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Living Off Lit.

The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters

by John Gross
Macmillan, 322 pp., $8.95

Why has the term man of letters become so repulsive to the English? It is not so in France (“cher maître“). It is not as if pundits, prophets, and preachers have disappeared—they are all around us. But the phrase “man of letters” conjures up shelves of bound volumes in a series written in dough, or traders in the flesh of literary reputations. Once upon a time the man of letters had prestige. He was a wide-ranging scholar, or an author who spoke to the common reader, or an editor of one of the Victorian periodicals, or the head of a publishing house. Today the species is enfeebled. The man of letters has been elbowed aside by professors of literature in the universities who have professionalized the subject, mass media celebrities, and figures in the cultural bureaucracy. Literature has lost its pre-eminence as the most profound way of disseminating ideas and creating values.

This excellent book, which explores this decline, is exceptionally well-written. It has one rare fault. Although it is three hundred pages long it is too short. Or, rather, it raises as many questions as it answers. It is not a study in the sociology of literature or even of the profession of letters itself. It is an essay in judgment upon the character and influence of the men of letters during the century between the rise of the reviewers from the days of Jeffrey on the Edinburgh Review to the days of F. R. Leavis and Scrutiny. No praise can be too high for the scrupulous and lively way in which John Gross makes fresh judgments upon dozens of literary figures, judgments which are remarkable for their balance and sense of perspective. They differ from those of critics who want to establish the perennial quality of Arnold or Mill or Stephen. They assess the influence which such writers had upon their contemporaries, and this is often based on their less important, ephemeral writing, which at the time may well have had a more immediate effect than their profounder works. Indeed the great Victorians and their successors are not the most important figures in the book. Maginn of Fraser’s Magazine, R. H. Hutton, G. H. Lewes, Henry Morley, Saintsbury, Churton Collins, Andrew Lang, and Gosse are Gross’s chief concerns, and he carries the story forward through the Edwardian literary scene to the time between the two wars when this world of letters broke in fragments.

In Gross’s view Carlyle and Thackeray were more responsible than any others for making men of letters conscious that they belonged to a profession: Carlyle by raising the moral prestige of literature and persuading men that it was relevant to their lives, Thackeray by romanticizing journalism in Pendennis as a jolly in-group, “the Corporation of the Goosequill.” But the very demand which the great Victorian periodicals created for writers to fill them created the conditions which led to their decline. Many of their most distinguished contributors were men who did such work in their spare time. By the Eighties it had become possible for a man of letters to earn a respectable living by writing about books, and the age of the bookman began.

Here Gross warms to his work. There was Andrew Lang and the Rondeliers, always willing to turn out a vilanelle or a ballade, always unwilling to endure the discomfort of reading serious literature: Lang with his languid, snubbing, Oxford manner, ready, as Gross says, “to ridicule or disparage practically every truly important novel that came his way”; Lang composing “chatty little missives to dead authors” or encounters between fictional characters such as Lovelace and Tom Jones; Lang, to whom a novel meant a thriller, calling for more claymores and less psychology. Or Saintsbury with the allusions of a lifetime’s reading imprinted on a fly-paper memory used as a safeguard against ever having to call his intellect into activity. Or there was Henley’s philistinism, or Gosse’s snobbery, or Whibley’s indefatigable unpleasantness.

And then there were the new set of university scholars who devised the subject of Eng. Lit., Churton Collins, an expert in huffy demolition, Walter Raleigh, who ended up despising literature and going in for what he called life, and perhaps the best of the lot though the least scholarly, the egregious squire Quiller-Couch. Or there were the editors of popular editions such as the Golden Treasury or the Everyman editions, whose works, specially commended for Young People, bore the title “This is fairy gold, boy, and t’will prove so.”

In a series of spirited chapters Gross traces the decline from mid-Victorian days, but he still contrives to draw very proper distinctions and compels us to recall that some manifestations which make us blench today were part of an enthusiasm to enlarge the reading public. He is clear that if the price to be paid was to make jokes about Bill Blake or to use every dirty trick to discredit Ibsen, Zola, Hardy, or Hopkins, the price was too high. But he does a fine job in rescuing G. K. Chesterton from total disrepute and in explaining what social forces were at work to cause the rift between the highbrow and the aesthete on the one hand and the bookman and so many of the pundits who had grabbed the positions of power on the other.

He should have done more. For it is in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods that the cupidity and social pretensions of the man of letters need examination. The new object in the bookman’s world was to live on literature instead of by it. The lice on the locks of literature discovered new ways of sucking blood. One could cultivate a dying author and hope to acquire the position of his literary executor and owner of copyright; one could even, like T.J. Wise, turn to forgery and faking. There was not only money in the racket, there was social position. Hall Caine, for instance, sensed that there was a good investment to be made in locality novels. On Rossetti’s advice he chose the scene of his own childhood, the Isle of Man, published The Deemster and other Manx novels, and in the end got his knighthood for propaganda tours in the United States during the First World War. There were honors, and dinner parties, and smart life if the bookman showed that he was a good patriot and a sound man on the subject of class and socialism: there were dangers too—one of the reasons why Lang had to churn out triolets was to satisfy his wife’s social aspirations, who, so it is said, totted up distressingly large bills at her milliner.

There were also the clubs, and the learned and literary societies. Englishmen divide naturally into boys and old boys, and both enjoy the cosiness of club life. Soon it was not enough to be a bibliophile, or a collector of literary relics, or a member of Ye Sette of Odde Volumes. Maugham’s man of letters and caricature of Hugh Walpole, Alroy Kear, played cricket (and then later on, as befitted his increasing eminence, golf) in order to dissociate himself from any taint of excessive intellectualism or effeminacy. The bookman had to reassure his public that he was exactly as other men are and that it was almost an accident that his trade happened to be connected with books.

