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The Book of Books

A far more significant issue is that of omissions. Having noted one or two in passing, I decided to take some slightly more systematic samplings under the letter A. I looked up half a dozen names, and found them; then I drew a blank with Louis Althusser, the French Marxist and uxoricide. A matter for mild regret, though perhaps nothing more. Sticking for the moment to. French social thought, I tried Philippe Ariès, the historian and thanatologist. No Philippe Ariès. Again, a pity but never mind. Then I tried Raymond Aron. No Raymond Aron—and that really does strike me as inexcusable (especially when you consider that there is a substantial entry for someone like Aron’s contemporary Maurice Merleau-Ponty).

Ranging further in the alphabet, I soon came across another notable gap. One hesitates to mention Charles Maurras of the Action Française in the same breath as Raymond Aron, but he should undoubtedly have been included. What makes his absence positively puzzling is that the Encyclopaedia does manage to find room for his lieutenant, Léon Daudet. And just to compound the mystery, Daudet has two separate entries, one in his own right and the other, almost identical, as an appendage to the entry for his father, Alphonse Daudet. You begin to wonder whether anyone’s in charge.

For the most part, French politics and history get thorough coverage: the three columns on the French Revolution are a particularly heroic feat of compression. French literature is extremely well covered, too, which makes the occasional oversight all the more surprising. (There is nothing about Vauvenargues, one of the greatest French aphorists, and nothing about Georges Feydeau, a far more living presence in the modern theatre than some of the French playwrights who have been accorded a place.)

Much the same applies to German literature. All the big names seem to be there, and lots of the lesser ones. But I was sorry not to find any trace of Erich Kästner of Emil and the Detectives, or of the delightful turn-of-the-century nonsense-poet Christian Morgenstern. (One of Morgenstern’s poems, incidentally, describes a mythical creature called the Nasobem that eats its way through encyclopaedias.)

As for omissions in general, no two people are likely to agree on where to draw the line between those which are regrettable but acceptable and those where the Encyclopaedia is definitely at fault. We all have our own interests and our own scale of values; and in any case, the two categories shade into each other. But here—confining myself to biographical entries—are some of the names I feel should certainly have been included, and aren’t.

V.S. Pritchett; Marina Tsvetaeva (an unaccountable omission—she doesn’t even rate a mention in the general article on Russian literature); Paul Poiret the fashion designer; Blondin the tightrope-walker; Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto; Max Nordau of Degeneration; Nechayev the revolutionist; Gulbenkian the oil tycoon; Wilamowitz-Moellendorff the classical scholar; Georges Carpentier the boxer; Juan Fangio the racing-car driver; Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff of the Babar books; the Soviet secret police chiefs Yagoda and Yezhov (there are no entries under “Purges” or “Gulag,” incidentally); Satyajit Ray the film director; John Leech the caricaturist; Lou Andreas-Salomé; Alcock and Brown, the first men to fly across the Atlantic; Aby Warburg the art historian (and E.H. Gombrich his biographer). A mixed bag; but then so is life.

Reasons of space are not enough to explain the absence of such figures, since many comparable or lesser figures have been included. The omission of V.S. Pritchett, for example, has to be weighed against the inclusion of other twentieth-century British men of letters—Bonamy Dobrée, David Daiches, and so forth. It would be pointless to complain about the omission of Paul Poiret if it were not that fashion designers in general, from Worth and Balenciaga to Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein, are well represented.

None of the absentees so far mentioned is an American. For all its admirable international breadth, the Columbia, in the words of the preface, “remains an American encyclopaedia for American readers” (Who would have it otherwise?), and American personalities receive correspondingly fuller coverage. This is particularly true of pre-twentieth-century figures, where time has already done most of the sorting and sifting, though even here there are one or two gaps. Alice James, who doesn’t get so much as a mention in the articles on her father and her brothers, should really have had her own entry. So should the Chicago novelist Henry Blake Fuller (of The Cliff-Dwellers); some of the bygone novelists who have been included, such as James Lane Allen of A Kentucky Cardinal, are—perhaps I should say sound—a good deal less interesting.

