Books July 2002

Men of Letters

The decline of "amateur journalism"
More

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.

Reviewers did, however, admit that since their chief concern was boldness in both substance and style, their arguments might sometimes prove wrong. But, as the Edinburgh Review's founding editor, Francis Jeffrey, explained to a prospective reviewer, what was lost in judiciousness was gained in verve: "To be learned and right is no doubt the first requisite—but to be ingenious and original and discursive is perhaps something more than the second in a publication which can only do good by remaining popular—and cannot be popular without other attractions than those of mere truth and correctness." Unlike the scholar, the reviewer, as Macauley wrote, was not attempting "a composition meant to be uniformly serious and earnest." He was instead writing as he would speak: "He may blunder; he may contradict himself; he may break off in the middle of a story; he may give an immoderate extension to one part of his subject and dismiss an equally important part in a few words." This "bold, dashing, scene-painting manner" was as much a fresh intellectual approach as a new prose style. In contrast to the old-fashioned pedant, Bagehot wrote, the reviewer was "glancing lightly from topic to topic, suggesting deep things in jest ... passing with a more Shakespearean transition, connecting topics with a more subtle link, refining on them with an acuter perception, and what is more to the purpose, pleasing all that hear him, charming high and low ... fragmentary yet imparting what he says, allusive yet explaining what he intends." The great Victorian reviewers were as learned as scholars, but they wore their learning lightly; as Bagehot (whose own prose was a tissue of allusions and quotations, half of them unidentified or unexplained) asserted, "What truly indicates excellent knowledge, is the habit of constant, sudden, and almost unconscious allusion, which implies familiarity, for it can arise from that alone."

Combining cleverness, grace, and apparent omniscience, the review-essay was irresistible. When he looked back half a century to the launch of the Edinburgh Review, in 1802, Lord Cockburn, Jeffrey's biographer, wrote, "The effect was electrical. It is impossible, for those who did not live at the time ... to feel or almost to understand, the impression made by the new luminary." This impression extended across Europe. Napoleon and Stendhal were devoted readers, and Madame de Staël declared the publication "the highest pitch of human intellect." The Edinburgh Review soon spawned a host of other Reviews—so many that Carlyle marveled in 1830, "Reviewing spreads with strange vigor ... By and by it will be found that all Literature has become one boundless, self-devouring Review." Macaulay's essay-like reviews in the Edinburgh Review—written with unrivaled élan on topics ranging from Milton to Machiavelli and from "The Civil Disabilities of the Jews" to the origins of the Raj—were reprinted (in pirated and in authorized editions) as a collection of "essays" (as were the "essays" of most of the other great reviewers); that book became one of the great transatlantic best sellers of the nineteenth century.

The vogue of the review surely involved a new conception of both reader and writer; as William Hazlitt explained, the writers of his day existed "in the bustle of the world." The reviews were written by men of affairs for men of affairs. Jeffrey, who edited the Edinburgh Review for nearly thirty years, and who wrote well over 150 review-essays on novels and poetry, aesthetics, history, legal and social questions, and biography, always insisted that politics and the law were his vocations (he had a thriving law practice in Scotland, and he was a Member of Parliament and a Lord Advocate). Macaulay, the greatest Edinburgh reviewer, was, of course, an enormously popular historian, the author of India's reformist penal code, and an MP. Bagehot, whose review-essays embraced such subjects as literary theory, constitutional history, Shakespeare, and banking, was a financier, a businessman, and the editor of The Economist. John Morely, the editor of the Fortnightly Review and probably the most widely published literary critic of his day, was an MP, Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Secretary of State for India. Prime Ministers William Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, and Herbert Asquith were prolific and enormously distinguished reviewers. (Until the death of his brother and his consequent elevation to the peerage, Salisbury made most of his income writing for the Saturday Review and the Quarterly Review.)

