Sunday 2 November 2014

Back with the Men of Letters

'If there was one thing as remarkable as the range of his learning, it was his refusal to learn.'
That's John Gross on the eminent literary critic Sir George Saintsbury. Yes, I'm still reading The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, taking it slowly - not least because I'm enjoying it so much that I'm spinning it out as I near the end. It is fascinating to find out more about so many writers that I knew mostly as names on spines on the more neglected shelves of second-hand bookshops - names like Augustine Birrell (Obiter Dicta), Austin Dobson, Andrew Lang, Charles Whibbley, Churton Collins (the original 'louse on the locks of literature'). Not only has Gross conscientiously explored the writings of these now obscure figures - even of the Rev George Gilfillan, 'the McGonagall of criticism' - he provides a pithy and laudably fair-minded verdict on each, always taking pains to acknowledge his particular strengths (not quite possible with Gilfillan, about whom Gross notes drily 'the 19th-century taste for the tumid died hard'), as well as deftly analysing his weaknesses.
 Gross gives the Edwardian age of sweeping judgements, tweedy bookishness and broad-brush amateurism its due, and even seems to feel real nostalgia for its expansive, easy-going geniality. He quotes from a late essay of Chesterton's, written in 1936, in which GKC characterises the times as 'intellectually irritated'. Gross continues, 'And he could equally well have characterised the Edwardian literary scene by its comparative lack of irritability. For better or worse, the writers who held the stage before 1914 were thicker-skinned than their successors. They were expansive; they believed (not too fanatically) in their schemes for saving the world; they didn't feel compelled to write as though they were always on oath. If there was such a thing a dominant Edwardian note, it was one of confident give and take. It is a note that has largely disappeared; but the fact that it would ring false if anyone tried to revive it today shouldn't mislead us into supposing that it was not once natural and spontaneous.'
 Later, as he moves into Modern Times (the age of Eliot and co), Gross gives a typically balanced account of the strengths and weaknesses of the influential critic Desmond MacCarthy. 'MacCarthy,' he concludes, 'was not a strikingly original critic, nor even, in himself, a particularly important one. His importance was simply that of someone who helped to keep alive a tradition of breadth, enlightenment, rational sociability, civilised forbearance. Despite the Criterion and Scrutiny and Geoffrey Grigson and Grigson's friend Wyndham Lewis, it is not a tradition that was entirely superseded, even in the baton-swinging 1930s - though no doubt we should all be much more rigorous and exacting today if it had been. Those of us, that is, who survived to tell the story.'
 This is a wonderfully humane book - a rare quality in literary criticism.

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