Love-Hate Relations: English and American Sensibilities
No country can tell us more about ourselves than England can. Americans who refresh their sight with visits to that mirror image learn to see their national character with the lucidity that an adult gains from comparing himself to his siblings. Our common language opens mysterious depths; and in surveying the two literatures one hardly starts a contrast without receiving an insight. The simple challenge of a literary career means something different to each people. For a young American it brings into view the direction of the national conscience, a leadership more important than lawmaking, more lasting than empire. But for three hundred years the men of England have been loosening their hold on a hereditary estate of drama, narrative, and the high forms of prose.
Milton and Dryden wrote the last works that a respectable judge would call epic or tragedy; and since the Revolution of 1688 all the best comedies in English have been of Irish manufacture. Among novelists the eighteenth century sent forth a quadrumvirate of great Englishmen: Defoe and Richardson, Fielding and Sterne. But the native male was then overbalanced by women, Scots, and Irishmen. In our own century the count is Hardy and Lawrence against Conrad, Joyce, and Woolf.
The less imaginative forms tip the scales the same way. After Locke, the gifted philosophers are the Irish Berkeley, the Scottish Hume, and the Austrian Wittgenstein. Neither Boswell nor Burke nor Carlyle was English; and Mill was educated by his Scottish father. It is only as poets and critics that Englishmen have remained thoroughly in charge of their tradition; for in these arts one’s ear for language means more than all one’s other faculties. Here, aboriginal Anglophones can take their superiority for granted—if one disregards Eliot and Yeats.
An effect of this shrinkage of English authorship has been a lack of pushing and shoving, of competitive professionalism, which in England belongs to the humblest levels of popular literature more than to men of talent. The late Georgette Heyer shaped her best-selling novels to suit her unintellectual clients, and kept ahead of rivals in a profitable trade. But Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson (with a smaller, if substantial, audience) explore at leisure worlds they have discovered by themselves.
Amateurism has allowed the English tradition to keep in touch with every grade of reader. Instead of a sudden, breathtaking rise from housewives’ fiction to subsidized experimental writing, the English enjoy a delicately shaded landscape of vulgarized history, narrative biography, fiction, academic studies, upper journalism, poetry for periodicals, and hieratic art. They can do so because a common standard of style permits authors to move easily across this landscape.
English writing and English speech have an intimate connection that American writing has lost. Outside the South we have few authors who try to speak with the grace or color they infuse into their work. English people of all ranks are used to reading aloud what they write, and they enjoy verbal wit in a way that …
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Taking Sides January 23, 1975