Scholars, Poor and Simple


I ONCE heard from a Cambridge don a pleasant anecdote of A. E. Housman. Housman and three advanced students of Latin regularly met in a large lecture room where they pored over textual problems in that astrological poem of Manilius which students of poetry neglect. Before the end of the hour the room would begin to fill with undergraduates and all the unoccupied old ladies of Cambridge, and when the hour was up the four devotees of truth, Housman at the head flashing fires of scorn, had to elbow their way out through the crowd assembled to hear a lecture by the charming Quiller-Couch.

The picture might be taken as an allegory of the relations between scholars, especially literary scholars, and the public. They are always being derided or damned because they write with painful dullness for other scholars, instead of displaying their wares in artistic fashion for the general reader. The usual reason, spontaneously supplied by journalists and others, is that scholars are out of touch with contemporary literature and the contemporary mind, that they have no vital ideas even about the past, and that if they had they could not write anyhow. The more charitable admit that scholars now and then may have ideas, but in the shape of frozen assets. So the literary world is divided into two very unequal groups, the academic scholars who play solemn, futile games by themselves and the large body of intelligent writers who produce all the books that matter, review them, go on lecture tours to spiritualize academic communities, and, in a word, carry on the great task of forming our minds and tastes. If the scholars who teach in our universities and colleges are of any value to the geniuses who for a while are in their charge, it is mainly in a negative way; they represent something to be revolted against.

Such complaints are of course not unwarranted, and indeed are often made by scholars themselves. Volumes of research do get published from which even specialists derive small nourishment. Learned journals, however valuable for those who know enough to be able to use them, would not be chosen for one’s desert island, unless for tinder. A scholar who has had a surfeit of research, his own or other people’s, is sometimes seized with a revulsion against his austere ideals and limitations. He knows in his heart that literature was meant to provide a truce from cares, not to add to them, and he vows that he will henceforth be a human being and write for other human beings. He will cease to be a digger and delver and become a man of letters. By way of clearing his brain and exercising a fresh set of muscles for the great enterprise, the scholar reads or rereads a number of successful popular books. . . . And then he vows that he would rather be damned with Housman than saved with ‘Q’ (not that ‘Q’ hasn’t his virtues), that it is better to be a burrowing mole than the crawling scourge that smites the leaf (to borrow an elegant eighteenth-century phrase for a caterpillar).

For the scholar is a less noxious kind of parasite than the popularizer. At his worst the scholar, like John Earle’s plodding student, brings to his task nothing but patience and a body, and he does no harm to his subject and his few readers. The popular writer, at his worst, brings nothing but impatience and a temperament, and he often gives a distorted picture of his subject to a multitude of readers. One pernicious thing about popular books on literary figures is that they enable people to feel that they have read a great author’s works without the trouble of doing it. Of the thousands who read Ariel, how many were moved to read Shelley? Perhaps it would have been odd if they had been.

Of course, it may be granted once for all, we do have popular or semipopular biographies, mostly written by academic scholars, which are as far from shallow inadequacy as from dullness. But our concern here is with the great mass of average productions. In the last nine years there have been four biographies, English and American, of Sir Philip Sidney, no one knows why; the Elizabethan scholar still turns to the sober and standard Life by Principal Wallace. There is an unceasing stream of books about the Brownings, about Byron, about all the legendary figures, and, since publishers continue to print them, one must assume that they sell.

The thirst for literary cocktails seems to be maintained by two motives, neither of which is the desire for a help toward appreciating the works of Sidney or the Brownings or Byron. In the first place, people can escape from humdrum life or excessively realistic fiction by reading about the romantic embodiment of Elizabethan chivalry or the wedded lovers or the noble rake; their cultural inferiors find similar solace in contemplating Clark Gable and Ronald Colman. Secondly, for the last twenty years or so America, as Sherwood Anderson once remarked, has been on a culture jag, and the itch for self-improvement inspires or afflicts all classes of society. Instead of leading a natural life in the state to which God has called them, people still want to rise to power by way of the Harvard Classics, or to keep up with their children and be sure of the difference between Sir James Jeans and James Joyce, or to hold their own in conversation; or they may have an entirely pure and earnest desire to give their souls a shampoo.

