LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.


‘New Pelican Guide’

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.

Boris Ford

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.

W.W. Robson
Masson Professor of English Literature, University of Edinburgh

New Arden ‘Hamlet’

SIR: Graham Bradshaw’s pugnacious attack on Professor Jenkins’s edition of Hamlet (LRB, 2 September) falls apart when he begins speculating about staging the ‘Mousetrap’, because any doubts as to the King’s reaction are disposed of in the text itself. Claudius begins by asking, ‘Is there no offence in’t?’, a clear enough hint of suspicion. Later he stands up, in a stage direction provided by Ophelia. His exit line, ‘Give me some light! Away!’ is strongly at variance with the protocol of a Renaissance court in winding up such occasions, especially one which the monarch has convened in order to view a show put on by the heir to his throne. Just how shaken Claudius has been is emphasised in due course by Guildenstern where he takes care to explain that the resultant ‘distemper’ is not illness but anger. The King’s guilty attempt at prayer, of course, is just one more indication of the project’s success. His mind is on retaliation rather than words of contrition.

Laurence Kitchin
London SW1

SIR: Prospective users of Professor Harold Jenkins’s New Arden edition of Hamlet may like to know that it contains – in addition to the modernisations and critical opinions at which your reviewer, Graham Bradshaw, thinks fit to sneer – a scrupulously edited text, a lucid and full exposition of the most complex textual problem affecting Shakespeare and the most comprehensive and helpful commentary on the play yet published. These, I believe, it is the task of an editor to supply.

Professor Jenkins has wisely not attempted to account for ‘what it is in Hamlet that has enthralled the Western imagination’. He has done something more useful. He has made the words of Hamlet more intelligible and accessible to its readers (and, it is to be hoped, its audiences) than any previous editor. What a pity that Mr Bradshaw was too busy airing his own opinions to notice.

Richard Proudfoot
Department of English, King’s College, London

Faculty at War

SIR: You really must try to curb the hysteria of some of your correspondents. ‘New Accents’ is not, as Tom Paulin claims (Letters, 19 August), ‘flooding the market’. When the series began five years ago, the market was already flooded by material of quite a different sort. That is why we started it. I’d suggest a different metaphor: the series seems to have touched a nerve. Tom Paulin’s silly tantrums are the result. His swaggering talk of ‘abolishing’ courses which use the books and of ‘burying’ the issues they raise is outrageous in a university teacher. Let him stick to the writing of verse.

The notion that the series is dedicated to the propagation of any single point of view is quite absurd and would quickly be dispelled by the slightest acquaintance with the range covered in its 14 volumes. Joseph Bristow’s suggestion of a conspiratorial formula, ‘a bit of Derrida, a touch of Lacan and a pinch of Althusser’ (Letters, 5 August), makes little sense. The work of those three luminaries is hardly compatible, and in any case half of the volumes in the series make no reference to any of them. If it will calm him, I can reveal that the author of the 15th volume is a Jesuit priest.

No one who reads a ‘New Accents’volume will be under the impression that that is the end of the matter. All of them bristle with bibliographies and their clear and declared intention is to promote further reading and extensive discussion. I am shocked to hear that this is actively discouraged at some British institutions. Most of your readers will surely agree that Mr Bristow’s shrill call for students to be ‘warned against’ the series strikes a chilling, alien note.

I take no pleasure in Gabriel Josipovici’s revelation (Vol. 4, No 16) that, despite his efforts, I am cited as an authority at the University of Sussex. That is indeed the modern mark of the Beast. I hang my head in shame. But I cannot and will not apologise for a series of books designed for students and for the general reader which is committed to the explication and discussion of complex and not readily available ideas that seem to have an important bearing upon our society and its way of life. We used to call that education. If Mr Josipovici no longer believes in it, let him slick to the writing of novels.

Terence Hawkes
General Editor, ‘New Accents’, Department of English, University College, Cardiff

SIR: As a ‘New Accents’author I should be glad to know which books exactly are supposed to be the targets of Gabriel Josipovici’s blanket fire. It is a strangely warped high-mindedness which denounces Methuen for trading on the ‘series’ image an then proceeds to attack the whole lot under cover c evasive generalities.

