Erudite and packed with information, Donald Sassoon's vast social history of European culture suffers from a lack of curiosity about cultural valueby / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Culture of the Europeans: From 1800 to the Present by Donald Sassoon
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 “culture as a set of relationships.” He is less interested in the genius of Dickens than in the publishers who made his work available, the cost of paper and the new readers who could afford his novels; less interested in Beethoven then in new instrument-makers, countless new piano-owners and advances in print technology that made musical scores available in newly affluent homes.
Sassoon is sceptical of moral panics or theories of cultural decline: “At every expansion of the markets for culture, at every new technological breakthrough, at every innovation, we encounter cries of panic about the end of civilisation.” In general, there is no nostalgia for lost golden ages, no “death of tragedy” or “decline of the west.” There is little room for the Holocaust or colonialism. Indeed, he doesn’t say much about the darker side of the 19th and 20th centuries. Readers of Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent and Norman Davies’s Europe might find Sassoon’s Europe a strangely gentle and benign place.
The book reflects a lifetime’s reading, mostly in English, Italian and French, but Sassoon’s research is also up to date. Above all, the book is stuffed with fascinating information. Education grew in early 20th-century Italy, but “a higher percentage of children went to school in Florence in 1338 than in 1911.” In 1861, when Italy was unified, perhaps 630,000 Italians spoke Italian (out of 20m); King Victor Emmanuel II “continued to address his ministers in his local dialect and not in Italian—a language he did not speak well.” And “Of the 6,000 books at the Bodleian library in c1600, only 36 were in English.”
The book could have been more ruthlessly edited. After 1,200 pages, do we really need to be told that Anthony Smith, a key figure in the debates on Channel 4, was “once a Panorama producer, later president of Magdalen college (Oxford),” or that Audrey Hepburn was “a Dutch-born female star” (especially when she was born in Belgium)? A more serious reservation concerns the unevenness of Sassoon’s focus; instead of The Culture of the Europeans: From 1800 to the Present, the title of the book might more accurately have been Some Forms of Culture of Some Europeans from 1800, but Losing Interest and Authority by the Late 20th Century. Sassoon’s real interests are in literature, music and then film. Painting struggles for a mention. There are two references to Picasso, almost 80 to Zola. Design and advertising are peripheral; so is architecture. Is science part of culture? Or sport? Not according to Sassoon.
Sassoon’s Europe is dominated by Paris, London, Germany and Italy. There are four references to Budapest and two to Prague, one to Cairo (where Sassoon was born) and none to Buenos Aires. So much for Borges and the tango. The key figures are from the west European literary and musical canon: Zola and Dickens, Hugo and Verdi. Outside the Warsaw opera house, a plaque tells you that you are now standing at the centre of Europe. Not in Sassoon’s Europe, whose heart lies between Goethe’s Weimar and Balzac’s Paris.
As these names suggest, Sassoon’s real interest is in the long 19th century. It is almost 900 pages until we get past the first world war. The last half century, by contrast, flashes by in just over 200 pages. There are more references to Madame de Stael than to Disney, Murdoch and Freud put together. Sassoon’s account of postwar culture is unoriginal: the rise of television, a meat-and-two-veg account of television genres, barely ten pages on the new multi-channel television world, a breathless account of cinema and theatre, a chapter on communist culture, and so on.
This raises a larger question about what happens when social historians take on cultural history. Sassoon’s social history is not fine-grained enough to deal with questions of meaning and value. What kinds of culture matter? What are the relations between great cultural changes—as in the late 19th century and early 20th century—and historical change? Why do whole forms or genres rise and fall? Clearly written and hugely erudite, this is an impressive work of social history. With a greater curiosity about the nature of cultural value, it might have been even better.