Friday, March 11, 2016

The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters by John Gross.

The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters is a history of literary criticism in Great Britain. A pause is necessary to observe the overproduction of criticism. We not only have critics whose purpose it is to examine, in excruciating detail, the poetry and prose which should be dedicated to pleasure; but we also have an additional layer of historian critics like Gross, who study past critics, who studied the writers.  John Gross is aware of this professional excess. He asks “how can anyone who tries to keep up with Wordsworthian studies find time to read Wordsworth?” This reviewer admits that he is not making the process any less confounded. His brain twists as he critically reviews a book, which critically reviews the critics, who critically reviewed the writers of literature.  In spite of this problem, it is the author’s job, as a literary historian, to record and interpret history. The lives of the critics and the development of the British periodical press is history. Additionally, it is the job of the reviewer to review books. So, amusingly and vertiginously, on we go. Of note, some social and political criticism is included by the historic critics explored here, but the primary object of study, in this tome, is literature.

John Gross offers a chronological trek of mini-biographies, which begin in 1802 with Lord Jeffrey of the “Edinburgh Review,” and end in 1936 with F.R. Leavis. His epilogue quickly catches the reader up to Gross’s “present time,” 1969, when Rise and Fall was published. Be warned that this is an advanced course in literary criticism. For most general non-fiction and history enthusiasts, (this reviewer included), the history of literary criticism is unexplored terrain. A novice is expected to tread water or sink. But, as someone who has gone through the process, this is not a bad way to learn. It’s much like getting lost in a foreign city. As long as one walks unafraid through the unknown, and is open to experiencing an entirely new area, the opportunity for learning is great. If this form of self-education appeals to a reader, then she will find, upon looking-up from Gross’s exploration, that many hours have been lost in the reverie of discovering history previously unmapped by the explorer. Thankfully, we have our internet as a compass. Gross does cover well-known writers (Carlyle, Mill, Arnold, etc.) but one will come across numerous obscure personalities or publications which will require a google.

Apologies to my feminist readers: the subjects are exclusively “men” of letters. There was, between 1800 and 1930, a strong women’s periodical press in Britain. There were women writing as journalists and critics. But Gross does not cover them. To make the situation as comical as it may be infuriating to those conversant regarding gender discrimination, women are almost exclusively mentioned in conjunction with the men in their lives. Virginia Woolf is seen primarily as the daughter of Leslie Stephen. Katherine Mansfield is only mentioned as John Middleton Murray’s lover. Queenie Leavis doesn’t even get a first name, let alone a mini-biography. She was a formidable critic in her own right who is relegated to the anonymity of being a “Mrs. Leavis.”Only George Eliot is praised as a genius writer. Even so, she does not rate a mini-biography for her critical works. The excuse of “well…it was 1969” is not a good one. Our relegated Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, on women and writing, in 1929. “The Woman Question,” or women’s place in the literary world, had been debated in the academy since the 1950s, then radically advocated since 1962 with the publication of The Feminine Mystique. John Gross could hardly been unaware of these trends. There is a 1991 revision of Rise and Fall, to which I do not have access. It purports to include “updates on several literary careers”* If a reader can tell me that it also includes a highly expanded coverage of the role of women, I will happily withdraw my objection.

While the absence of women diminishes the study, it does not diminish the individual portraits or the author’s able coloring of lives. Alice Walker once described her process with The Color Purple where she spent a summer sitting in a field, calling up the images of her characters in her mind and having conversations with them as a way to get to know them. In this way, she said, her “summer passed in a blaze of joy.” Similarly, if one appreciates being introduced to obscure and idiosyncratic critics, their reading will also pass in a blaze of joy.

Gross, John. The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1969.

*"The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life Since 1800 First Paperback Edition Edition." The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life Since 1800 (9781566630009): John Gross: Books., n.d. Web. 22 Aug. 2015.