Old Moderns

Eight Modern Writers

by J.I.M. Stewart
Oxford, 704 pp., $11.00

Mr. Stewart’s book is, of course, by way of being the twelfth and final volume in the Oxford History of English Literature But it is only so by the way. It does have some hundred-odd pages of chronology, bibliography, and index; but it is not elsewhere furnished with the signs of scholarship, historical or otherwise. There are no footnotes and no headnotes. There is no account of bad writers and bad writing, which is to the good; but there is no account, either, of all those writers whom it would be fun to read if only we knew about them or were reminded of them. There are allusions: we hear that C. P. Snow is the Galsworthy of our time; but there is not much more. Perhaps Mr. Stewart is leaving to his alter ego, Michael Innes, the task of recovering for the avid reader all those readable writers who were ephemeral only in the instance. If not Michael Innes, then a new George Saintsbury, or anyone prejudiced by the succession of his delightsand vast in his labors.

Mr. Stewart does give us a set of eight writers to go with the period from 1880 to 1940: Hardy, James, Shaw, Conrad, Kipling, Yeats, Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence; all writers remarkable enough to deserve any amount of attention. It is interesting, as Mr. Stewart himself observes, that there are three Irishmen, one Pole, one American, and an Anglo-Indian on the list—which leaves only Hardy and Lawrence as straight British writers. There are several things to think of here, and the thoughts fall like leaves from the sibyltree. “It is a fact of literary history,” Mr. Stewart says, “of which we must make what we can.” There is the en- gaging thought that something had hap- pened to the British situation whereby the continents (European or American) could no longer be isolated by a British storm; and there is the depressing thought that though London could attract great talent she had little of her own; and there is the intriguing thought that England needed, at the expressive level, talent different from that locally provided. I would myself suppose that talent is migratory, both within a society (the same people living in the same place) and from one society to another (the same people living in different places); and I would suppose further that talent seldom expresses the right thing at the right time in the right place. When talent encounters the actual world it more often, whether in rejection or assent, takes to memory, prophecy, or escape—just as we ordinarily do in our private encounters. The violence of great talent is only seen to be good at some time other than its own. I do not think one wants conclusions on these matters. When Hardy died, poets and dramatists escorted part of his remains at Westminster Abbey; Kipling’s pall-bearers included the Prime Minister, an admiral and a general and the “congregation consisted of men of action.” Surely there is no conclusion…

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