The Education of Philip French

Marilyn Butler

  • Three Honest Men: Edmund Wilson, F.R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling edited by Philip French
    Carcanet, 120 pp, £6.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 85635 299 3
  • F.R. Leavis by William Walsh
    Chatto, 189 pp, £8.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2503 9

Can you name the author who set you thinking? For Philip French, at a Bristol grammar school in the 1950s, the enlighteners were Edmund Wilson, F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling. For me, at a Wimbledon grammar school in the 1950s, Bertrand Russell filled the slot on his own, largely because his History of Western Philosophy was so long. But by the end of my first year at university I had read at least two books by each of French’s three. We belonged to the Meritocracy, products of the school system set up in 1944 by the Butler Education Act. The ‘Honest Men’ of French’s title flourished in the atmosphere of grammar-school sixth forms, and some pessimists are suggesting that there is little market for their type in Britain any more.

Philip French has produced an effective introduction to the phenomenon of the 20th-century sage. Produced, not written: the book prints the scripts of three programmes he assembled for BBC Radio 3 in 1973, 1975 and 1977. They make a satisfying whole partly because he followed the same format in each case. Taped interviews with eight or so concerned onlookers (some of them, like Christopher Ricks, George Steiner and Gore Vidal, younger candidates for sagedom) are cut and rearranged to give a chronological sense of each career, but also a whiff of the blood and cordite of intellectual warfare. The purpose is not quite literary biography or portraiture, for which a more leisured academic monograph might have served better. French is curious about the intellectual lineaments of his own generation, and his ‘critical mosaic’ gives an impression of how the three careers stirred the consciousness and conscience of the English-speaking young between 1920 and 1970

The ‘onlookers’ who made up these programmes were anything but marginal, and without the dimension of sound we have lost some of French’s original point. With what emotion did they recollect the hero of their youth? Were they defensive – uneasy – unregenerate – about him and about their old selves? The tone of their voices must have told much, though the reader of the written word is compensated by a better sense of Who’s Who. Not only can he consult French’s biographical glossary, which supplies the date of birth and Career of each speaker: he also knows who the speaker is at any given time. It may not have been so easy for the English listener to distinguish between the half-dozen American voices used for the Trilling programme.

If this mosaic didn’t come over sharply it’s a pity, since it reads like a most accomplished piece of radio. The Wilson reminiscers were too ready to relegate their man to the museum, comparing him over-marmoreally with Jefferson, or even skittishly imagining his vast bare dome in an 18th-century wig. The Leavis programme was designed as an 80th-birthday tribute, and was tactful enough to be put out again immediately after his death. But for Trilling the mix seems exactly right. The famed grace and wit come across, but so does a frank recognition of the defences and swerves forced on metropolitan intellectuals by events. Trilling’s story is told by other New Yorkers, including Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and Norman Podhoretz, who between them seem to muster a greater range of ages, backgrounds and perhaps professional experience than the Leavis contributors. The atmosphere is more wide-awake than the English colloquium on the home-grown magus.

Is there a collective noun for the three that isn’t jokey, superior or downright inaccurate? Philip French settles without apology for his solution. ‘Honest Men’, but one suspects that he didn’t happen on it overnight. The Continental-sounding term, ‘intellectual’, suggests more theoretical interests than either Leavis or Wilson had time for. ‘Critic’ won’t quite do either. Though literature was the prime subject of all three, it was not the only one. They all rebelled against the narrowness of most modern academic writing about literature, and insisted upon placing it in the context of society and of public affairs. One way of typifying them would be to define the reader they aimed at – not so much the student working up a topic for a course or examination or essay, but the general reader, or at least the student in generalising mood. Another way would be to contrast their works with the kind of book more commonly rewarded in Academe, at least in America. They were not scholars. Not for them the citation of unpublished letters, the doubtfully profitable hours spent in manuscript collections or with the minor poetry, novels and reviews of the past.

Though they went into hard covers more regularly than most academics, their books were often collections of essays which had first seen the light of day in journals. Indeed Wilson was never an academic at all, but a very elevated kind of journalist. He might be given a year by his principal outlet, the New Yorker, to produce a vast review-article of 10,000 words, itself a creative act of inquiry. His best, most characteristic books have the air, as one commentator points out, of foreign terrain visited by an intelligent traveller, and formally they still resemble clusters of articles – Axel’s Castle, on the French Symbolists, To the Finland Station, on the rise of socialism, and Patriotic Gore, on the literature of the American Civil War. Leavis’s greatest enterprises were the journal he founded and edited. Scrutiny, and books which were often collections of articles, such as New Bearings in English Poetry, Revaluation and The Great Tradition. Trilling is most important for his heterogeneous essays of the 1950s, assembled as The Liberal Imagination and The Opposing Self. The ‘Honest Men’ were generalists, men of letters and purveyors of opinion in a tradition which emerged early in the 19th century with Jeffrey, Hazlitt, Macaulay, Carlyle and J.S. Mill, and in the 20th century included Orwell.

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