An Outline of Outlines

Graham Hough

Way back, when the century was in its early prime, we used to have Outlines of Everything. The archetype was the Outline of Modern Knowledge, but there were lots of others. I can see them still, pointing steadily leftwards, very long on tendencies and rather short on facts; those diagrams of a pig’s uterus that were supposed to teach us all about sex; those maps, full of trends and lines of force but most of the actual place-names missed out. I remember William Empson devising an Outline of Outlines, reduced in the end to a single sentence: ‘Everything is pretty all right because of science.’ Where are they now? Sunk back into the vast ocean of superannuated enlightenment. If we are to find the origins of these waves in the flood of printed matter we must look into the collective unconscious of publishers – a dusky region but not proof against all conjecture. In the Thirties they were afraid of being overtaken by a brave new world with nothing on their lists but The Wind in the Willows and a reprint of Unto This Last. Today the threat is more alien and more comprehensive: data-banks, silicone chips and information-retrieval processes threaten their very being, and they are fighting what they hope will not prove a rearguard action for the survival of the book itself. It is this, one supposes, that accounts for the extraordinary spate of reference books that have suddenly appeared on the market. It is not altruism or the death wish or precognitive discernment of some otherwise imperceptible demand: it is the desire to show that a surprisingly large amount of information can be compressed between two hard covers and retrieved by the comparatively trifling labour of turning the pages. In this the publishers are right, and the older forms of visual aid which they produce and purvey still have notable advantages over the microfiche, the public-address system and the television screen.

As some hundreds of specialist collaborators have been bringing their tributes to the immense congeries of information listed here, it is hard to see what a single reviewer, his private patch of cultivation surrounded by a wilderness of nescience, can decently attempt to say about it all. And the sight of world culture being polished off in this wholesale fashion tends to excite a dumb resentment. But there are some questions that can reasonably be asked. What audience are these tomes designed for? Who wants them? Who will buy them? What will be done with them? What ought to be done with them? Can we discern any common direction in their sudden and simultaneous appearance? They are not all aimed at the same mark, it is true, but they have one quality in common – very noticeable compared with their forerunners: they are remarkably untendentious. The Outlines of the Thirties were not only didactic but doctrinal. They set out not so much to answer the reader’s questions as to take him by the shoulders and push him firmly onto the right track – about birth-control, Cubism, modern poetry or whatever – and see that he didn’t leave it. The current offerings are quite differently composed. They nearly all take the form of the biographical dictionary – entries by individual names, in alphabetical order, and a wide range of contributors. Not much chance for trends or lines of force here. Even if there are wayward touches in individual articles the total effect is of a decent eclecticism. Consensus politics, one would say, with the virtues of consensus, but with the characteristic vice too – a touch of satisfied glibness that is strangely out of key with the actual temper of the present world. On the whole, however, they function as repositories of names and dates rather than as quarries for opinion.

There is one outstanding volume in this pile, exempt from these cavils, and it is the one that takes the greatest risks – Justin Wintle’s Makers of Modern Culture.

The title sounds ominous: such things can easily become patronising or anxiously trendy. This is neither. It is a straightforward biographical dictionary with over five hundred articles on outstanding modern figures in literature and the arts, philosophy and theology, and the more accessible parts of the sciences. Pop culture is not neglected; and the aim is to give an account of those persons and movements which have actually been influential, not those which some pundit thinks ought to have been. The starting-point is notionally 1914, and the terminus as near to the present moment as anything in print could get. There is a large and competent array of contributors, and no attempt has been made to bully them into conformity or make them write encyclopedese. The articles therefore vary in form and scope: some give more biographical detail, some concentrate on achievement and ideas. The biographical form means that movements and tendencies cannot appear as such: this defect is overcome by the simple device of an index, which lists such things as Cubism and phenomenology, besides many proper names that do not rate separate entries. I have found it everywhere lively and illuminating; the articles on painters are particularly good, suggesting that the writers had actually looked at the pictures, not merely repeated art-critics’ jargon. Bibliographies are brief and practical. This is not primarily a book for the reference library; it is a book that every intelligent household would be glad to possess. In the short time it has been lying around at home I have found it quite hard to persuade anyone who picked it up to put it down again.

The Macmillan series is harder to characterise. The label on the dust-jacket is ‘Great Writers Library’; inside it is ‘Great Writers Student Library’. Renaissance Drama means Elizabethan and Jacobean; The Novel to 1900 means the English novel; Melville and Hawthorne come in American Literature. The volumes are randomly divided by period, country or genre, with no apparent criterion but the clichés of some supposititious college course, and no principle but the quantitative. The Middle Ages are briskly cleared up in a slim 83 pages; The Romantic Period excluding the Novel (but including Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Lamb and Hazlitt) gets 127. But American Literature to 1900 requires 330 pages, and Twentieth-Century American Literature no less than 655. Great Writers indeed. Timothy Dwight, born in Northampton, Massachusetts 14 May 1752: ‘In his own time Timothy Dwight was a figure of towering significance.’ Arthur Murphy, born in Clomquin, Roscommon, 27 December 1727: his comedy The Upholsterer was produced in 1758, Alzuma in 1773. And while we are on the drama, let us remember James Robinson Planché, born in Piccadilly, London on 27 February 1796, who is part of the Romantic Period and inventor of the Christmas pantomime. The list of his plays runs to over 150 items, and his entry to seven pages. (Shakespeare gets five and a half.)

