Erudite and packed with information, Donald Sassoon's vast social history of European culture suffers from a lack of curiosity about cultural valueby David Herman / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
The Culture of the Europeans: From 1800 to the Present by Donald Sassoon (HarperPress, £30)
Donald Sassoon’s huge, ambitious book begins on the London underground. Many of the author’s fellow passengers have already started the day listening to the radio or watching television. Now they sit, reading novels and newspapers, listening to music, looking at the advertisements. “The tube,” Sassoon writes, “is heaving with the consumption of culture.” He contrasts this with 200 years ago. How many could read or write in 1800? And even if they were literate, how many could afford to buy a book? This cultural revolution, “the extraordinary expansion of cultural consumption over the last two hundred years,” is the subject of his book.
The main body of Sassoon’s story begins in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A book-reading public appears. Concert performances, a rarity in Europe before 1800, increase. There are more theatres. The 19th-century revolution in communications and transport leads to “the growing unification of cultural markets.” A growing middle class can afford to go to the theatre, the opera and the ballet. Education is crucial: more schools create a market for textbooks; people start to speak (and read) a shared language. An early modern world of Bibles, pamphlets and book-peddlers gives way to a new world of lending libraries, bookshops and novels and an explosion of new literary genres.
Sassoon’s book is not just an account of European culture; the US looms large too. He moves between high and low, from fairy tales to detective stories and pulp fiction; from Walter Scott and Zola (each given their own chapter) to Dallas and Disney. He is especially interested in the rise of particular genres and forms: children’s literature and science fiction, 19th-century Italian opera and the comic strip. There are few obvious blind spots, though he seems curiously uninterested in modernism or its larger historical context (his account compares unfavourably, say, with EJ Hobsbawm’s essay on “The Arts” in The Age of Extremes). For the most part, his eye is on what is popular rather than esoteric.
Sassoon has little time for theory. The book is dedicated to EJ Hobsbawm; Lukács, Gramsci and Moretti are important influences, but no particular “ism” or group of critics influences him. He is not very interested in tracing great traditions or in discussing individual achievements. His story is a social one; his focus is on…