- The New Pelican Guide to English Literature. Vol. I: Medieval Literature Part One: Chaucer and the Alliterative Tradition, Vol. II: The Age of Shakespeare, Vol. III: From Donne to Marvell, Vol. IV: From Dryden to Johnson edited by Boris Ford
Penguin, 647 pp, £2.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 14 022264 2
- Medieval Writers and their Work: Middle English Literature and its Background by J.A. Burrow
Oxford, 148 pp, £9.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 19 289122 7
- Contemporary Writers Series: Saul Bellow, Joe Orton, John Fowles, Kurt Vonnegut, Seamus Heaney, Thomas Pynchon by Malcolm Bradbury, C.W.E. Bigsby, Peter Conradi, Jerome Klinkowitz and Blake Morrison
Methuen, 110 pp, £1.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 416 31650 6
It is a current preoccupation on the Left, more fashionable now among many students of English than Post-Structuralism, that English Literature as an academic subject is a conspiracy of the Establishment. The message coming out of the polys is that the minds of students and (more disturbingly) of schoolchildren are being insidiously moulded by the classics they study at O and A Level. They are indoctrinated into a belief in national unity and identity, greatness and purpose, through the values elicited from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and Henry IV Part One, Keats’s Odes and Tom Jones, Emma and Tess. It is still happening, even after we have got historians to stop drilling them in the battles we won, and when geographers no longer offer them maps in which the Empire is coloured red. Penguin Books’ reissue of Boris Ford’s Pelican Guide to English Literature, which first appeared a quarter of a century ago as an alternative version to ‘authorised’ literary history, is a reminder that not much happens that is new in academic warfare.
Boris Ford presents again what are substantially still the same first four volumes (first issued 1954-7), though there are a number of additions and a few excisions. Ford was a follower of F.R. Leavis, and it could be argued that through the Guide he did more than anyone except Leavis himself to disseminate Leavisite views. This was an achievement at the practical rather than the theoretical level, since Ford came later than the pioneer, innovative group which in the Thirties shared with the Leavises the founding of Scrutiny. ‘The high period of the journal,’ says Francis Mulhern in his book The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’, ‘was that commanded by F.R. Leavis and the early graduates of Cambridge English, [D.W.] Harding, [L.C.] Knights, Q.D. Leavis and [Denys] Thompson – five authors who, in aggregate, wrote on virtually every topic that Scrutiny ever discussed. The second Scrutiny generation, led by [R.G.] Cox and Ford, was markedly more restricted in range.’ Ford and his like (according to Mulhern) worked through the conventional subject-matter of academic English, merely applying Leavisite insights and methods. Whether or not the accusation is fair to Ford as a critic, it is at first sight over-hard on him as an editor – restriction of range cannot be quite the characteristic of a Guide which runs from Chaucer to the Modern Age, through almost all authors likely to be taught to students of English in our institutions of education. Even so, there is eventually something humble, and humdrum, about the Guide. It is neither an independent survey of English literature, nor a radical Leavisian attack upon orthodoxy, but something in between, which at most codifies the scattered pronouncements of the original heroes of the Cambridge movement.
In seeming humdrum, popular and utilitarian, the Guide of course moves a long way from Leavis’s own tone and from the tone of Scrutiny. Concessiveness was not a feature of true Cambridge man. At more or less any point from the Thirties to the Fifties, British students might become Leavisites much as American students in the Eighties become born-again Christians. Conversion gave them a simplified view of intellectual problems and an encouraging sense of moral superiority over most of those in authority. While not on the make, any more than the youthful Christians of the New Right, Leavisites were being bred to succeed in the modern conditions of mass culture, even while they were being taught to despise them. Leavisism, as a cult of the years before and after the Second World War, cleverly adapted the study of literature to the requirements of the age of meritocracy. It selected from among the best of their generation – undergraduates studying the humanities at Cambridge – a yet smaller cadre of the highly serious. It drilled them in the mental habits appropriate to the learned professions – the universities, the Civil Service, the law, journalism and politics – for survival in the competitive, meritocratic postwar world. These habits included a black-and-white view of reality, moral certainty, and a healthy contempt for birth and breeding.
Vol. 4 No. 18 · 7 October 1982
From Boris Ford
SIR: Marilyn Butler’s article about the New Pelican Guide to English Literature (LRB, 2 September) is such an odd jumble of notions and assertions, such an exercise in the art of giving but then taking, that I hope you will allow me to offer a modest account of what the Guide (now the New Guide) is about. Mrs Butler seems to be indignant that the Guide has continued in being for so long and is now being given a new lease of life. If its original achievement was to do ‘more than anyone except Leavis himself to disseminate Leavisite views’, we all know that the ‘Leavisite tradition’ now seems ‘dated’ and ‘wilfully limited’. So Mrs Butler sees the Guide as ‘an unwieldy featureless construct’ which the ‘good students’ no longer plagiarise. In the best aeademic cireles, she suggests, the Guide has been displaced by those collections of essays on a single period or topic whose main value, it has always seemed to me, is to provide the student with the kind of assortment of received opinion calculated to please the examiners.
