Ian Hamilton 1938-2001
(Born Robert Ian Hamilton) English poet, nonfiction writer, essayist, editor, and biographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Hamilton's career through 2003.
Recognized as one of the most notable literary critics, poets, and biographers of the twentieth century, Hamilton is applauded for his uncompromising standards of excellence. His role as founder and editor of two short-lived but influential literary magazines, as well as his tenure as editor of the Times Literary Supplement, established his lasting influence on the world of letters. Hamilton’s own poetic output is praised for its finely crafted verse, characterized by restrained but powerful emotion.
Hamilton was born March 24, 1938, in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England. He attended Keble College, Oxford, earning a B.A. with honors in 1962. He founded and edited The Review, a small but well-respected literary journal published between 1962 and 1972. The Review ceased publication for two years, and was reestablished in 1974 as The New Review under Hamilton's editorship. Hamilton served as poetry and fiction editor for the Times Literary Supplement from 1965 to 1973. He was a lecturer in poetry at the University of Hull in 1971. For the next few decades, he wrote literary reviews and biographies and edited several prestigious collections of essays and poems. In 1988, controversy erupted over issues of copyright infringement in his biography In Search of J. D. Salinger. In an early manuscript for the biography, Hamilton quoted substantial passages from unpublished letters of Salinger held in a library archive. Learning of this, Salinger sued Hamilton for copyright infringement; Hamilton was ordered to re-edit the biography, cutting out the quotes from Salinger's letters. Later, Salinger filed another lawsuit, claiming that Hamilton heavily paraphrased the letters and thereby violated copyright law. When a high court ruled in Salinger's favor, Hamilton was forced to re-edit his book once again. Hamilton died December 27, 2001, in London.
Hamilton is known as a bold and controversial literary biographer. Robert Lowell (1982) traces the life of the celebrated modern American poet, focusing on Lowell's mental breakdowns due to manic-depression. A Gift Imprisoned (1998) chronicles the early years of nineteenth-century English poet Matthew Arnold. In this biography, Hamilton addresses the question of why Arnold abandoned the writing of poetry in his middle age, turning instead to literary criticism. In Search of J. D. Salinger is viewed as much a chronicle of Hamilton's thwarted efforts to research Salinger's life as it is a biography of Salinger himself. Inspired by his experiences with the Salinger biography, Hamilton wrote Keepers of the Flame (1992), a critical discussion of the rise of literary biography, and the struggles between those who hold the estates of deceased writers and the biographers who wish to research writers' lives. As a poet, Hamilton has been called a minimalist. His poems tend to be short—most are fewer than twelve lines—written in finely crafted free verse, with a strong element of lyricism. Most of the poems in The Visit (1970) concern Hamilton's struggles with the death of his father and the mental breakdown of his wife. Fifty Poems (1988) comprises all of the thirty-three pieces in The Visit, with additional poems written since 1970. Sixty Poems (1997) includes all of Fifty Poems and ten newer works.
Hamilton was regarded as an influential critic and editor. His opinions were often harsh and uncompromising, and did not shy away from criticizing the works of such acknowledged masters as T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Hamilton's Against Oblivion (2002), published posthumously, provides brief essays on the life and work of forty-five American and English poets of the twentieth century whose works Hamilton believed would survive the test of time. In The Little Magazines (1976), Hamilton examined six small but significant literary magazines, and in Writers in Hollywood (1990) he explored the role of screenwriters in the moviemaking process, considering several literary figures who became Hollywood screenwriters. Hamilton's collections of essays and reviews include A Poetry Chronicle (1963), Walking Possession (1994), and “The Trouble with Money” and Other Essays (1998). As editor of The Faber Book of Soccer (1992), he collected several notable essays on the history of professional soccer as well as recollections of the game's greatest moments.
As a poet, critic, biographer, and editor, Hamilton has garnered both widespread admiration and pointed criticism. Many reviewers have praised his limited poetic oeuvre—some sixty poems over the course of a lifetime—as restrained but emotionally intense works of minimalist verse. Hamilton's authoritative biographies of Lowell and Arnold have met with mixed reviews. Critics have investigated the thoroughness of his research and asserted that he sometimes focuses on the sensationalist aspects of his subject's life. Hamilton's controversial biography of Salinger has been described, in retrospect, as an embarrassment to Hamilton, whose efforts to document the life of a writer he supposedly admired caused nothing but grief for Salinger—not to mention the would-be biographer. Commentators have asserted that Hamilton's most significant contribution to English letters may be his prominent influence as an editor, reviewer, and literary critic, setting the highest of standards in his assessments of modern poetry and providing a fresh perspective on the received masters, as well as championing contemporary poets who might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Pretending Not to Sleep (poetry) 1964
The Poetry of War, 1939-45 [editor] (poetry) 1965
Eight Poets [editor] (poetry) 1968
The Modern Poet: Essays from “The Review” [editor] (essays) 1968
The Visit (poetry) 1970
A Poetry Chronicle: Essays and Reviews (essays) 1973
Poems since 1900: An Anthology of British and American Verse in the Twentieth Century [co-editor, with Colin Falck] (poetry) 1974; republished as Poems since 1900: An Anthology, 1975
The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors (nonfiction) 1976
Robert Lowell: A Biography (biography) 1982
Yorkshire in Verse [editor] (poetry) 1984
The “New Review” Anthology [editor] (poetry) 1985
Fifty Poems (poetry) 1988
In Search of J. D. Salinger (biography) 1988
Writers in Hollywood, 1915-1951 (nonfiction) 1990
The Faber Book of Soccer [editor] (essays) 1992
Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (nonfiction) 1992; republished as Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath, 1994
The Oxford Companion to...
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SOURCE: Fried, Michael. “Strictly Personal.” Spectator 225, no. 7417 (22 August 1970): 187-88.
[In the following review, Fried calls The Visit “a magnificent book” and praises the lyrical qualities of Hamilton's poems.]
The poems in Ian Hamilton's first collection, The Visit, are relatively short. Within a given poem the lines are usually of different lengths: some of the most striking moments are the result of juxtaposing long and short lines (‘O world leave this alone / At least / This shocked and slightly aromatic fall of leaves …’). Almost no use is made of end-rhyme, which Hamilton does not need and which besides would distort the delicate internal movement of his poems.
His extraordinary control of pace and rhythm enables him to secure the integrity of each line without apparent effort. His line-breaks are at once natural and musical, ineluctable and unsettling. And in general his poems possess a consistent though never monotonous tone, keyed to direct speech but informed by a unique aural sensibility that cares equally about accentual stresses and the precise quantity of even the most fleeting syllable. Within that consistency of tone the fine texture of the sound—for example, the weight and duration of individual syllables—may alter radically from one line to another (‘Out of bounds, you kneel in the long grass / Deciphering obliterated names: /...
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SOURCE: Fenton, James. “Against the Tide.” New Statesman 85 (12 January 1973): 59-60.
[In the following review of A Poetry Chronicle, Fenton asserts that, while Hamilton's criticism may be severe, it offers a fresh perspective on the received literary masters.]
One often hears Ian Hamilton's poetry criticism referred to as ‘severe’ or ‘stern’, and among certain circles there is a vague suspicion that Hamilton, at heart, really doesn't much like poetry at all. This is typical of our times—the opposite of severe being in this case ‘indulgent’: it sometimes seems that poets are engaged in a sort of Dig for Victory campaign in which every little bit helps and its unfair or unpatriotic (or anti-American) to raise a voice of even modest doubt. Considerable and modest talents, to adapt Auden's phrase, are ruining their fine tenor voices with effects that bring down the house. In these circumstances writers and readers alike need reviewers who are not prepared to suffer fools gladly. Thus if Ian Hamilton is severe, it should make him the friend and not the enemy of poetry.
