In 1939 V.S. Pritchett set about reading many novels in the hope of discovering what was wrong with the one he was trying to write. He didn’t regard himself as a critic, but as an ordinary reader with a private ax to grind. Taking notes on his reading, he started publishing pieces in the New Statesman. Paper was scarce, so he had to restrict himself to short essays of about 1800 words, an exigency from which he developed the laconic and allusive style he continues to practice in the more spacious conditions of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.
A Man of Letters is a selection of Pritchett’s essays and reviews. Most of them have been rescued from books long out of print, starting with In My Good Books (1942). Five essays, on Richardson, Scott, George Eliot, Arnold Bennett, and the forgotten Thomas Day—author of Sandford and Merton (1783–1789)—are taken from The Living Novel (1946). Essays on Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, E.M. Forster, Trollope, Robert Musil, Edith Wharton, R.S. Surtees, and Nathanael West come from The Working Novelist (1965). Three essays, on George Sand, Eça de Queiroz, and Machado de Assis, are taken from The Myth Makers (1979); two, on Max Beerbohm and Evelyn Waugh, from The Tale Bearers (1980). From recent work, Pritchett has chosen essays on Pushkin, Byron, Cruikshank’s drawings, Virginia Woolf’s last letters, Cyril Connolly, Proust, Camus, Henry James’s letters, Pissarro, and Nabokov. There are twenty-two essays on English writers, mostly novelists, six on Americans, and eighteen on European writers and artists.
“If, as they say, I am a Man of Letters I come, like my fellows, at the tail-end of a long and once esteemed tradition in English and American writing,” Pritchett remarks in a brief preface. He uses the same capitalized phrase about Cyril Connolly and, in The Tale Bearers, about Edmund Wilson, “the old-style man of letters.” Old-style or not, a man of letters is a writer who makes his living by writing regularly for “the periodicals that have survived.” Such a writer persists in caring for literature, even at a time much given to TV and film. He makes “a stand for the reflective values of a humane culture,” and embodies them in his own novels, short stories, biographies, travel books, and criticism. The phrase, as Pritchett uses it, doesn’t seem to describe such writers as T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Graham Greene, W.H. Auden, Lionel Trilling, and John Updike, who haven’t depended for a living upon their frequent appearances in periodicals.
Pritchett’s references to the tradition of the man of letters are always rueful: he implies that he is the last of his tribe. I assume he has in mind the apparently easy conditions under which Henry James wrote for The North American Review and The Nation, George Eliot for The Westminster Review, Leslie Stephen for The Cornhill, Mill for The …