Though sentimental or romantic ‘human interest’ is perhaps the surest ground of popular appeal, our self-consciously candid age has nourished a strong rival. The author who wants a popular audience has won half the battle if he, or she, chooses a subject with an aura or halo of scandal. The splenetic Carlyle declared that the biographies of men of letters were the wretchedest chapters in our history, except perhaps the Newgate Calendar. But that was the croak of a Victorian Calvinist. The modern biographer may slight facts and ideas, yet he rightly prides himself on the frankness which the modern reader so abundantly craves. While Judy O’Grady holds her breath over True Confessions, the colonel’s lady reads a biography or, what is even more rewarding, an undraped autobiography. Think how Wordsworth’s stock has gone up since the discovery that he had a natural daughter. And Byron’s, though always high, rose higher when the business of Mrs. Leigh was aired. Who would write or read about Rossetti if it were not for Elizabeth Siddal? Who would write or read about Poe if it were not for alcohol, the child-wife, and the platonic seraglio?

The great authors who have worn the white flower of a blameless life — happily few! — are at a discount. One often wishes that Tennyson might be found to have been the father of, say, Lillie Langtry. And there is always the hope of unearthing an intrigue between Longfellow and one, or preferably both, of the Miss Carys. Alfred Austin might take rank as a poet if only he could be caught out on the tiles. If scandal or pathology is lacking, one’s subject can be made a text for the exposure of an earlier generation’s puritanical hypocrisy. The popular writer’s notion of the Victorian age in England and America reminds one of Mr. Shaw’s speech in a mock trial: ‘Does the court think that an upright and intelligent jury is to be influenced by such a thing as evidence?’ Then something can always be done with a title. The laborious and artless scholar would put forth a drab tome, Jane Austen: Her Life and a Study of Her Works, with Some Unpublished Letters. The knowing popular author would have a gayly colored volume called The Spinster of Steventon, or, better, That Georgian Wench. The authors of a book on the heroines of English fiction contrived to season their learning with unexpected anatomical detail. One wonders how soon scholars may be introducing a touch of sentiment or a strain of salacious gossip into the Publications of the Modern Language Association, so that the five thousand subscribers will be tearing off the austere wrappers with eager excitement.

Certainly the scholar who thinks of seeking a wider field of usefulness, as clergymen say or used to say, soon learns some fundamental lessons about the treatment of literature. Great authors are to be viewed as persons, in themselves and in their relations with others. Reference may be made to their works, since after all they were writers, but there must be no serious discussion of their ideas or their art. General readers, like many undergraduates, do not want to think or to be spurred on to read original texts; they insist upon unexacting entertainment as the prime function of their mentors. Any publisher shies violently at the thought of a philosophic, critical, non-biographical book. ‘People must be amuthed,’ as Dickens’s asthmatic circus proprietor said. This is satisfactory all round. The popular author has little new light to shed, since his book is normally a smartened abridgment of older and solider works (the modern psychological approach saves a good deal of time and trouble), and readers are kept at home enjoying the pleasant sensation of improving their minds with things that count. Of course both parties might be much worse employed. Sometimes they are. Several years ago the highly intellectual critic and poet, Mr. Herbert Read, published a long essay called In Defence of Shelley; the defence consisted mainly in t he proof that Shelley was a homosexual narcissist. A scholar who had something to say about Shelley’s poetry would look in vain for a hospitable editor or publisher — unless there happened to be a centenary, and even then he would have to chatter about Harriet. I remember an essayist who said he tried to get by an editor with a piece beginning, ‘It is now a hundred and thirty-three years since the death of Cowper,’ but this seductive chronological gambit did not succeed.


Many popular books are deservedly successful because the writers are not too many jumps ahead of their readers to have lost the common touch. The case of Mr. Will Durant illustrates the advantages of conducting one’s education in public. What many thousands of people welcomed as The Story of Philosophy some regarded rather as a lively handbook of night-school liberalism. After omitting the mediaeval scholastics from that work, since they included no great central personality, Mr. Durant later admitted Thomas Aquinas to his list of the world’s ten greatest thinkers, a decision which, though reluctant, must have gratified the anxious spirit of Saint Thomas. The considerable advance in learning and wisdom represented by Mr. Durant’s The Life of Greece (1939) was accompanied, one may guess, by a drop in sales. If Mr. Durant has gone forward as a popularizer, Professor E. T. Bell has gone backward. Professor Bell, having produced a good popular book, Men of Mathematics, on a subject he understood, evidently fancied himself as a philosopher and universal doctor and undertook, in Man and His Lifebelts, to expose some of the fallacious creeds mankind has lived by. The chief result was an exposure of the obtuseness and dogmatic ignorance which so often go with what complacently regards itself as hard-headed scientific rationalism. As a soldier in the liberation war of humanity, Professor Bell fights side by side with Mr. E. Haldeman-Julius. And since Spurius Lartius and Herminius need a Horatius, he may be found in the prolific Harry Elmer Barnes.

