Nicola Wilson writes:
‘Democratic Highbrow’: Bloomsbury between elite and mass culture, University of Salerno, Italy, 8-9 May 2014
I was very fortunate to be invited to speak at this conference last week, in the beautiful and mountainous coastal town of Salerno in Southern Italy. The ‘democratic highbrow’ is a coin termed by modernist scholar Melba Cuddy Keane in her influential 2006 book, Virginia Woolf, the intellectual and the public sphere. The conference included various papers on Woolf and the ‘Bloomsbury set’ which explored this wider, more nuanced concept of the stratified marketplace and the so-called ‘battles of the brows’ in these years. Virginia Woolf’s ideas on ‘the common reader’ are for me one of the clearest examples of this impulse to democratise what was perceived as highbrow, intellectual culture. My talk focussed on the literary impact of the Book Society Ltd – a book-of-the-month club similar in premise to the Richard & Judy book club of today. The Book Society’s choices and recommendations had a significant impact on the sales and reach of books in the modernist era, and letters here in the Hogarth Press archive show how keen Leonard and Virginia Woolf were as publishers to have titles from their own Hogarth Press ‘chosen’ as book-of-the-month.
It was interesting to hear about other archives that speakers had used in their research, like the Charleston Papers in Cambridge and the ‘Monk’s House Album’ in the Harvard Theatre Collection, and to see how interest in Bloomsbury and its artists remains so international, multi-disciplinary and multi-lingual. Look out for Frances Spalding’s new edited exhibition of portraits of Virginia Woolf at the National Portrait Gallery this summer.