocracy were also Nazi sympathizers, which is why Chamberlain was able to last so long.

    • John Williams says:

      This brings to mind Ghandi’s comment about western civilization: “It would be a good idea.”I think it would be a good idea.”

    • Count Zero says:

      Well it might be worth remembering that several of the key authors being discussed by Carey were from North America: Eliot, Pound and Wyndham Lewis. Joseph Conrad was, of course, Polish. And other key modernist writers of the period — W.B. Yeats and James Joyce — were Irish. So, for better or worse, much of “the British high culture” was not English. That, of course, raises a whole host of other interesting questions. Anyway, the upper classes of Britain in the early C20th had little or no interest in high culture. Wealthy philistines, with few exceptions.

  5. Jonathan says:

    I think the fiction, like Wagner’s music versus his writings, abstracts the human priors, from upbringing and natural bent to experienced or aspirational milieu, and applies these against existing models (which includes differentials to models). Success generally requires fit backwards from existing form to you. Outside of Nietzschians, and the conceptions about power over circumstance. So I tend to think the external model pressure tends to form the limits of the hatefulness within the celebrated. These conceptions work better for me than cultural context because they impart movement: you move toward fitting to the model, which is successful artistic achievement (which may or may not be highly popular, etc., if you want to expand dimensions there).

  6. yyw says:

    Nothing wrong with elitism if it means contempt for shoddy work. It becomes problematic when it becomes credentialism. One can be both elitist in the former sense and anti-elitist in the latter sense.

  7. Len Covello says:

    Highlights that elitist criticisms of elitism have nothing logical, emotional, or practical to do with populist criticisms of elitism. They will never be on the same side.

    And nice shout out to Holden Caulfield. None of us have enough friends to chat up about all of these interesting ideas. The world is too large and friendship is too challenging.

  8. Jonathan (another one) says:

    The fact that lots of modernists were socially retrograde is one of the great forgotten truths, as is the racist/eugenic source of progressivism . I have always tried tried to judge both aesthetic and policy work by their content, not by my personal affiliation with the views of the authors outside of this content. Sometimes it’s really hard, but sometimes it’s really easy; whenever I detect it, I know that using it as a shortcut for evaluation is something to be resisted. None of Hitler’s vegetarianism, Wilson’s racism, or Eliot’s disdain for the common man should have any effect on my feelings about vegetarianism, the Federal Reserve, or the Wasteland. It’s just lazy disguised ad hominem illogic. Of course it shouldn’t work the other way either… bad content from people whose views I admire is bad content.

  9. Anonymous says:

    “. . . and that’s about it. Maybe a couple other people I’m forgetting.”

    Across the board, the big names from 1900-1960 do seem vastly bigger than the big names from 1960-2020.

  10. Doxx says:

    “That said, this doesn’t explain H. G. Wells, who had a wide readership and didn’t write in a modernist style and was not a political conservative, but shared much of the elitism and disdain of the masses that was so evident in Pound, Eliot, Woolf, etc.”

    Of this group, Wells by far expressed the most virulent disdain and hatred of the masses…browse his Anticipations for confirmation of that. By comparison, Pound and Eliot were less concerned about the masses per se as they were about being anti-semitic. This was true, in particular, of Pound who was virulent on that subject.

  11. Peter Dorman says:

    Here’s a hypothesis. Every work of art entails a vast number of aspects for which our culture has ready-made options or resolutions available. A song, for instance, entails lyrics with their many cultural references, the relationship between singer and instrumentalists, between the text of the music and its performance, and the role of body language, as well as the structure and rhetoric of the music itself. A novel has a universe of unmentioned “prior” assumptions about the world it takes place in, the roles its characters can adopt, their cultural expectations, their interests and motives and so on. You can’t make every one of these a deliberate choice. It’s too much, and the work would suffer if artifice were applied to every detail.

    Art necessarily adopts cultural routines familiar to its audience across most aspects in order to foreground the the few where deliberate, creative choices are being made.

    Here is an obvious example about class. In his Lord of the Rings trilogy Tolkien depicts a familiar master-servant relationship between Frodo and Samwise. It operates in the background as the author wrestles with difficult questions of destiny and responsibility, leadership and renunciation. If he had tried to rethink the servant relationship à la Roma and somehow weave that into the narrative, it would have been a distraction. Now imagine a further deliberate reinvention of the political structure of the elves and the miners of Moria, or the push-pull of duty and warrior independence among the orcs, or the contradictions of racial difference, hierarchy and resistance among all the groups of Middle Earth—well, that’s what I’m saying. You follow the path of least resistance in most respects in order to foreground your artifice in the aspects you are most concerned with.