Of course it must be annoying to have his colleagues quoting ‘Hawkes (or Fowler or whoever)’ on topics which Josipovici feels himself so much better equipped to expound. And not just colleagues but students, sad to say, no doubt because Methuen manage to keep their prices down (another lamentable consequence of producing all those made-to-order series).

As for academic ‘hack-work’, the word is no more than a routine snub, since Josipovici never troubles to explain just what it is about ‘New Accents’ which offends his scholarly sensibility. I have no quarrel with his argument that such books could produce a harmful effect if they were written in a manner of facile or boiled-down summary which substituted handy names and ideas for any genuine effort of thought on the reader’s part. But this is not the case with ‘New Accents’, as Josipovici more or less admits by failing to offer a single argued example. It is a measure of Josipovici’s undifferentiating spleen that he has to fall back, for comparison, on a work as remote from the present context as John Burrow’s introduction to Medieval studies!

It is a pity these issues cannot be discussed without creating such an air of odium academicum. If ‘hack-work’ is a matter of writing a book with some specific purpose in view (rather than waiting, say, until your odd bits and pieces pile up into something like a plausible collection of essays), then certainly the label fits. Otherwise it seems nothing more than another ritual insult in the current professional slanging-match.

Christopher Norris
Department of English, University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, Cardiff

SIR: Gabriel Josipovici’s high-minded objections to popular introductions such as Melhuen’s ‘New Accents’ series are not only self-contradictory (first he assaults them indiscriminately, then he warily acknowledges they can be of value) but thoroughly disingenuous too. Josipovici should not disguise as a disinterested defence of true culture what is in fact – see his Introduction to his recent selection of Maurice Blanchot’s essays – a personal animus against contemporary radical criticism every bit as ‘ideological’ as the positions he attacks.

I came across Josipovici’s waspish little letter as I arrived back from a meeting of the English Institute of the United States, at which, in discussions of what was currently most useful and adventurous in English publishing, several of my American colleagues, by no means all Marxists or structuralists, referred admiringly to Melhuen’s series. But then they were Americans.

Terry Eagleton
Wadham College, Oxford

SIR: Gabriel Josipovici seems to have no idea whether he is opposed to popular introductions as such, or to the ‘New Accents’ series in particular. His letter feebly deflects attention from an indefensible elitism – all such introductions are trivialising – by singling out, with equal feebleness, one mercifully free of the kind of criticism which is his real, if concealed target. What he really ought to do is come clean and admit that he has conservative critical views, and the ‘New Accents’ series has radical ones. He is free, of course, to hold whatever views he likes; but speaking as a Norwegian living in England, I can assure him that there are many students of literary theory in Europe who have profited from Methuen’s excellent series without feeling in the least banalised or trivialised.

Toril Moi
South Hinksey, Oxford

SIR: My crimes are probably too horrible for you to take this letter seriously. Not only am I one of those ‘all-too-often second-rate’ essayists against whom ‘students must be fairly warned’ (since I co-wrote Reading Television in Methuen’s ‘New Accents’ and wrote Understanding News in their new ‘Studies in Communication’ series), but the rot goes deeper. I’m a traitor to English, having abandoned Shakespeare to teach Mass Communication and Cultural Studies, and I’m currently living in the nightmare wilderness of ‘subsidised nonsense … combative attitudes, deconstructed texts, abolished authors and demonic criticial technicians’ that so frightens Tom Paulin; this dreadful ‘underground’ is called a Polytechnic.

Your correspondents seized so eagerly on Paulin’s particular name-calling – ‘hapless East-hope’, ‘vulnerable Green’ and (the horror, the horror) ‘Doctor Widdowson’ – to mount a chorus of general yah-boos against ‘New Accents’ as a whole that I’m tempted to think that what they really want to talk about isn’t ‘New Accents’ at all. It is, of course, ‘somewhat pompous’ to discuss class division, so we must confine ourselves to the favoured euphemisms: Middlemarch v. Coronation Street; sonnets v. beer mats; Crossroads v. the ‘literary tradition’. And it wouldn’t do to endorse arbitrary privilege, so we must decide between ‘an audience which was in possession of its own cultural history and which had a developed sense of memory to draw on and add to’ (Cambridge) v. the ‘frustration, anger and narrow-mindedness of an essentially petit-bourgeois mentality’ (the rest). Naturally, there’s no place for a ‘species of upper-class twittery’ in the hygienic virus-free senior common rooms of England. So we mustn’t talk about politics, but rhetoric: ‘tough theoretical arguments’ v. ‘gobbledygook’; the ‘embattled, anonymous prose style’ which ‘has a Stalinist preference for mechanistic metaphor’ – the sure mark of those who ‘write very badly or very boringly or both. They obviously don’t care what their sentences sound like’ – v. the ‘conscientious critic’ who, armed with Eliotic intelligence and ‘scrupulosity in using and judging words’, can get on with making English into History – ‘a rigorous and much drier discipline’.

