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.

Virginia Woolf must have contributed hundreds of reviews and essays to the Lit Supp over the years, many of them subsequently collected in the volumes called The Common Reader. She was the ideal Lit Supp reviewer for the times: her connections with the Bloomsbury Group meant she was familiar with avant-garde writing and progressive thought, but she was a hesitant disciple of modernism, distrustful of its more radical breaches of traditional decorum in form and content, and her own style of critical discourse maintained a continuity with the belle-lettrist, musing-in-the-library essay with which the majority of the journal’s readers felt comfortable. May picks out a piece of hers called “How It Strikes a Contemporary,” published in 1923, which nicely illustrates this ambivalent attitude toward her own literary era:

[We find ourselves] agreeing with the critics that it is an age incapable of sustained effort, littered with fragments, and not seriously to be compared with the age that went before…. But there is something about the present with all its trivialities which we would not exchange for the past, however august…. Modern literature in spite of its imperfections has a hold on us, an endearing quality of being part of ourselves…. We are sharply cut off from our predecessors. A shift in the scale—the war, the sudden slip of masses held in position for ages—has shaken the fabric from top to bottom…. New books lure us to read them partly in the hope that they will reflect this rearrangement of our attitude….

The Lit Supp responded to the war of 1914–1918, referred to here by Virginia Woolf, with high-minded patriotism, typified by a series of leading articles or “lay sermons,” as Derwent May calls them, by Arthur Clutton-Brock. “We can each of us do something for the soul of England,” he wrote in the first of these discourses, “that, when peace comes again, it may be a treasure unimpaired.” As the war ground on, his unremitting moral exhortations began to grate on some sensibilities. “I wish Clutton-Brock would take Holy Orders and have done with it, instead of hanging about the vestry,” Max Beerbohm privately complained. Nevertheless he established a tone and an attitude for the Lit Supp in its coverage of the war that contrasted creditably with the chauvinistic hysteria of much British journalism at this time.

Its response to the politics of the postwar era was less impressive. Mussolini’s Discorsi Politici was favorably reviewed when it was published in 1922, and a regular contributor on foreign affairs, Harold Stannard, continued to give Italian Fascism a good report in the Twenties and Thirties. He was more alert to the sinister elements in Hitler’s rise to power, especially its anti-Semitism, but the impression one gets from Derwent May’s survey is of a general underestimation in the pages of the journal of the threat Nazism constituted to peace and civilization. It welcomed the Munich agreement uncritically, and published a poem by Edmund Blunden on October 8, 1938, in praise of this victory of “the generous, selfless, wise” over the forces of evil, that must have embarrassed its author before long. But, May records, the Lit Supp was so pleased with this poem that it published a Latin version of it by C.W. Broadribb the following week, “as though to multiply its majesty and significance.”

That editorial decision, trivial as it was, suggests a journal that was by now seriously out of touch with contemporary culture and society, and it is no surprise to learn that its circulation figures dipped dangerously in the Thirties, falling below 20,000 in 1937. Richmond finally relinquished the reins of office in December of that year. Probably, for the good of the paper, he should have retired earlier. He was a man of integrity, shrewd judgment, and total dedication to his job, and must be chiefly credited with making the Lit Supp into an institution that came to seem as permanent and irreplaceable as its mother newspaper. But his social and educational background imposed limitations on his vision which became more constricting as he grew older, and were reflected in the journal, especially in its coverage of new poetry and fiction.

He was replaced by D.L. Murray, a novelist and part-time deputy editor of the Lit Supp who accepted the appointment on condition that he would only have to come into the office for three days a week. He made the paper somewhat lighter and more reader-friendly, and steered it safely and creditably through the difficult years of World War II, but was unable to achieve much improvement in the circulation. He was eased out of office in 1945, and replaced by a much more forceful personality, Stanley Morison, the typographer who had redesigned The Times and the Lit Supp in 1932. Morison redesigned the Supplement once more, and set about dispelling the atmosphere of fogeyish clubbability that had surrounded it for so long. He attracted a number of brilliant new contributors, especially leading academic historians like Lewis Namier, E.H. Carr, H.R. Trevor-Roper, and A.J.P. Taylor, whose conflicting views, as both reviewers and reviewed, generated interesting controversies. He also had the acumen to appoint Alan Pryce-Jones as assistant editor in 1946 to enliven the literary side of the paper’s coverage. Pryce-Jones was a rather dashing figure, educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, who moved easily in high society as well as literary circles. He brought in as regular contributors and consultants writers like John Betjeman, Osbert Lancaster, Anthony Powell, and G.S. Fraser. The last two names had an immediately beneficial effect on the paper’s coverage of new fiction and poetry.

