Literary Industry

In response to:

Horace Walpole at Yale from the September 30, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. J. H. Plumb’s simultaneous tribute to and attack upon Mr. Wilmarth Lewis and his edition of the Horace Walpole correspondence in your issue of September 30th is a very rum business. Again and again, Mr. Plumb rushes up to Mr. Lewis as if to kiss him upon both cheeks; a moment later, we see that it has been in order to slip a dagger between Mr. Lewis’s ribs. Oh, Mr. Plumb is willing to forgive Mr. Lewis many things, including his courtesy, his charm, and his generosity; he is even prepared to forgive him for the lure of his dollars when it comes to collecting Walpole material, because, in Mr. Plumb’s gratuitously magnanimous view, Mr. Lewis “has every right to spend his money as he pleases.” Mr. Plumb goes so far as to say that “I, along with every other eighteenth-century scholar, owe a debt to Mr. Lewis.” (Throughout the review, Mr. Plumb reveals a curious preoccupation with fiscal images; he fondles words like “treasures,” “opulence,” “rich,” “expensive,” and, many times over, “money…money…money” with an air of unclean relish.) Despite this debt, Mr. Plumb finds that Mr. Lewis has much to answer for; he is a villain as well as a hero, whose works Mr. Plumb doesn’t hesitate to compare with those of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. For Mr. Lewis “has started, one might say created, a new and dangerous form of historical activity.” This activity is the so-called “factory” method of editorial scholarship. Now, there may be much or little to the indictment—I happen to consider it grotesque—but one would expect a self-described scholar like Mr. Plumb to draw it up accurately, if not at length; in point of fact, the name of but a single scholar is given in this connection. Mr. Plumb writes “And the factory method is spreading. Monsieur Besterman has been working away on Voltaire for years…” What an odd muddle we have here! To begin with a minor matter, Mr. Besterman is well known to be English, as well as a resident of England, so “Monsieur” is either faulty scholarship or Mr. Plumb’s idea of a prank; moreover, Mr. Besterman need not have been left without a Christian name, as he happens to possess several (all meaning “gift of God” and all bestowed upon him by an atheistical father, whose sense of humor may have had much in common with Mr. Plumb’s). But the major fact to be noted is that Mr. Besterman is celebrated for not presiding over a factory—for having performed feats of scholarship practically single-handed that more than one learned journal has described as being beyond the capacity of one man to accomplish in a lifetime. Almost alone, and by the very opposite of the “factory” method, Mr. Besterman has brought out over a hundred volumes of his Voltaire correspondence and has recently edited a fourth edition of his enormous and incomparable “World Bibliography of Bibliographies.”

A last point, bearing on Mr. Plumb’s perverse preoccupation. Mr. Plumb implies that Mr. Besterman is an imitator of Mr. Lewis, which he is not; he then makes the mistake of implying that while Mr. Lewis is at least spending his own money, Mr. Besterman is not. The truth is that Mr. Besterman has spent what Mr. Plumb would rejoice to call a fortune in the course of a lifetime of devoted scholarship—indeed, this is one respect in which it would have been especially appropriate to couple his name with that of the selfless Mr. Lewis. If Mr. Plumb has a case to make against Mr. Lewis’s academic imitators, he has ludicrously missed the mark in citing Mr. Theodore Deodati Nathaniel Besterman.

Brendan Gill

Norfolk, Connecticut