This series is an extraordinary enterprise. With a great deal of pains (and as far as I can judge considerable accuracy) it assembles a mass of information that is either abundantly available elsewhere or no use to anybody. It is apparently addressed to some hazily envisaged academic public. I have long suspected that the ‘students’ who haunt the imagination of English publishers are creatures of myth, and here the myth seems to have parted company with all educational reality. O happy students, dwellers in this dream-world: for the expenditure of less than £100 they can pass golden hours, learning the names and dates of all famous persons, with a few appropriate comments on each. A particularly nice scholarly touch is that actual birthdays are meticulously recorded. The conscientious instructor would not care to let his students out to face the world under the impression that Percy Wallace MacKaye was born on the 16th or the 18th instead of, as was in fact the case, the 17th of March 1875. The one volume for which I can see a real use is Twentieth-Century American Literature. This brings together a great deal of information which in this country at any rate is not easy to come by. And even here, I believe, its value will be to the interested general reader rather than to the imaginary student.

At a lower level, we have books compiled on the model of the Good Food Guide, with Michelin signs, stars for readability and so forth. Novels and Novelists is a particularly shoddy production, doing the novel from Cervantes to Pynchon in this fashion. It contains some of the most blatantly inadequate articles I have ever seen in print, and this is all the worse as there is a good historical introduction and gleams of brightness throughout. The List of Books is a suggested library of 3000 volumes to cover the total sum of human knowledge, with a brief comment on each item. Both these works are compiled by editors who ought to know better: there is something infinitely offensive in these slick little snippets of opinion on everything under the sun.

Finally we come to the Heinemann ‘Reader’s Guides’, which apparently propose a holocaust of world culture in batches of 50 at a time. The idea is unattractive, one expects the results to be horrid, but in fact they are not at all bad. They are not written for mythical students and they are not merely reference books: the aim is to provide inviting and suggestive critical essays, with short useful bibliographies to take things farther. In Fifty European Novels Martin Seymour-Smith redeems himself for the awfulness of Novels and Novelists. He is a man of immense reading in several languages, and without aiming at critical profundity, a lively, vigorous and intelligent commentator on all that he has read. Fifty European Novels begins with Rabelais and ends with Pasternak. It includes discussion of novels in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian. It can be read with enjoyment, and most English readers will find it a useful extension to their range. The case for Fifty British Plays is less evident, but there is a case. The book is dedicated to the proposition that there is a wealth of dramatic material in the 18th and 19th centuries that has been unjustly neglected. But it is at least aimed at a specific audience – the quite numerous one that believes in drama as something distinct from literature. The individual essays in these two books deal each with a single novel or a single play; in the two books on poetry they attempt to tackle a whole oeuvre, and are consequently more cramped for space – but in their different ways each scores a certain success. Peter Jones’s Fifty American Poets, strange though it may seem, is the only book known to me to give a straightforward account of American poetry from Anne Bradstreet to Sylvia Plath; and as such it will be welcome to many. It has not room to ask the difficult questions, and without any undue hospitality to nonentities it accepts the corpus of American verse pretty well at current valuation. But it is sensible, temperate, gives plenty of illustrative quotation, and leaves the reader free to experience the poetry in his own way. Fifty British Poets seems on the face of it to be a hopeless enterprise. What can 50 short essays hope to do, on material so familiar, every line of which has been endlessly discussed already? The need for these pieces is not exactly pressing: but Michael Schmidt, as those who have read him in PN Review will agree, is an extremely sensitive and discriminating critic of poetry, and surprisingly often within these rather forbidding limits he manages to say something fresh and valuable. On what for me are three test cases (Wyatt’s versification, what’s wrong with Hopkins, and just how much can we really enjoy Swinburne) he comes out extremely well.

What is it that makes the hackles rise at the sight of a batch of books like this? Well, in the first place there are far too many of them. English literature in particular is so pestered with guide-books that the sense of individual exploration has totally disappeared. Especially at a time when publishing is in travail it is an absurdity that it should be wasted in chopping up the chopped hay smaller still and peddling it in new packets. When anything particularly dull, spiritless and useless is turned out, we are told that it is intended for ‘students’. If we jib at that, the publisher puts on his best sophisticated smile and invokes ‘American students’. An insult to students and to Americans, and a misjudgment of their wants and their pockets which sales managers will surely come to regret. But in the end the trouble with this kind of thing is that it can hardly ever be genuine writing. The authors are not exploring either their subjects or themselves: they are extruding prefabricated pellets of inert information or second-hand opinion. This is the threat that always hangs over works of reference, and it is hard to escape. Skilled editing and a strong list of contributors can do it sometimes: above all, the prospect of addressing a real audience and fulfilling a real need. A ten-year moratorium on readers’ guides would be a help.