But is he severe? On the basis of the poetry he himself prints in the Review, which is often risibly mawkish, one would be inclined to say no. The fact is, though Hamilton himself would probably deny this, there is a kind of Review school, which clusters around his talent, producing...
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SOURCE: Dunn, Douglas. “Poetry and Criticism.” Spectator 230, no. 7549 (3 March 1973): 271.
[In the following review of A Poetry Chronicle, Dunn asserts that Hamilton is a valuable critic, and praises his essays as admirably written.]
Founding father of the ‘Greek Street cénacle,’ Ian Hamilton has been editing The Review and contributing to The Observer, TLS, London Magazine and other periodicals for just over ten years. The earliest of his collected reviews and essays is dated 1963, which could have been only a short time after he came down from Oxford with a traditionally indifferent degree. Somehow, somewhere, Hamilton learned how to read a book of poems, and we are the better for it. A Poetry Chronicle presents a level of seriousness, pertinacity and insight which is well worth having and may correct the damaging reputation he has acquired for planning new books of verse before they have a chance to get clear of the publisher's warehouse.
Authority is easily enough got hold of through posturing in the right ways at the right times in the mirrors of fashion; or through the licence of credentials grubbed after in university examinations. Much more attractive, much more important, is the critic who writes with flair. In his irreverent essay on The Waste Land, part of the gist is that Eliot's poem has been elevated and at the same time...
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SOURCE: Pritchett, V. S. “Satellites.” New Statesman 92, no. 2371 (27 August 1976): 281-82.
[In the following review of The Little Magazines, Pritchett provides an overview of Hamilton's discussion of each of six literary magazines and their editors. He praises Hamilton's writing as funny and ironic but also fair and even-handed.]
How to define ‘the little magazine’? In name and in time of birth it has the air of being a fierce, chaste sister of the little theatre movement and the sharp one-act plays that made the orthodox theatre look comatose. There was the protest against the heavy Reviews, and other commercial productions at the beginning of the century; it is one in the eye for the professionals by as yet uncorrupted amateurs. The little magazines addressed the austere minority. There have been, Ian Hamilton says, thousands of them; most vanished like proclamations at once and, as he goes on to say in his fond and often wildly funny account of six that managed to hang on for their decade, the same traits are shared by all.
Their self-appointed editors are not entrepreneurs but sectaries convinced of their unique importance; they have scraped money together and scorned the usual channels of the trade which would not touch them; they have had only a happy-go-lucky, Skimpolian idea of debit and credit; they have printed a few excellent things which no one else would...
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SOURCE: King, Francis. “Witty.” Spectator 237, no. 7732 (4 September 1976): 18.
[In the following review, King praises Hamilton's The Little Magazines as witty and amusing.]
The ‘little magazine’ of yesterday could best be defined as a publication in which magnitude of ambition was in inverse proportion to meagreness of funds and of sales. In England at least, all that has changed; and it can now best be defined as a publication in which meagreness of ambition and of sales is in inverse proportion to the magnitude of an Arts Council subsidy. Of the three English magazines dealt with by Ian Hamilton in this witty book [The Little Magazines]—he also deals with three American ones—The Criterion was financed for most of its life by T. S. Eliot's firm Faber and Faber; Horizon by a wealthy Maecenas, Peter Watson; and New Verse by the sale of review-copies that Geoffrey Grigson received in his capacity as literary editor of the right-wing Morning Post. No one, however indignant with the policy of these editors, could fume: ‘So that's how they spend our money!’ But that, as Mr Hamilton will know only too well, is what the public is now perpetually grumbling.
My favourite essay concerns The Little Review. The two thorny maidens who edited it, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, fell on authors with the excitement of...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Poetry Plus Pain in an Outsized and Wondrous Balance.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 November 1982): 2.
[In the following review of Robert Lowell, Eder praises Hamilton for his original research into primary sources and his fair, insightful portrayal of Lowell.]
“There's a strange fact about the poets of roughly our age, and one that doesn't exactly seem to have always been true. It's this, that to write we seem to have to go at it with such single-minded intensity that we are always on the point of drowning.” Robert Lowell wrote this to Theodore Roethke, a month before Roethke died of a heart attack, and 14 years before Lowell died the same way.
It was a tormented, self-tormenting generation. Randall Jarrell walked into a speeding car; Delmore Schwartz was found dead in the hallway of a cheap Manhattan hotel, and John Berryman jumped to his death from Minneapolis' high bridge. In his pocket, so the black joke went, was a scrap of paper with the words: “Your move, Cal.”
Cal—Lowell's nickname as a fierce and wild schoolboy, after Caligula and Caliban—was the generation's poet-king. Upon his death, he would be judged the finest poet writing in the English language. He was its king of pain, as well; pain suffered and pain inflicted. He was imperious, childlike, acute; a periodic womanizer, and in and out of mental...
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SOURCE: Howes, Victor. “A Poet's Contradictory Life.” Christian Science Monitor (3 December 1982): B4.
[In the following review, Howes offers a mixed assessment of Hamilton's Robert Lowell, describing the biography as “both compelling and repelling.”]
The poet Robert Lowell was a mass of contradictions. In World War II he was a conscientious objector who went to jail rather than serve in the armed forces. Against United States involvement in the Vietnam war he was one of the foremost protestors, taking part with Norman Mailer and Dr. Benjamin Spock in the speeches made at the time of the march on the Pentagon. He was a pacifist.
And yet he was fascinated by power. He kept a bust of Napoleon on his table. During a budding friendship with the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, he sent her a life of Alexander the Great. He nourished a lifelong interest in a gallery of favorite “despotic gangsters” that included Attila, Caligula, Napoleon, and Hitler.
His comrades at St. Mark's uppercrust Episcopal boarding school nicknamed him “Cal” for Caligula, or Caliban, and the name stuck to him for life.
He was a poet of extraordinary range, subtlety, and sensitivity, a brilliant talker, given to “dazzling” monologues, a teacher who made the great poets come to life “as if they were friends or acquaintances”—and three times a...
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SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Mad, Bad and Dangerous.” New Leader 65, no. 23 (13 December 1982): 24-5.
[In the following review of Robert Lowell, Pettingell comments that Hamilton's biography “illuminates Lowell's poetry through a profound understanding of his life.”]
The myth of the bard who is mad, bad and dangerous to know fascinates readers. Often poets fall under its malign spell, too, and feel they must live up to the part. But in Robert Lowell Ian Hamilton describes one who was a prisoner of cyclical breakdowns. Lowell himself once observed in a letter to his friend, John Berryman, “What queer lives we've had, even for poets! There seems something generic about it, and determined beyond anything we could do.”
Hamilton is a gripping narrator. His subject's history unfolds in these pages with the relentlessness of Elizabethan tragedy, punctuated by wild scenes and grand public gestures—including imprisonment as a conscientious objector during World War II, demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and involvement in the Presidential campaign of fellow poet Eugene McCarthy. Lowell swung between extremes. “One side of me,” he claimed, “is a conventional liberal, concerned with causes, agitated about peace and justice and equality, as so many people are. My other side is deeply conservative, wanting to slow down the whole modern process of mechanization...
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SOURCE: Simon, John. “Cursed and Blessed.” New Republic 187, no. 25 (27 December 1982): 29-32.
[In the following review of Robert Lowell, Simon praises Hamilton for extensive research and enjoyable writing style.]
A once popular concept of the poet that still lingers on in some quarters perceives him as: (1) an eternal child, unable to look after himself and living by the grace and nurture of friends and sympathetic strangers; (2) a heavy drinker and womanizer—except when he is (2a) a drug addict or pederast; (3) capable of saying and doing the most outrageous things; and (4) mad as a hatter. The notion, though more often wrong than right, fits Robert Lowell with classic—or should we say romantic?—precision. Although three of his contemporaries curiously resembled him in this—John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, and Delmore Schwartz, all of them, at one time or other, his friends—Lowell, a more prominent poet and public figure, emerges as the foremost poète maudit of America's recent past.
