Most American students don’t often question the economic system they live in. But after reading British author Robert Tressell’s “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,” however, students in English Ph.D candidate Jeffrey Hibbert’s Honors Literature and Composition classes may now think differently about capitalism and socialism as an alternative to it.
Students in Hibbert’s classes wrote critical essays on Tressell’s novel and his advocacy of socialism in a working-class society. Hibbert hosted a symposium last Tuesday in Anderson Hall so seven of his 40 students could read their essays on Tressell’s novel. About 30 students and faculty attended to hear the papers.
“Tressell’s novel is important,” Hibbert said, “because it addresses the whys and wherefores to change a greedy capitalism system into a more egalitarian system. You won’t find another novel detailing what is necessary in order to achieve that.”
The essays will be sent in early December to the Robert Tressell archive in West Sussex, England. The collection also features journals and books of critical analyses of the novel.
Professionals interested in Tressell’s work itself or working-class fiction or politics of the early 20th century access it for research.
“To my knowledge, this is the first contribution of college coursework to this archive. It is young and American scholarship, too, which is important and unique,” Hibbert said.
Reg Johnson is the archive’s custodian and Tressell’s grandson-in-law.
While working on his dissertation, Johnson invited Hibbert to send his students’ essays to the archive. Hibbert chose the best essays and asked those students to read them at the symposium.
Lisa Gibbings was one of the students who read her essay and was impacted by the novel. “Through the eyes of Tressell, I can fully appreciate the ideas of socialism,” she said.
Several students expressed their changing ideas about capitalism and the impact an advocate of socialism had on them. Lindsay Cummings, another student who read, said, “Tressell has done his work in converting his readers to socialism. I am one of those readers.”
“The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” has been in print in Britain since 1914 when the novel was first published.
The novel was published in the United States in 1914 as well, but did not have repeated printings until 1962. It was then in print until 1978 when it was again taken off the market.
“Americans have rejected ideas of socialism,” Cummings said, “because it has kept this novel out of print.”
The problem, Hibbert said, is there is no saleable audience for the novel in the United States.
“I unquestionably believe,” Hibbert said, “that this novel has saleable potential whether in or out of the university and for men and women of any class. It is a smart and edgy book. Not only can it have an American readership, but it will again.”
Tressell was born in Dublin April 17, 1870. He worked in South Africa and England as a house painter and interior decorator. He was greatly influenced by the International Independent Labor Party and its ideas of reformist socialism.
Tressell finished his novel in 1910 but could not get it published. It wasn’t published until four years after his death when his daughter lent it to a publisher and editor to read.
“The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” is still considered a major work of working-class fiction in British literature.
Barbara J. Isenberg can be reached at email@example.com.