Because the review-essay came to be regarded as the most convenient and stylish device for shaping the contemporary intellectual scene, the subjects the Reviews embraced were astonishingly broad. Even at the end of the nineteenth century the "criticism" in the Reviews treated philosophy, science, theology, and economics as well as fiction and poetry; and as late as the 1920s T. S. Eliot averred, in his essay "The Idea of a Literary Review," that the question of such a publication's scope turned on "the precise application of the term 'literature,'" explaining, "We must include besides 'creative' work and literary criticism, any material which should be operative on general ideas—the results of contemporary work in history, archaeology, anthropology, even of the more technical sciences when those results are of such a nature to be valuable to the man of general culture and when they can be made intelligible to him." More surprising, the subjects individual critics addressed were equally broad. Just as the Reviews assumed that their readers would be interested in and able to appreciate a wide range of knowledge, so the reviewers assumed that specialized learning was a less important attribute for communicating with those readers than an astute mind and a facile pen. "There is something to be said," Morely wrote, "for the writer by profession, who without being an expert, will take trouble to work up his subject, to learn what is said and thought about it, to penetrate to the real points, to get the same mastery over it as an advocate or a judge does over a patent case or a suit about rubrics and vestments." In this way the reviewers, although professional writers, were amateurs, as Macdonald was to observe of their twentieth-century counterparts.

Thus these men of letters and affairs approached writing much as their audience approached reading, as part of their engagement with the world. Virginia Woolf rebelled against much of her Victorian heritage, but in praising what Samuel Johnson called "the common sense" of "the common reader," and in directing her critical work expressly and exclusively to that reader, she followed the approach of her father, Leslie Stephen (a monumental intellect, the editor of the Cornhill Magazine, and a manic reviewer—he wrote three 8,000-word reviews a week). Her description of "the man who loves reading" (as opposed to "the man who loves learning") fits both the reviewers and their audience. "A reader," she wrote, "must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill ... the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading." The "true reader" (and reviewer), she elaborated, "is a man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative, to whom reading is more of the nature of brisk exercise in the open air than of sheltered study."

Ayear after the death of Queen Victoria, The Times of London introduced a literary supplement introduced, as the newspaper's editor declared, to occupy "the same position of authority in its narrower sphere as that of The Times in its wider sphere." Its animating spirit, as May nicely puts it, "was that literature was for keen general readers, not for specialists," and that therefore the new paper's "role would above all else be like that of an educated reader, helping other such readers to find the books that were most worth reading." Bruce Richmond, a Times editor and a man T. S. Eliot remembered for his "bird-like alertness of eye, body and mind," would effectively be the first editor of the Lit Supp (as it was known familiarly until the 1960s), and would remain at its helm until 1937. He saw to it that the publication carried out its role as the definitive guide for the general reader—and often with a panache surprising for the literary organ of the British establishment's rather gray paper of record.

The early TLS was in most ways indistinguishable from the great nineteenth-century Reviews. Like them, it conceived of the "literary" in the broadest terms; its first issue included pieces on Napoleon's Polish campaign, the Chinese frame of mind, and the poet-orientalist Edward Fitzgerald's letters. Very soon it had established itself, in Eliot's words, as not only "the best, but the most respected and most respectable" literary periodical of the time. (Its only rivals in these early years were A. R. Orage's largely avant-garde The New Age and the English Review, which in 1908 and 1909, when it was edited by Ford Madox Ford, was as brilliant a literary review as there has ever been in Britain.) Richmond's two highest achievements in these years won the TLS a permanent place in British literary history: he commissioned many of Eliot's best and most influential review-essays (particularly on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and on the metaphysical poets) and, even more important, he discovered and nurtured Woolf as a literary essayist. Woolf wrote most of her criticism and her best criticism for the TLS—more than 300 pieces. In their striking mixture of vigor, delicacy, and precision her essays represent the final, and perhaps the fullest, flowering of the nineteenth-century tradition of the man of letters. She meant her writing to be engaging and dazzling, as her tribute to Richmond written in her diary attests. "I learnt a lot of my craft writing for him: how to compress; how to enliven, & also was made to read ... seriously."

