The Education of Philip French

Marilyn Butler

  • Three Honest Men: Edmund Wilson, F.R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling edited by Philip French
    Carcanet, 120 pp, £6.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 85635 299 3
  • F.R. Leavis by William Walsh
    Chatto, 189 pp, £8.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2503 9

Can you name the author who set you thinking? For Philip French, at a Bristol grammar school in the 1950s, the enlighteners were Edmund Wilson, F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling. For me, at a Wimbledon grammar school in the 1950s, Bertrand Russell filled the slot on his own, largely because his History of Western Philosophy was so long. But by the end of my first year at university I had read at least two books by each of French’s three. We belonged to the Meritocracy, products of the school system set up in 1944 by the Butler Education Act. The ‘Honest Men’ of French’s title flourished in the atmosphere of grammar-school sixth forms, and some pessimists are suggesting that there is little market for their type in Britain any more.

Philip French has produced an effective introduction to the phenomenon of the 20th-century sage. Produced, not written: the book prints the scripts of three programmes he assembled for BBC Radio 3 in 1973, 1975 and 1977. They make a satisfying whole partly because he followed the same format in each case. Taped interviews with eight or so concerned onlookers (some of them, like Christopher Ricks, George Steiner and Gore Vidal, younger candidates for sagedom) are cut and rearranged to give a chronological sense of each career, but also a whiff of the blood and cordite of intellectual warfare. The purpose is not quite literary biography or portraiture, for which a more leisured academic monograph might have served better. French is curious about the intellectual lineaments of his own generation, and his ‘critical mosaic’ gives an impression of how the three careers stirred the consciousness and conscience of the English-speaking young between 1920 and 1970

The ‘onlookers’ who made up these programmes were anything but marginal, and without the dimension of sound we have lost some of French’s original point. With what emotion did they recollect the hero of their youth? Were they defensive – uneasy – unregenerate – about him and about their old selves? The tone of their voices must have told much, though the reader of the written word is compensated by a better sense of Who’s Who. Not only can he consult French’s biographical glossary, which supplies the date of birth and Career of each speaker: he also knows who the speaker is at any given time. It may not have been so easy for the English listener to distinguish between the half-dozen American voices used for the Trilling programme.

If this mosaic didn’t come over sharply it’s a pity, since it reads like a most accomplished piece of radio. The Wilson reminiscers were too ready to relegate their man to the museum, comparing him over-marmoreally with Jefferson, or even skittishly imagining his vast bare dome in an 18th-century wig. The Leavis programme was designed as an 80th-birthday tribute, and was tactful enough to be put out again immediately after his death. But for Trilling the mix seems exactly right. The famed grace and wit come across, but so does a frank recognition of the defences and swerves forced on metropolitan intellectuals by events. Trilling’s story is told by other New Yorkers, including Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and Norman Podhoretz, who between them seem to muster a greater range of ages, backgrounds and perhaps professional experience than the Leavis contributors. The atmosphere is more wide-awake than the English colloquium on the home-grown magus.

Is there a collective noun for the three that isn’t jokey, superior or downright inaccurate? Philip French settles without apology for his solution. ‘Honest Men’, but one suspects that he didn’t happen on it overnight. The Continental-sounding term, ‘intellectual’, suggests more theoretical interests than either Leavis or Wilson had time for. ‘Critic’ won’t quite do either. Though literature was the prime subject of all three, it was not the only one. They all rebelled against the narrowness of most modern academic writing about literature, and insisted upon placing it in the context of society and of public affairs. One way of typifying them would be to define the reader they aimed at – not so much the student working up a topic for a course or examination or essay, but the general reader, or at least the student in generalising mood. Another way would be to contrast their works with the kind of book more commonly rewarded in Academe, at least in America. They were not scholars. Not for them the citation of unpublished letters, the doubtfully profitable hours spent in manuscript collections or with the minor poetry, novels and reviews of the past.

