Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon
by Michael Shelden
Harper and Row, 254 pp., $24.95
“Why are so many people in England down on Cyril Connolly?” Edmund Wilson asked John Wain in 1957. Wain gave a sensible reply. Fashion had changed. The man of letters had been superseded by the professional academic critic. Empson and Leavis, Blackmur and Tate made discriminations and analyzed the text. Critics had at their fingertips examples of the intentional fallacy and the dissociation of sensibility. The critic now took his vocation as seriously as a young priest.
There was nothing priestlike about Connolly. What was worse, he mocked criticism. Only failed writers like himself, he implied, became critics. He regarded as absurd the claim of professors to question the values of writers and lecture them on their faults. Nor did he think much of the techniques of the New Criticism, and he was quick to spot how automatic all that strenuous activity became. It resembled an athlete building his muscles by weight-lifting: making with the blocks Connolly called it.
Connolly was also the victim of a significant social change in the English educated class. During the 1950s the intellectual grammar school boy displaced his public school contemporary. The Etonian dragonfly skimming over the lily pond of literature, shimmering as it explored the avant-garde, turning now an epigram, now a set of verses, cosmopolitan, at home in European languages as well as in Latin and Greek, was driven off by a cloud of wasps—sardonic, stinging, ironic, insular, and purposeful.
Few writers of Connolly’s talents have been so eager to disparage their gifts. He despised worldly success while giving the impression that he hankered after it. The wasps admitted that he diagnosed well enough the diseases that destroy young writers—social ambition that turns writers into journalists to make money; the pram in the hall; the splendors and miseries of public school education. But he had then given in to most of them. Why did he wallow in his failure to defeat the enemies of promise? Michael Shelden, an American professor, disagrees. He thinks Connolly should be given his due for his one undeniable success. When three months after the beginning of the war, Connolly and his friend and backer Peter Watson founded Horizon, they became friends of promise—friends to dozens of writers and artists who were to make their name in the magazine’s pages. In London readers of Shelden’s book have praised him for writing so convincingly about a milieu he never knew. His book exhibits American scholarship at its best: cool and tolerant in tone, it conveys the atmosphere of literary wartime London, and the exhilaration, the agonies, and the absurdities of Connolly’s circle.
It is true that Shelden only sketches Connolly’s early years—and indeed there was no need to write about his school days when Connolly himself had done it so well. It was at Eton that, despite being clever and ugly, he was elected against all the odds to the Valhalla of the well-born bloods—an emotional experience that Connolly …