There is a great deal more to be written about the break-up of the Victorian intelligentsia and the emergence of the booksy world and its aggressive glorification of the middlebrow. It continued after the First World War under the aegis of Walpole and of John Squire at the Savile Club, and a few traces can be found today in some university English departments. Curiously enough, as Gross points out, the dynasty was first shaken not so much by Henry James, who so greatly suffered from it, as by Bennett and Wells and Orage’s The New Age. The day of the little magazine was dawning.

Gross’s analysis of the twentieth-century revolution in letters is less satisfactory partly because there are so many cross-currents. He swims imperturbably on, his capacity for judgment unimpaired, but in doing so he fails to visit a number of creeks he should have explored. It does not matter so much that he abandons pursuit of the offspring of his late Victorian and Edwardian monsters—the Book of the Month Club, the best-seller world of Hugh Walpole, the respectable periodicals bolstering their position, and the donnish conservatism of English studies at Oxford and the civic universities. But in concentrating on the pacesetters in modern criticism such as Eliot and Middleton Murry, Rickword and Muir in The Calendar of Modern Letters, and Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse, he finds space only to allude to the other strand in letters between the two wars, namely Bloomsbury, using that word in its extended form, which, as the champion of the avant garde, was also implacably opposed to the old overblown litterateurs.

Desmond MacCarthy is put under the lens but there is no mention of Raymond Mortimer, John Lehmann, Stephen Spender, or V.S. Pritchett, who fell within the period even if Cyril Connolly’s Horizon does not. Then again, if Arnold was a man of letters, what about Forster or Virginia Woolf? Gross is right enough to say that the influence of the English school at Cambridge, where the new criticism began, had at that time little influence (Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity did not rate a mention in the Review of English Studies); but if he had taken a cross section of the faculty there in the years immediately before the war he might have found a clearer way through the maze.

Behind each set of men of letters lay unspoken assumptions about the purposes of literature. For the descendants of the bookmen, literature was fun and a reinforcement of the eternal verities. It was for Everyman (hence their hatred of the avant-garde). It formed the public taste (hence the predisposition to uplift and to find new literature shocking). It was to do with Society (hence the knowing wink when an unduly free passage in a classic appeared as if to reassure themselves that they were men of the world).

To the New Statesman circle this was repellent. For them literature meant enjoyment and the revelation of new verities. Literature was nothing if it did not shock either by the new forms it took in the modernist movement or because, for instance in the classic novel, it showed how bizarre, unpredictable, and unique human beings could be. Read in this way even the oldest literature was dynamite to be used to demolish the pretensions of Victorian religion and morality. Men lived in a pluralist world, and all attempts to tie them (or literature) up into parcels labeled good or bad were futile. A clear distinction was drawn between knowledge of worldly society (essential) and approval of that world (deplorable). The tolerance that was demanded for anything which claimed to be creative was the concommitant of a view of literature which expected it to describe the variety and unpredictability of the human heart.

Perhaps it was because the weaknesses of this kind of liberalism have already passed into currency that Gross does not bother to pursue the manifestations of these particular men of letters. But he concludes with an assessment of the man who more than any other mercilessly pursued its imperfections. Although Gross has space only for a sketch of Leavis’s influence, he makes the most devastating and formidable attack upon him that has yet been delivered. Until this assessment Leavis’s critics have been either flabby, or querulous, or so deeply respectful of his genuine achievement that they would rather step aside than be classed with his old-fashioned detractors.

Gross brushes aside Leavis’s analysis of Culture—which is indeed not much more than the observations of a journalist superimposed on the notion of a lost organic society and devoid of any understanding of historical and social forces. Instead he concentrates on Leavis’s rhetoric—the means he has used as a man of letters to obtain a following—and comes up with this analysis. You declare that you are open to conviction but habitually use the language of intimidation to all who differ from your views. You allude to evidence and don’t give it. You speak of an obvious influence and do not offer a quotation in substantiation. You ignore anyone who has anticipated your judgments. You scorn a writer by citing the adverse opinions of writers whom you admire and suppress quoting their favorable comments. You quote sources which on examination (Gross has been trained as a scholar) convey something quite different. You declare that there is a Great Tradition in the novel yet under analysis no consistent meaning can be applied to the word tradition. You exaggerate the world’s hostility or neglect and demand a stultifying allegiance. You speak of the need for life and health in order to fortify a quasi-religious position, but the weapons you use are rancor, hatred of people, spitefulness, and destruction.

Although Gross alludes to Leavis’s qualities as a critic and to the seriousness and intensity with which he has pursued his calling he does not do them justice. On his own showing Leavis has stood as a reminder to men of letters, as Carlyle did, that they should dedicate themselves to something more than appreciation and enjoyment. But Gross does suggest forcibly that salvation through literature can have as disastrous effects as those of the bookmen treating it as a furbelow.

After this one might have expected a somber epilogue on the final extinction of the species. But no: good sense prevails. Despite the way in which literature as the explanation and arbiter of life has been elbowed aside by the social sciences and by natural science; despite the fact that critics are deflected from it by a multitude of other arts; despite the fact that fewer magazines exist, that mass education threatens standards and the industry of Eng. Crit. threatens to spin an impenetrable cocoon of books and theses round the works of art themselves, John Gross concludes that not only will there always be an England but the man of letters will still be living there and doing quite nicely, thankyou. We need a few of them, he thinks, if we are to remain sane.

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