Lowell's life, then, if you look kindly at the above schema, was an archetype; if you don't, a cliché. Either way, the biographer who would do it justice must possess extreme tact, lest he too fall into oversimplification. The ideal biographer, of course, would be a divinely dispassionate creature, presenting all the germane information, interpreting the facts as perceptively...
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SOURCE: Lucas, John. “Lord Weary.” New Statesman 105, no. 2721 (13 May 1983): 25-6.
[In the following review, Lucas praises Hamilton's Robert Lowell as an impressive biography.]
Why do we need biographies of writers? I can think of only two I would not be without, and Boswell and John Forster not only had an affectionate, awed familiarity with their great subjects, they also had a marvellous story to tell. Most writers, however, do not lead particularly interesting lives, and would not be written about were it not for their art. Yet there is no doubt that people want biographies, and mostly, I suspect, for what they feel are excusable reasons (though in fact they're pretty unpleasant ones). If you know that in private life a writer had unhappy love affairs, drank too much, didn't pay his debts, made friends unwisely, was—well, ordinary, it helps to reconcile you to his superior talent. Why, you can even feel superior to him. After all, your dirty linen isn't going to be given a public airing. Nobody in his right mind would produce a biography about a writer less talented than himself, yet the effect of most biographies is to shrink the biographee to the level of the person who is writing about him. But then, as Dryden remarked (admittedly in a rather different context), ‘How can the less the greater comprehend?’
I know that it is said that we need...
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SOURCE: Thwaite, Anthony. “Madness and Authority.” Spectator 250 (14 May 1983): 21-2.
[In the following review of Robert Lowell, Thwaite describes the biography as “a considerable achievement,” asserting that it is “one of the best literary biographies of a modern writer I have ever read.”]
In 1966 Robert Lowell remarked in a letter: ‘John B. in his mad way keeps talking about something evil stalking us poets. That's a bad way to talk, but there's truth in it.’ ‘John B.’ is of course John Berryman. Six years after that letter, he jumped off a bridge in Minneapolis. Five years after Berryman's suicide, Lowell died of a heart attack in a New York taxi, after a life of cyclical manic visitations.
Berryman was the subject of John Haffenden's enormous biography last year, and in Eileen Simpson's Poets in Their Youth, published at the same time, he shared the stage with Lowell, Jean Stafford (Lowell's first wife), Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and others of that generation of American writers whose walk along a psychological razor's edge has become a legend, and was already a legend in their own lifetimes. Reviewing those two books here, I tried to relate them to a whole American literary inheritance of emotional extremism, of mad talking and evil stalking.
Now Ian Hamilton has taken up the individual story of Robert Lowell, by general...
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SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of Robert Lowell: A Biography, by Ian Hamilton. World Literature Today 57, no. 3 (summer 1983): 463-64.
[In the following review, Pratt discusses Hamilton's Robert Lowell: A Biography, and Robert Lowell: Nihilist as Hero, by Vereen M. Bell. Pratt asserts that Hamilton's biography is “the fullest presentation of Lowell's life so far.”]
“I go over my life trying to understand it—I think in a way I never understood it,” Robert Lowell admitted to Peter Taylor, many years after they had begun their writing careers together at Kenyon College, and he agreed with George Santayana's saying that “I have enjoyed writing about my life more than living it.” Certainly Lowell's life was desperately unhappy much of the time, though it is not certain whether his catastrophic personal existence drove him to be a writer, or his writing drove him to destroy not only his own happiness but the happiness of those who were closest to him. What is clear is that, for Lowell, poetic inspiration was linked to personal misery, and that he was as gifted at causing pain to himself and others as he was at transforming it into memorable poems.
Ian Hamilton has made an absorbingly truthful account of Lowell's self-destructive career [in Robert Lowell: A Biography], documenting all the suffering without trying to excuse the conduct and showing how...
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SOURCE: Richman, Robert. “The Saddest Story.” American Scholar 53, no. 2 (spring 1984): 266-74.
[In the following review of Robert Lowell, Richman applauds Hamilton's extensive research into primary sources, but criticizes him for failing to adequately examine Lowell's intellectual development.]
Given the relish these days for scandalous life over honorable art, it should come as no surprise that Ian Hamilton's biography of the American poet Robert Lowell has attracted far more attention than any of the poet's books ever did. Considering the space that has been granted to this book by the sundry publications that normally act as if poetry, like some species of dinosaur, does not exist, we are confronted once again with the priorities of the reading public. Poetry is simply not read, at least not nearly as often as the story of a poet's life, even if the poetry contains, as many of Lowell's “confessional” works did, some dark facts about the poet's life. The biography Robert Lowell has even inspired Faber & Faber, the serious English publisher who brought out the book recently in England, to adorn the firm's outgoing mail with little pictures of Lowell's countenance, neatly printed by the machine that applies the postage. The words beneath the face read: “The literary biography of the year. Illustrated.”
In a certain sense, all this attention has not been...
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SOURCE: Hofmann, Michael. “An Oriental Air.” New Statesman 115, no. 2974 (25 March 1988): 28.
[In the following review of Fifty Poems, Hofmann asserts that, although Hamilton's poetry shows little variation or development through the years, some of his poems are brilliant and express “unwavering intensity.”]
This is a small, indispensable volume. It is a “collected poems” by any other name: but “fifty” expresses more regret, more limitation and more anxiety about the book's achievement than “collected” ever could.
That [Fifty Poems] has been published at all in the indifferent jostle of the 1980s is an act of some grace and imagination, for Ian Hamilton's reputation as a poet is neither new, nor booming, nor much discussed at all. Most readers over, say, 38 will know of his work; few under that age will have thought of him—the reviewer and television bookman, the self-effacing biographer of Lowell, Salinger's injuncted ghostbuster—as a poet at all. This book is for them.
The first 33 of the 50 poems made up Hamilton's previous Faber book, The Visit, published and reprinted in 1970, and unobtainable practically ever since. The next 11 appeared in a pamphlet, Returning, and the last half dozen in ones and twos over the last few years.
Most of the poems are generated by one or two subjects: a wife's...
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SOURCE: Ward, Robert. “As Good as Their Words.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 April 1990): 1, 7.
[In the following review, Ward asserts that Hamilton's Writers in Hollywood is an enjoyable read and provides a good general introduction to the history of Hollywood screenwriting.]
Ian Hamilton, author of the definitive biography of Robert Lowell, is having fun this time out.
Obviously no book that is only 330 pages long and covers the history of motion pictures from 1915 to 1951, can hope to do justice to its subject. Writers in Hollywood must be seen as a sort of primer on the subject.
If you want to learn something about the writer in the silent era, Hamilton's got a chapter or two for you. If you're interested in the man they called “The Writing Machine,” Ben Hecht, there are more than a few good anecdotes and some interesting discussions about the way Hecht and his partner, Charles MacArthur, worked and played (and how they did play!). The same goes for Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler.
Or perhaps you're looking for a short, neatly packaged history of the formation of the Writer's Guild, or writers' responses to the restrictions of the Hays Code. If so, Hamilton's done a nice job capsulizing the arguments, pro and con.
In fact, the entire book is a kind of Writers in Hollywood's...
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SOURCE: Hunter, Frederic. “Hollywood's Write Stuff.” Christian Science Monitor (21 May 1990): 14.
[In the following review of Writers in Hollywood, Hunter praises Hamilton's scholarship and historical research.]
In the beginning was the image.
And the image moved. In silence. The images were first seen in penny arcades, “nickel-in-the-slot Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes,” as Ian Hamilton notes, “with their two-minute vaudeville routines, their circus turns and boxing bouts.”
