Along with Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts (1861-67) and Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island (1893), the great work of nineteenth-century nonfiction is Henry Mayhew’s four-volume London Labour and the London Poor (1851). A friend who, like me, was a college dropout, introduced me to the work in 1975, and I was thrilled. Reading Mayhew combined the pleasures of reading Dickens and a good newspaper. The book swarms with humanity. We pity the suffering while admiring their resourcefulness, cunning and eloquence. To this day I think of the “scaldrum dodge” as a useful metaphor. In 1980, when Whitney Balliett reviewed Art Pepper’s memoir Straight Life in The New Yorker, he compared Pepper’s childhood to that of a boy with “long and rather fair hair” who was interviewed by Mayhew, and I was thrilled all over again.
The passage quoted at the top is from a chapter in Mayhew’s first volume, “Of the Character of Books of the Street-Sale.” The bookseller continues:
“‘I can’t offer to draw fine distinctions, and I’m just speaking of my own plain way of trade; but I call English classics such works as the Spectator, Tatler, Guardian, Adventurer, Rambler, Rasselas, The Vicar of Wakefield, Peregrine Pickle, Tom Jones, Goldsmith’s Histories of Greece, Rome, and England (they all sell quick), [William] Enfield’s Speaker, [a best-selling book on elocution, 1774], mixed plays, the Sentimental Journey, no, sir, Tristram Shandy rather hangs on hand, the Pilgrim’s Progress (but it must be sold very low), Robinson Crusoe, Philip Quarles, Telemachus, Gil Blas, and Junius’s Letters. I don’t remember more at this moment, such as are of good sale.”
The list is impressive, suggesting that mid-century Londoners had sophisticated tastes in books. Nothing mentioned might be considered sub-literary pulp. By 1840, scholars estimate that 67 percent of men and more than 50 percent of women in England were literate. That same year, the Grammar Schools Act expanded the curriculum from classical studies to include science and literature. Mayhew goes on:
“Concerning the street sale of poetical works I learned from street book-sellers, that their readiest sale was of volumes of Shakespeare, Pope, Thomson, Goldsmith, Cowper, Burns, Byron, and Scott.”
Two generations earlier, Charles Lamb was haunting the book stalls of London. His Nov. 28, 1800 letter to his friend Thomas Manning concludes with an ecstatic paean to the city, including this: “[O]ld book-stalls, `Jeremy Taylors,’ `Burtons on Melancholy,’ and `Religio Medicis’ on every stall. These are thy pleasures, O London with-the-many-sins! O City abounding in--, for these may Keswick and her giant brood go hang!” And two months later he writes yet another London rhapsody, this time to Wordsworth:
“[T]he crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes - London itself a pantomime and a masquerade . . ."