LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN
letters@lrb.co.uk

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

Letters


Lives of Sidney

Patrick Collinson praises Alan Stewart’s biography of Philip Sidney (LRB, 30 March) for containing ‘only a few egregious errors for pedants to pick on’. It may seem churlish, therefore, to observe that his own review also contains a few ‘egregious errors’ for people like me to pick on, in addition to some worryingly vague assertions. To begin with the smallest, Sidney is claimed to have written that ‘the very common people will know’ that the Queen’s suitor Anjou was a son of ‘that Jezebel’ Catherine de’Medici: the correct reading here is ‘well know’. Sidney’s father mutates from the correct ‘Sir Henry’ in the fourth paragraph to a deeply confusing ‘Sir Robert’ by the end, but this may be a simple lapsus calami. More substantially erroneous is the claim that Sidney completed ‘his epic romantic fiction The Arcadia at Wilton in the summer of 1580’. According to a letter to his brother Robert written from Leicester House, not Wilton, in October 1580, Sidney hoped to complete his ‘toyful book’ by February 1581 (New Style). We don’t know whether he actually met this deadline. Nor is Collinson’s epithet ‘epic’ at all appropriate to the first and altogether far more ‘toyful’ version of Sidney’s romance, which is, for instance, very much shorter than Blair Worden’s recent book about it. In his account of the outlines of Sidney’s life Collinson leaves no space for the huge labour Sidney undertook in expanding the ‘toyful book’ into the later, ‘New’, version, which may indeed be called ‘epic’ both in length and scope, and thereby fails to indicate the true weightiness of Sidney’s commitment to ‘poesy’.

As for vague assertions, I’m not sure to what extent I should feel wounded by Collinson’s claim that Stewart’s is ‘only the second biography in almost fifty years’, since it’s not clear to what predecessor he refers. Perhaps he has in mind J.M. Osborn’s Young Philip Sidney (1972), which he mentions in the next sentence; or Mona Wilson’s Sir Philip Sidney (1931); or Roger Howell’s excellent The Shepherd Knight (1968). I don’t think he can be thinking of my own Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet, enthusiastically reviewed by Blair Worden in the LRB (LRB, 25 June 1992), since he would surely not in that case have used the phrase ‘in almost fifty years’. Several other reviewers have felt that Stewart’s biography owes something to mine and I myself am flattered by the extent to which his book is modelled on the structure of my own, for instance in being composed of 12 chapters followed by an epilogue, and in closing with the same quotation that I chose to describe the immediate impact of Sidney’s death. Either Collinson is entirely unaware of my book or he doesn’t regard it as worthy of being called a ‘biography’. In either case, I think I am entitled to feel that I have been ill-used by a distinguished historian whose work I greatly admire.

Katherine Duncan-Jones
Somerville College, Oxford

Patrick Collinson writes: The moral would seem to be, stick to your last. Dr Duncan-Jones has had little difficulty in establishing that Sidney is not my last. We have been introduced, of course, but Dr Duncan-Jones, an authority, has had the advantage, in a manner of speaking, of living with this fascinating person for more than thirty years. If I were to make such egregious errors in writing about, for example, the Puritans, I hope that I would do the decent thing: end it all. But I am glad that some of the errors are no worse than reading ‘will’ for ‘well’. I thought that I was a good proof-reader. For even I know that no one in the 16th century would write that ‘so-and-so will know such-and-such,’ which is to say, ‘should know such-and-such’. In my own defence, I was asked to write a piece on Philip Sidney, and the implication was that Alan Stewart’s book was the hook on which to hang it. My brief was not to compare the scholarly literature on Sidney. And I wrote in my rural retreat, far from libraries. So while of course I know of Katherine Duncan-Jones’s work, it was not immediately available for reference. If it had been I would no doubt have noticed a certain uncanny resemblance between Stewart’s book and Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet. In the words of Private Eye, shurely shome mishtake (on my part). ‘Only the second biography in almost fifty years’ was forgetful of Howell, not intended to include Osborn, but did have in mind Duncan-Jones, whose mutual admiration society I am more than happy to join.


