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The Book of Books

The Columbia Encyclopaedia: Fifth Edition

edited by Barbara A. Chernow, edited by George A. Vallasi
Columbia University Press/distributed by Houghton Mifflin,, 3,048 pp., $125.00

We live in a contentious world, but one thing we can all agree on is the general excellence of the Columbia Encyclopaedia. Since the first edition appeared in 1935, the Encyclopaedia has established itself as the leading work of its kind, certainly the leading work in the English language, and as someone who uses it regularly I am happy to join the chorus and testify to its virtues. It is accessible, sensibly organized, and handsomely produced; its articles are succinct and clearly written; within the compass of a single manageable volume it succeeds in purveying an extraordinary amount of information about an extraordinary range of topics.

The fourth edition of the Encyclopaedia was published in 1975, to enormous praise. The new edition, while similar in format, and roughly the same in size, represents in content a major overhaul. Not only are there a great many new entries; around 60 percent of existing articles, we are told, have been revised.

The most immediately obvious changes are political, and the most striking impression they leave is of how much the world has lived through in less than twenty years. There were no entries in the fourth edition for many figures—Jimmy Carter, for example, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev George Bush—who have not only come to the fore since then but have more or less receded into history. Again, who in the wildest dreams of 1975 could have predicted that by 1993 there would be a series of entries reading: “Leninabad: see KHUDZHAND, Tajikistan,” “Leninakan: see GIUMRI, Armenia,” “Leningrad: see SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia”? (Leninogorsk, in Kazakhstan, lingers on—at least it did at the time the fifth edition went to press.) And though the convulsions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are responsible for the largest single group of changes in the Encyclopaedia, numerous other innovations bear witness to the press of events elsewhere. There are now entries for Jacques Delors and Nelson Mandela, for the Iran-contra affair and Tiananmen Square. Given that the official closing date for new material was November 1, 1992, the editors have also done remarkably well in taking note, however briefly, of the Clinton presidency. They have even managed to slip in a last-minute entry for Janet Reno (though not, curiously, for Warren Christopher).

The attempt to keep pace with social and cultural developments has been equally determined. All kinds of people have gained admission for the first time: Michel Foucault, Malcolm Forbes, Ronald Dworkin, Dolly Parton, Joseph Brodsky, Magic Johnson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ted Turner, Sally Ride, Laura Ashley—the list, as they say, could go on. There are also articles on any number of new topics, from AIDS to chaos theory, from rap music to genetic engineering.

A fair assessment of the Encyclopaedia naturally has to take into account limitations of space. There isn’t room to include everything one would like, and there isn’t room for much of what has been included to be treated as fully as one would like. Most entries are of necessity pared down to the bone.

This is not to say that it doesn’t offer constant incidental pleasures. Like any decent reference book, and more than most, it encourages you to browse: look up one item, and there is a good chance that your eye will be caught by the next—and then quite possibly the one after that, and then the one after that. Consider, for example, an undemanding four-page ramble from “Krakatoa” (assuming that is where you start) to “krypton” (assuming that is as far as you get). It takes in, among a great deal else, Kraków, Kristianstad (“earliest example of Renaissance town planning in N Europe”), Krasnoyarsk (which has a considerably larger population than that of Boston), and the island of Krk. In the course of it you will be able to learn about the god Krishna, about Kronos, the youngest of the Titans, about the ramifications of the Krupp dynasty, the principal paintings of Lee Krasner, the annual endowment of the Kresge foundation, the flora and fauna of Kruger National Park, the six-hundred-volume oeuvre of the Polish novelist Józef Kraszewski, the full name of Jack Kramer the tennis player, the real name of Mercator the cartographer, the other claims to fame of the Kreutzer to whom the Kreutzer Sonata was dedicated, the leading ideas of Prince Kropotkin, the puppet plays of Alfred Kreymborg, the varied careers of Krupskaya, Karl Kraus, Ivar Kreuger, and Arthur Krock, and the metabolic significance of the Krebs cycle. You will also be able to reflect on the odds against two Nobel laureates in Medicine (in 1953 and 1992) both being called Krebs; you will be reminded, or perhaps informed, that there are other kremlins besides the one in Moscow, that Alfred Kroeber the anthropologist was born in Hoboken, and that Fritz Kreisler wrote an operetta called Sissy.

Facts, up to a point, are their own reward, and all this is very absorbing. Still, browsing is not what the Encyclopaedia is really about. Its approach is businesslike, its tone is sober. It is designed to supply answers—and who can doubt that it succeeds? So it should, after all. The new edition builds on the work of its predecessors; it was five years in the making; it boasts the services of 115 academic advisers, along with a board of eminent consultants, and sixty-six editors of varying grades (not counting design specialists and proofreaders). Accuracy and, within limits, comprehensiveness are only to be expected.