Though they went into hard covers more regularly than most academics, their books were often collections of essays which had first seen the light of day in journals. Indeed Wilson was never an academic at all, but a very elevated kind of journalist. He might be given a year by his principal outlet, the New Yorker, to produce a vast review-article of 10,000 words, itself a creative act of inquiry. His best, most characteristic books have the air, as one commentator points out, of foreign terrain visited by an intelligent traveller, and formally they still resemble clusters of articles – Axel’s Castle, on the French Symbolists, To the Finland Station, on the rise of socialism, and Patriotic Gore, on the literature of the American Civil War. Leavis’s greatest enterprises were the journal he founded and edited. Scrutiny, and books which were often collections of articles, such as New Bearings in English Poetry, Revaluation and The Great Tradition. Trilling is most important for his heterogeneous essays of the 1950s, assembled as The Liberal Imagination and The Opposing Self. The ‘Honest Men’ were generalists, men of letters and purveyors of opinion in a tradition which emerged early in the 19th century with Jeffrey, Hazlitt, Macaulay, Carlyle and J.S. Mill, and in the 20th century included Orwell.

Their idea-mongering brought them into an uneasy relationship with the modern university. In an age of near-universal literacy and the mass production of pulp literature and entertainment, universities see themselves as the natural guardians of culture. Alongside their corporateness, it is not clear where the entrepreneurial man of letters fits in. All three of the Honest Men were passionate believers in the continuity of European culture, and felt a mission to bring it out of the hands of a hereditary élite, into the possession of the common, if educated man. Since they were duplicating the educative role of the universities, they were also by implication criticising it. Quite often they did not merely leave the reader to infer that Academe was too bound up with the hereditary Establishment, or too engaged in setting up a new élite of narrow professionals.

Trilling is the least explicit as a critic of the university though he had good personal cause. A New York Jew, offspring of the garment industry, he graduated brilliantly from Columbia in the 1920s, when the great American English departments were dominated by Anglophiles plus royalistes que le roi. When he finished his doctoral work at Columbia, a professor told him that he did not have much of a future as a teacher of English because he was not, as a Jew, sufficiently attuned to the Anglo-Saxon spirit. After a period of exile at Madison, Wisconsin and at another New York college, he got his job at Columbia, but a friend and classmate of his, another Jew, was turned down on the grounds that one in the department was enough. Some of his friends considered that these experiences led to Trilling’s adoption of protective colouring. Handsome and gentlemanly, he became so like the ideal Wasp that some of his friends seem to be still wondering if he sold out. Alfred Kazin, for example, laments his liking for Oxbridge and says that other non-English students of literature usually felt closer to the English labour movement and the working-class tradition. If Kazin is right about this, the American intellectuals he speaks of are disturbingly nonprolific. He is surely not quite right about Trilling, who in conversation did not flatter Oxford while a visitor to it.

Trilling was a committed teacher with a following among students that matched Leavis’s. But most of the observers recorded by French considered that his main importance lay in helping to form and sustain a milieu not dominated by professors, the New York literary world of practising writers and reviewers. Trilling’s preference for moving in and out of the cloister required him to develop some tare intellectual characteristics. Academics tend to impress one another by playing games in which the highest score goes to the most difficult utterance, but Trilling was lucid. His approach to a topic like the novels of Jane Austen was that of an educated man of the world who had read Marx and Freud rather than R.W. Chapman and Mary Lascelles, and it proposed an alternative both to the old-style Brahmins and to the new-style technocrats of American graduate schools.

Edmund Wilson, who in his maturity became a more pugnacious personality than Trilling ever was, maintained a steady and overt criticism of universities. He was nice to Trilling on every subject except his involvement with a debilitating academic world. He himself accepted engagements to lecture, not full-time appointments. He noticed that universities are liable to be exceedingly coercive, not so much Socratic academies for teaching the young to inquire as institutions for imposing the received wisdom of elders. University ‘research’ in English must be in 90 per cent of cases the assembling of illustrations to support a received view. This indeed is where one must quarrel with French’s observation that none of his three Honest Men did research. Wilson really researched, which is to say that he proceeded in the manner of a top-class investigative journalist, given months and being paid (twice) to visit Israel to explore the Dead Sea Scrolls, and coming up with an account of their importance which, as Yigael Yadin says, was in the minds of archaeologists without being on the keys of their typewriters. When he died, Wilson was learning Hungarian, part of a new investigative project. John Wain tells how he went to see him and asked him casually what had happened to the Indians round his up-state New York home. Wilson was ashamed that he could not answer the question, investigated it, and produced his book Apologies to the Iroquois.

