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US paperback
May 2009
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists
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Oxford University Press
ISBN 019953747X
702 pp
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists
by Robert Tressell

The word "socialism" has been reduced to a general-purpose bludgeon employed against any questioning of the corporate capitalist system, to the extent that its original meaning is not understood by the majority of those who attack it so vociferously in today's popular media, and not even by many claiming to be its supporters. It arose in the nineteenth century as a humanitarianly motivated philosophy directed against the exploitative extremes of the times, in which an idle but empowered few lived in luxury, while the masses whose labor produced the wealth worked endless hours to know only humiliation and poverty, and watch their children starve.

Written in the early years of the twentieth century and first published in 1914, The Ragged-Trousered Philantropists has been described as the first great English novel about the class war. In telling the story of the conditions endured by a group of painters and decorators and their families, and the attempts of a social visionary who joins them to rouse their political will, the book is both highly entertaining and a passionate appeal for a fairer way of life. The underlying question it examines is, Should the wealth that a society creates be owned by society and used for its general betterment, or owned by a minority of privileged individuals to do with as they please?

Robert Tressell was the pseudonym of Robert Noonan, an Irish house-painter who came to England from South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century and settled in Hastings, where he worked for various building firms. His experience of English working life and and subsequent political awakening resulted in his becoming active in local politics and provided the material for his only novel, now generally acknowledged as a classic. He intended the book to be a "socialist documentary" based on real events and real people, that would provide an inspiration to the working class, whom he saw as giving away their rights and aspirations to a decent life too freely--hence the title. However, after the manuscript had been rejected by several publishers, he emigrated to Canada in 1910, dispirited and disillusioned, and died the following year from TB, aged forty. His novel was published three years later.

"Some books seem to batter their way to immortality against all the odds, by sheer brute artistic strength. . . . Robert Tressell's unfailing humour mixes with an unfailing rage and the two together make a truly Swiftian impact."

-- Michael Foot, London Evening Standard

"Robert Tressell has complete familiarity with the idiom of his characters. His language is bizarre, vital, highly inventive and precisely heard--it is a complete and living archaeology of the speech of a particular human group. A brilliant and very funny book."

-- The Spectator

"When I read this book, it stoked an emotional fire which fuelled a belief in the politics of social justice. Tressell is not as misty-eyed or naive as most socialist writers. He doesn't rely upon an unrealistic belief in human nature. Instead, he tackles ignorance, short-sightedness and cynicism head-on."

-- G.S. Jackson, amazon.com review

 
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