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 …