For Wain, Wilson remains the model of what a critic ought to be, but one sees why of the three he set up no school and lacked self-confessed followers. University teachers do not urge their students to copy his kind of open-ended curiosity about the world as it is. Graduate students being trained at Oxford are, it is true, told the classic story of scholarly detective-work, the Washington Post standard investigation by John Carter and Graham Pollard in the 1930s into the literary forgeries perpetrated by two eminent men of the literary establishment, Thomas Wise and H. Buxton Forman. What seems most significant about that story, apart from its being half a century old, is that Carter and Pollard were dealers in rare books, who at the time of their celebrated Enquiry did not hold university appointments. Nobody needs to tell the graduate students that their conduct isn’t expected of today’s assistant lecturer.

From the far side of the Atlantic, Wilson and Trilling look like the doughty Honest Men of their self-images. Distance smooths out the tangles their real lives got into. For some years Wilson did not pay his income tax, perhaps because he forgot, perhaps because he disliked government interference and the Cold War. That gesture could seem unlovable if one had obeyed the draft, backed the New Deal, or simply in effect paid the taxes for him. Wilson would look less like a rugged individualist and more like a conceited boor to the correspondent who received one of his printed cards slating that ‘Mr Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to ... write introductions ... make speeches ... give interviews... supply personal information about himself’ and so on, with a little tick in the appropriate box.

As for Trilling, his English readers have surely tended to miss how firmly he was rooted in what Norman Podhoretz calls the political cultural polemics of his day. His career is truly intelligible only when the part played by Communism in post-war American culture is understood. He was a central figure, says Podhoretz, in the demystification of the Stalinist mentality. The very title of his most important book, The Liberal Imagination, has not been translatable on this side of the Atlantic. The word ‘liberal’ to an American is a cover-all term embracing radicalism and the Left while avoiding the disreputable connotations of ‘socialist’. As Trilling used the word, says Irving Howe, ‘it would also include a kind of conservatism, since his basic political point of view might be described as a conservative version of liberalism ... His sense of liberalism was that of an open society, tolerance, humaneness, generosity... the equivalent of moral imagination, of richness, diversity, complexity, openness of mind.’

To English readers, this has probably represented a rich and hopeful application of a literary education to the rest of life, even if it is not easy to see quite how it works. To some Americans, however, it must have read like a withdrawal from the rest of life, or at least from politics, into literature. When Trilling further distanced himself from rebellious students of Columbia in the Sixties, he looked to some of his erstwhile friends of the Left even more like a figure of the Right. Hearing all this rehearsed is not disillusioning, but a reminder that Trilling, like Wilson, engaged with large issues and met his own contemporaries on equal terms in an adult kind of discourse. Leavis invited his students to agree with him, and debated with absent enemies. It must have been a richer experience to live through the bad times alongside Trilling, disagreeing where necessary, at least if one concurs with Peacock’s description of good intellectual relations. ‘The dialogues of Plato and Cicero are made up of discussions amongst persons who differed in opinion.’ They would not ‘have been content to pass eternity in the company of persons who merely thought as they did’.

In Britain, however, the name of Leavis resounds with greater emotional impact than that of Wilson or Trilling. Leavis was more wholeheartedly involved with a university than either of the two Americans. Born in Cambridge, educated there at school and university, and working there almost all his life (even if grudgingly accepted by the powers that were), he functioned as a thorn in the side of the Cambridge English Faculty from the 1920s until his death in 1978. The long battle is alluded to intermittently in the French book and passim in F.R. Leavis, a sympathetic monograph by William Walsh, who was one of Leavis’s Cambridge pupils of the 1930s. As seen by his admirers, Leavis was a reformer, even a crusader, tilting against an exclusive and moribund Establishment. He saw no point in research for research’s sake. He disliked the scholarly manner inherited from the 19th century, which treated poems, novels and their writers as fodder for annals – the Cambridge or Oxford History of English Literature. The best literature of the past – Shakespeare’s, for instance – emerged, he argued, out of living participation by the people. Since then, the people had become distanced from culture, a process completed by the rise of an industrial, commercial order in the late 18th century. But, though capitalist society was the main enemy. Leavis also thought that the modern educated élite – university teachers and Sunday-newspaper reviewers – were engaged in a kind of conspiracy to appropriate literature to themselves, though as a marginal, frivolous activity. He taught his pupils that reading should engage the whole man, including the social and political man, so that in studying literature they were training not for leisure and not for a specialised profession, but for life.