But the Guide was not primarily produced for university students, let alone for Oxford dons, but for the much wider readership to whom Pelican Books have always tried to appeal. Allen Lane’s first idea was to republish The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature. This was strenuously opposed by his editorial co-director, W. E. Williams, who, unlike Lane, actually read literature for himself and, as a former WEA tutor, knew what literature could mean to all sorts of men and women. So Williams was given till the next editorial meeting a fortnight later to come up with a belter idea; and perhaps because he knew that I had reviewed The Concise Cambridge History in Scrutiny some years earlier, he invited me to produce a detailed scheme for a different kind of history which we both thought of as a ‘guide’. I was given a week. Williams then put forward this proposal as his own, knowing that if Allen Lane accepted it, he would as always look for someone else to carry it out. And sure enough, it was accepted by the editorial board, and Lane told Williams to find a general editor for the seven volumes, and Williams duly ‘found’ me. I was to have the first two volumes ready for the printer in two years’ time.
It was clear that both the readership we envisaged and the speed of production ruled out an encyclopedic and academic-scholarly history. Mrs Butler may find the Guide virtually indistinguishable from the Cambridge History: if so, she has either not recently read the Cambridge History or not read the volume of the New Guide she is reviewing. For I decided from the first that the Guide would not aim at ‘getting everything in’, to quote her description, and that its individual chapters would not be surveys of great tracts of literary history but would be fairly detailed literary-critical studies of comparatively few major writers and major works. The ‘facts’ in bulk would be relegated to Appendices. Far from being ponderouly all-inclusive, as Mrs Butler asserts, the Guide is highly selective, and indeed when it first appeared it was occasionally criticised for this Leavis-like trait, as well as for its Scrutiny-like list of contributors.
I chose these contributors, of whom Mrs Butler admits that any editor would be proud, because I believed we could work together swiftly, sharing many critical assumptions and, in many instances, having already shared hours of discussion. The Guide seemed to many of us a marvellous opportunity to test out our conviction that the very rigorous, highly selective, minority-oriented approach of Scrutiny and, before it, Of the Calendar of Letters could now be applied in a methodical way to the body of major literature as a whole. Perhaps this was at best a ‘practical’ achievement at a ‘humble and humdrum’ level, in Mrs Butler’s somewhat grudging words. What has astonished me during these last few years while we have been revising the volumes is the number of quite un-Scrutiny people (for instance, Peter Redgrove, Gabriel Josipovici, D. S. Savage and many others) who have written spontaneously to say how valuable the Guide has been to them; and this includes, to my surprise, very many of the distinguished team of Medieval Europeanists who have contributed to the new volume on The European Inheritance. This has confirmed my original belief (which Williams shared) that the literary-critical approach we adopted would have a wide appeal to readers of many kinds.
It seems indeed to have been so. For 25 to 30 years the Guide has gone on selling very well to its mixed bag of readers. But isn’t it now ‘out of date’? Mrs Butler thinks so and selects W. W. Robson’s chapters on Spenser and Milton as typical of the New Guide’s fustiness. Certainly, academic fashions change. But I suspect that the contributors to the Guide, who unwittingly did something to establish a fashion, are not particularly concerned to follow a new one. Moreover, Penguin Books insisted that the revised Guide should retain its original character: not as a museum piece (Penguins not being in the antiquarian business), but because, in their view and on the advice of their advisors, who presumably didn’t include Mrs Butler, this literary-critical approach continues to appeal to readers, including even some of the ‘best students’. They did not share Mrs Butler’s view that the Leavis tradition now seems ‘dated’ and ‘wilfully limited’. However, the volumes have been revised and augmented; thus Volume 1, Chaucer and the Alliterative Tradition, contains 14 new chapters out of 21 and a wholly new anthology; and there are to be two entirely new volumes. But I have to admit that these revisions may not satisfy those who are anxious to keep up with the academic-literary times, a great or at least fashionable part of which seems to me wholly inimical to the un-‘scholarly’ reader’s preference for reading literature for the profound enjoyment it can offer. That is a preference which the contributors to the Guide, old and new, certainly share.
From W.W. Robson
SIR: May I comment on the references to me in your recent number? I am not sure what Marilyn Butler means by saying that my essays on Spenser and Milton are ‘two grave period pieces’, ‘echoing the Thirties rather than the Fifties and faintly grotesque to read for the first time in the Eighties’, but if the implication is that these essays ignore criticism and scholarship on these poets available since the Thirties it is quite untrue. The essay on Spenser owes much to modern scholars – for example, to the work of Nelson (1963), Alpers (1967) and Sale (1968), who are duly mentioned and acknowledged in the text. As for the essay on Milton, it discusses several works that appeared in the Sixties and Seventies, including one book published in 1977. But in any case this essay is not an account of 20th-century Milton criticism (so that it is untrue to say, as your reviewer does, that it ‘picks up its topic where Leavis and Eliot left it in 1936’). It is a survey of opinions about Paradise Lost from Milton’s lifetime to the present – chiefly, of course, the opinions of the great English writers who concerned themselves with the poem. It runs from page 239 to page 259. Leavis and Eliot are not discussed till page 256.
