Why Humphry Can’t Read or Write: Tobias Smollett, 18th-Century Literacy, and Preservation of the Social Order


  • Clint Bryan


Literacy for lower socioeconomic populations in Great Britain did not enjoy a high priority in privileged eighteenth-century society. Although contemporary literacy theorists have only begun writing about a social turn in literacy in recent decades, Tobias Smollett’s nearly 250-year-old novel Humphry Clinker offers significant clues that literacy—especially for the lower classes—has always carried social implications. By situating an illiterate servant cum lay preacher at the center of a novel that bears his name but denies his agency, Smollett extends his vocal critique of Methodism that threatened to unravel the hierarchical social order of late eighteenth-century Britain. Smollett’s disdain for Methodism and its class-leveling practices was well known during his day—even to John Wesley, its founder. Smollett finds in Clinker the perfect foil on which to circumscribe his antipathy toward Methodism and the social reform aims of its architect—including universal literacy for all Britons. By labeling Methodism as injurious and making sport of it as a daft lay preacher, Smollett brackets the positive contributions of Wesley’s followers in order to protect the social status quo. As I apply six components of social literacy theory from contemporary theorist David Barton’s seminal article “The Social Impact of Literacy” to this picaresque novel, Clinker the character emerges as a true hero in Smollett’s novel for the social revolution faith-based literacy efforts would exert on Britain in the latter eighteenth century and beyond.