The circulation of the paper improved spectacularly, and in 1948, when Morison handed over the editorship to Pryce-Jones, it had risen to 42,000. In 1950 it reached its highest-ever figure of 49,061. In this era the TLS (as it was increasingly referred to informally) finally shed its fuddy-duddy image, and was quick to recognize and welcome new developments in British writing like the “Movement” poets and associated novelists. Lucky Jim, for instance, received a warm and perceptive review from Julian Symons, though Isaiah Berlin, no doubt representing the feelings of many of the journal’s older readers, wrote privately to Pryce-Jones that Kingsley Amis’s novel “lowers me more than I can say.”

Alan Pryce-Jones’s achievement was considerable, but he was rather casual about routine editorial duties, and a frequent absentee who relied heavily on his assistant, Arthur Crook, to cover for him. Crook was a largely self-educated man who had joined The Times as a messenger boy at the age of fourteen, and the Lit Supp four years later as a clerk. He was utterly dedicated to the journal, and said he loved it “as people love a woman.” It was only fair that when the senior management of The Times finally lost patience with Pryce-Jones’s cavalier attitude, Crook was appointed in his place, in 1959. Among his junior appointments was Derwent May, who remembers him with great affection, and has dedicated Critical Times to him.

Crook struggled to maintain the high standards of the TLS (the abbreviation was finally adopted as its masthead title in 1969) in an increasingly competitive journalistic world. It had never paid its contributors more than pocket money. In its first years contributors received £3 per column (approximately 1,250 words), and May observes that, allowing for inflation, this rate of pay has remained virtually constant to the present day. It always relied on attracting talented contributors who were young and hard up, or distinguished ones who welcomed the opportunity to write about new books of real interest to them in a leisurely and expansive manner. But as Crook wrote to the senior management of The Times in the early 1960s:

To go on persuading some of the best brains in the country to write anonymously for us at £6 a column becomes progressively harder. Dr George Steiner, for instance… points out that his brilliant piece on Lévi-Strauss took three months to prepare; that we paid him £35; that the Herald Tribune rate for the piece would be not less than $500; and that in that paper he would have had his signature.

Instead of authorizing a significant rise in the rates of pay, however, the management put increasing pressure on Crook to drop anonymity. The latter issue became more and more pressing at this period, vigorously debated both in-house and outside. When the Lit Supp started publication anonymous reviewing was the journalistic norm, but by now it was virtually unique in this respect. Crook stubbornly defended the tradition, and it was left to his successor, John Gross, appointed in 1974, to make an open-minded assessment of the pros and cons. The main argument in favor was that the best-qualified critic for a given book would feel more free to be candid in his or her judgments when protected by anonymity; the converse argument was that anonymity prevents the reading public, including the author under review, from assessing a reviewer’s qualifications and possible parti pris.

Derwent May reveals an interesting case of the abuse of anonymity from much earlier in the paper’s history. In 1923 it published a wittily destructive review of Louis Napoleon and the Recovery of France, 1848–1856, the first installment of a projected four-volume work by a Cambridge historian, F.A. Simpson. It was written by Philip Guedella, who had himself recently written a popular history of Louis Napoleon possessing all the qualities of lively narrative and colorful detail whose absence he deplored in Simpson’s book. The authorship of the review was readily guessed, and caused much indignation, in a small circle of academic historians. Simpson’s teacher, G.M. Trevelyan, wrote a letter of coded complaint that was published in the Lit Supp. But the reviewer’s identity, and his personal interest in the subject, remained unknown to the wider reading public. More than thirty years later the critic Raymond Mortimer happened to meet Simpson, and concluded that this review had ruined Simpson’s life. His book received little attention after its drubbing in the Lit Supp and the despondent author never completed the project—nor, it would seem, did he publish another book on any subject. “I could not face going through the whole horrible business again,” he stated to Mortimer. “I could not recover the gusto.” There were many similar cases, perhaps not so flagrant, of anonymous professional backstabbing in the history of the TLS—and examples too of concealed partisanship. F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition, for instance, received a glowing review when it appeared in 1948 that might have carried less weight if readers had been aware that it was written by one of his disciples, R.G. Cox.

