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Letters

Vol. 14 No. 5 · 12 March 1992

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Counterfactual History

Counterfactual history repels many historians because of the difficulty of knowing enough about all aspects of a period for the counter-factual proposal to be, as your reviewer Charles Maier says, ‘capable of insertion into the real past’. What we know about the past is constantly changing as research invalidates older views. Maier’s review of 13 February reveals that for certain periods either the reviewer or the authors of the books reviewed – it is not clear which – have not been in close touch with certain aspects of economic and social history over the last fifteen years. On plague, the reviewer mentions the importance of quarantine, but only at the local level. Recent work has revealed how Western Europe as a whole benefited from the quarantine and espionage system set up by the Austrian Empire to regulate contacts with the Turkish Empire. Then there is the comparison of British and French fertility from the late 17th century. Presumably for ‘British’ is meant English, for we have no trustworthy figures for Scottish 17th-century demography, and little also is known about Wales. The argument used depends on French families being under a much heavier tax burden than English ones. But for the 18th century Mathias and O’Brien showed in 1976 that the opposite was the case. Family limitation is suggested as in use in France in the 17th century, yet any serious study of comparative birth rates should surely recognise the achievement of Wrigley and Schofield in stressing the importance of variation in the age and likelihood of marriage as a major influence on the birth rate.

It is stated that ‘sociopolitical institutions’ prevented destitution in England and that ‘no such safety net existed in France.’ If it is poor relief that this phraseology refers to, the review, though rightly praising the efficacy of the English poor law, ignores the work of Hufton, Schwartz, Colin Jones and many others who have explored the French system.

Rosalind Mitchison
University of Edinburgh

Their Witness

It is hard for me to respond to Donald Davie’s splenetic review of my anthology The Poetry of Survival (LRB, 27 February). He has set up a number of straw men, which he then demolishes. To such an extent does he do this, that I feel almost embarrassed to join in what appears to be a purely private affair. However, if he feels ‘bitterly though resignedly resentful’ at the – wholly imagined – slighting of Larkin and others, like himself, I have to say that I too feel aggrieved, perhaps with less resignation, at his characterisation of a good part of my life’s work as careerism, in a larger enterprise which apparently also includes the likes of Ted Hughes and A. Alvarez. I have no idea upon what he bases his allegation that I was drawn to the poets in my anthology because I found the poetry of Larkin and other British poets too hard to ‘master’ (this is not a term I would use, but it is Davie’s), that I sought to substitute a more readily accessible poetry (in translation) for the home-grown and more difficult poetry, which ‘required a longer apprenticeship’. Obviously what has lodged in Davie’s hide is a remark, reported in my interview with Amichai, when I refer to the ‘inertness’ of the English scene in the Sixties (note, I qualified this by adding ‘as it seemed to us’). In any case, by including this interview – as one among several appendices to the collection – I was not seeking to make a statement about British poetry that would stand for all time, but simply trying to set the anthology in a historical context: Davie, as he does several times, quotes me out of context. There is, in short, no genuine argument that I can discern to back up his assertions.

Let me add that far from dismissing or decrying the achievements of English poetry, I have for several years, at the University of Iowa, taught a course surveying British poetry from Hardy to Larkin, with a close reading of poets my Midwestern American students were generally unaware of, such as Edward Thomas. Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, D. H.Lawrence etc. Naturally, I also directed students to Mr Davie’s writings, among others, on Hardy. What I am saying, quite simply, is that my commitment to the poets represented in my anthology in no way detracts from my devotion to that tradition of English poetry which runs from Hardy to Larkin.

I will not here respond to the many cheap shots which Davie, in his autochthonous indignation, levels at me. Suffice it to say that there is no evidence in Davie’s review that he has read my introduction, where he would find an explanation of why there are so many Poles, why I included some Israeli poets in an anthology devoted mainly to East Europeans, why I did not include constituent states of the former Soviet Union etc etc. Nor can I begin to address Davie’s extension of his thesis, whereby he contrives to lay the blame for the proliferation of poetry workshops, competitions, prizes etc at my door and that of my fellow ‘careerists’. Had it been known that I was so influential, I would perhaps have been a professor at Stanford or Vanderbilt, where Davie taught for so many years, rather than the far more modest University of Iowa.

But perhaps the most objectionable part of Davie’s piece, for me, is his parting shot: ‘How valiantly the careerists might have performed, if they had been caught up in the Holocaust or the War! By an accident of birth they weren’t: so we have had to live out with them, vicariously, the experience they were spared or cheated of.’ Of course, nobody who was not actually there can know how he or she would have performed, not even Davie. But as a Jew, the only member of my family to have been born in England, many of whose maternal and paternal relatives were deported to Bergen-Belsen and lived to tell the tale, I am not as remote from the whole affair as Davie imagines me to be.

