Dr Elspeth Jajdelska, ‘Who Was Johnson’s Common Reader’?

Dr Elspeth Jajdelska, of the University of Strathclyde, delivered the final in a series of stunning lectures this fall at the University of Edinburgh. Her paper laid out a careful examination of the identity of Dr. Johnson’s “Common Reader.”

To understand the idea of the common reader for Dr. Johnson necessitates a look at contextual definitions of the common reader. Dr. Jajdelska used passages from Thomas Gray’s “Lives of the Poets” to define widely-held ideas of the common reader as being a person that represents the majority, and who is uncorrupted by literary prejudice, meaning that he or she is unable to distinguish between good and bad writing. The question of what makes good or bad writing, at least in this period, is not a matter that the common reader can decide for himself. Ideally, he needs the intellect and cultural sophistication of the members of the upper class to review books and thus determine what makes good or bad literature, and what would then be appropriate for the common reader to read. Dr. Jajdelska also uses Virginia Woolf’s description of the common reader as someone whose commonness can be thought of in the same way as one would a servant: someone who was poorly educated, and who reads for their own pleasure rather than for their education and edification. Thus, Dr. Jajdelska lays out the idea that in the 20/21st century the common reader was an idea of a mass readership that was low in status, made up mainly of ordinary people. This was the scholarly idea of the common reader until modern understandings began to emerge, which saw the common reader as an idea or distinction born of social status, but rather based on the idea of the general public, in which literature belonged equally to more than one.

From this foundation, Dr. Jajdelska goes on to ask the question, “how, then, could 18th century readers understand themselves?” During her talk Dr. Jajdelska briefly looked at the Renaissance lineage of speech and text, and the intriguing changing relationships between the two. In particular she points out common speech was considered extremely valuable, as it could be understood by all, and is not exclusive or obscure. Language has failed if everyone cannot understand it. This applies to literary critics as well. A good critic should have taste, but shouldn’t need to use specialized knowledge to ascertain the literary worth of a work. It would be considered ungentlemanly, according to Dr. Jajdelska. There was also an idea of language being carried through breath, and therefore carries nearly sacred connotations (such as the idea of Mary being impregnated by words). Therefore text was not valuable in itself, but was rather a form of dormant language, that is only living and valuable when it is being spoken. In the 17th and early 18th century there followed an explosive desire to reify and standardize language. Speech was suddenly seen as the corrupt form of writing, and thus a distinction between speech norms and print norms was created.

From there, the democratization and spread of print necessitated the need for new contexts for the production and reception of text. A growing common readership in many ways essentially outgrew the parameters of the hierarchy, putting pressure on former ideas of class. The press was designed for use by the public, and consequently the public also had the right to question it. Dr. Jajdelska uses two interesting examples of this occurring: George Coade, a merchant, who addresses William Pitt about the idea of the freedom of speech, and Thomas Turner, a shopkeeper, who reviews Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. The opportunity of being able to review literature and comment on intellectual ideas did not help the common reader socialize with the higher class, but it gave them a new sense of entitlement to be critics.

Dr. Jajdelska concluded her lecture by posing several more examples of the different ways in which text and spoken word can interact and affect the ability and legitimacy of the common reader, particularly in understanding or evaluating a work. She also asked the audience several important questions, such as the difference between a common reader and a critical reader, and why could critics in the 19th century criticize a gentleman’s writing, but not his verbal speech? These questions would further examine the hierarchies of text and speech and how those have changed over time, as well as the role of the critic to not only the history of reading, but the history of print and publication as well. Conclusively, Dr. Jajdelska’s research was well-organized and very thought-provoking, with each tidbit of information opening doors to further possibilities in researching the intersections between society and print cultures. In particular, it left me very much curious to look at how literature helped break down social barriers in the 19th century, turning the common reader from an idea of a lowly person to being an ordinary individual.


Dr Elspeth Jajdelska is a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde.

Report by Pattie Flint, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the Centre for the History of the Book, Edinburgh.

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