Already, though, it was clear that the forces that Macdonald would eventually decry as blighting American intellectual journalism were transforming British intellectual and literary life and the Reviews that were its most prominent reflection. Richmond recognized that the TLS had "two publics," which he characterized as those interested in "books for the drawing room" and those concerned with "books for the study." This division within the educated classes would not have been nearly so apparent among, say, Woolf's father's readers, who didn't draw such rigid distinctions between their entertainment and their enlightenment. Evelyn Waugh, whose father, Arthur, a quintessential Victorian and Edwardian critic, read to him as a young boy "most of Shakespeare, most of Dickens, most of Tennyson, much of Browning, Trollope, Swinburne, Mathew Arnold," recalled that thanks to these readings, "I never thought of English Literature as a school subject, as a matter for analysis and historical arrangement, but as a source of natural joy."

The dichotomy to which Richmond referred was itself both a symptom and a cause of another divide that over the years would be increasingly evident in the pages of the TLS. Waugh had described his father as a "man of letters"—"he wrote biography, essays, book reviews ... he read manuscripts for publishers, edited new editions of standard works," and he "never had any other preparation for criticism than his own wide reading and genial tastes." But, Waugh commented with characteristic wry bitterness, "that category, like the maiden aunt's, is now almost extinct," because "today that broad, smooth stream has divided: there are the reporters of the popular press who interview authors rather than review their work; there are the charmers of Television; there are the State-trained professional critics with their harsh jargon and narrow tastes; and there are the imposters who cannot write at all, but travel from one international conference to another discussing the predicament of the writer in the modern world."

Richmond delivered a similar evaluation, albeit free of vituperation, when, looking back at his tenure at the Times Literary Supplement, he noted that the paper itself had changed around 1926. May writes that although in fact "nothing changed dramatically that year," Richmond "was thinking mainly of its metamorphosis from a general paper to a rather more academic one," and then notes that by the late 1920s "the earlier brilliant lights"—such as Woolf, Eliot, Percy Lubbock, and John Middleton Murry—"were not contributing so frequently." In 1938 the TLS's regular fiction reviewer, Orlo Williams, wrote a series of three articles on literary and intellectual journalism and concluded that Britain was "once the home, now the grave, of the great [Review]." This prompted a letter to the TLS from Murry, who, anticipating Woolf's lament the following year, in her essay "Reviewing," declared that "book reviewing is a vanished profession." Murry commented that writers who loved reading now often became academics, but that "a kind of paralysis appears to descend on the man of letters" upon entering academe. Indeed, the rise of the academic professionals—and their increasing and pernicious dominance of intellectual life—forms the subplot of Critical Times: repeatedly throughout his meticulous (usually month by month!) survey May observes that the TLS was in this period or that becoming more of an academic journal, as its readership, in a paraphrase of Woolf's formulation, became more and more composed of those who loved learning rather than those who loved reading.

It's a dispiriting story. Geoffrey Grigson's 1975 complaint in the TLS echoed Williams's, but by then the situation had grown much worse. Grigson noted that at least sixteen academics had written reviews for the April 25 issue alone. (He singled out one professor's piece to show that "nearly every sentence in his five columns is blown up with stifling clichés ... culminating in arcane announcements fit for an academic's Pseuds' Corner.") By the 1980s, May notes without comment, "The subediting and rewriting ... was extensive now, with more academics—who were not necessarily good writers—contributing." And things only continued to slide. By far the most depressing pages of May's chronicle are devoted to the turgid 1994 debate in the TLS over the merits of what its practitioners have dubbed "critical theory." I defy anyone who has not attended a graduate seminar in literature in the past twenty years to explain one contributor's assertion that the "developments of feminist critical theory, gender theory, and its offshoots in gay studies and queer theory, have revitalized literary study." The TLS's earlier pieces on fiction, poetry, and literary criticism—specifically Eliot's and Woolf's essays—are by far its most impressive achievements; but some of its more recent ones, bloated and nearly incomprehensible, undoubtedly represent the paper's nadir.

