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Happy Birthday!

The Times Literary Supplement is one hundred years old this year. In 1997 Derwent May was commissioned to write a history of this venerable publication to mark the centenary. He was well qualified for the task, being an experienced literary editor, who himself worked on the TLS as a young man, as well as a novelist and literary critic. In some ways it was an enticing prospect—to have access to the archives of one of the great literary institutions of the twentieth century, and particularly to the identities of those who contributed their reviews anonymously for three quarters of that time. On the other hand the sheer bulk of raw data was intimidating. In 1997 the files of the TLS amounted to more than 250 million words, and probably another twenty million have been added since then, because the journal has grown fatter rather than leaner over the years.

The historian of a weekly magazine that has been going for a century and shows no signs of expiring is inevitably condemned to write a chronicle, the least developed form of historiography: this happened and then that happened and then that happened…. There is no plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. One editor, Arthur Crook, later recalled that the journal was “started as a makeshift and continued through an oversight,” and this is at least half-true. In 1902, after selling off a short-lived magazine called Literature, designed to “protect the reader from being overwhelmed by the continually increasing flood of books” with a generous spread of discriminating reviews, The Times decided to offer the same service to its readers in a free weekly eight-page supplement inserted into the folded newspaper. This was intended as an experiment, to be reviewed at the end of the parliamentary session of 1902, but in the event the senior personnel concerned either forgot or kept quiet about this condition and the supplement was allowed to continue without formal ratification.

It has weathered various storms, some potentially fatal, in its long history. Only a year after its birth it became involved in what was known as the Book War, when it started up a free lending library and used-book purchase scheme that provoked the ire of publishers and caused them to withdraw advertising. After Lord Northcliffe, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, became the controlling shareholder of The Times in 1908, he twice threatened to wind up the Lit Supp (as it was familiarly known in those days) but was on each occasion persuaded out of this course of action by a combination of luck and cunning on the part of the supplement’s editor and the newspaper’s general manager. In November 1978, along with The Times and all its subsidiary publications, the TLS ceased publication because of a dispute between the then owners, the Thompson organization, and the print unions, and returned a year later to find a flourishing rival publication, the London Review of Books, in the field.

But these crises were occasional and episodic. They do not add up to a Grand Narrative. Neither does the story of the TLS lend itself to the Great Man theory of history. All its editors were worthy men who in their different ways served the journal well, but, with the possible exception of Alan Pryce-Jones, they did so discreetly and self-effacingly, in keeping with the anonymity of its contents.

Derwent May has recognized the essentially amorphous nature of his subject and resigned himself to writing a patient, evenhanded, chronological account, trawling through the journal’s back numbers and correspondence (both published and unpublished, internal and external) for items of particular interest, but also giving the general flavor of its reviewing from one era to another. The resulting book will be appreciated by any reader who is interested in high culture and not in a hurry, as an entertaining and effortless way of reminding oneself of the rise and fall of reputations, the succession of competing “movements,” the struggle of generations, the eddies and currents of fashion and style, that make up the literary and intellectual history of the last century. It is rather like watching a jerky compilation of old newsreel footage: the documentary authenticity more than compensates for the absence of narrative structure.

Critical Times is inevitably a very long book, but there is no question that the TLS deserves this detailed attention, although its circulation was always tiny by modern journalistic standards. Its highest average annual circulation in round figures was 49,000, achieved in 1950; its lowest 17,000 in 1940. Its average over the whole century is probably in the low 30,000s. Many, perhaps the majority, of its subscribers are institutions such as libraries and university common rooms, and therefore the real number of its readers is much larger than the figures indicate. But it is the astonishing longevity and continuity (apart from that blip in 1978–1979) of the journal that makes it uniquely interesting to the cultural historian.

The jacket illustration for Critical Times, wrapped around both front and back covers, is very well chosen. It is a black-and-white photo from the Hulton Getty Picture Library, evidently taken during the Blitz of World War II. The scene is the high-ceilinged room of some dignified old library—only there is no ceiling: a bomb has fallen on the building very recently, and the roof is open to the sky. The floor is covered with a heap of bricks, plaster, and fallen beams, but the books, mostly old leather-bound volumes, are miraculously undamaged. Three men, dressed in dark suits and overcoats and wearing hats, are browsing meditatively at the shelves, oblivious to the rubble on which they stand. One has his hands in his coat pockets, another is reaching out unhurriedly to take down a volume, and a third is already lost in a book he is holding open. It is as if they entered the place to inspect the damage and became distracted and beguiled by the books; or they were perhaps regular users of the library who refused to be deterred from their favorite occupation by a little inconvenience, like a bomb, or a war. I suspect that, like many famous “news photos,” this one was posed; but it is so evocative, and so appealing, that one wants to believe it was an authentically captured moment. It vividly encapsulates the TLS‘s enduring commitment to the cultural centrality of books and reading in a century of industrialized barbarism.

