Stephen Fender

  • The London Yankees: Portraits of American Writers and Artists in England, 1894-1914 by Stanley Weintraub
    W.H. Allen, 408 pp, £7.95, November 1979, ISBN 0 491 02209 3
  • The Americans: Fifty Letters from America on our Life and Times by Alistair Cooke
    Bodley Head, 323 pp, £5.95, October 1979, ISBN 0 370 30163 3

The London Yankees has been warmly and widely noticed in this country, and (up to now, anyway) literary editors have set their heavies to the task of reviewing it. Why the fuss over what is, after all, no more than a lively compilation of literary biographies, a descriptive rather than analytical account that adds little to published materials already familiar to the reader interested in the subject? Because literary biography always fascinates; because lively books do not appear all that regularly; and also because of a certain pessimism about the cultural horsepower of Europe, as compared to America, which has been fashionable ever since Stephen Spender’s Love-Hate Relations. Philip Toynbee, in the Observer, came right out with it: ‘by now it is hard to see any reason why an American writer or artist should wish to settle either in Paris or London.’

Then, of course, it was another matter. James, Whistler, Sargent, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Stephen Crane, Harold Frederick, Henry Harland of the Yellow Book, Pound, Eliot, Frost; from 1894 to 1914 it seems that all the crème, not to mention the avant garde, of American talent was centred on London. Well, not all: Dreiser, Eugene O’Neill, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens (like Pound and his protégés, an early contributor to Poetry, Chicago) stayed behind; so did the group of young painters and photographers associated with Alfred Stieglitz’s quarterly Camera Work. Besides, it was always possible to import whole museum-loads of the right stuff – enough to fill the 69th Regiment Armory in New York in 1913 – in case the natives weren’t keeping up with the latest trends. But there is no doubt that London was where it was happening, providing you list all the Americans of talent, however old and eminent, who found themselves there for whatever reason and length of time. (One striking omission from this book is Jack London, but then he was over in the East End fretting about the people of the abyss.) The question is whether such a concatenation represents a cultural phenomenon or a happy accident of the kind Tom Stoppard plays with in Travesties, about Zurich in 1916. It’s worth recalling that all the characters in that play were ‘taken from history’, including the narrator and master of ceremonies, Henry Carr: but as Carr says of one of the more illustrious of them, ‘he wasn’t Lenin then!

Lenin is just the kind of thing that literary biographies tend to overlook. In fact, when you come to think of it, literary biography is a pretty odd genre. Like gossip and newspapers, it is an essential urban discourse; like most English novels, it is short on plot and long on social nuance apparently irrelevant to the story. Solidity of specification is the thing. Henry Harland

was less taken with California Novelist Gertrude Atherton, who was attractive, formidable, four years his elder, and widowed. George Atherton, dapper and useless, had drained the family finances and gone off on a schooner to Tahiti, where he died and was embalmed in a barrel of rum for the return voyage. After she arranged for the transfer of her husband from cask to casket, Mrs Atherton had left San Francisco for New York with her manuscripts, having begun writing fiction as an escape from boredom as well as a way out of debt.

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[*] Hutchinson (1975).