So much for the plain facts. As for my views on Spenser, your reviewer completely distorts them. Nor can I accept the assumptions on which the review is apparently based. A serious critic is not in the least concerned about whether his views may be thought to ‘echo’ the Thirties, or the Fifties, or the Eighties (of any century), but only whether they are soundly based and true.
In the same number Graham Bradshaw says that ‘there is no textual support for the common assumption (made by Bradley, Morris Weitz, W. W. Robson and others) that Claudius plans to have Hamlet killed in England before he has learned of Polonius’s murder.’ I do not know what grounds Mr Bradshaw has for thinking that I have ever made that assumption, but they certainly cannot be found in Did the king see the dumb-show? (1975), in which I discuss, very fully, the problems in Hamlet which he refers to. Possibly what he had in mind was a passing mention of this idea of A. C. Bradley’s in my Critical Essays (1966), where it is cited as an example of a particular kind of literary judgment. But if my views on Hamlet are thought to be worth discussion I request that they should be looked for in what I say when I am writing about Hamlet, not when I am writing about other matters.
Masson Professor of English Literature, University of Edinburgh
Vol. 4 No. 19 · 21 October 1982
From Graham Bradshaw
SIR: Professor Robson’s complaint in your last issue puzzles me. The ‘plain fact’ is that no textual evidence supports Bradley’s claim that when the King is at prayer he has already planned to have Hamlet murdered. Nonetheless, Weitz thinks that Bradley’s comment ‘blows up’ Wilson Knight’s reading; Robson agrees, quoting Bradley to show that an ‘accurate’ description may have important critical consequences. The relevant references are these: Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (2nd ed. 1924), page 171; Weitz, Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism (paperback ed. 1972), pages 31 and 231; Robson, Critical Essays (1966), page 36. If Professor Robson were not a modest man as well as a distinguished critic, he might have reproached me for a different sin – of omission, not misrepresentation. For I should have referred to his 1975 essay, since it argues, more persuasively than Greg, that ‘there is no sign that the King was publicly exposed, and much to indicate that he was not.’ Claudius would have every reason to behave as he does in terminating the Mousetrap, even if he were entirely innocent. Mr Kitchin, in the same issue of the paper, does not see why this is a difficulty. If he allows that it exists, other problems appear. If he would deny that the difficulty exists, he must explain when and how Claudius betrays unequivocal guilt to Hamlet. I am intrigued by his remarks about ‘protocol’, and wonder which comparable ‘occasions’ would establish what response was expected of a well-bred monarch whose queen was mocked as a lying, incestuous whore and whose own life was threatened in public.
Mr Proudfoot, another objector, makes no distinction between ‘opinions’ and arguments. Rightly or wrongly, I argued at considerable length that the Arden Hamlet is deficient in several respects; Mr Proudfoot is above such endeavours. I felt compelled to write a harsh review, not least because Professor Jenkins’s treatment of other critics and unwanted complications is so peremptorily dismissive; it is easy to see why Mr Proudfoot wasn’t troubled by that display of bad critical manners and logic.
University of St Andrews
From Marilyn Butler
SIR: In a review of the New Pelican Guide (LRB, 2 September), I suggested that W.W. Robson’s essay on Milton’s reputation was still using the critical approach pioneered by Eliot and Leavis in the 1930s. Professor Robson writes to complain (Letters, 7 October) that in fact he does not arrive at a direct discussion of the views of Eliot and Leavis until the 17th of his 20 pages. No: but on the third page he writes of ‘the 20th-century questioning of his [Milton’s] status, one day to be known as the Milton controversy’ – and he is shortly to link ‘the Milton controversy’ above all with Eliot. Six pages later he measures Samuel Johnson’s Miltonic insights by the standards of the Thirties and Forties: ‘a good deal of what Eliot, Leavis or Waldock were to say is already anticipated in Johnson’s remarks about Milton’s faults.’ The trouble with this raising of ancient ghosts is that nowadays Milton’s influence is debated in very different terms. ‘The Milton controversy’ in relation to Wordsworth or Shelley now has to do with the nature of one poet’s influence on another, and the oppressive burden of the past on the poet. There is no need to agree with W. J. Bate or Harold Bloom, but a survey of Milton’s reputation which leaves them out certainly runs the risk of being thought dated.
My point was of course a much broader one, that the Pelican Guide is a contradiction in terms. To deal with a broad sweep of literature against its historical context requires a different set of assumptions from Leavis’s ahistorical ones, and in this sense the oddities, inadequacies and discontinuities of the Guide are instructive. Professor Robson seems a splendid example of what the series is rich in – a fine evaluative critic who doesn’t perform well under these conditions.
St Hugh’s College, Oxford