Later, around the turn of the century, motion pictures were delivered in small movie houses rather than through slot machines. A bill might include a half hour of chases, comedy routines, even bits of staged and photographed historical events, explained, where necessary, with title cards.
Then early moviemakers began to place several sequences into a single film, suggesting a narrative flow. They varied camera angles; they introduced closeups and inserts; they explored storytelling techniques.
Their images really were worth a thousand words in what they revealed of characters, locales, actions. As film made a visual record of these, there was little need for word men.
And so, in a sense, writers were a kind of afterthought in a business aptly called “picture-making.” This may explain, in part, why Hollywood has treated...
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SOURCE: French, Sean. “Refuge for Writers.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 105 (15 June 1990): 33-4.
[In the following review, French asserts that Hamilton's Writers in Hollywood is fascinating and enjoyable to read, and provides a valuable survey of the history of Hollywood screenwriting.]
In 1926 Herman Mankiewicz, ex-journalist and then a highly successful screen writer, despatched a famous telegram to his friend, Ben Hecht, who was still working on a Chicago newspaper: “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around.”
The lure of Hollywood for journalists and, even more, for hard-up novelists, was irresistible. And in their own way the brutish movie moguls respected artists and were—intermittently, at least—eager to attract them, as a way perhaps of giving legitimacy to the young art form that they had so recently invented. One result was that writers tended to advance on Hollywood in the professedly cynical spirit of Mankiewicz's telegram. As George Bernard Shaw allegedly put it while turning down an offer from Hollywood, “The difference between us, Mr Goldwyn, is that you are only interested in art and I am only interested in money.”
Ian Hamilton's new book [Writers...
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SOURCE: Mortimer, John. “Two Thousand Dolours.” Spectator 264, no. 8450 (23 June 1990): 32.
[In the following review of Writers in Hollywood, Mortimer praises Hamilton's research and expertise.]
‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ ran the titles on one of the earliest talkies to come out of Hollywood, ‘by William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor’. Shakespeare we know about, but the unfortunate Sam Taylor has passed on into the limbo of forgotten screenwriters. It is very hard to think of an unforgotten screenwriter and the same oblivion awaits those whose other literary work survives. Who can remember what films were written by Aldous Huxley, Scott Fitzgerald, Christopher Isherwood or P. G. Wodehouse? The lives of writers in the old days of Hollywood appeared to be beset with loneliness, frustration and the humiliation of being considerably overpaid for work which was so little respected that a word from the studio accountant, a faint hint dropped by the producer's girlfriend could lead to it being changed overnight. All Mr Ian Hamilton's admirable research and expertise has left him with a pretty sad story to tell [in Writers in Hollywood].
The cinema began in a silent world where writers were hardly needed. Directors such as D. W. Griffiths could write their own highly embarrassing titles, in Birth of a Nation, such as ‘For her who...
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SOURCE: Dardis, Tom. Review of Writers in Hollywood, by Ian Hamilton. America 164, no. 4106 (2 March 1991): 252-53.
[In the following review, Dardis offers a scathing critique of Hamilton's Writers in Hollywood. Dardis describes the work as unoriginal, offering no new information or ideas, and containing many factual errors.]
The British-born writer Ian Hamilton, author of Robert Lowell: A Biography and In Search of J. D. Salinger, is fascinated with the United States and its culture. Salinger won a court victory over Hamilton for including his early correspondence without permission, thus resulting in a truncated book that disappointed publisher and readers. Now Hamilton turns his attention to the writers who served their time in what is now known as Hollywood's “Golden Age.” The results are meager, for Hamilton has conducted much of his research in libraries.
Writers in Hollywood is not marked by any degree of originality—Hamilton displays no fear in retelling the same old stories. His narrative includes just about every well-known anecdote about Hollywood writers with which we are familiar. Turning the pages, I began to dread what might turn up next—to discover in fact that Sam Goldwyn's alleged scream about the Maurice Maeterlinck script he'd commissioned, “My God, the hero is a bee!,” was there as well as G. B. Shaw's equally famous...
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SOURCE: Kalson, Albert E. Review of Writers in Hollywood, by Ian Hamilton. Modern Fiction Studies 37, no. 2 (summer 1991): 259-61.
[In the following review, Kalson offers a scathing assessment of Hamilton's Writers in Hollywood, asserting that it fails to provide new information, insight, or analysis.]
Ian Hamilton [in Writers in Hollywood] devotes three pages to determine who put a drunken Dashiell Hammett on a plane back to New York and Lillian Hellman. Was it writer Charlie Brackett or the writing team of Albert Hackett and his wife Frances Goodrich? Maurice Zolotow, author of Billy Wilder in Hollywood, credits Brackett, Hamilton—scrupulous about identifying his many sources—informs us; but Diane Johnson, Hammett's biographer, gives the nod to the Hacketts, Hamilton states. According to another Hammett biographer, Richard Layman, Brackett together with his alcoholic wife played the good Samaritans. There is even some question as to the year—1937 or 1938. Does anyone care? “In the end,” concludes Hamilton, after adding the name of writer Leigh Brackett for more confusion, “it is a Hammett story …, not about the likes of Hackett and Brackett.” Hamilton does not employ the anecdote as an introduction to an examination of the famed mystery writer's film career. Instead, the story leads into four-and-a-half pages on Raymond Chandler's unhappy Hollywood days....
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SOURCE: McGilligan, Patrick. Review of Writers in Hollywood, by Ian Hamilton. Film Quarterly 45, no. 1 (fall 1991): 46-7.
[In the following essay, McGilligan discusses Hamilton’s Writers in Hollywood, and Ben Hecht, by William MacAdams. McGilligan offers a scathing review of Writers in Hollywood, asserting that Hamilton simply rehashes other books about Hollywood screenwriters while adding little new information or insight.]
Ben Hecht was one of those American literary half-geniuses who spent part of his amazing life, as a scriptwriter of noteworthy films, writing his way into Hollywood history, and another, longer part, when he was mostly doctoring mediocre movies, trying to write his way out. Partly because he was so colorful and swaggering and extra-paradoxical, Hecht has probably had more critical bouquets tossed in his direction than all of the other screen scribes of his era combined; just for example, publicity material for the MacAdams book catalogs the effusive praise of Jean-Luc Godard, David O. Selznick, and Pauline Kael, three unalikes who could agree on one thing at least—Hecht was tops.
Hyperbole lends itself to Hecht, who was the stuff of extremes—extreme ambition and early success, extreme iconoclasm and self-publicity, extreme downhill slide. In attempting to sort out the splendid anarchy of his life, MacAdams has done some careful...
(The entire section is 878 words.)
SOURCE: Fletcher, Martin. “Set Pieces.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 190 (21 February 1992): 41.
[In the following review of The Faber Book of Soccer, edited by Hamilton, Fletcher praises the collection as classy and full of heart.]
It was when “Vlad” Nabokov made a brief appearance in the first half that I realised this was no Second Division line-up. Mind you, by his own account, he made a hash of keeping goal. Too much navel-gazing to keep an eye on the ball. And Albert Camus? Great thinker, terrible goalie: the ball never came to him where he expected it. A bit like life. Goalkeepers have a tough time of it; even Peter Bonetti gets a pasting for losing his touch during the 1970 World Cup. But, as Frank Keating discovered, it is “axiomatic that goalkeepers, like wicketkeepers, are a slate loose”.
There's nothing lax about the fine display by the Oldies that gets us off the mark. Charles Edwardes' long-breeched uprightness on the unregenerate passions inflamed by the great game is matched in elegance by the earnest reasoning of John Devey who, in “The Art of Captaincy” (1906), asserts confidently that “the captain should be the brainiest man in the eleven.” By the time we get to J B Priestley on Bruddersford United we're in earshot of soccer's exhilarating rout. But then George Orwell has to put his cantankerous boot in by railing against sport as “an...
