What’s wrong with Desmond?

Ian Hamilton

  • Clever Hearts: Desmond and Molly MacCarthy by Hugh Cecil and Mirabel Cecil
    Gollancz, 320 pp, £18.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 575 03622 2

The titles of Desmond MacCarthy’s books must have seemed to him unassailably offhand – Remnants, Portraits, Experience: titles nicely in tune with his well-known view of himself as a chap who could surely have done better. One of his favourite lines of poetry was Hartley Coleridge’s ‘For I have lost the race I never ran’ and early on in his career he got used to being spoken of as having squandered a great gift. Part of MacCarthy’s charm was that he had no serious quarrel with this view. In 1932, he decided – was persuaded – to issue a selection of the book reviews he had been turning out for the New Statesman and the Sunday Times. It was typical of the man that he should call it, simply, Criticism.

This time, however, MacCarthy had picked a bad year for offhandedness: 1932 was the year in which F.R. Leavis’s Scrutiny was launched. ‘Criticism’ was no longer a word to be murmured with self-deprecation. It had become an enterprise, an undertaking, a means of finding ‘solutions’ for ‘problems’ in the present culture. In Scrutiny’s second issue, Leavis published an article that asked: ‘What’s wrong with Criticism?’ Desmond MacCarthy’s modest compilation handily supplied some of the answers. Leavis wrote: ‘If a literary tradition does not keep itself alive here, in the present, not merely in new creation, but as a pervasive influence upon feeling, thought and standards of living (it is time we challenged the economist’s use of this phrase), then it must be pronounced to be dying or dead.’ By this reckoning, Desmond’s twenty-odd years’ worth of literary journalism seemed, shall we say, off-colour.

MacCarthy had perhaps been a trifle provocative, in his introduction to Criticism, when he boasted that his reviews were ‘clearly not the work of one who believes that the critic ought to turn personal impressions into general laws’ and, true enough, a year earlier – in Portraits – he had rapturously hymned Oxford’s Walter Raleigh as ‘the most spirited of professorial critics’. Even so, it was evident that for Leavis the real crime of this powerful weekly ‘critic’ was in his deep disinclination to take criticism seriously. According to MacCarthy, ‘the first step to culture is to learn to enjoy, not to know what is best.’ Indeed, he doubted that anyone could know ‘what is best’. For his book column in the New Statesman, he had signed himself ‘Affable Hawk’, but not because he wished to suggest any hint of beakiness. His predecessor had been John Squire, whose pseudonym was ‘Solomon Eagle’.

It is easy enough to see why, for such as Leavis, MacCarthy might be perceived as the apotheosis of indolent metropolitan bookman-ship. Scrutiny, after all, was in some measure aimed as a ‘serious’ riposte to MacCarthy’s own profoundly dilettante Life and Letters, a current periodical of which, in 1931, Max Beerbohm had felt moved to exclaim: ‘How it makes one ache to be living in those days of serious refinement and happiness! How it cheapens this thin, sad, hectic little era.’ And 1932, the year of Criticism, was also the year of Leavis’s New Bearings. Maurice Barings, it had to be admitted, were much more Desmond MacCarthy’s kind of thing.

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