In popular historical writing the vigorous merits of Mr. James Truslow Adams have been amply and justly rewarded. From Building the British Empire the reader who knows nothing beforehand will learn a good deal, at least about the procession of events. About the fundamental causes of those events, economic, political, religious, and the like, he will not learn much; but the sufficient answer to that is that he doesn’t want to.

In the field of cultural history probably no theme attracts popular writers more than the Italian Renaissance, and most books about it may be roughly described as Cecil De Mille mixtures of Burckhardt and Baedeker. Burckhardt’s work is a classic of artistic scholarship, but there can be few competent scholars today who accept his theory of the Renaissance. Popular writers, however, continue with undiminished zest to serve the good old Italian dishes, with the prescribed romantic sauce and spicy scandal about the Borgias. Mr. Ralph Roeder’s title, Man of the Renaissance, suggests an exceedingly difficult and complex problem, but Mr. Roeder simplified it for popular consumption by writing biographical essays on four men — Savonarola, Machiavelli, Castiglione, and Aretino. And even in the treatment of these four the proportion of ideas to personal and political chronicle is decidedly small. It is doubtless a minor matter in a book on the Renaissance that Latin quotations should be commonly either misspelled or mistranslated. To quote a random example, ita omnes qui bene sentiunt uno ore loquantur is rendered ‘So that all who feel rightly pray an hour a day!’

The dean of popularizers is Mr. Van Loon, who knows all there is to know but is a plain man who does not put on airs about it. When an individual sets up as a two-legged Chautauqua it would be both mean and foolish to speak of particular errors. Yet one has hardly got into The Arts before one meets a particularly notorious fallacy which has long been buried — which was in fact killed in the eighteenth century, though later revived by popular historians — namely, that the fall of Constantinople in 1453 inaugurated the Greek renaissance by driving Greek scholars to western Europe. Mr. Van Loon’s manner of writing raises a more general question. He believes that art is and should be popular, and his cultural salad is sprinkled with the evidently appetizing sauce of journalese. One may seriously ask, are people led by vulgarity to an appreciation of art that is not vulgar?

If these names tell us what the public wants, we have still further proof in the fact that eminent highbrows occasionally stoop to conquer. There is the conspicuous example of Mr. Santayana, who has always been suspect among philosophers because he is a stylist, and has been neglected by the general reader because he is a philosopher; but as soon as he wrote a sort of novel he became the theme of clubs and dinner tables. Mr. Van Wyck Brooks’s earlier writings won him a notable place among the intellectual, but he enjoyed little popular fame until, in The Flowering of New England, he concealed ideas, very skillfully, behind a mass of personal detail and local color.


It is clear that the scholar who wishes to propagate truth among the many, who wishes, in short, for sales, must concentrate on narrative, people, anecdotage. If he cannot hope to emulate Professor Phelps as a mighty hunter of literary lions, he can at least cultivate that engaging gentleman’s habit of liking almost everything in print. General readers (and reviewers) are not disposed to be critical, to complain of the absence of ideas or the presence of mistaken ones. If our ambitious scholar is determined to touch ideas, he must suppress his instinct for evidence and learn to generalize freely and spaciously. Scholars are notoriously timid in that respect. They think truth has to be sought for and, when found, demonstrated. Popular writers, on the contrary, are endowed with the imaginative insight and intuition which render caution and research superfluous. Holding the history of civilization in the hollow of their hand, they can sum up in one compelling phrase the complex character of antiquity or the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or any period whatever. Why, it may be said, should a churlish reader not be content with such writers’ broad artistic interpretations, based as they commonly are on the solid researches of a generation or two ago?

Well, if a book has any excuse for existing, apart from the writer’s desire to write, it ought to contain some new facts or ideas along with its new phrases, and the informed and intelligent reader is not prepared to put his hand in the author’s and be led on in childlike faith. He wants to be able to check the author’s sources and inferences. ‘Oh,’ says a foe of pedantry, ‘you are surely not pleading for footnotes!’ It always puzzles a scholar to observe that, while the general reader readily digests the most inadequate or erroneous idea or fact if it appears in regular type, his sensitive stomach turns at an authentic fact or reference in small type, so that footnotes almost automatically exclude a book from general circulation. People who don’t want to read footnotes don’t need to; there are others who do. Miss Lowell’s John Keats would have been less amorphous if she had not put her footnotes into the text. If Lytton Strachey had been obliged to give footnote references for his Elizabeth and Essex, that theatrical romance could hardly have been written; nor, for that matter, could some of his nineteenth-century satires. Even the Queen Elizabeth of such an authoritative historian as J. E. Neale gained popular success at the cost of scholarly usefulness; but one need not condemn Mr. Neale for preferring fame and fleshpots. The name of Elizabeth, by the way, recalls a book on that annual theme, Mary Queen of Scots, a book based on deep study, in which Mary, undoubtedly an original woman, was described as firing a sackbut; surely so remarkable a feat might have warranted a note.