It was until recent times an essentially conservative journal in its attitudes and values (some would say it still is)—the organ of the literary establishment, slow and sometimes reluctant to embrace the new. Bruce Richmond, who effectively took over the editorship after the first few months of publication, was confirmed in that position in 1903, and held it until 1937, was educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford, where he read classics, and was called to the bar before joining The Times as an assistant editor (a post he continued to hold for many years while editing the Lit Supp). He tended to favor contributors from the same kind of background, and he exercised his patronage without delegating it to his editorial colleagues or even soliciting their advice. (He threw away all carbon copies of his correspondence, and staff sometimes searched the contents of his wastepaper basket for clues to his intentions.) It has been calculated that 22 percent of contributors to the journal in Richmond’s regime were, like himself, members of the Athenaeum, the London club of choice for the intellectual establishment, and of course exclusively male in its membership. Lit Supp reviewers in this period, May observes, were drawn mainly from three professional groups—Times leader writers, freelance writers and critics, and statesmen, academics, and senior members of the clergy—but the majority in all three groups were almost certainly upper-middle-class men educated at public school and Oxbridge.

That education did not include what we would recognize today as literary criticism: the rigorous analytical study of literary texts, employing a wide range of metalanguages (aesthetic, linguistic, political, psychoanalytical, etc.), which emerged from the teaching of vernacular literature in universities in the course of the century. In 1902 English was a rather despised newcomer to the degree syllabus at Oxford, and Cambridge did not offer a degree in the subject until 1917. The early contributors to the Lit Supp, May observes, “were essentially belles-lettristes and wrote to please. In turn, they asked mainly for pleasure from literature—or if…they looked beyond that, it was either some kind of moral uplift or romantic exaltation that they sought.”

In the first few decades of its life, therefore, the Lit Supp struggled to come to terms with books that were subsequently canonized as classics of modern literature. Constance Fletcher, for instance, was clearly not up to the formidable task of reviewing Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove in 1902, and wondered nervously whether it would do “for short railway journeys and drowsy hammocks.” William Beach Thomas was dismissive of Conrad’s Youth and Heart of Darkness in the same year, and a little later was plainly baffled by James’s The Ambassadors: “The narrative is—where? The denouement—what?” Joyce’s Dubliners received a brief, lukewarm review. The journal failed to notice The Rainbow, The Good Soldier, and Ulysses, while reviewing scores of now forgotten minor novels. Its record in poetry was no better. In the opinion of F.T. Dalton, a long-serving Lit Supp staffer, the contents of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) were “untouched by any genuine rush of feeling” and “certainly have no relation to ‘poetry.’” Other defenders of traditional poetic taste had more wit. Arthur Clutton-Brock, art critic and leader writer for The Times, complained amusingly that reading the poems in Ezra Pound’s Lustra, “you feel as if you had tried to sneeze and failed.” The same critic reviewed the Hogarth Press edition of Eliot’s Poems in 1919. Wondering about the identity of his reviewer, Eliot admitted to a friend that “he found my joints in one or two places very cleverly.”

In that same year, however, Richard Aldington introduced Eliot to Richmond, who was captivated by the young American, and promptly invited him to write some leading articles for the Lit Supp on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Eliot wrote to give his mother this news, describing it “as the highest honor possible in the critical world of literature.” His first contribution was the classic essay on Ben Jonson, in the issue for November 18, 1919. Eliot published several more of his most famous early essays in the Lit Supp until 1921, when he became preoccupied with the editing of his own journal, The Criterion.

Richmond’s recruitment of Eliot was a typically shrewd move. Though his own literary taste was conservative, he was smart enough to realize that he must allow the new movements of the twentieth century in literature and criticism to have a voice in the Lit Supp if it was to retain credibility. Aldington himself, John Middleton Murry, and Percy Lubbock were among those who helped him to achieve this aim. Perhaps his most inspired move in this respect was to enlist the services of the young Virginia Stephen, better known to posterity as Virginia Woolf, as early as 1905. Her first review was of two books entitled The Thackeray Country and The Dickens Country. Her observation, “A writer’s country is a territory within his own brain; and we run the risk of disillusionment if we try to turn such phantom cities into tangible bricks and mortar,” shows that she already possessed a mature critical style, elegant, incisive, and persuasive.

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