It was undoubtedly a most inspiriting message. It worked partly because Leavis (and his wife, his former Girton pupil Queenie Roth) were splendid rhetoricians. It is nonsense to suggest that Leavis could not write. The prose of his lectures and essays could be as trenchant as that of his contemporary Orwell, especially when he evoked Nonconformist tradition, going back even to the Commonwealthmen and Bunyan. These suggestions were reinforced by an austere lifestyle, a flat Eastern Counties voice, and tielessness. At other times, especially the many other times when leavis wanted to put someone down, the model for his prose was Henry James, than whom no stylist could be more ornate and mandarin. If he wished to Invoke the authority of a central critical tradition, he was adept at echoing Arnold. Coleridge or Samuel Johnson, as he did in his assault on C.P. Snow: ‘The peculiar quality of Snow’s assurance expresses itself in a pervasive tone; a tone of which one can say that, while only genius could justify it, one cannot readily think of genius adopting it.’ Leavis nonplussed the snobs among his opponents by being so much more rigorously highbrow than they were.

Though scholarship boys responded to the more democratic features of the Leavis manner, his literary tastes were too often right of centre for coincidence. Of his trio of great critical precursors, Arnold, Coleridge and Johnson, the latter two were avowed Tories and upholders of a conservative High Church tradition. Leavis did not see Milton as a Puritan or a radical. He had a blind spot for the sceptical or agnostic temperament; Shelley, the most intellectual and iconoclastic of our great poets, represented his critical Waterloo. He misread John Stuart Mill on Coleridge and Bentham: the balancing-act of a discriminating intellect becomes, in Leavis’s hands, a vulgar assault on Bentham and a PR job on behalf of Coleridge. For all his later disagreements with T.S. Eliot – in whom the faithful William Walsh sees, disparagingly, a French or American taste compared with Leavis’s native English one – Leavis did not define the great English literary tradition very differently. But Eliot’s championing of Donne and Dryden against Milton and Shelley squares with his Toryism, while Leavis’s similar campaigns are hard to reconcile with his apparent populism.

Actually Leavis was neither Marxist nor social democrat, which is to say that he was not a man of the Left in any obvious mould. He had no interest in the efforts of the postwar Labour Government and its creation, the Welfare State. He was quite fond of speaking admiringly of the ‘people’ and of their past cultural contribution, but the last generation of the commonalty he heartily approved of had gone to, their graves some two hundred years since. The 20th-century masses were, in Leavis’s view, a pretty irremediable lot. ‘They save their living for their leisure, of which they have very much more than their predecessors of the Dickensian world had, but don’t know how to use it except inertly before the telly, and in the car and the bingo hall, filling pools forms, spending money, eating fish and chips in Spain.’ His own efforts were spent on encouraging a kind of NCO class. As William Walsh summarises the Leavis position, ‘it is upon a very small minority that the discerning appreciation of art and literature depends. There is also a larger minority capable of endorsing by genuine personal response the discernment of the critic ... Culture depends upon an unimpeded flow of communication and understanding between this few and the general public through the medium of an educated class.’

Hence Leavis’s development of a special tone, mannered yet also direct, personal yet Augustan in its certainty, which was intended, as was Scrutiny, to speak to an unseen audience in the schools. By confidently laying claim to values and standards (‘an amazing thing,’ marvels Professor Walsh, ‘when one thinks of our age of uncertainty, anxiety and doubt’), he provided the essential ingredient for raising an army – the promise of generalship. When his virulent attacks on Sunday journalism are rendered down to their intellectual core, they, too, reveal a strongly hierarchical altitude and a concern with leadership: ‘for if it is a small world, it is, as a system of personal and institutional connections, comprehensive; it virtually controls the currency of accepted valuations and the climate of taste.’ That is a curiously totalitarian view of taste, which properly belongs to a decade of authoritarians and demagogues, both of the left and the right. Much about Leavis, like the ineffaceable physical image, the ‘well-scrubbed and athletic elegance’ Walsh remembers, carries with it a strong period flavour.

Understandably, the modern New Left is keen to disown him. In 1979, Francis Mulhern wrote a book analysing the hazy and non-radical politics of Scrutiny. Stuart Hall, in Philip French’s programme, speaks of the ‘conservative critical model’ which Leavis and others of the Twenties and Thirties favoured. It is fair to observe that he was no socialist, but untrue to imply that authoritarianism and demagoguery are inherently conservative. Leavis’s attributes recur on the Left among those engaged in the same activity – the leadership of an intellectual cadre or ginger group.