(The entire section is 625 words.)
SOURCE: Carr, J. L. “You Have Not Delighted Us Long Enough.” Spectator 268, no. 8539 (7 March 1992): 27-8.
[In the following review, Carr offers a mixed assessment of The Faber Book of Soccer, edited by Hamilton.]
Quite often, sitting through a parish church council meeting, I think that if an earnest pagan were present he would suppose that Christianity was about saving the steeple. And thus, this anthology. By and large, its soccer is a resurrection of superstars, ego-maniacal managers and solemn pronunciamentos. So, on p.130 [of The Faber Book of Soccer], we find Mr Hopcraft hanging upon Mrs Charlton's words, ‘Our Bobby now, the one thing we worried about was he was slow off the mark.’
‘Rarely, rarely comest thou, spirit of delight …’
For top football is a serious business. Even at Sale Price, Gazza costs £5,000,000 and the Maxwells buy up clubs like job-lots. A Manchester City manager puts it well. ‘Christ! [a name we'd never use at PCC meetings], Christ! What a season we're going to have!’ It's a wonderworld.
But sometimes a light surprises. There is John Moynihan's one-legged centre-forward crashing through The Queen's Elm pub's defence, a true striker on crutches. And how refreshing to discover that, watched by
amiable crumpets bursting out of their jeans, and wives and...
(The entire section is 967 words.)
SOURCE: Binding, Paul. “Shilling Lives.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 224 (16 October 1992): 40-1.
[In the following essay, Binding discusses Hamilton’s Keepers of the Flame, and Stephen Spender, by Hugh David. Binding asserts that Keepers of the Flame is an extremely interesting and informative read, but that it lacks a strong line of developed argument.]
“Who live under the shadow of war, / What can I do that matters?” Stephen Spender asks in one of the most poignant and famous of his Poems (1933). It distils the emotions of a whole generation, knowingly trapped between large-scale conflicts while still entertaining hopes and heeding instincts. The poem also alludes to the previous generation, to poets dead in the Great War, and particularly perhaps Wilfred Owen, whose passionate inclusive pity and nervous insistent rhythms and assonances are real presences in Spender's earlier work.
No less memorable is the second poem of that book, “Rolled over on Europe”, a lyric crystallisation of a prose work by Rilke that surely marks the entry of the great Austrian poet into English writing. Spender was later to collaborate with J P Leishman on a translation of the Duino Elegies that has been countless English readers' way into Rilke ever since. But the poem is also a statement of the indissolubility of Europe from the young man's quest. With...
(The entire section is 1255 words.)
SOURCE: Christiansen, Rupert. “Hanging out the Washing.” Spectator 269, no. 8578 (5 December 1992): 45-6.
[In the following review, Christiansen asserts that Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame is entertaining and enjoyable to read, but that it does not resolve or add to ongoing critical debates about literary biography.]
This is a book which I nearly wrote myself. The idea for a study of the posthumous fate of authors at the hands of their executors and biographers came originally, I believe, from Francis King, but for a number of reasons Hutchinson commissioned me instead. After a year's research, I decided that the subject was intractable and cancelled my contract. The chalice was passed to Ian Hamilton (with whom, incidentally, I have had no contact whatsoever)—an obvious and admirable choice, in the light of his troubled quest, In Search of J. D. Salinger.
Much of what he has come up with [in Keepers of the Flame] makes interesting and enjoyable reading, but I don't feel that the sum of the book resolves, or even advances, the debate—if anything, it rather evades it. In the foreword, Hamilton fliply suggests that
potential or probable biographees … should follow Henry James and try to serve as their own keepers of the flame. If they don't, or if they fail to cover all the angles (as James did), then it seems to me that...
(The entire section is 844 words.)
SOURCE: Horne, Philip. “Revealers and Concealers.” Essays in Criticism 43, no. 4 (October 1993): 273-83.
[In the following review, Horne asserts that Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame and In Search of J. D. Salinger address ongoing debates over intellectual property rights and other ethical issues surrounding literary biography.]
Beginning his admirable recent book about the history and ethics of literary biography, Ian Hamilton lays out, very usefully, the deadeningly stereotyped oppositional lines of argument, the tired steps it is pointless merely to repeat:
Sometimes, arguing about biography is like arguing about abortion or capital punishment: minds tend to be made up before you start. There are revealers and there are concealers. The agents of reticence have no truck with the agents of disclosure. Privacy is sacred, the public has a right to know.
(Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, 1992, p. vii).
How far biographical investigation, of the living, the recently dead or the long-dead, is an intrusion, and how far such intrusion can be justified on the ground of public interest (a term which here becomes a pun), and what is the legitimate scope of biographical interpretation and judgment; and, on the other side, what are the rights and obligations, legal and...
(The entire section is 3972 words.)
SOURCE: Horovitz, Michael. “Gents at Work.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 289 (11 February 1994): 37-8.
[In the following review, Horovitz offers a scathingly critical assessment of The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English, edited by Hamilton. Horovitz asserts that Hamilton's editorial choices reflect a narrow range of literary taste. Horovitz further states that The Oxford Companion is superficial, careless, and full of factual errors.]
These 620 pages [of The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English] provide entries on 1,500 poets who have written in English and its variants since 1900, and on 100 related subjects. The blurb claims, “There is no other reference work of comparable range and depth”, but in fact there are several, notably the transatlantic St James Press' Contemporary Poets and Alan Bold's Longman Dictionary of Poets.
The latter is more compact and concise for straightforward information, and includes a representative quotation from each poet. The depth of exposition in St James' tends to be greater, partly because far more space and care is invested. Its fifth edition of 1991, edited by Tracy Chevalier, runs to 1,200 gigantic pages, and each of its entries includes a detailed biography, complete bibliography and signed essay, plus comments or essays of varying lengths by most of the poets...
(The entire section is 1281 words.)
SOURCE: Mallon, Thomas. “Life Stories.” New Criterion 12, no. 10 (June 1994): 80-4.
[In the following review, Mallon praises Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame, asserting that it addresses basic and enduring issues about literary biography.]
This highly sensible and entertaining study of literary biography [Keepers of the Flame] seems to have surprised its own author. Ian Hamilton's prescription for approaching writers' lives slowly and respectfully “may sound fishy,” he admits, “coming as it does from the biographer of Robert Lowell (d. 1977) and the near, would-be or failed biographer of J. D. Salinger (1919-), but there it is. We live and learn.” Indeed, those who remember the Lowell book as a repetitive, over-documented re-creation of nervous breakdown after nervous breakdown, and who followed Hamilton's later battle over the Salinger letters, will be pleased to see how lean and writer-friendly Keepers of the Flame has turned out. Its “dozen or so case-histories” concentrate for the most part on the genre's ethics: “How much should a biographer tell? How much should an executor suppress? And what would the biographee have wanted—do we know?”
A good portion of the book concerns last wills and testaments, whose ambiguity has always guaranteed trouble. Carlyle left behind a tangle of directives that started a war between his biographer and niece:...
(The entire section is 2034 words.)
SOURCE: Hulbert, Ann. “The Soul and Discretion.” New Republic 211, no. 819 (22 August 1994): 40-5.
[In the following essay, Hulbert discusses Hamilton’s Keepers of the Flame, and E. M. Forster: A Biography, by Nicola Beauman. Hulbert asserts that Hamilton's approach to his subject matter is scholarly and even-handed.]
