Confessions of a Literary Man

Not Entitled: A Memoir

by Frank Kermode
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 263 pp., $23.00

In my opinion, and that of many others, Frank Kermode is the finest English critic of his generation. There is a semantic flaw in that statement, since Kermode was born and brought up on the Isle of Man, a small, mountainous island moored in the choppy Irish Sea halfway between Liverpool and Belfast; and Man is not a part of England, or indeed of the United Kingdom, but a British dependency, with its own parliament, laws, and language (now almost extinct). However, to call Kermode the finest Manx critic of his generation would be a paltry compliment, since not many of its population of approximately 70,000 are professionally engaged in literary criticism; and in any case he has made his distinguished career as a teacher and scholar in the English departments of English universities.

Encountered in person, either socially or on the lecture podium, there is nothing in his speech, appearance, or manners to suggest that he is anything other than a middle-class Englishman, while his prose style has an elegant, urbane fluency, peppered with foreign words and learned allusions, that suggests an almost patrician upbringing in which Oxbridge and one of England’s élite public schools must have played their part. Nothing could be further from the truth. Frank Kermode’s childhood and youth were not only provincial but, in a now archaic usage, “humble.” His father was a storeman in a company that supplied the steamers plying between Liverpool and Douglas; his mother had been at different times a farm girl and a waitress. The family, in which Kermode was for many years the only child, was poor and lived first in a tenement, then in a rented council house “designed by somebody who had a very low opinion of the needs and deserts of the lower classes.”

The opportunities and expectations of those brought up in such circumstances in the 1920s (Kermode was born in 1919) were extremely limited. Frank Kermode spectacularly transcended them by virtue of his intelligence and a literary and linguistic aptitude perhaps inherited from his mother, which earned him scholarships to the local high school and, in due course, to Liverpool University, where he graduated in 1940. After six years’ war service in the Royal Navy, he returned to Liverpool to do graduate work, mainly because he had a small unclaimed grant waiting for him there and couldn’t find or think of anything better to do. After a few abortive attempts to set up as a playwright and poet, he took a teaching post at the University of Newcastle, which proved to be the first step in a brilliant career.

Its general trajectory was not exceptional. In class-conscious Britain, academia, especially in the period of expansion after World War II, was more meritocratic, more hospitable to bright cadets from lower-class backgrounds, than other professions, such as law, diplomacy, or the administrative grade of the civil service. But to become a university teacher is inevitably to become middle-class (if one is not already)—to grow…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.