Daniel Weissbort
University of Iowa

At a recent reunion of writers associated with Essex University, Natan Zach paid tribute to Donald Davie’s dignified conduct during the political upheavals of the Sixties. Deeply out of sympathy with events he could make no sense of, Davie turned away to, among other things, a postgraduate programme in literary translation, his brainchild, from which he sought an image of his own urbane Europeanism. Davie’s MA was shaped by the critical intelligence which produced Purity of Diction and Articulate Energy, the wide-ranging scholarship of a sailor after knowledge, and an understanding of Europe rare in the Eng Lit world. Awed by Davie’s gifts and his hauteur, many of us wondered what came next: for my own part, to follow him into Russia and Poland, crucial homelands of the European experience in an increasingly Californicated age, offered a way out of venal old England.

All the more incomprehensible to me, then, that this master of language should use the word ‘career-ploy’ of translators who have patently little to do with the slick new culture industry; that he should condemn them for holding out a hand of friendship to writers who could grasp it only on compromised terms, as everyone knew, especially the writers themselves; or that he should manoeuvre Larkin into the forefront of an obscure feud that Larkin himself would scarcely have understood. I really don’t think Davie could possibly have meant what he says in describing Swirszezynska as an ‘honorary graduand of the careerists’ academy’.

G.H. Hyde
University of East Anglia

Rose

In her review of Jane Emery’s biography of Rose Macaulay (LRB, 27 February), Claire Harman quotes David Wright’s description of Rose – a ‘mélange of toughness, independence, enterprise, courage and good humour’ – but thinks it ‘reads like an uncorroborated report’. I am happy to corroborate it, and to add to these qualities Rose’s capacity for enjoyment, even in hard times, and for passing it on to others. In Claire Harman’s depiction of ‘a dowdy woman’, ‘a pale companion’, ‘a game old lady’, I don’t for a moment recognise the Rose Macaulay whom I knew in the Fifties – as a contributor to the New Statesman when I was literary editor, as a member of the London Library Committee, as a fellow guest at parties where she always looked distinguished, always drank orange juice, always seemed to be the liveliest talker, and where nobody thought of her as an old lady. As for Claire Harman’s view that her books ‘cry out not to be taken too seriously’, I suggest that she look again at The World My Wilderness, where the bombed ruins round St Paul’s reflect the moral wilderness of the world just after the war. And is every bad driver to be labelled ‘a psychopath behind the wheel’?

Janet Adam Smith
London W11

An Embarrassed Silence

Edna Longley in her Belfast Diary (LRB, 9 January) is going it a bit when she says that ‘official embarrassment over commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising produced a small, hysterical backlash against the R-word, revisionism, rather than against the real culprit – the IRA.’ Edna Longley well knows, though your readers may not, that the principal official reaction to this anniversary, in the South at least, was silence. She is quite right to characterise the official reaction as embarrassed. She is, though, being a little bit naughty when she omits to mention certain unofficial responses to the opportunity for considered revaluation offered by the anniversary and, one might say, precipitated by the official embarrassment. One such was a modest collection of essays entitled Revising the Rising, edited by Mairin Ni Dhonnchadha and the undersigned. Containing views on the Rising and its interpretations from a variety of traditions in Ireland, political and historiographic, the book was a quiet and considered attempt to tease out certain historical readings of the Rising. As a contributor herself, she is aware that we included, happily, a number of essays which were negatively disposed towards the Rising and its consequences. The book was assembled by its editors, who then offered the manuscript to Field Day. I am glad to say they accepted it with alacrity, and I suggest it is very much to their credit that they should have published a book containing such a variety of positions, many of them at variance with the perceived Field Day world-view.

Theo Dorgan
Dublin

Talmudic Pun

Sheldon Rothblatt, in his interesting article ‘Education and Exclusion’ (LRB, 13 February), reports Suzanne Klingenstein as pointing to a similarity between the two words ‘freedom’ and ‘bondage’ in Hebrew, ‘since both shared the same root’. This statement (whether it arises from Klingenstein or only from Rothblatt’s report of her) is not correct. Perhaps the mistake arose from a misinterpretation of a Talmudic pun. Commenting on the Biblical verse (Exodus 32.16), ‘the writing was the writing of God, engraved (harut) on the tablets,’ the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 54a) says: ‘Do not read harut but herut [freedom].’ The intention here is certainly to say that subservience to the Law makes one free, but the pun is not based on a word for ‘bondage’, and there is no word meaning ‘bondage’ that is similar to herut. This word is actually not Biblical but late-Hebrew; but the Biblical word for ‘free’ (hofshi) also has no common root with any word meaning ‘bondage’

Hyam Maccoby
Leo Baeck College, London N3

Wrong Address

You have published my letter (Letters, 13 February) under the heading ‘Wrong Address’ but have made it nonsensical by getting a word wrong. The pub is the centrepiece of Volumes One and Three, not Two and Three, of Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky. Anyone reading the letter will wonder how Bob can be entirely absent from Volume Two when the pub where he works is said to form the centrepiece of that volume.

John Black
London NW5

Travesty

Readers of my review of Peter Marshall’s Demanding the impossible (LRB, 27 February) should know that it was so drastically and clumsily cut as to be a travesty of what I actually wrote.

Nicolas Walter
London N1

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