But even Homer nods.

On this particular occasion he starts nodding as early as page 3, with the entry for Edwin Abbott Abbott (1838–1926), author and clergyman, of whom we learn that “he wrote several theological works and a biography (1885) of Francis Bacon, but he is best known for his standard Shakespearian Grammar (1870).” The Shakespearian Grammar was an important pioneering work, but if Abbott’s name still means anything to the world at large it is surely on account of a book which the entry fails to mention—the mathematical fantasy Flatland (reprinted by Dover Publications a few years back).

A small point, perhaps, but if you are going to have an article about Abbott at all, why not get it right? And the first mistake or misjudgment gives warning of others to come. The entry on Harold Nicolson, for example, contains references to no fewer than fifteen of his books, but manages to omit the best of them, Some People (his “one very good book,” in the view of Edmund Wilson). Or take the treatment of the painter Gwen John, who is allocated a mere two lines at the end of the entry for her brother Augustus. This certainly doesn’t reflect the current status of the two of them, relative to each other; and it is in any case quite misleading to characterize Gwen as “a painter in the Pre-Raphaelite manner.”

One or two further examples. The article on Australian literature is unsatisfactory. Its list of leading Australian poets, for instance, completely ignores some of the most obvious contenders, including A.D. Hope and Les A. Murray. The article on the French cinema is sadly inadequate. Weighted toward the present or the recent past, it passes over in silence such important if disparate figures as Louis Jouvet, Julien Duvivier, Raimu, Fernandel, Edwige Feuillère, Jacques Tati, Max Ophuls, and for that matter Marcel Ophuls. (Of these, only Jouvet gets an entry to himself elsewhere in the book, and it fails to mention his film work.)

The article on the British cinema is even less helpful. It opens with a reference to “early efforts (c. 1929) by the producer J. Arthur Rank to achieve a world market for British films.” (Rank didn’t in fact become involved in film making until the mid-1930s, and his attempt to break into the world market took place in the 1940s.) This is followed by the statement that Alfred Hitchcock was a leading post-World War Two British director. (By 1940 Hitchcock was working almost entirely in Hollywood.)

A particularly difficult question for a reference book is how far an entry ought to cover the secondary aspects of someone’s career. Mostly, as far as I can judge, the Encyclopaedia gets this right. Sometimes it doesn’t. The entry for the German physicist Philipp Lenard, for instance, sticks exclusively to his scientific achievements; it should have found room to record his role as the foe of Einstein and leader of “Aryan physics” under the Nazis.

A related problem is deciding where it is or is not appropriate to refer to marriage partners, members of a subject’s family, or other associates. Here again the editors’ approach strikes me as broadly sensible, but inconsistent. It is sensible that they should point out that Erskine Caldwell was once married to Margaret Bourke-White, or that Edward Steichen was Carl Sandburg’s brother-in-law, or that Howard Nemerov was Diane Arbus’s brother (though if you look up “Diane Arbus” you won’t be told that she was Howard Nemerov’s sister). I find it odd, on the other hand, that the entry for Thomas Mann should contain subentries for his son Klaus and his daughter, Erika, but not for his son Golo, the historian; or that there should be nothing to indicate that Vladimir Nabokov’s father was an important political figure (many less distinguished parents are listed); or that a fairly detailed entry for the British politician Duff Cooper shouldn’t contain any reference to his equally if not more famous wife, Diana Cooper; or that you are left to work out for yourself from their separate entries whether there was any connection between Colley Cibber the playwright and Caius Gabriel Cibber the sculptor (Caius Gabriel was Colley’s father); or that there is an entry for Walt Rostow but not so much as a hint of the existence of Eugene Rostow; or that the entry for George du Maurier contains a subentry for his granddaughter Daphne Du Maurier, but nothing about his son—and Daphne’s father—the once-celebrated actor Gerald (apart from an unexplained reference to the memoir Daphne wrote about him).

Even a casual trawl through the book also reveals minor slips. Tristan Tzara is wrongly described as a painter rather than a writer (p. 2628); the real name of Hergé, the creator of Tintin, is given as “Rémis” (p. 608) when it ought to be “Remi”; the founder of the French branch of the Rothschilds is referred to as Jacob (p. 2365), when he is known to history as James. And Homer doesn’t only nod—in spite of his team of proofreaders, he also perpetrates typos. Q.D. Leavis, who now gets an article to herself, wouldn’t be best pleased to be told that she had written a study of “Jane Austin,” and Wilfred Owen would be surprised to learn that he was a friend of “Sigfried Sassoon.”
Mistakes like these, which might be pardonable in a newspaper produced in a hurry, are harder to overlook in an encyclopaedia. But one shouldn’t make too much of them either. The overwhelming impression made by the Columbia is still one of accuracy.

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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