The True Sentence

Re: Rorty, Fodor, Fox et al. As much as any plant on earth, an onion has a core: a cone that buds into a bulb of fleshy leaves. There may well be philosophies composed of layers around an absent centre: they don't, however, describe the onion but an old and worn symbolic platitude. The good philosophers had better know their onions.

Michael Haslam
Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire


Scoop

Maybe Jenny Diski was having a bad hair day when she reviewed Literary Seductions (LRB, 30 March) and mistook my analysis of the identities we inhabit and the fantasies we harbour when we read or write as ‘romantic biography’. However, I am grateful to her for pointing out that the affairs between Byron and Caroline Lamb, Robert Graves and Laura Riding and Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller are known about even by those ‘halfway interested in literature’: to my embarrassment I assumed I had landed the literary scoop of the century.

Frances Wilson
London SW9


‘PR’ and Its Funding

Attacking Edward Said has become such common sport that it is almost achieving vulgarity. Now, William Phillips (Letters, 2 March) has descended from the Olympian heights to join the game. A pity, then, that he never gets off the sidelines.

Phillips likes to pretend he is taking issue with Said’s account of my book, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, whereas in fact his dispute is with the book itself. Said’s précis of my claims regarding Partisan Review – that it received some money from the CIA, that it was at one point carried financially by Henry Luce, and that Allen Dulles had an interest in helping to keep the magazine afloat – is a fair summary. There is nothing ‘malign’ in these claims, or in Said’s reporting of them. It is Phillips who abbreviates the issues raised in my book to the point of misrepresenting them. They are as follows.

In 1952, Partisan Review was on the brink of folding, in part because the US Treasury was threatening to remove its tax-exempt status. While efforts were made to convince the State Department that Partisan Review was a crucial vehicle for ‘combating Communist ideology abroad’ (Sidney Hook), Daniel Bell took a separate initiative, acting as an ‘intermediary’ in discussions with Henry Luce, who subsequently gave the magazine $10,000. (In his letter to me of 5 August 1998, Phillips wrote: ‘So far as I recall, the sum was $5,000, not $10,000.’ He now appears to accept that the sum was indeed $10,000.) The Luce grant was never publicly disclosed. The contributors were not informed; nor were some of Partisan Review’s associate editors.

As Phillips says, ‘literary magazines have always lost money and needed financial help from like-minded people.’ Whether Phillips knew it or not, and whether he likes it or not, certain individuals in the CIA saw themselves as ‘like-minded people’ who could ease Partisan Review’s financial difficulties. In early 1953, the magazine received a subsidy of $2500 from the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. The money came from the Farfield Foundation, a dummy front or ‘pass-through’ set up by the CIA in 1953 to provide the cashflow to its Congress for Cultural Freedom, of which the American Committee was a subsidiary. At the time this grant was made to Partisan Review, its co-editor William Phillips was cultural secretary of the American Committee. In the same letter to me Phillips wrote: ‘I don’t recall any grant of $2500 from the American Committee, and I don’t believe there was one.’ He thought that ‘no contributions to Partisan Review could have been received without my knowledge.’ The statement of disbursements of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom for the year ending 1953 clearly shows the grant was made.

Previously, Phillips was also unable to recall ‘ever receiving any grants from the Farfield Foundation’. His memory restored perhaps by seeing some of the documentation I sent him, he now acknowledges that the magazine did once receive a direct grant from the Farfield Foundation, though he disputes its CIA provenance. According to Phillips, Jack Thompson, the former director of the Farfield Foundation, has recently vouched that this particular grant was made by a ‘private sponsor’. In 1964, Stephen Spender asked Jack Thompson whether there was any truth to the rumour that the Farfield Foundation was backing Encounter magazine with CIA funds. He received an unequivocal denial. Within three years, however, the Encounter scandal had broken. Certainly, the financial reports of the Farfield Foundation which I have do not list any ‘private sponsor’ against the grant to Partisan Review. Perhaps Phillips should ask Jack Thompson to make public the relevant accounts of the Foundation (which was, after all, funded by the American taxpayer, courtesy of the finance department of the CIA).

