Friday, September 27, 2019
Biographies of Working Men by Grant Allen
Po’ boys who made good
In Biographies of Working Men, published in 1884, Canadian-English author Grant Allen profiles seven men who rose from humble beginnings to achieve fame, fortune, and/or distinguished accomplishments in their chosen fields. While these sorts of rags-to-riches stories may be quite common nowadays, they were much rarer in the 19th century, particularly within the strict systems of class hierarchy that existed in Europe at the time. Allen’s well-written concise biographies provide a detailed and compelling overview of the progressive stages in these individuals’ intellectual development, the steps they took to achieve their successes, and the struggles and hardships they faced in the process.
The book opens with Thomas Telford, who grew up in a mud hut on the Scottish moors and eventually became Britain’s foremost engineer of roads, bridges, and canals. George Stephenson worked in a coal mine as a boy, but later changed the world by inventing the railroad. William Herschel eked out a meager living as an oboe player in a military band before building his own telescope and discovering the planet Uranus. Prior to becoming President of the United States, James Garfield drove a horse-drawn canal boat. Welsh sculptor John Gibson and French painter Jean François Millet both started out as poor farmers’ sons before achieving great success, acclaim, and recognition in their artistic disciplines. Perhaps the most touching story is that of Thomas Edward, who worked his whole life as a shoemaker, never achieving financial riches, but who nevertheless managed to build a distinguished career as a naturalist.
These sorts of biographical anthologies were somewhat common in the Victorian era, and were often written with the intention of imparting a moral lesson to the reader. Often that message was that if you lead a pious life in accordance with your place in society, you will be rewarded with contentment and a place in Heaven. Grant Allen was a freethinker, however, so this book contains no call to piety and gives little mention of the religious beliefs of the subjects in question. Later Allen would write a satirical science fiction novel entitled The British Barbarians in which he demonstrates his irreverence toward the restrictive British class structure. By presenting the exemplary lives of these seven men born to the laboring class, Allen encourages his readers not to settle for their station in life, and he asserts that through hard work, perseverance, and intellectual rigor one can rise above poverty to achieve self-made success, even so far as to be welcomed among the aristocracy.
Given the subject matter and motivational lessons, it is possible that Allen wrote this book for an intended audience of teenage boys, but if so he did not dumb down the content for young readers. Today this book will most likely appeal to adults interested in 19th century history. The pleasure in reading biographical sketch anthologies like this one is that one gleans enough information about each individual’s life to assess whether it might be worthwhile to track down a more comprehensive biography. In this case, Herschel’s fascinating life seems particularly worthy of further investigation. It is also quite satisfying to learn about Edward, a largely unknown self-made scientist, and Garfield, an unsung president about whom even most Americans know very little. Each of the seven essays in this volume yields its share of interesting discoveries, making Biographies of Working Men an enjoyable and educational read.
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