T.S. Eliot believed that anonymity was a beneficial discipline, especially for the young critic, when practiced under the eye of a scrupulous editor like Bruce Richmond. In a tribute to the latter on his ninetieth birthday, Eliot said: “I learned to moderate my dislikes and crotchets, to write in a temperate and impartial way; I learned that some things are permissible when they appear over one’s name, which become tasteless eccentricity or unseemly violence when unsigned.” Anonymity could also be used to create an almost fictive persona. I recently had occasion to look up in the TLS of March 25, 1920, a review of a novel by J.D. Beresford called An Imperfect Mother. No reader of that time would have suspected that the author of the review had herself published two novels of considerable interest and promise, The Voyage Out and Night and Day. It was headed “Freudian Fiction” and Virginia Woolf took Beresford’s novel as an occasion to ponder the application of Freud’s theories to the writing of fiction:

The triumphs of science are beautifully positive. But for novelists the matter is much more complex; and…the question how far they should allow themselves to be influenced by the discoveries of the psychologists is by no means simple. Happily, that is their affair; our task in reviewing is comparatively easy….

Of course in actuality it was her affair too, and the conclusion she draws from reading Beresford’s novel, that Freudianism in fiction “simplifies rather than complicates, detracts rather than enriches,” has a quite different import when one is aware of that fact. The article is, as Hermione Lee observes in her biography, partly “self-defensive.”

John Gross decided that anonymity must end because “accountability comes first.” But one can’t help feeling that the pragmatic case for signed contributions, implied though not espoused by Crook in the memo quoted above, must have weighed just as strongly. In the increasingly personalized, media-dominated cultural climate of the twentieth century, publicity is a kind of currency. To have one’s name printed over a review in a prestigious journal like the TLS has a value which may compensate in part for a meager financial reward. This is particularly true for academics, who constituted a steadily increasing proportion of the journal’s contributors and readers as the century wore on. Indeed May slyly suggests that one reason why it acquired a reputation for scholarly controversy in its correspondence columns was that, for most of its life, short of having a book reviewed this was the only way to get one’s name in the paper.

The first signed review, by Denis Donoghue, of a book about William Empson, appeared in the TLS in June 1974, and from 1975 onward all reviews were signed. In retrospect it is surprising that anonymity lasted so long. Among other things, the new policy revealed just how many reviewers were salaried academics, prompting Geoffrey Grigson to complain in that year that they were “pushing out writers who live by writing.” At about the same time, however, the growing influence of Continental structuralist and post-structuralist theory on the study of literature in British and American higher education began to threaten the TLS’s mission, implicit from its very foundation, to make the most authoritative intellectual opinion available to a general educated audience. Increasingly, the general reader felt excluded from academic discourse about literature by its impenetrable jargon and tortuous arguments. Under the influence of John Sturrock, an assistant editor with a hotline to the Parisian nouvelle critique, the TLS tried through reviews and occasional special symposia to keep its readers abreast of these developments, but its collective heart never really beat in sympathy with them—how could it?

John Gross’s successor, Jeremy Treglown (1982–1990), came to the job from an academic background in English literature, while the present editor, Ferdinand Mount, is a novelist who worked previously in journalism and politics, but no striking difference between their editorial styles has been perceptible. Both have tried to maintain the journal’s traditional combination of authority and readability while coping with increasing commercial pressures following Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of the Times newspapers. (He had a hand in the appointment of each of them.) Both have striven—Mount perhaps more boldly—to broaden the paper’s appeal, by covering theater, film, and television as well as books, and using more visual illustration. But the TLS is undoubtedly less influential in British literary culture than it was, especially in the Teens and Twenties or the Fifties of the last century. The present circulation is about 35,000, probably enough to make a small profit, but two thirds of those copies are sold overseas, half of these in the US. The enduring value of the TLS, and the reason why one hopes it will flourish for another century, is as an intelligent, articulate, and responsible source of information about, and evaluation of, new books—one that is still more comprehensive than any of its competitors.