Literary biography suffers from a chronic identity crisis. Working with methods that are plainly unscientific and from motives that are inevitably open to question, most biographers wonder at many points whether their enterprise qualifies as a creative art, or a more prosaic historical craft, or a scandal. And literary biography, in treating the murky realm where art and life mingle, invites even more intense self-doubt. Is it an especially high creative tribute, or an especially scandalous affront, to try yoking aesthetic achievements with the mundane details of a writer's personal life? The answer to the quandary is presumed to depend on how the biography is executed, but the truth is that the confusion transcends technique. For perhaps the most unsettling—and alluring—feature of the undisciplined and interdisciplinary form is that it is, almost by definition, bound to be a mix of art, craft and scandal (unless it is pure hagiography, in which case it is religion).
The muddled nature of the genre contrasts sharply with the strident nature of the...
(The entire section is 5206 words.)
SOURCE: Glendinning, Victoria. “Why One Prefers a Biographer of One's Own.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 October 1994): 2, 8.
[In the following review, Glendinning asserts that Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame is entertaining and thought-provoking, but that it contains some factual errors.]
What is posterity? Nothing but “an unending jostle of vanities, appetites and fears,” concludes Ian Hamilton at the end of a book that is quite surprisingly entertaining and suggestive. One might not suppose that a work subtitled Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography would give one cause to laugh aloud, but it does. Hamilton is a British poet, an editor and himself the biographer of Robert Lowell and, notoriously, of J. D. Salinger (well, he tried). For all his scholarship, he writes [in Keepers of the Flame] with the immediacy, economy and ease of a witty man talking over a bottle of wine.
The “keepers of the flame” are the friends, relations, devotees, literary executors and biographers, in whose hands lies what Hamilton calls the “after-fame” of great writers. We live in an era of copious, candid and some would say intrusive, biography. The questions Hamilton addresses about the history and ethics of the genre were never more topical. “How much should a biographer tell? How much should an executor suppress? And what would the biographee have...
(The entire section is 1520 words.)
SOURCE: West III, James L. W. “Biography and Literary Estates.” Sewanee Review 103, no. 1 (winter 1995): 20-1.
[In the following review of Keepers of the Flame, West comments that Hamilton's approach is readable and balanced, but observes that the book as a whole lacks a clearly articulated theme.]
Keepers of the Flame, Ian Hamilton's book about literary heirs, executors, and estates, traces the histories of the surviving manuscripts and literary rights of some twenty-two authors, all of them either British or expatriated Americans. There is conflict, some of it operatic, in nearly every one of these stories as the spouses, children, amanuenses, acolytes, and eventually the attorneys try to sort out who controls what. At stake are not just the author's unpublished writings, valuable as they often are, but the biographical account that will go down to posterity. Which of several possible versions will it be? Who gets to say?
The surviving families almost always favor the bland, official biography, with youthful indiscretions and sexual ambivalences erased. This seems reasonable enough, but often there are scores to be settled as well. Whom did the author really love? Who actually inspired her most famous poem? Who lent him money? Corrected his proofs? Cared for her children? Heard his dying words? All of these concerns make their way, sometimes in comic form, into...
(The entire section is 639 words.)
SOURCE: Simon, John. “Supreme Nonfiction.” New Criterion 15, no. 5 (January 1997): 63-8.
[In the following review, Simon praises Hamilton's Walking Possession as thought-provoking, witty, and entertaining.]
It is harder to review a collection of critical essays than other kinds of nonfiction. A little easier, to be sure, if you take issue with the critic; but what if you are full of admiring approbation? You end up reduced to quoting enthusiastically more and more passages, till the review becomes an anthology of quotations, a miniature commonplace book. I am not sure I can escape this predicament in reviewing Ian Hamilton's Walking Possession: Essays and Reviews, 1968-1993, a book I relished when I agreed with it, and respected when I didn't.
Hamilton, who is also a poet and a biographer, is probably best known for his Robert Lowell, an excellent critical biography, and In Search of J. D. Salinger, a stimulating account of what happens when a rebarbative biographee bombards the biographer with monkey wrenches. Some will also recall Hamilton's work as an editor on the Times Literary Supplement, and, better yet, as the editor of the short-lived but valuable The New Review, issues of which I am loath to part with despite dearth of space on my groaning book shelves. But anyone, familiar or not with Hamilton, will have a rattling good time with...
(The entire section is 3392 words.)
SOURCE: Firchow, Peter. Review of Walking Possession, by Ian Hamilton. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 596-97.
[In the following review, Firchow offers a mixed assessment of Hamilton's Walking Possession.]
Despite the suggestion in the odd title of this book that its contents will represent the accumulated ravings of a perambulatory lunatic, Ian Hamilton's assorted reflections on life and letters in Britain (and, to a lesser extent, the United States) during the latter half of the twentieth century are mostly characterized by their unusual sanity and sensibility. This is true, as it turns out, even of the title itself [Walking Possession], with Hamilton explaining in a brief foreword that he means to allude to a longstanding Grub Street tradition which provides for a fortnight's grace period following the seizure of one's belongings (i.e., the titular possessions) for nonpayment of debt. Viewed metaphorically, this is supposedly rather like the position authors find themselves in when seized upon by reviewers, with the latter talking about the former, as Hamilton puts it, “as if they own them, but they don't.” Possession, therefore, is to be understood in this particular context not as referring to any neoromantic or even Dostoevskian variety of divine madness but instead merely to a very down-to-earth, self-deprecatory, and mildly ironic awareness that the reviewer's...
(The entire section is 989 words.)
SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Essayists, Obsessions, and Hardcovers.” Georgia Review 51, no. 3 (fall 1997): 549-61.
[In the following review, Pinsker asserts that Hamilton's Walking Possession is witty, enjoyable, and thought-provoking.]
In much the same way that good novelists explore the arc of their obsessions in book after book, the essayists who most matter follow the threads of an individual essay only to discover that it leads to yet another sustained rumination—and in due course to a collection lodged between stately hardcovers. No doubt there are as many versions of this ur-tale as there are essayists, but one central fact remains: while a clear, individual voice surely counts, an obsessive subject probably matters more.
Many essays begin with a thesis that will be proven as its pages systematically unroll, but for all the well-meaning advice about outlines that teachers pass along to their students, essays that surprise, and then convince, are more often journeys of discovery than trips taken with an AAA road map firmly in hand. Like serious fictionists, our most interesting essayists are those who seem never quite sure what they want to say until they've “said it.”
The nineteen essays that comprise Ilan Stavans' Art & Anger are a case in point. Born in Mexico, Stavans gives a number of interesting twists to the marginalization that...
(The entire section is 5530 words.)
SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “Counterpoints.” New Statesman 127, no. 4376 (13 March 1998): 53-4.
[In the following review, Taylor praises Hamilton's scholarship in A Gift Imprisoned. Taylor observes that Hamilton's biography of Matthew Arnold provides insight into the cultural context in which the poet lived and worked.]
In Wild Oats, Jacob Epstein's novel of 1970s' US campus life, the hero, Billy Williams, is induced to explain the meaning of “Dover Beach” to an ignorant fellow-student. Effortfully, each cadence reduced to a demotic approximation, some kind of decoding is achieved, by which time initial bewilderment yields up to grudging approval of Arnold's sentiments: “Yeah, yeah. That makes some sense. The world's fucked up, but the dude's in there with some fox, so he don't give a shit.” A century and a half on, it's tempting to wonder what Arnold would make of this, whether the stern critic would mark it down as another Regrettable Modern Tendency or whether the dandy poet and the sympathetic school inspector would have joined forces to proclaim an enduring relevance.
Whatever the answer, Arnold would certainly have noted the irony of this future judgement, for “relevance” was not something that the young poet of the 1840s was generally credited with. Early critics thought him suspiciously old-fashioned and out of touch, an imitator rather than an innovator,...
(The entire section is 734 words.)
SOURCE: Scammell, William. “A Doubtful Head for Heights.” Spectator 280, no. 8850 (21 March 1998): 45.