To be fair, though, the TLS's evolution away from the standards of a general cultural paper has been moderate. May's term "academic journal" implies something the TLS is not. True, since the closing decade of Richmond's editorship academics have made up more and more of its readership, and it has devoted itself more and more to somewhat specialized academic debates and findings. But it has usually treated them in a fairly nonspecialized manner: footnotes, jargon, and other scholarly apparatus rarely appear. Whether many of those debates and findings have justified the attention the paper has given to them is another matter; nevertheless, its academic reviewers, especially in history, have included some of the most daring minds and sparkling stylists the English-speaking world's professoriat has had to offer. Moreover, the tradition of the accessible, informal, and fluent review-essay is so ingrained in Britain's educated classes that the difference, which Macdonald found striking, between Britain's intellectual journalism and most of America's will long remain conspicuous. Furthermore, a great deal of the TLS's academicism, as May's account shows, has tended toward a quaint bookishness, rather than toward the obfuscatory intellectual prose style that Macdonald abhorred in American academe. (In May of 1942, for instance, just after the German air raids on Exeter, Bath, and Norwich, in which 1,000 civilians were killed, TLS readers were treated to a piece titled "Minor Verse of the Regency Period.") Most important, the TLS experienced a renaissance of sorts from 1948 to 1958, the period in which Macdonald examined it, under the editorship of the cosmopolitan and most un-academic Alan Pryce-Jones, who covered and promoted European writers and philosophers and who hired Anthony Powell, the most accomplished regular fiction reviewer and fiction-reviews editor in the journal's history. (Powell dryly noted of the period after Pryce-Jones became editor, "TLS reviewers seemed to become a shade less stodgy overnight, a faint but perceptible odour of chic sometimes drifting through the caverns of Printing House Square.") And, of course, the TLS has always run significant, sometimes extraordinary, individual articles. Philip Larkin's two 1977 tributes to Barbara Pym alone more than justify its existence; Larkin's encomiums single-handedly won Pym the recognition that had so long and unjustly eluded her.

Still, the intensifying academicism of the Times Literary Supplement has narrowed and cramped it for most of its existence. Even with Pryce-Jones in the editorial chair, the journal couldn't rival the brilliant achievement of the New Statesman and Nation. Probably no writer in English has ever reviewed novels so consistently well as Cyril Connolly did for that magazine in the 1920s and 1930s. And from the 1930s through the 1950s, under the literary editorships of Raymond Mortimer and V. S. Pritchett (perhaps the greatest English literary critic of the second half of the twentieth century), the New Statesman and Nation published pieces on books and ideas written by and expressly for nonacademics. Mortimer believed, as the magazine's official history puts it, that "professors took no trouble over their writing because having as a rule a captive audience, they were not obliged to compete for attention," and so he sedulously avoided them. Instead he sought in his authors the same outlook that Jeffrey, Hazlitt, Macaulay, and Woolf ascribed to the traditional man of letters: "a writer," Mortimer held, "should aim to please ... in a way that any tradesman whose work has an aesthetic attribute ... should aim to please."

Bagehot attributed the flowering of the "essay-like review" in the Edinburgh Review partly to the system of learning in Scottish universities, which, in contrast to the pedantic, specialized scholarship prevailing in England in the early nineteenth century, encouraged its students to argue animatedly about literature, history, philosophy, and political economy, making "a man fancy he knows everything." That system, he asserted, tended "to cultivate habits of independent thought and original discussion," and thus "seems to have been designed to teach men to write essays and articles." The reader examining the great reviewers' essays is struck repeatedly by their sense of liberation from scholasticism, from what Bagehot called the "tedious ... painful words of an elaborate sage." As Hazlitt exulted, "Knowledge is no longer confined to the few: the object therefore is, to make it accessible and attractive to the many ... the cells of learning are thrown open ... Therefore, let Reviews flourish." And flourish they did.

The legacy of the great Reviews, which includes the TLS, was attenuated but intact enough in mid-twentieth-century Britain to beguile one of America's great public intellectuals. That legacy survives, but as May's history attests, the very academicism from which it once liberated writers and readers is now strangling it.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In