When it comes to more recent times, the choice of potential subjects is so vast that it seems unreasonable to complain of the omission of all but a very few secondary figures. Some of the personalities I searched for in vain—another very mixed bag—are Dr. Barnes of the Barnes Foundation, Herbert Croly of the New Republic, General Leslie Groves of Los Alamos, Loie Fuller the dancer, Walter Winchell, Harold Rosenberg, Preston Sturges, Wrigley of the chewing gum, Ripley of “Believe It or Not,” Frank Sullivan the cliché expert, Glenn Miller, George Silvester Viereck (and indeed his son Peter), Raymond Loewy the designer, John Gunther, Dale Carnegie, Art Young (and, among other cartoonists, Ralph Barton and John Held, Jr.), John Livingston Lowes, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Jimmy Durante, King C. Gillette of the razor blades, James Burnham of The Managerial Revolution, Charles Atlas, Polly Adler, Bernarr Macfadden the keep-fit king, Carmine De Sapio, Dorothy Thompson, Harry Dexter White, and Jay Lovestone of the Lovestonites and the Communist Opposition group. (Lovestone in fact got an entry in 1975, but has since been removed.) The line has to be drawn somewhere, so perhaps one’s reaction should be simply où sont les neiges?—how quickly men and women who were once part of the fabric of American life begin to be forgotten. But most of these names surely have at least as good a claim to be represented in the Encyclopaedia as some of the people who actually are—as Edwin Meredith, for example, who served briefly as secretary of agriculture under Woodrow Wilson, or Walter Folger Brown, who was postmaster general in the administration of Herbert Hoover.

In a number of categories the editors seem to have settled, reasonably enough, for token representation: better one or two than none at all. Gangsters, for instance. Capone gets in, the one obvious choice, but it would have been nice to eavesdrop on the editorial agonizings that resulted in the decision to include Arnold Rothstein and leave out Lucky Luciano. Movie moguls are another group where we have to make do with a couple of names. Goldwyn and Mayer scrape by, the Warner Brothers are rejected. Movie stars, on the other hand, are present in force, often with a brief attempt to sum up their charms: Claudette Colbert is “known for her rosy cheeks, hearty laugh, and curly bangs,” etc.

Occasionally the Encyclopaedia adopts a narrowly American perspective. A number of distinguished immigrants, for example, are described as American, without qualification: Einstein is simply an “American theoretical physicist.” Once or twice there is even a little display of Columbia Lokalpatriotismus: Allan Nevins gets a longer entry than Michelet or Mommsen. But these are minor matters. For the most part the book triumphantly illustrates the distinction between an American orientation, which it maintains, and an American bias, which it avoids.

There are times, indeed, when you feel that the editors, or their predecessors, have been almost exaggeratedly fair. Some of the British politicians and public figures they have included, for instance, are very much of the second rank, a few of them largely forgotten even in Britain. British writers continue to be generously represented, too. The new intake of novelists in the Encyclopaedia includes Martin Amis, Margaret Drabble, Anita Brookner, A.S. Byatt, John le Carré, and John Fowles; meanwhile American authors such as Raymond Carver, J.F. Powers, Patricia Highsmith, and Grace Paley (to say nothing of older novelists such as William March and Dawn Powell) are still lining up for admission.

Perhaps the point that needs to be made is not that British writers are favorably treated but that the treatment of recent American writing is surprisingly uneven. Take poetry; take such well-established figures as Anthony Hecht, A. R. Ammons, Donald Justice, Donald Hall, and Galway Kinnell. These are all writers who, in my opinion, should have been in the 1975 edition, but the Encyclopaedia still hasn’t caught up with them.

Elsewhere, however, numerous gaps have been made good, many of them important ones. Constantine Cavafy gets an entry at last; so does Marguerite Yourcenar; so does Melanie Klein. And needless to say the belated additions aren’t confined to biography: they include natural phenomena, institutions, concepts, historical events, and examples of all the other types of material with which the Encyclopaedia deals. There are now entries for eating disorders and Linear B, for manifest destiny and nuclear waste, for the penis and (of course) the vagina.

Gains inevitably mean losses as well. Some of the older entries that have been cleared out to make room for new ones probably had to go, others could and should have been spared. There has been a substantial cull of Victorian literati, for example, and though I am sad to see the last of someone like Frederick Locker-Lampson, who was once mildly famous for his vers de société, I can’t pretend that he is indispensable. (He seems to have been removed to make room for an entry on Lockerbie.) I am more or less reconciled, too, on the grounds that their work was largely of local British interest, to the elimination of Victorian historians like Samuel Gardiner and John Richard Green. But what about Thomas Henry Buckle, the historian of civilization, or George Grote, the historian of ancient Greece? Buckle was a figure of European standing (well known enough, for example, for his name to come up in conversation in The Cherry Orchard). So was Grote. I must admit that I have never read him, but I have read Arnaldo Momigliano’s splendid account of him and how he inaugurated a new era in the study of Greek history. (Momigliano used to say that before he came to England as a refugee there were three addresses that had pride of place in his imagined map of London: Sherlock Holmes’s in Baker Street, Mazzini’s in Euston, and George Grote’s in Gower Street.) Surely such a man deserves to retain an entry of at least a few lines, even if it means cutting back a bit on one or two of the new arrivals—Jane Fonda, say, or Milton Berle.