[In the following review, Scammell offers a mixed review of Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned. Scammell comments that Hamilton succeeds in “bringing Arnold vividly to life,” but comments that the book is not an entirely thorough examination of the poet's life and work.]
Who was the ‘much-pondered Marguerite’, subject of Arnold's early love poems? How did Matt cope with that mother and father of all headmasters, Dr Arnold of Rugby? What was his attitude to his own gifts? ‘Why did he abandon the poetic life and settle for three decades of drudgery as an inspector of elementary schools?’ Did he have ‘insufficient faith in his own talent’, or was it ‘the fear of being … second-rate?’
Thus Ian Hamilton, famous for having only ever published one book of poems (lyric and elegiac, like Arnold's), famous too as a critic who likes to be fierce but fair, cutting through the age's self-deceptions and suggesting how it might pull its poetic socks up. Arnold took to schools inspection, Hamilton to journalism and biography, inspecting the entrails of other writers. It's safe to assume that there is some degree of identification or transference going on here between author and subject.
I'm not so sure about that ‘drudgery’ indicted above, and its...
(The entire section is 997 words.)
SOURCE: Williams, Hugo. “Freelance.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4960 (24 April 1998): 16.
[In the following essay, Williams offers his own personal reminiscences of working with Hamilton on the New Review during the 1970s. Williams comments on the parallels between the life of Matthew Arnold, as described in Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned, and Hamilton's own life.]
The 1970s is my lost decade, the era before I started keeping albums and having regular money. One of the things I do know about it is that I worked for a while for Ian Hamilton on the New Review, a high-profile monthly literary magazine which took over the Soho building, 11 Greek Street, where his previous magazine, The Review, had once had a floor. Soho was a very different place in those days—rougher, darker, seedier and obviously cheaper. In the hot summer of 1976, the streets were full of strippers darting from one club to another wearing only their costumes. I have a photo of Ian coming out of his doorway while a girl touts for business from the next door Carousel Club under a sign saying, “Girls Girls Girls”. I tried to find the doorway recently, but, like most of old Soho, it has disappeared.
To begin with, I was supposed to be the magazine's arts editor, but Ian would only countenance the very best reviewers and it was a thankless task trying to get through to, say, Tom...
(The entire section is 1469 words.)
SOURCE: Greenlaw, Lavinia. “Heads Off.” New Statesman 128, no. 4433 (26 April 1999): 47-8.
[In the following review, Greenlaw offers a favorable assessment of Hamilton's Sixty Poems.]
Ian Hamilton long ago decided to keep his poetry apart from what he referred to as his “so-called literary life”. As founder of the Review, biographer of Matthew Arnold and Robert Lowell, and one of the best critical essayists we have, Hamilton as a literary figure is anything but “so-called”. As for his poetry, he seems to have understood its nature early on when he decided to stop “thinking like a poetry pro … fretting about range” or “output”.
Hamilton's first collection, The Visit (1970), was republished with minor revisions and 20 additions as Fifty Poems in 1988. Now we have the whole lot again with just ten additions, and yet Sixty Poems is sure to be one of the most affecting and satisfying collections we will see this year. One test of a good poem is how much it offers on rereading. Does it still, as Emily Dickinson demanded, “take the top of your head off”? In this case, yes. Hamilton's small, bleak poems with their narrow range of detail, tone and subject are explosive. Written years, even decades apart, they are neither repetitive nor estranged. They are so poised and light that on the rare occasions that Hamilton uses another voice or...
(The entire section is 619 words.)
SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. “The Unburied Life.” New Republic 220, no. 25 (21 June 1999): 48-52.
[In the following review of A Gift Imprisoned, Vendler questions Hamilton's assessment of Arnold's life and work.]
The provocative case of Matthew Arnold is raised again in this new but truncated life of that extraordinary man. By entitling his account A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life, Ian Hamilton (a poet himself, and the author of the first full biography of Robert Lowell) gives short shrift to the last thirty-five years of his subject's life, during which Arnold's poetic composition declined while his writing of critical prose increased. Those latter three and a half decades of strenuous work occupy only the last fifth of Hamilton's book, which in effect ends when Arnold is thirty-one. One can imagine an antithetical twin to this new biography: it would be called A Gift Released: The Critical Life of Matthew Arnold, and it would go from strength to strength until Arnold's death from heart disease in 1888, at the age of sixty-six.
Is it plausible to split a man thus in two? Does Arnold the mature critic have nothing to do with Arnold the younger poet? Can we, in fact, understand the poetry adequately if we confine ourselves to its own chronological boundaries? Does anything of the later prose help us to understand the earlier poetry?
When I was a...
(The entire section is 4364 words.)
SOURCE: Mermin, Dorothy. Review of A Gift Imprisoned, by Ian Hamilton. Nineteenth-Century Literature 54, no. 1 (June 1999): 110-13.
[In the following essay, Mermin discusses Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned and three other recent biographies of Matthew Arnold. Mermin asserts that Hamilton's biography does not address the relevance of Arnold's poetry to modern intellectual and political issues.]
Students of Matthew Arnold have available a rich store of unpublished and underutilized manuscript material, most notably the family papers recently made accessible in the Brotherton Collection at Leeds University Library and the correspondence now being published by Cecil Lang, as well as older holdings at Balliol, Yale, and elsewhere. These materials show us—in addition to the sad and solitary poet, the authoritative apostle of culture, and the overworked inspector of schools—a human being bound up in a complex web of familial and social relationships and struggling to come to terms with ambition, desire, disappointment, and loss. Park Honan's monumental Matthew Arnold: A Life (1981) used these resources to produce the first comprehensive biography of Arnold, the benchmark by which others will be judged.
Nicholas Murray's A Life of Matthew Arnold is also comprehensive and exhaustively researched, although shorter than Honan's book. Less speculative or judgmental,...
(The entire section is 1424 words.)
SOURCE: Hillier, Bevis. “Why Did He Leave Out E. M. Forster?” Spectator 283, no. 8929 (25 September 1999): 48-51.
[In the following review of The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays, selected by Hamilton, Hillier explores varying definitions of the essay form, and questions Hamilton's choices for this anthology.]
I agreed, by telephone, to review [The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays], and before it arrived by post I tried to work out a definition of ‘essay’. Yes, yes, I know it means a try. (If at first you don't succeed, essay, essay, essay again.) As practised by Montaigne and Bacon it meant a short article on a given subject, ‘Of Truth’, ‘Of Gardens’. But in the 20th century few writers have set themselves that sort of task, once they have escaped the school penance of ‘What I did in the holidays’ or ‘A day in the life of a coat-hanger’. And there isn't a market today slavering for essays on Truth, or Simulation and Dissimulation. So if one is looking for 20th-century essays to anthologise, a more flexible definition is needed. I thought this might do: ‘fiction excluded, that which could not be said more effectively, in prose, at greater length’. I was quite pleased with that until I realised that by this definition ‘Fuck off!’ would be an essay. Evidently a minimum wordage, as well as a maximum, has to be stipulated.
(The entire section is 3453 words.)
SOURCE: Bryant, Hallman. “‘Honor Thy Father.’” South Carolina Review 33, no. 1 (fall 2000): 213-19.
[In the following review of A Gift Imprisoned, Bryant comments that Hamilton's central thesis on Arnold is convincing, but that he provides no new biographical information on the poet. Bryant praises Hamilton's brief commentaries on specific poems by Arnold.]
The title of Ian Hamilton's study of Matthew Arnold's poetry is taken from a poem by W. H. Auden that probes the reason why Arnold “thrust his (poetic) gift in prison till it died.” Auden's diagnosis is that Arnold's allegiance to his dead father's memory caused him to turn away from the life of the contemplative poet and become a man of action, who would use his pen to write polemical prose advocating a gospel of culture.