Of course, when you’re busy reducing the world to pure rhetoric it is jolly inconvenient to have these ‘Coles Notes’ all around, with their loose talk about ideology, signification and so on, to give the game away to your few remaining students. It’s especially tiresome when your students are a bunch of ‘blank’ zomboid aliens with ‘that futureless and pastless sense of blankness’ which is a dead giveaway of beings from another world entirely. This other world, it seems, has lately been identified: it belongs to those who are oppressed by the hegemony of the canonical text, and efforts are now being made to clarify whether it is in fact a ‘parallel world of different texts, or a random world of any and every text, or a black hole of absent texts’.

As someone who has regular close encounters with these Extra-Textrials, I think I can help Tom Paranoia and his apaulin deputies before they form a posse to drive the Methuens out of town. Word comes from America that although they may be lurking in your garage, or living in suburbia, or being quoted by your android colleagues, they are in fact quite friendly. Quite like us in fact. Just because they have funny accents and watch Spielberg movies and even show how television and newspapers reduce the world to rhetoric doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. You don’t have to ‘bury all this nonsense and stand English down for a generation or two’, or abolish ‘courses that draw on the kind of critical texts with which Methuen is currently flooding the market’. ‘New Accents’will only ‘do serious damage to “a blank generation of students” ’ if the students in question are so alienated by the traditional literary values of class privilege posing as individual excellence that they’re unable to engage actively with any text whatever outside or inside the canon unless it is first sanitised by a burst of Bristow’s Air-Conditioner. Come to think of it, maybe your correspondents’ students have been invaded by the bodysnatchers: maybe the ‘damage’ they’re suffering from is a nasty attack of critical, political or theoretical awareness; or, worse, an interest in popular culture. Maybe they’re not even intimidated by the rhetoric of university snobbery any more, having discovered that even the most venerable, toffy-nosed colleges are still in the public sector, and the most venerable, toffee-nosed dons are just as ‘subsidised’ as the upstarts in polytechnics. Maybe some of the less ‘blank’ among them are heading for the parallel world of polytechnics and popular culture where they can try out their new accents away from the contempt and derision of the ‘teacher’ who wants to deny them access to the means whereby that teacher’s privilege, position and politics can be challenged. But that, of course, is another story.

John Hartley
Department of Communication and Behavioural Studies, Polytechnic of Wales, Pontypridd

SIR: The present debate over Re-Reading English recalls a similar controversy in France over fifteen years ago, decrying the structuralist school and specifically Barthes’s Sur Racine. If the anger generated by that book signalled that there the classic authors themselves are the vehicle for more than purely literary values, then here that function obviously devolves onto the very subject of English. One of the central theses of Re-Reading English finds its confirmation in the kinds of criticisms addressed to it: not by what they say, but by what they silence.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the debate is being presented as yet another storm in the university teacup, starting with the title of Tom Paulin’s review ‘Faculty at War’. For Paulin, the defence of literary value is inseparable from the real issue at stake, ‘the future of English as an academic subject’. The book is also attacked, by Joseph Bristow, for an inadequate presentation of structuralist theory, a view which Gabriel Josipovici manages to extend to the whole ‘New Accents’ series, in spite of its diversity of topics and approaches. One would never glean from all this that Re-Reading English is concerned as much with pedagogical and institutional practices as with literary theory, but this is probably unavoidable: the very notions of literary value, of universities and universities alone being defined as centres of excellence, are expressions of a cultural position which must place any discussion of English as ideology and institution under wraps. So there is a dual displacement operating here. All this concentration on beer mats and differance is effectively silencing a much more wide-ranging debate. Similarly, the insistence on Faculty and dismissals of the whole ‘New Accents’ project (which do not seem to extend to other introductory series, or even introductions to structuralism) suggest a real hostility to any disturbance of the hierarchy of knowledge.