The updating of existing entries is at least as important an aspect of revision as the introduction of new ones, and here, rather unfairly, it is shortcomings rather than successes that tend to catch one’s eye. The main events in the public career of François Mitterrand between 1975 and 1992 are dutifully recorded, but that is something I take for granted; on the other hand the fact that the entry for Régis Debray hasn’t changed since 1975 (although the man himself has) is something that leaps off the page. And it is particularly hard not to notice out-of-date information in fields where one has first-hand knowledge—in my own case, for instance, when the entry for Fleet Street still describes it as “the center of British journalism,” with no indication that the last major newspapers departed some years ago.

I am tempted to shrug such matters off (it is simply Homer nodding again)—or rather I was, before I read a short but alarming article by Bret Wallach which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 8. Mr. Wallach, who is professor of geography at the University of Oklahoma, lists a succession of errors in the Encyclopaedia, most of them involving points which it would never have occurred to me to question. Steel is produced in “the huge Kaiser plant” at Fontana in California; a canal is being constructed in the Sudan to circumvent the White Nile swamps; “the former British cantonment of Secunderabad [in India] is now a park”—and why doubt the Encyclopaedia when it tells us so? Except that according to Mr. Wallach, the Fontana plant has not produced steel “in donkey’s years,” work on the White Nile canal was discontinued over a decade ago, and Secunderabad is in fact “a fair-sized city.”

One’s faith is shaken, and it is no consolation to be told by Wallach that the Fifth Edition handles geography “more poorly than it handles most other things.” What we want from professors of geography is reassurance that, while the Encyclopaedia may or may not have its faults in other departments, its coverage of geography is impeccable.

I can only reiterate: in the matters where I can judge for myself, or think I can, the Encyclopaedia strikes me as being almost as good as its reputation suggests. But there are two further features that make me uneasy about the quality of the work that has gone into preparing the new edition.

Firstly, in quite a few cases there has been no attempt to supply the date of death of individuals who were in the Fourth Edition and who have since died. If you were to judge by their new entries, for example, the painter Ivan Albright, the actor Maurice Evans, the Nobel Prize-winning physician William Parry Murphy, and the author Alec Waugh are still with us, whereas it would take no more than a few minutes’ research in a library to discover that Albright died in 1983, Evans in 1989, Murphy in 1987, and Waugh in 1981. For a major work of reference, this is extraordinarily sloppy: one can only hope that it is not symptomatic.

The second example of editorial negligence is less obvious but more damaging. One of the most useful traditions of the Encyclopaedia is the provision of brief bibliographies at the end of articles, especially longer articles. They aren’t always there when you expect them: it is hard to see why Proust should get one, for instance, and Stendhal shouldn’t. But the general practice of supplying them undoubtedly enhances the value of the book a great deal.

Unfortunately, however, many of them—the literary ones, at least—seem to have been either assigned to inexperienced hands or allowed to slide into disrepair. The bibliography for Samuel Johnson fails to list the biography of Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate. The bibliography for E.M. Forster fails to list the standard life by P.N. Furbank. The bibliography for Gogol fails to list the study by Nabokov. The bibliography for Joseph Conrad fails to list the biography by Zdzislaw Najder. Similar examples could readily be multiplied, and they are matched by all kinds of minor muddles. By mistakes, too. The date for A.J.A. Symons’s biography of Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo, is given as 1955 rather than 1934, and pointing this out is more than a piece of pedantry: The Quest for Corvo is a work of literature in its own right, and its whole strategy depends on the fact that it was written while a number of people who had known Corvo were still alive.

How far does one take account of such relatively small points in arriving at a final verdict on the Encyclopaedia? How far can one arrive at a final verdict? Sydney Smith, writing about Macaulay, said that omniscience was his foible; only someone who shared the same foible (or delusion) would dare to pass comprehensive judgment on a work that takes all knowledge for its province, and runs to well over six million words. But the rest of us are at least entitled to our general impressions, and my own feeling, it will be clear, is that this is a case for two and a half cheers, or perhaps even 2.9 cheers, but not for three. The Columbia continues to earn its laurels, but in the new edition it has also begun to show some distinct signs of resting on them.

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