While a notoriously naval-gazing discipline, the history of cultural studies’ development has been somewhat nebulous in describing the contribution of Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy (1957) and inaugural director of the groundbreaking Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham. Typically recognized in association with postwar British counterparts Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson, given the similarly passionate style of WEA teaching at the heart of their projects, an analysis of Hoggart’s unique approach is strangely lacking, and the specificity of its still urgent political message largely overlooked. Responding to this absence, this article introduces the idea of a ‘discourse of empathy’ to make manifest the affective response Hoggart encourages in readers. This mode of address seeks avenues for identification from many different readers, finding common concerns and values which might encourage understanding between classes. In contrast to existing assessments which criticize his too heavy reliance on experience, I want to use Hoggart’s recent three-volume autobiography to amplify the political strategy at work in The Uses of Literacy. In so doing I draw attention to the way he negotiates a balance between historical mindfulness and the particularities of a lived culture. Hoggart was pivotal in forging a space for critical commentary within the institutions he served, and his unique voice raised difficult questions about the consequences of wider access to higher education. But revisiting his legacy seems especially important in light of Richard Johnson’s recent claims, that the dialogue between history and cultural studies was too quickly foreshortened. Here I want to lay the foundation for such a dialogue to again take place between these disciplines. In Hoggart, we find neglected resources from which both history and cultural studies stand to benefit.

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