Still, as I point out in my book, in the life of a magazine harried by financial crises, these grants hardly amount to much (Phillips’s own estimate is 5 to 10 per cent of one year’s budget). But in 1956, the question of PR’s tax-exempt status had again been raised at the Internal Revenue Service: not only did the magazine stand to lose this benefit in the future, but there was also talk of making all contributions to PR during and since 1954 retroactively taxable. By 1958, a solution was forthcoming: with (and only with) the CIA’s approval, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, which had been suspended in January 1957, was revived for the sole purpose of ‘posing’ as official publisher of Partisan Review, an arrangement which allowed the magazine to benefit from the Committee’s tax-exempt status. Behind the scenes, the CIA chief Allen Dulles was a key figure in making this arrangement.

Partisan Review also received support from the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom, in the form of subscriptions bought for individuals overseas who received the magazine free. From 1960, this arrangement boosted the magazine’s sales figures by 3000 copies a year, which were distributed outside of the US.

In May 1961, Phillips requested a grant from the Congress for Cultural Freedom to cover his travel expenses for a planned trip to Europe. This, despite his later concession that during the 1950s he had been ‘inclined to question’ the Congress’s ‘bureaucratic make-up and what was patently its secret control from the top’. In 1990, he wrote of those personalities who dominated the Congress for Cultural Freedom as ‘breezy, rootless, freewheeling, cynically anti-Communist orgmen’. He claimed to be ‘shocked by – and perhaps envious of – the nouveau riche look of the whole operation, by the posh apartments of the Congress officials, the seemingly inexhaustible funds for travel, the big-time expense accounts, and all the other perks usually associated with the executives of large corporations. After all, Partisan Review was always trying to make ends meet, and my experience had led me to believe that poverty was the normal condition for serious political outfits and literary magazines. As for secret funding,’ he continued, ‘it seems to me to violate the very nature of a free intellectual enterprise, particularly when the financing is by a well-organised arm of the Government, with its own political agenda.’

Frances Stonor Saunders
London W11


When the mortar doesn’t hold

David Rose’s article about the collapsed building in Bootle (LRB, 16 March) was very illuminating, although I fear its biggest significance was that it was printed at all. Living on Wadham Road myself, I was distressed at the complete apathy of the press towards the death of yet another workman on a building site. Most disturbing was the absence of anything other than skeletal reporting of the incident in the Liverpool Echo, the self-proclaimed ‘voice of Merseyside’.

P. Kelly
Bootle, Merseyside


Empathy

I wonder whether James Wood (with Schiller?) is leaving the Odyssey out of account in talking of the Homeric (LRB, 30 March). isn’t Odysseus both ‘Homeric’ and ‘empathetic’? Are we not invited, for instance, to go beyond observing Odysseus’ tears as Demodocus sings and enter his experience? The Phaeacians politely refrain from any such imposition. Homer’s audience, though, distinguishes itself from that of Demodocus, just as the singer of the Odyssey distinguishes himself from Demodocus.

Thomson Littlefield
Albany, New York


Our Prayers Answered

Never send a toff to do a man's work. Christopher Tayler's sniffy review of Tony White's Charlieunclenorfolktango (LRB, 30 March) was hilarious. Not as good as Martin Amis, eh? Is it not a bit sad that the Laurel & Hardy-esque double-act of Amis and Self – a couple of turgid upper-middle-class fogies who write like Victorians – are still regarded as benchmarks of enfant terriblism? Surely the 21st century needs a new literature, a Punk Lit, an Avant-Pulp, a New Brutalism: writing that apes, matches, parodies and supersedes the exhilarating pace of the popular culture which surrounds it. Would you send your ballet critic to a football game? How about an informed and well-researched article on the explosion of action novels written by survivors of the punk generation? Hell, I'll even write it for you. Shake things up a bit, hmm?

