By Ben ShepherdHarvard
By Scott A. SandageHarvard
By Jeremy TreglownRandom House
Can it be that this book's subject, who died merely eight years ago, has fallen as far from favor as Jeremy Treglown suggests? Sadly, he probably has, because although Victor Sawdon Pritchett (born the year before Victoria's death, he was named for the reigning monarch) wrote novels, travel books, biographies, and memoirs, by far his greatest accomplishments were as a short-story writer and a critic. As Treglown, the former editor of the TLS and the biographer of Henry Green and Roald Dahl, correctly avers, Pritchett was "the greatest writer-critic since Virginia Woolf," but this hardly assures him a fashionable reputation. Story writers don't have the cachet of novelists, and Pritchett's elegant, impressionistic literary essays, which eschew jargon and theorizing, were and remain shunned by academe. Indeed, for much of his nearly century-spanning career (he came of age when Arnold Bennett, G. K. Chesterton, and H. G. Wells were the literary lions; he lived to hail Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan) Pritchett seemed a throwback. As he famously declared in 1985: "If, as they say, I am a Man of Letters, I come, like my fellows, at the tail-end of a long and once esteemed tradition in English and American writing. We have no captive audience … We are rarely academics, though we owe a great debt to scholars. We earn our bread and butter by writing for the periodicals that have survived … We write to be readable and to engage the interest of what Virginia Woolf called 'the common reader.'" But if the term "man of letters" suggests a quaintly genteel, carpet-slippered ruminator, VSP (as he signed his pieces, and as his friends called him) didn't fit the image. Treglown rightly emphasizes his cosmopolitanism (a characteristic Pritchett shared with his friend George Orwell, that internationalist who, as Pritchett wrote, had "gone native in his own country"). Pritchett left England at twenty-one and spent the next six years as a journalist in Paris, Ireland, and Spain. (His profound understanding of the latter country—he probably knew it more deeply than any other British writer of his time—allowed him to avoid what he later called the "naive, Soviet poster-fed lyricism" about the Spanish Civil War that infected the literati of the 1930s, and his 1954 classic The Spanish Temper remains one of the most astute portraits of national character ever written.) He also brilliantly championed Continental writers, helping to introduce Italo Svevo, Giovanni Verga, and a host of others to Anglophone readers. Still less befitting the image of a man of letters was his lower-middle-class upbringing. Although he became perhaps the most established figure in the British literary establishment, Pritchett was forever haunted by his background, which provided the setting for much of his fiction. At best most fiction writers ignore the petite bourgeoisie; otherwise they denigrate it or turn its members into buffoons. Pritchett, however, did his class of origin the highest honor: he neither patronized nor made comic the salesmen, shopkeepers, small businessmen, and clerks who people his stories. This writer who relished human oddity endowed "ordinary" people with complex—in fact, extravagant—inner lives. Treglown concentrates on Pritchett's working life (his refreshingly brisk book, which manages to compress Pritchett's story into fewer than 260 pages of text, is among the most intelligent and perceptive depictions of a writer's habits and routine, and of the economics of a literary profession, that I've read). But he's especially acute in his assessment of the impact of Pritchett's early personal history on his career. As readers of Pritchett's memoir A Cab at the Door know (and as readers of his last and best novel, Mr. Beluncle, will recognize from its eponymous protagonist), his father was a Micawberish charlatan and a serial bankrupt (the cab at the door was the family's means of escaping the debt collectors; "He is so vulgar, so boring, so destructive," Pritchett wrote of his father, "I must write about him quickly, turn him into cash"). Forced to leave school at sixteen (he spent his next four years as a clerk in the docklands leather trade), Pritchett felt a lifelong need to catch up intellectually and a compulsion to achieve and maintain financial security in his chosen profession—a profession that was (and is) financially precarious at best. So he became one of the great autodidacts of modern literary history; as an old man even he was "appalled" by how much he'd read. (Ironically, his weekly "Books in General" essays in the New Statesman during the Second World War—which with style, easy erudition, and an utter lack of didacticism assessed the French, Russian, and English classics—are widely credited with educating a generation of ambitious and intellectually voracious British servicemen.) And he became a literary Stakhanovite. What he wrote of Gibbon applies equally to himself: "Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing." With routine and unrelenting toil Pritchett fashioned his exquisite short stories, his polished biographies and travel books, and his essays—conspicuous, as Treglown aptly puts it, for their "formal artistry." No single story or collection made his name; rather, he steadily accumulated a mountain of graceful and precise works.
But of course there was a price to pay for this—and much of it was paid by Pritchett's second wife, Dorothy, for whom he left his first wife and to whom he remained married for sixty-one years, until his death. Treglown's unobtrusive and understated portrait of that relationship is one of the few biographical studies to capture the complexities of a difficult married life, without assigning blame to either the subject or the subject's spouse. Although theirs was a passionate and sexually fulfilling marriage, it was hardly an equal one. Dorothy's role was not only that of a traditional wife of a famous writer but also that of a wife of an obsessively slogging one. It fell to her to type his endless series of drafts, to run the household and raise their children, to see that he worked unmolested when he was at home, and to wait for him in the country when he went to London on business (he was the literary editor of the New Statesman for some years, and was always an active participant in the London literary scene) or when he spent a semester at an American university to make money, as he did often after the war. Clearly, her happiness and ambitions were in essential ways subordinate to his. (It's impossible not to wince at her letter to him after he confessed to a wartime affair, in which she declared that "writers are extraordinary & special people … & therefore have special license, because it is important for them to develop every aspect of themselves & they cant do this on one poor ordinary female.") And just as clearly, she became an alcoholic fairly early in their marriage (though, it seems, after his wartime affair), which in many ways made his life a misery (after a long struggle she recovered in the late 1950s). A friend of Pritchett's observed that he was "addicted to writing like some people are to the bottle," and there was certainly a symbiotic relationship between those two addictions in the Pritchett marriage—though this seems never to have occurred to Victor. Until Treglown's revelations (which include VSP's long affair with an American divorcee) were published in Britain, late last year, the marriage was always described as an unusually happy and serene one—as it mostly was, in its own way. But of course any reader of Pritchett's fiction would know that there's always so much more to the lives of seemingly ordinary, quiet people.
Born Losers, by Scott A. Sandage (Harvard). In this book about the cultural ramifications of economic failure in nineteenth-century America, Sandage has taken on an important and underexamined subject and scrutinized it in inventive ways, using unexpected and largely unmined sources. He's looked at this era of robust, full-throated capitalism from the perspective of the economic losers, who made up the great majority of Americans in business. Drawing on the scholarship that examines the multifaceted "market revolution" (and on a growing historical literature on bankruptcy and debtors), Sandage demonstrates how an emerging capitalist economy came to dominate nearly every aspect of daily life, thereby transforming cultural values. In short order, for example, ambition evolved from a discreditable to an admirable quality. And over the century the meaning of the word "failure" broadened significantly, from an incident in commercial life (a "breaking in business," as an early-nineteenth-century dictionary defined the word) to an identity (a wasted or ruined existence)—a change that shows the extent to which people came to be defined in terms of their market function. Sandage examines diaries and letters, business records, suicide notes (during the panic of 1837 Emerson wrote that "the land stinks with suicide"), bankruptcy cases, and charity requests (the heartbreaking so-called "begging letters" often written by the wives of broken men to the economic titans of the Gilded Age). But he draws most heavily on an astonishingly fertile set of documents: millions of nineteenth-century credit reports, compiled by the Mercantile Agency (the progenitor of Dun & Bradstreet), which have hitherto more or less languished in the archives of the Harvard Business School.