By Derwent MayHarperCollins UK/Trafalgar Square, 592 pages, $35.00
The Times Literary Supplement was one of seven British weeklies that Dwight Macdonald examined in his celebrated 1956 article "Amateur Journalism." Macdonald disparaged American critics, who in his opinion examined intellectual and cultural subjects as either academics, wielding nonsensical jargon and producing articles characterized by a "cramped and cautious specialization," or "middlebrow" journalists, whose pieces struck a dreary, slick, and superficial "compromise between quality and 'what the readers will take.'" (In the process he gave The Atlantic an especially nasty drubbing.) But Macdonald lauded the state of journalism in Britain. The intellectual and literary journalists who wrote for the TLS, The Economist, The Listener, the New Statesman and Nation, The Observer, the Spectator, and the Sunday Times were driven neither to attract as wide and profitable an audience as possible nor to concentrate on the kind of recondite and absurd topics that brought advancement in the academy. Their reviews, criticism, and articles were instead "written with that pleasurable spontaneity, that recklessness (oddly combined, for an American, with a most impressive expertise) which comes when the writer is not trying to educate his readers or to overawe them or to appease them or to flatter them, but is treating them as equals." This engendered in the British weeklies, in contrast to their American counterparts, relaxed writing and a confident spirit. Macdonald assessed the dangers to the kind of writing he loved: although he is remembered mostly for his excoriation of "masscult" and the "middlebrow," he saw what he called "academicism" as the most corrosive influence on intellectual journalism, and that he viewed the British weeklies as above all the product of a culture in which "learning is not the province of specialists but the common possession of the whole educated class."
To appreciate the specific history Derwent May chronicles in Critical Times, an exceedingly exhaustive biography of the hundred-year-old TLS, one must put into context the condition of the journalism that Macdonald praised. He referred to the type of writing that concerned him as "British literary journalism," and even when he wasn't specifically dissecting the TLS, he was mostly assessing the other weeklies' book criticism and reviewers ("the headlong rush of Pritchett, the neat, balanced style of Connolly"). Since the beginning of the nineteenth century book reviewing had played a remarkably elevated role in British intellectual life, largely defining the terms of debate on and discussion of political, religious, economic, scientific, historical, and biographical subjects as well as literature. The great British literary Reviews—the Edinburgh, the Quarterly, the Westminster, the Fortnightly, the Saturday, and a dizzying number of others—consisted, literally, of nothing but reviews. And most of the glut of magazines aimed at the educated classes—the Spectator, the Atheneum, the Academy, the Cornhill, and so on—were likewise largely made up of reviews and review essays. The book under review often served merely as a peg on which to hang a scintillating essay, and the reviewer—a Macaulay or Carlyle, a Walter Bagehot or Leslie Stephen—was often far more intellectually distinguished than the book's author. "Review writing is one of the features of modern literature," Bagehot himself noted. "Many able men really give themselves up to it."
The genre attracted such stellar writers because although the nonfiction book was and remains the best vehicle for presenting evidence in support of a complicated, systematic argument, the essay—critical, analytical, often disputatious—generally allows for a greater intellectual boldness and originality. (Compare, for instance, Karl Marx's profound if cumbersome contribution to political economy, the three-volume Das Kapital, with his audacious, penetrating, and vivid "Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon," or even Michael Harrington's The Other America to Macdonald's far more arresting and influential fifty-page New Yorker review essay examining it.) The essay also demands an unwavering stylistic mastery. As Virginia Woolf pointed out (in an essay in the TLS reviewing a collection of essays that were themselves mostly book reviews), the essay has no room for "the voice of the man stumbling drowsily among loose words, clutching aimlessly at vague ideas ... a book could take that blow, but it sinks an essay." In a two-volume biography, Woolf explained, "yawns and stretches hardly matter," but the essay must be "pure from dullness, deadness and deposits of extraneous matter." The essayist's learning "may be ... profound," but "it must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture." In this way, she noted, the great reviewer Macaulay has "blown more knowledge into us in the course of one essay than the innumerable chapters of a hundred text-books."
The most astute assessment of the genre remains Bagehot's (no surprise) review-essay of 1855, in which he explained the form's development and appeal as consequences of the quickening pace of modern life: "There is, as yet, no Act of Parliament compelling a bona fide traveler to read. If you wish him to read you must make reading pleasant." Readers hungered to be exposed to what George Eliot, herself a prodigious reviewer, called "the lively currents of thought and discussion" scrutinized by the Reviews but would not, as Bagehot recognized, "indulgently and pleasantly peruse" the kind of solid, expansive scholarship characteristic of the past; they wanted their literature and scholarship "portable" ("as they take sandwiches on a journey," Bagehot wrote). Which meant, he concluded, that "in this transition from ancient writing to modern, the review-like essay and the essay-like review fill a large space." The essay-like review was unashamedly a form of haute vulgarization, but its practitioners refused to allow this to mean any diminution in intellectual vitality.