A. Gordon James (b. 1885.): Purpose and Audience – Writing Lives

A. Gordon James (b. 1885.): Purpose and Audience

Painting of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church.

In the opening lines of Alfred’s manuscript, he explains that he finds that of ‘all forms of verbal expression autobiographies are the least to be commended’, because the general value of autobiographical writing in his mind is attributed solely to ‘the makers of history’, the people of power (1). This is an interesting start to an autobiography, and as we later read, he slightly backtracks on this by suggesting that this form can only be commended if it is written in the spirit of truth; ‘Autobiography has one merit, perhaps only one. It is straightforward and direct’ (1). Interestingly, Alfred does not declare his intentions for writing the manuscript outright at the beginning. He first concerns himself with the literary reception of the form. We get the feeling that Alfred wants people to understand that his work is not a list of successes, or a display of ‘egotistical’ writerly technique (1). This is something we can infer from his somewhat reflexive and self-conscious tone of voice as he disparages his abilities as a minister later in the manuscript.

19th Century illustration of ‘biliousness.’

Alfred often denigrates himself as an intellectual, stating that he had ‘no taste in literature; the books I thought good were second-rate, as I soon discovered’ (23). The contrast of this self-scrutinising tone and his first lines in the manuscript can be read as a fear on Alfred’s part of public ridicule or humiliation. His anxiety is apparent when he declares that he has had a life-time experience of what he calls ‘biliousness’, which he seems to experience with immensity when he would deliver his sermons (8). This gives us an interesting platform for discussion in terms of working-class autobiography, because it is a key piece of evidence of the connection between what the late nineteenth century working class readership experiences and what the working-class autobiographer writes for. Jonathan Rose writes in Intellectuals and the English Working Class that even ‘uneducated readers were often capable of discovering the “great books” on their own, without following the lead of educated opinion’ (Journal of the History of Ideas, 1992, p 49). Despite Alfred’s formal education in the Methodist Richmond College, there is an understanding in his opening words that he is not a ‘maker of history’ and that his working-class background and experiences with poverty linger in his mind whenever he writes about literature or intellectual discourse (1).

As with this evidence of his self-consciousness when it comes to addressing his audience, we also must note that this manuscript was most likely intended for publication. In type-written format, it has his address on the cover page. Perhaps this is understandable given his previous publication– ‘Jesus and the Other World’– failed due to the abrupt shut-down of most of the British literary circulations on the outbreak of the First World War (30).

            Arguably the most crucial part of the manuscript when it comes to Alfred’s purpose in writing the manuscript comes shortly after on the second page:

‘I want to know whether the events and circumstances of the life of an ordinary individual have any significant meaning. Do they add up? Are they a haphazard conjunction of this and that, or pieces of a jig-saw which are meant to be fitted together to form a complete picture?’ – (2)

We can note that Alfred is in some part, wishing to piece his life together by way of collating all of his recollections into a single, written manuscript. The manuscript is written to show people a ‘complete picture’ of his life, rather than a single part of it (2). Given that the manuscript was approximately written in the early 1960s, a while after the death of his wife, there is an emotional motivation for writing this as well. In the final pages, Alfred writes that he has ‘set it on record because it comforts me to reflect on the past, to rejoice in the love of my friends, and to hope for the future’ (92). After the death of Nancy Gordon, it is implied that as Alfred nears the end of his own life, it was time to look back at the past; ‘I now possess to the breaking in on my life of the world invisible; to the unseen presence of Nance…’ (93). The language takes on a form of tribute to friends and loved ones lost, and the written work as something to be left behind. James would pass away in 1969 according to the My Wesleyan Minister online archive, over ten years after the passing of his wife.

19th Century photograph of Fulham High Street, close to where James lived with his parents before his father’s death.

 Alfred would probably consider ‘ordinary individuals’ to be those primarily from the working classes in Britain. The political aspect of Alfred’s opening statement, however, is scarce in evidence when reading the manuscript. There is not much to interpret in terms of political reasons for Alfred’s writing of the manuscript. Although James states about his father ‘that if he were living today, he would probably be a left-wing socialist’ and that he himself was a supporter of the Labour Party, there is not much mentioning of this by way of purpose. James often wants to document cultural attitudes from his experiences on every level of the British political landscape (4). As Lawrence Goldman states about the scholarly ‘false perception’ that working class people were all led by Labour/Socialist politics, most members of the British working class had ‘far deeper roots in political liberalism than anything approaching socialism, whose highest ambition in politics was not to overturn the system but to join it…’ (History of Education, 2000, 282). This is similar to Alfred’s view and his purpose in the sense of improving his system through social work; ‘Here, at last, I thought, is a case which deserves all the help I can give’ (68).

Works Cited:

James, A. G. ‘A Soul Remembering, by A. Gordon James. An Intimate Autobiography’, TS, with MS amendments, pp.93 (c.23,000 words). Brunel University Library.

Lawrence, G. (2000) Intellectuals and the English Working Class 1870-1945: The Case of Adult Education. History of Education 29.4, pp. 281-300.

Rose, J. (1992) Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences. Journal of the History of Ideas. 53. 1, pp. 47-70.

Link for James A. Gordon’s date of birth and death: https://www.mywesleyanmethodists.org.uk/content/people-2/a_to_z_of_ministers/wesleyan_methodist_ministers-11

Images Used:

Painting of John Wesley found at https://www.artwarefineart.com/gallery/portrait-john-wesley-1703-1791-founder-methodism

19th-Century illustration of biliousness: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f7/Bilious%3B_nervous%2C_illustration_19th_century_Wellcome_L0008361.jpg

Photograph of Fulham High Street: https://www.theundergroundmap.com/image.html?image=1556826917

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