    What has happened with Tolkien, and has happened to writers, composers, visual artists and others too numerous to mention, is that, with the passage of time, the conventions they leaned on to fill out the background of their work have become problematized. We are not as comfortable today with the stereotype of the loyal servant as Tolkien’s first readers may have been. Casual racism also jumps out at us. Even in more personal realms the norms have shifted: I love Winterreise, but the despondency of the central figure over romantic rejection feels overwrought in a way it probably didn’t to audiences from earlier generations. But Winterreise is not about the role of unrequited love in fostering desolation; it serves as a convenient frame for a deep dive into desolation itself, so I can appreciate it even if I think, when it comes to the search for romance, the guy should just move on.

    One limitation of this theory is that it’s mainly about content and doesn’t address the interesting tension arising from the role of form: how artists could proclaim democratic ideals but adopt formal methods that are likely to make the audience more elite in cultural terms. Modernism made this a pressing issue, and the simplistic response of Communist censors (“formalism”) shows us how destructive it can be to just mandate populism. That’s a different topic though.

  12. prognostication says:

    Thanks for this post. I always really loved the modernists. I suspect this reflects the tastes of the high school teachers I liked the best, as much as anything else. But there is always that disconnect, isn’t there? Eliot is maybe my favorite poet, but he certainly held some despicable views, and surely there are traces of that in his art, even if, as you say, the modernists’ art sometimes managed to transcend their prejudices. It’s hard to wrap my head around.

    It’s easier in the context of contemporary art of the present or recent past, where I can make a judgment based on my own experience about whether someone’s beliefs and actions are sufficiently outside the bounds of what I view as acceptable as to color my view of their work. It’s harder for me to know what an upper class Englishman “should” have believed about social and cultural issues in 1920. Clearly some people got it closer to “right” for my tastes than others, but, as I say. It’s tricky. Thanks again.

  13. Christopher Blanchard says:

    Some twist? There is an oddity in modern thought, and I don’t mean elite thought, which is to associate Fascism and some other right wing beliefs with ‘conservatism’. There is an overlap, and sometimes a big one, but Mussolini and Hitler and a lot like them were self-conciously revolutionaries. Some of what they wanted was a return to an imaginary past, but some of it was about making the NEW MAN and a new world order, so full blown conservatives like Tolkien (or Dorothy Sayers, I think, and maybe Faulkner) had no sympathy for them, and nor did the essentially decent Orwell, but modernists like the younger Eliot certainly did. It is maybe worth thinking about how things changed, and why: James Joyce (who is my favorite author) had been tremendously impressed by Gabriele D’Anunzio before the first world war, but changed his mind. My point is that modernism developed and some of it went fascist (like Marrinetti and Pound), a lot of people writing in the twenties and thirties were in-between and unclear; a few, like Joyce, saw clearly and took against the fascists without becoming any less modernist themselves, and it is only since the second world war that the split has seemed easy.

  14. David Young says:

    Most people don’t realize how strong the currents of social Darwinism and racism were in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. Social Darwinism was even mentioned in a Supreme Court ruling. Bolshevism and Fascism did not originate in a vacuum but were logical outcomes of an ascendent intellectual doctrine. Woodrow Wilson for example was a racist and wanted to replace the Constitution with the administrative state because these elites would be much superior to the older idea of the people deciding. Barbara Tuchman’s “The Proud Tower” is a book that impressed me a lot 40 years ago when I read it. It’s a powerful indictment of cultural and political changes in Europe preceding WWI.

  15. Kien says:

    I wonder if you must admire Richard Freyman. If so, what do you think we could learn from Freyman’s attitude(s)?

    • Andrew says:


      I’ve written about Feynman! See here and here, where I wrote that he seems like a standard case of a guy who was nice to some people and a jerk to others..

      • jim says:

        “Phil and I use the term “Feynman story” for any anecdote that someone tells that is structured so that the teller comes off as a genius and everyone else in the story comes off as an idiot. ”

        Hilarious! That never occurred to me before but his stories could be interpreted as having a “Feynman as Hero” narrative. But that’s one perspective. You think he’s portraying himself as a hero, smarter than everyone else, but he’s wondering why such obviously highly intelligent people don’t take care of a problem they are perfectly capable of solving.

        • jim says:

          But it’s true there are stories where he relishes in displaying talents he has that other people don’t have. I think I recall some lock-picking stories where he breezed through locks that were supposed to be impenetrable.

      • Had no idea that Feynman was a jerk to some.

