by John Ezard)
Richard Hoggart, who has died aged 95, opened his autobiography by saying: "This is an attempt to make, out of a personal story, a sense rather more than the personal." Virtually all his writing had the same touch, and across a spread of 40 years it produced some of the most penetrating, vivid and durable cultural commentary of the time.
Hoggart's classic, The Uses of Literacy (1956), is firm in its place among the great books of the 20th century. It gave an immensely detailed picture, lit up with knowledge and affection, of British urban working-class people in the years spanning the second world war. Hoggart caught them at the point where their lives, values and culture were being changed by postwar advertising, mass media influences and Americanisation. He was one of them and always remained so in his loyalties.
The book was at once recognised not only as "an exquisitely drawn portrait" but for its rarer trait of "complete intellectual honesty", which was to remain Hoggart's hallmark and helped him become one of the most watchful, formidable consciences of his age. Warning of a gradual process of cultural debasement – "as dangerous in its way as in totalitarian societies", the book influenced the social and political insights of a generation. It proved decisive in popularising cultural studies as an international academic discipline. It also gave him a very busy life.
When he reread the book 25 years later he said, ruefully, "Good God". This was not, he stressed, because he saw it as a work of any genius but because he realised how much time he had had, as a young, undiscovered lecturer, to write it. In his 40 working years he held down six senior full-time jobs with hardly a break. He wrote 15 books and edited more. He was an active pamphleteer, speaker and reviewer. He was also a Reith lecturer and a decisive witness in the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial, which liberalised British pornography laws and was instrumental – through the Pilkington Report on Broadcasting, which he largely wrote – in creating BBC2 as a quality television channel.
He worked untiringly on cultural quangos for lifelong causes, which included public libraries, adult education and the arts. He was Arts Council vice-chairman until Margaret Thatcher sacked him in 1982. At home he was a conscientious DIY man. Several friends saw his workload as evidence of unfocused energy. The poet Philip Larkin felt he should have stuck to writing. But Hoggart said he never had the nerve to go freelance because of his insecure early life. He admitted to the lack of a clear sense of direction coupled with "a drive to go on, usually to the point of overworking".
Late in life he wondered if his readiness to serve on committees was a byproduct of a childhood that had left him "unusually glad to find myself wanted". Yet he was sceptical about the idea that these compulsions had stopped him from producing another Uses of Literacy. "Did you really expect that I would?" he asked an interviewer. "I didn't. That's the sort of book that – if you're lucky – you can write once in a lifetime."
He never found writing easy. All his book chapters went through multiple drafts, and sometimes this made them discursive and digressive; he had a weakness for lists and for over-elaborating on the importance of Woolworths in working-class life. He called the process "panning for gold". At its best it produced 24-carat material, from The Uses of Literacy to Townscape with Figures (1994), his retirement portrait of Farnham, Surrey. An anthology of the best of Hoggart, culled from all his other volumes, would produce a work longer than The Uses of Literacy.
He could often be a more responsive and warmer essayist than George Orwell, with all of Orwell's eye for the main point. He tried to be rigorously unsentimental. But one can still hear, across the decades, the great proud lift in his voice as he wrote the last sentence of his famous passage about liberty, equality and fraternity among the working classes: "As for fraternity, they have lived that out day by day for centuries," he wrote.
The hallmark of his writing was a sensitivity rare in English prose: an almost unfailingly respectful attention (or "reverence", as he sometimes put it) to the speech and writing of people in all walks of life, coupled with a poet's sense of the nuances of such language. He treated the commonplaces of life as though they could bear the intense scrutiny that a literary critic would bring to a great work of literature. And often they could bear this weight, as his work proved. In 1998 he wrote the introduction to the Guardian's yearly anthology of its writing. What he generously said about the paper is true also of his own life's effort: "A newspaper such as this has to have above all a hinterland, a background, body, bottom, moral texture, rather than merely a daily succession of rhetorical 'ooh-ahs'. It says implicitly: 'There is more to life ...' "
The grandson of a boilermaker, Hoggart was born in the Potternewton district of Leeds, one of three children in an extremely poor family. His father, a housepainter and regular soldier both in the Boer war and in the 1914-18 conflict, died of brucellosis when his son was only a year old. "When I see – or see film of – a driven bird flying to its nest and anxiously, earnestly feeding the open mouths, the image of our mother comes to mind," Hoggart wrote. "When you have seen a woman standing frozen, while tears start slowly down her cheeks because a sixpence has been lost ... you do not easily forget."