This, his life’s work, in the end differentiates Leavis from both Wilson and Trilling. The others had admirers, Trilling even had grateful students, but Leavis founded a school. The process is an old one in intellectual life, at least as old as Athens and Alexandria, but in its modern form it has specialised features, which include battles for the allegiance of the most intelligent students, and the use of a militant journal as a platform. It is odd, incidentally, that Leavis evinced a lifelong hostility to Bentham, for the latter’s Philosophical Radicals of the 1820s and 1830s resembled Leavisites in all kinds of ways: they gathered protectively around a difficult, eccentric leader, they founded a journal, the Westminster Review, they even adopted a special manner and vocabulary – the linguistic equivalent of a uniform. Bentham operated in terms of a national and indeed an international scene, and in the name of progress: but the phenomenon he represented was not necessarily, progressive. In our century, Namier founded a school which differentiated itself fiercely from orthodox history. Lacan in Paris leads a breakaway group of psychologists. Arts faculties all over the Western world may find themselves adorned or broken up by a charismatic dissident, armed with a new and hostile methodology (Marxist structuralist, theoretical, statistical) and surrounded by keen students, often some of the brightest and best of their generation.

Most of the charismatic teachers whom Leavis resembles are, like him, ‘difficult’ personalities who quarrel with other teachers. Their success with the young is the obverse face of much-publicised failure with the established. Like the students they attract, they see the grown-up world as contemptible because it is mediocre and superannuated, and desirable because it stands for power, prestige and authority. The guru of this kind does not need a political vocabulary, because he already is a revolutionary in the struggle in which the young are engaged, regardless of politics – the revolt against parents. Whether or not the real-life founder of Christianity was anything like he is represented in Jesus Christ Superstar, that musical sketches the ideal, as he is seen from the point of view of the contemporary twenty-year-old. Mature minds (to use a favourite term of Leavis’s) would for preference alight on the Superstar with the subtlest, most genuinely liberating message, but often we don’t choose our heroes: they choose us, wherever we happen to be in late adolescence. Leavis’s group attracted all sorts, from the very bright to the dim. Though the uncritical William Walsh does not speak altogether well for his old teacher, good and diverse talents emerged from the Leavis experience strengthened and independent – such as L.C. Knights, James Smith, D.W. Harding, D.J. Enright and Marius Bewley.

If the Establishment had really been as clever and conspiratorial as Leavis always thought, it would have disabled him by making him a Reader at Cambridge or perhaps Professor of Poetry at Oxford. In fact, being amorphous, the Establishment was also brainless, and so could not register that Leavis thrived on its enmity, which was of course as instinctive and emotional as was the attachment of Leavis’s followers. The very innocent Professor Walsh has not seen anything of the process into which his hero was locked, so that he accepts Leavis’s own version, of steady victimisation. Yet the fact that Leavis clearly fuelled the Cambridge situation of mutual aggression does not mean that he was off his head. He must have known instinctively that his ascendancy over a circle of young admirers and his world-wide celebrity alike depended on the atmosphere of conflict in which he lived.

Leavis was unconvincing as a historian and incapable as a theorist: it is intriguing to read in Professor Walsh’s pages of his encounters with Wittgenstein, which sound in every way unsatisfactory. He had nevertheless a powerful literary talent which expressed itself in the pragmatic English vein. To call him, alongside Wilson and Trilling, an Honest Man is to create a problem: the Leavis persona is clearly a more complex matter, and for those out of sympathy with his apparent aims as well as his methods, it is suspect. Though his work supplies plenty of points with which one can disagree, it doesn’t invite the give-and-take of argument. He is not one of the thinkers with whom Peacock recommended that one might spend eternity. And yet Leavis remains a vital figure in a host of ways. The situation which he found, that of the demise of the general reader, matters now as it did then. His type of idiosyncratic teacher, programmed or un-programmed, is a flourishing breed, while the independent man of letters like Wilson or Trilling may have gone the way of the woolly mammoth. Compared with Leavis, the modern guru is at a disadvantage: trapped by ever-advancing specialisation, he is reluctant to lose face before his graduate students by stooping to a language which sixth-formers could understand. The range of Leavis’s audience is the proof of his remarkable personal success, which no one now writing can rival. When will someone have the skill or gall to get through to the comprehensives?