  16. Shravan says:

    Growing up in New Delhi in the pre-internet era, with a very narrow window into western (=British/US) literature through the English Book Store in Connaught Place, I got to read and enjoy all these writers’ works, discovering great poets like Philip Larkin. It was only once I moved to the US that I started to find out what their attitudes were towards the “inferior” races and “inferior” people of various stripes. This knowledge ruined my enjoyment of their work; in retrospect, I’d rather have not found out what they believed and what they were like IRL. It’s just like with academics; you don’t need to like the person or to share their beliefs about humanity to take their ideas seriously, their work stands on its own.

    Also, I wonder if what the author of the book describes is a uniquely Anglo phenomenon. There was major literary action going down in Japan (Mishima, Kawabata) and France, for example, around the same time as these writers were active. I imagine similar attitudes were prevalent in these cultures too. E.g., Mishima seemed to have a romanticized idea of imperial glory, which he pushed to an absurd degree.

    Maybe it isn’t reasonable to look at these people’s attitudes through the filter of modern thinking. E.g., quite a few people in my generation and beyonod ignore the Indian caste system, but my parents took it seriously. What’s considered acceptable keeps changing. A more modern example: I routinely meet Germans in day-to-day life who say things about “Syrian refugees” that they themselves would consider outrageous if we replaced “Syrian refugees” with “Jews”.

  17. I prefer the term ‘eclectic’ and ‘eclectism’ to ‘modernism. Now Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens use the term modernity and post-modernity, which seems to coincide with the acceleration of globalization and the use of the internet.

    I don’t see much racism in the under ages 50. Above 50 [ sorry to bring age into it] have been more engaged in identity politics, which is situational.

  18. OliP says:

    Thanks for this Andrew. Have you read Stefan Collini’s book “Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain”? Seems like you would really enjoy it.

  19. Wonks Anonymous says:

    I like the paradox that writers can be closer to truth in their fiction than in their purported nonfiction.

    I’m reminded of Arnold Kling saying he wanted to push the idea of “patterns of sustainable specialization and trade” without actually giving any reason why anyone should believe it explains anything. So why would people, who you know are in error when you can check their claims against verifiable reality, be “closer to the truth” when simply making things up? How would you even know what is “the truth” in such a context? Michael Crichton (who knew a bit about fiction, or at least the production of it) coined the term “the Murray Gell-Mann amnesia effect” to describe our greater willingness to believe something when we lack the ability to detect errors, which would seem to be the case here.

  20. Trevor Butterworth says:

    I have long been a fan of Carey’s succinct book. It is worth noting that his criticism of modernism is foreshadowed by the critic F.L. Lucas, who was a prominent and early anti-fascist in Britain in the 1930s (declaring that France should reoccupy Berlin every five years rather than Germany rearm). In various writings, Lucas delineates the anti-democratic and elitist leanings of many literary figures—how, for instance, DH Lawrence believed the schools should be shut, the masses go back to the fields to take up authentic peasantry, and art left to those with the minds to comprehend it. One must see the diffuse presence of eugenics in all this, and the poor end of Howard Bast, crushed by a bookcase. If lesser modernists as Lawrence and Forster thought like this, such attitudes are much wider than critics of Carey might wish to believe.

    The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose also offers insight into mass literacy and its discontents among the elite. One observation from distant memory is the number of penny classics in circulation in the 1890s—some 8 million—and the role they played in shaping culture. Again, if memory serves (my copy is in rural Maryland where I am not), Rose noted that communism—with its extravagant jargon—made a poor impression on the British working class, whose sense of language was overwhelmingly shaped by the classic English poetry and drama. Orwell sniffed at Churchill’s Augustan prose style; but those wartime speeches connected.

    Speaking of Orwell, Stefan Collini in Absent Minds, Intellectuals in Britain, has a very informative essay on his attitude toward intellectuals and his marked dislike of “pansy” intellectuals.

    As for language: the battles between simplicity and obscurity have been waged since forever. The Royal Society at its founding was as much concerned with the correct prose style as it was with science; in fact, the two were indivisible. German idealism deliberately drove obscurity (Holderlein urged Hegel to adopt a style of writing that captured the complexity of the era), and on and on the war goes. However, it is overly simplistic to see the Nazis as being against modernism. Jeffrey Herf in Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, shows the complex nature of what Thomas Mann called “technological Romanticism.”

    • Andrew says:


      This is all interesting, especially given the recent discussion of R. A. Fisher’s attitudes on genetics. I don’t know Fisher’s views on “pansies” or vegetarians, but Fisher did give off a bit of an Orwell vibe in that he was a practical person and disparaged mathematics for its own sake, even though he (Fisher) had done a lot of mathematics himself.

Leave a Reply