Steven Wells
Attack! Books
London N19

If your readers follow Thomas Jones, they will miss a very good film in Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair (LRB, 30 March). Among its qualities was the uncanny way in which Jordan captured the peculiar atmosphere of London after the war: the poverty, sourness, mixed with peculiar religious and political idealism. Julianne Moore was to me more convincing than the character in Greene's novel: that combination of frostiness, formality, dependency and sexual passion that so characterised upper-middle-class British women of her generation. That in the film London seemed to be perpetually raining seemed entirely appropriate. I lived in London for ten months in 1954-55 and I was faced each morning as I headed to the British Museum Library with the question: should I wear a raincoat or will an umbrella do? If you are looking for someone to write film reviews for the LRB I will do it for free.

Norman Cantor
Hollywood, Florida


Not So

Dan Hawthorn wrote (LRB, 13 April) that ‘in Paris, a directly elected mayor is a fairly recent innovation.’ That statement is incorrect. The French mayor, including that of Paris, is still, and has long been, chosen by the elected Council of the Commune.

George Jones
London School of Economics


One of the Frightfulest

I am uncertain what Hilary Mantel meant when she wrote, in her piece about Robespierre (LRB, 30 March) that ‘a real heroine of the Revolution is the housemaid who lit the fire’ with the first draft of Carlyle’s French Revolution. I’m not being picky about the facts (though one fire with the whole manuscript makes for misgivings), but if she is blaming Carlyle for leaving the English reader with an impression that the Terror is at the centre of the French Revolution, she does him an injustice:

It was the frightfulest thing ever born of Time? One of the frightfulest. This Convention, now grown Anti-Jacobin, did, with an eye to justify and fortify itself, publish Lists of what the Reign of Terror had perpetrated: Lists of Persons Guillotined. The Lists, cries splenetic Abbé Montgaillard, were not complete. They contain the names of, How many persons thinks the Reader? – Two-thousand all but a few. There were above Four-thousand, cries Montgaillard: so many were guillotined, fusilladed, noyaded, done to dire death; of whom Nine-hundred were women. It is a horrible sum of human lives, M.l’Abbé: – some ten times as many shot rightly on a field of battle, and one might have had his Glorious-Victory with Te-Deum. It is not far from the two hundredth part of what perished in the entire Seven-Years War. By which Seven-Years War, did not the great Fritz wrench Silesia from the great Theresa … The head of man is a strange vacant sounding-shell, M.l’Abbé …

Such things were; such things are; and they go on in silence peaceably: – and Sansculottisms follow them. History, looking back over this France through long times … confesses mournfully that there is no period to be met with, in which the general Twenty-five Millions of France suffered less than in this period which they name Reign of Terror! But it was not the Dumb Millions that suffered here; it was the Speaking Thousands, and Hundreds, and Units; who shrieked and published, and made the world ring with their wail … that is the grand peculiarity.

Charles Swann
Keele University


Call that a breakfast?

The point, pace Alan Saunders (Letters, 13 April), is that the shrink is Jewish. But to give him the punchline ‘That you call a breakfast’ is to make him a Yiddish speaker. That’s where the syntax comes from. it’s not, or not just, a question of rhythm. As a Yiddish speaker, however, he’d be more likely to say: ‘This’ – dus – ‘you call a breakfast.’

Stephen Sedley
London WC1


Bennett Notebook

Another true story: a highly educated and linguistically gifted acquaintance, born and raised in Ohio, thought until adulthood that the opening line of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was a homage to the Hispanic element in the US melting pot: ‘José, can you see…’

S.A. Skinner
Balliol College, Oxford