His mother died of a chest illness when he was eight. The children were split up. He was taken to live with a loving, widowed grandmother in an overcrowded Hunslet back-to-back which had one pretension – the only mains-connected bathroom in the street. The household's driving force was his fierce Aunt Ethel, a tailor who, when a headteacher picked him out as a promising pupil, began to realise he might break out of their class.
He grew up healthy, mainly cheerful, and tough. His elder brother, Tom, became the first Hoggart to go to a grammar school. Richard was the second, helped by hardship grants from bodies such as the Board of Guardians and the Royal British Legion. He failed the 11-plus maths paper, but got a scholarship on the strength of his English essay, supported by a plea from his elementary school headteacher. Although at the age of 13 he had a brief nervous breakdown through overwork, he went on to win a distinction at the equivalent of O-level maths.
That close squeak helped shape his support, as an adult, for comprehensive schools. His scholarship, as he later discovered, was one of only 30 available prewar for a catchment of 65,000 children of his age. While Cockburn grammar school eventually took the boy out of Hunslet, he never let it take Hunslet out of the boy. The ways of his aunts and their extended society, with their acknowledged limitations, gave him an unbreakable bond of affection and an inexhaustible resource on which to draw from.
In 1936 Hoggart won one of 47 Leeds University scholarships available to his generation of 8,000 18-year-olds. At a freshers' party he met his future wife, Mary, the daughter of teachers. He got a rare first in English but while doing an MA thesis was called up to fight in the second world war. This meant six years in the social mix of the Royal Artillery as an anti-aircraft gunner. Serving in North Africa and Italy, and working in education and intelligence, he ended in the junior officer class as a staff captain.
Afterwards, like Raymond Williams and EP Thompson, he became part of the postwar explosion in adult education as an extramural tutor at Hull University for 13 years. In 1951 he published his first book, a full-length study of WH Auden's poetry. Then The Uses of Literacy changed his life. About some trends the book proved uncannily far-seeing. Writing a year after the launch of commercial television, well before Rupert Murdoch and multichannels, he argued: "There are many who can take cultural debasement remarkably easily. They are not closely acquainted with the mass-produced entertainment which daily visits most people. In this way it is possible to live in a sort of clever man's paradise, without any real notion of the force of the assault outside."
The Uses of Literacy caught the experience of a subsequent generation of scholarship boys, far bigger than his own, who had graduated from grammar schools since the 1944 Education Act. Hoggart, though no ideologist, was haphazardly bracketed as part of the cultural "new left" with Williams, Thompson, Perry Anderson, Arnold Wesker, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, Stuart Hall and others regarded as prophets of a resurgent class. He put the class terms "them" and "us" into political currency.
After publication of his great work, he took up position as a senior lecturer in English at the University of Leicester, cherished for his accessibility to students, and in 1962 became professor of English at the University of Birmingham. There, with Hall, he founded and was first director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which set out to tackle the old British separation between high culture and "real" life, between the historic past and the contemporary world. The project blended three approaches: historical-philosophical, sociological and – most important to Hoggart – literary–critical. In its early days it was described as "an experiential, even autobiographical way of examining culture and class-consciousness". After Hoggart left, it took on a neo-Marxist direction.
In 1969, at the age of 51, he was offered three jobs at once: an Australian vice-chancellorship, a New York professorship and an assistant director-generalship at Unesco. Hoggart puzzled friends by choosing Unesco. He travelled three times round the world but was appalled by what he regarded as the misconduct, bureaucracy, infighting and laziness he found within the organisation. In 1975 he resigned and wrote a critical book about it, An Idea and Its Servants (1978).
More vice-chancellorships and chairs were offered. But he chose for family reasons to be warden of Goldsmiths College in London, a "good-hearted place" in which to end his career. He set up its National Centre for Orchestral Studies and continued to "overwork" on official committees. As a close to a career, it was a diminuendo. His scrupulous, exploratory, fraternal style was never cut out for a great public role. Yet his books carry on selling and his ideas have entered the bloodstream of English discussion.
He is survived by Mary and their children Nicola and Paul, three granddaughters, five grandsons, a great-granddaughter and a great-grandson. Their son Simon, the Guardian's parliamentary sketch writer, died in January.
• Richard Hoggart, author and teacher, born 24 September 1918; died 10 April 2014
• John Ezard died in 2010