The world expects scholars to get their reward in the discovery of truth, and it may be hoped the world is right, since they get nothing else. They toil for years, they scorn delights and live laborious days, and when they have written a book they are lucky if they can get it published. If they do they usually have to pay for it, though the professorial salary does not allow for subsidies to publishers. Sometimes a scholar has the superlative good fortune to get a book published for nothing. Sometimes the work of many years cannot get published at all. It is by no means a sufficient explanation to say that scholars can’t write; many a scholar writes well, but if he objects to the cheaper arts of salesmanship the world will have none of him. The popular middleman, however, spends a few months in a public library, dashes off a book in time for the Christmas lists, and receives handsome royalties. The scholar meekly accepts the way of the world, but he does wonder now and then why the swift-footed gentlemen of letters do not more often pause to take account of scholars’ findings. In the scholar’s creed, truth has its rights on the lowest as well as the highest levels, and nothing is too insignificant to be verified. But ‘What is truth?’ says your man of letters, and does not stay for an answer; at least he does not stay long enough to consult a bibliography. Whatever his radical instincts, the man of letters is a conservative in one respect; he does hold fast to ideas and ‘facts’ that scholars have abandoned.

While the scholar can at best hope for little more than toleration from the world of letters — unless he happens to be a Mr. Lowes, and there is only one of him — it is a different story when a member of the literary set produces a book about books. Mr. Burton Rascoe’s Titans of Literature received an immediate chorus of acclaim from his numerous friends. Some of the author’s pages, in an academic book, would have been damned as barren pedantry; in his, they were impressive learning. But more than that, this was the kind of big, vital book that the professors simply couldn’t write. No doubt, to their loss, professors’ literary loves and hates are less intense and erratic than Mr. Rascoe’s, and there certainly is something about exact knowledge which checks naive superlatives and schoolboy capers — which, in the journalistic creed, is so much the worse for knowledge. Mr. Rascoe would probably subscribe to Mr. Ezra Pound’s boast, ‘I am still impetuus juventus’ — an exquisite bit of Latinity which proclaims more clearly than his copious invectives that Mr. Pound abhors grammarians. Titans of Literature, incidentally, reminds me of one of the quaintest items I have met in a long study of reviewing columns. Mr. Rascoe was mildly rebuked by the normally truculent Mr. Ernest Boyd for presuming to demolish Milton when Milton had already been disposed of; see an earlier essay by Mr. Boyd. From both studies of Milton the curious scholar may learn many things. If I hear a murmur that Mr. Boyd’s terrific Literary Blasphemies are vieux jeu, it may be said in the first place that they were scarcely novel when they were printed; and, secondly, they deserve notice here because they constituted a signal recognition of great literature on the part of one of the superior magazines which for many years has had no room for criticism of dead authors and next to none for living ones.

Probably the scholar should not be left standing here in a state of partial paralysis, yet what elixir will supple his joints and rejuvenate his mind? How can the lamb hope to lie down with the lions? Throughout the history of culture, learning and literature have generally gone hand in hand, but the spread of democratic literacy changed all that. Nowadays, especially perhaps in the United States, the scholar and the popular author bite their thumbs at each other. The latter’s want of learning, as Witwoud said of his friend Petulant, is his happiness; it gives him the more opportunities to show his natural parts. The scholar, it seems, has no natural parts. This cleavage is bad for both, and for the public. But the fault is not, as common opinion goes, merely on one side. At any rate, when we scholars venture out of our Platonic cave to take a peep or a jaundiced squint at the bright world of real letters, we feel quite unqualified to live there, even if we were wanted. And our chilly cells with their card indexes may appear, to eyes dazzled by the literary scene and the literary racket, to possess a sort of plain and enduring charm. They imply a mode of life which doubtless lacks the intensities of creative effort and the intellectual excitement of publishers’ teas, yet which in its own way gives its peculiar votaries a no less satisfying illusion of being near the centre of things.