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“The introduction of Caliban to Cadmus”: John Swinton on Working-Class Literacy

Not surprisingly, labor editors like John Swinton put great store in the liberating powers of the written word. Swinton had been an abolitionist before the Civil War; in the 1870s, he was an editor for the New York Times and Sun; and in the mid-1880s, he published John Swinton’s Paper. Swinton’s Paper was one of hundreds of labor newspapers that flourished in Gilded Age America. In this essay, Swinton argued that reading was the key to the prosperity and progress of the working classes. The essay, which appeared in The Carpenter in 1901, was itself a testimony to the extent of working-class literacy in this period. Swinton assumed that his readers would understand his references to Caliban (the slave in Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and Cadmus (the figure in Greek mythology who brought the alphabet).

In my view, the prime, fundamental, characteristic, significant, transformatory, revolutionary, and triumphant fact of the nineteenth century, has been the introduction of Caliban to Cadmus!

It marks the passing of the night, the opening of the day. It is the revelation and the prophecy. It is the creation of the World-Soul. It signifies the apparition and the triumph of the demos. It symbolizes the advent of Man. It involves the damnation of wrong and the exaltation of right.

In my view, the introduction of Caliban to Cadmus—or of labor to letters—has been the supreme incident of the nineteenth century.

When Shakespeare gave us a glimpse of Caliban, all earth, Caliban who had the dawnings of understanding without reason, who was the deformed and enslaved savage, the “freckled whelp” of the witch Sycorax, he gave us a glimpse of the world’s millions. When we see Cadmus with his letters which, in the past century, have got into the hands of Caliban, we see the magician of the Apocalypse.

What I mean to say is that during the last century the Caliban of the earth and the ages, the “freckled whelp” of labor and the under world, has, for the first time in history, begun to learn to read. He has been introduced to the alphabet and consequently to THOUGHT and hence to REASON. He has not yet got far along, His eyes are bleary and his brain is dull. He can spell only short words, and most of these he is unable to understand. But he is trying to get at the meaning of the biggest word in the vocabulary of human speech—R-I-G-H-T which is the singular of it, and r-i-g-h-t-s, which is the plural of it.

And when he seizes the meaning of that stupendous word when he finds out what it stands for, and what it can possess; when he sees that it is the symbol of godhood and manhood, of life and liberty, of thought and action, Look Out! rapscallions! Look Out! For it is a word that must be incarnated in our world, if we are not to live always as those men by the Dead Sea who sneered at Moses and were doomed to chatter likes apes forever.

Caliban is also staring at another word, and which has the devil for its father—w-r-o-n-g—which he sees 'writ big" everywhere, and which he thinks must be scratched on his own brow!

When Caliban can spell and understand that foul and blood-stained word; when his thews grow so strong that he can grapple with it be sure that he will go for it!

By learning to read, the Caliban of labor can enter a world of light. He can gain ideas, wisdom, and the knowledge of good and evil. When he gains these, he cannot be held in thraldom or compelled to suffer wrong. It would be impossible to oppress millions of Thinkers, men endowed with Reason, possessing a sense of Right, knowing their own Power, and living in the United States.

In old times and other centuries, the horses of the under world were unable to read or reason; their masters kept them away from knowledge. Caliban, the type of these hordes, began to learn to read only in the century that has just ended. I now see him reading—which mark you!—means thinking—all over this country of ours. I have seen him reading in Germany, where millions now cast their votes in his name. I have seen him reading in France, where his voice often shakes the Chambers, and also in Belgium. I have seen him reading to good purpose in the British Isles. In Italy, he has begun to read, aye, and in Spain, too. He reads in Hungary, and before long, he will even read in Russia.

Let him read. Let him think.

The spectacle is very full of significance. As the old Scot said, “Something will surely come out o' it.” It may mark the travail of the world-soul.

What will Caliban, the freckled whelp, think or do when he comes to the gospels of the Twentieth Century? I cannot guess. Will there be a shakeup in the world to which he belongs? I don’t know. Cadmus himself, who, according to the old fiction, invented the letters which Caliban is now handling, went to Elysium, and his wife, too. It is Caliban’s business to try to invent an Elysium here below in the Twentieth Century. I would like to prophesy smooth things. Let us have them. Give us a long peace and a calm world!

In any event, my dear Caliban! go on with your reading and thinking. If you do so, the history of the times between the year 1901 and the year 2000 will very surely be full of interest.

And this is the Twentieth Century!

Source: John Swinton, “The Greatest Thing in the Nineteenth Century,” The Carpenter, 21 (March 1901).