The feelings of frustration with the analysis of literature which bases itself on a celebration of sensitivity, moral worth and style are now shared by many, including students, who hardly constitute a ‘blank generation’ but on the contrary arrive fully armed with notions of ‘true-to-life psychological and moral credibility’ which they soon find inadequate, and schoolteachers, whose frustration with A-level questions which oblige them to reproduce that traditional training is matched by the difficulty they experience at entering a debate in mid-stream when it is conducted essentially by people in higher education with years of reading behind them. A series which aims to make the terms of this discussion more accessible to a wider audience is therefore surely to be welcomed. It is to be regretted that a book which seeks to further the debate by looking seriously at the ‘English’ in ‘English literature’ has been met with such howls of protest, but in exposing the limits some would wish to place around theoretical innovation they are not uninformative.

Margaret Atack
Department of French, University of Leeds

SIR: While I am reluctant to prolong the skirmishing in a war which it seems the columns of your journal are determined to sustain, I hope you will allow me to comment on Gabriel Josipovici’s extraordinarily intemperate letter, which must, surely, be unacceptable to anyone who thinks seriously about the future of English Studies in our education system as a whole. If one conflates his strictures against the ‘New Accents’ series with Tom Paulin’s stupidly romantic poem, ‘Oxford v. Cambridge v. Birmingham etc’, in the same issue, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that rational argument has given way to a peculiarly scurrilous form of senior-common-room gossip. Paulin’s airy fictions will, in spite of your patronage, probably touch ground when he finally encounters the maddening interventions of a 17th-century compositor, but Josipovici’s gossip is of an altogether more dangerous complexion since it pretends knowledge and discrimination, and affects a superior indifference to the facts of academic life. I have used volumes in the ‘New Accents’ series extensively in my own teaching, and I have no doubt whatsoever that, as a series, it has been the prime mover in stimulating a discussion of topics which, until recently, had no place on the official agenda of English Studies. If all Josipovici wishes to tell us is that some series are good and some are bad, or even that publishers (who are, after all, not academics but who nonetheless greatly influence the very structure of academic institutions themselves) publish too many books, then he has chosen an unusually oblique way of saying so, and one which should make any free-thinking intellectual community very suspicious indeed.

John Drakakis
Department of English Studies, University of Sterling

Mr Drakakis’s first sentence is exquisitely typical of one kind of polemical writer on this subject. He sneers at us for carrying a correspondence to which he proposes to contribute: this is like writing letters to a literary journal in order to brandish the notion that we are living in a post-literate society. It should be explained and this is an issue of the paper in which it seems more than usually appropriate to explain it – that the opinions expressed on the Letters page are not those of the editorial staff.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Cambridge Theatre

SIR: If, as Donald Davie now suggests, ‘intimidated colleagues of the late F. R. Leavis’ means everyone who taught English in universities when Leavis was alive, then either his language has become imprecise beyond normal serviceability, or his sense of reality has deserted him totally. In a writer of his eminence, such things must be felt to ‘matter’, although the work of the young poet whom he has stridently and bullyingly misrepresented does indeed matter more. My point on the latter remains that she needs no defence from me, or not against criticism of the calibre of: ‘Now, there’s a question, especially since this filly, be it noted, is in her high-stepping action “gleesome”.’

Claude Rawson
Department of English, University of Warwick

Falklands Title Deeds

SIR: Andrew Graham-Yooll is certainly right that Peron increased the intensity of national feeling on the ‘Malvinas issue’ (Letters, 16 September). I just meant to say that Argentine claims to the islands had a long trajectory before he came to power.

Malcolm Deas
St Antony’s College, Oxford


SIR: In his joint review of Gregory Currie’s book on Frege and my two books on the same philosopher, Professor Morton (LRB, 19 August) speaks of my second book as ‘over-priced’. For the price of Currie’s book, £20, it would be possible to buy both of mine in paperback, and have 10p change. For that one would get 1287 pages of text, exclusive of prefaces, introduction, bibliography and index, as against 195 in Currie’s book. Of course, if the quality of Currie’s book is seven times as high as that of my two, it is still the better bargain: but it seems unfair of Professor Morton to have blamed my publisher for this.

Michael Dummett
New College, Oxford