[In A Gift Imprisoned] Hamilton thus follows Auden in seeking the reasons for the collapse of Arnold's career as a poet in the son's relationship with his father, which he sees as an ambivalent love-hate situation. Although Hamilton eschews the term “Oedipal,” his study advances a loosely psychoanalytical thesis. Using Arnold's poems and letters which are quoted with insight and discrimination, he argues the point that Arnold was driven by the example of his dead father's “purposeful life” to commit what amounts to artistic suicide.
As Hamilton's subtitle...
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SOURCE: Butscher, Edward. “Essays of Our Time and Clime.” Georgia Review 55, no. 1 (spring 2001): 170-76.
[In the following review essay, Butscher discusses The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays, edited by Hamilton, and The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. Butscher assertss that Hamilton's choice of essays for the Penguin anthology is ultimately disappointing.]
Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.
Michel de Montaigne is credited with inventing the essay (essai), although doubtless nudged in that direction by Seneca and Cicero, as well as by The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. A deeply divided self, limned affectionately by William Hazlitt as “a most magnanimous and undisguised egotist,” he also established the form as a persuasive epistemological and autobiographical vehicle: “I am myself the matter of my book.” Consequently, reading his “book” (actually several collections of essays amassed over a reflective lifetime) offers the overdetermined pleasures of experiencing a fluid mode of expression that pours intellectual inquiry into a very human mold. Depressive and recondite, a gentleman of leisure, Montaigne was not always able to shake off the prejudices (religious and sexual) of his age but was always willing to...
(The entire section is 2919 words.)
SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Ian Hamilton 1939-2001.” Sewanee Review 110, no. 1 (winter 2002): 180-82.
[In the following essay, Pritchard asserts that Hamilton distinguished himself most significantly as an essayist, poetry reviewer, and editor of literary journals.]
The literary world is very much the poorer for the passing of Ian Hamilton, as gifted a poetry critic and editorial presence as we are likely to encounter. In this country he may have been known mostly as the writer whom J. D. Salinger prevented from publishing the biography Hamilton submitted to his publisher. (The book that ensued in 1988, In Search of J. D. Salinger, made necessity the mother of invention.) But, although Hamilton was a good biographer—notably of Robert Lowell—his real distinctiveness came in the essays and reviews he wrote about poets from the early sixties until his death. And from 1962 to 1979 he kept afloat two literary magazines—the Review (1962-72) and the New Review (1974-79)—that applied exacting standards to poets in the most incorrigibly entertaining manner.
I confess it was the latter aspect that first drew me to the Review, in whose opening issue Hamilton reviewed a book by the moralistic critic David Holbrook. He began by ticking off Holbrook's “critical assumptions”: “He is an orthodox Penguin Guide mistress and never puts a foot seriously out...
(The entire section is 1136 words.)
SOURCE: Porter, Peter. “Remembering Ian Hamilton, 1938-2001.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5155 (18 January 2002): 19.
[In the following obituary, Porter asserts that Hamilton was both “the best judge of writing” in England and “the master stylist of our age.”]
When a gifted writer, who is also a friend, dies, mourning has to be shared between personal feeling and the need to contribute something to the public tribute. Being unable to ring Ian Hamilton to fix a lunch date or to discuss some literary crisis or other, is only the beginning of the missingness. From now on we won't read anything new by the best judge of writing in this country—worse still, the master stylist of our age won't be around to redeem the pages of our journals by demonstrating that prose can be crafted as surely as poetry. An authority, one to be taken as a touchstone whether you agree with it or not, has disappeared.
Ian Hamilton's career was, throughout his life, a highly public affair. Already obituarists have pointed out a palpable disproportion in it—namely that absolute sureness of critical judgment was allied to an extreme costiveness in the composition of his own poetry. Yet nobody doubted that Ian loved and valued poetry more than anything else, even football. His genius expressed itself in many contexts, or more properly, arenas: his poetry (only about sixty poems in a lifetime), the...
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SOURCE: Potts, Robert. “A Passionate Partisan.” New Statesman 131, no. 458 (1 April 2002): 51-2.
[In the following review, Potts describes Hamilton's Against Oblivion as light entertainment lacking in serious thought.]
When one considers how much of English poetry, from Anglo-Saxon onwards, is about transience—about how all things fade and are forgotten in time—and that many poems are (rarely confident) attempts simply to slow that journey to irrevocable oblivion, one might conclude that its lessons have been lost most often on poets themselves. Many poets desire, secretly or not, fame, remuneration or posterity; and the omnivorous desire all three. Few will enjoy even one of these rewards. And here we might consider, as the sharper-elbowed bards clearly do not, that the ethic we should associate with poetry—a lack of egotism; a painful sympathy for the common plight of common humanity; revulsion at the human cost of commerce; a concern, negatively or positively, with the spiritual—is difficult to reconcile with the competitive urge to best one's contemporaries, to carry off the glittering prizes, and to concentrate so much acclaim on one's own figure that shadows fall across all else. The work that deserves posterity is not written by poets who merely desire to perpetuate their names.
That Ian Hamilton's Against Oblivion should have ended up being published...
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SOURCE: Imlah, Mick. “Other Men's Glowers.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5168 (19 April 2002): 36.
[In the following review of Against Oblivion, Imlah asserts that, while Hamilton's assessments of many of the poets included in this volume are bitingly critical, they are never unfair. Imlah further states that Hamilton's central concern in this book is with “the business of poetry,” the competitive squabbles among poets jostling for lasting status as literary greats.]
A nice idea, if somewhat gimmicky”, was Ian Hamilton's own estimate of his last published project. Against Oblivion is a collection of forty-five obituary-length essays, appraising the lives and work of the twentieth century's most famous dead poets in English (with a representative sample of the writing of each), after the model of Doctor Johnson's Lives (1779-81). There is no tokenism: no Irish (though Patrick Kavanagh's current reputation is surely healthier than that, say, of James Wright); no Australian or whatever (though these nationalities were not disqualified); seven are women; none is black (though we're reminded that William Carlos Williams, whose mother was Puerto-Rican, was called a “dago immigrant” by Ezra Pound). A loose half of the poets are American, the others British. Hardy, Yeats, Eliot and Auden are exempted, as being secure from the title's “oblivion”; the rest are figured as...
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SOURCE: Miller, Karl. “Suffering and Control United.” Spectator 288, no. 9063 (20 April 2002): 40-1.
[In the following review, Miller offers a favorable assessment of Hamilton's Against Oblivion.]
Ian Hamilton died on 27 December, to the great grief of those who knew him or cared about his work. Like one of those ‘men of letters’ who are sometimes supposed to have vanished from the scene, he worked in a number of different capacities. He was a poet, an editor, an essayist, a reviewer, an anthologist and a biographer. It all began in Darlington, where he grew up, fell in love with football, and studied with a Leavisite schoolmaster. Leavis's teachings appealed to him, but he didn't exactly enlist: the trouble with Leavis's call to arms, he felt, was that he wouldn't let anyone join up, and Ian was never much of a joiner anyway. He went to Oxford and stayed on there for a while to start his excellent and important ‘little magazine’, the Review.
This last book of his [Against Oblivion] was completed in the course of his last year, when friends came to feel, in the words of one his later poems, ‘It shouldn't be so dark, so early.’ These friends (of whom I'm one) worried that his sufferings might deny him the strength to do himself justice, and it's a delight to find that he has done so. It had been put to him that he might write a Samuel Johnson's Lives of...
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SOURCE: Williams, Hugo. “Freelance.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5193 (11 October 2003): 16.
[In the following essay, Williams defends Hamilton against recent critics of his decades-long prominence in the world of literary criticism.]
Somebody was bound to rise to the bait, and I suppose it might as well be me, biased as I am. In the current issue of the poetry magazine PN Review, the Editor, Michael Schmidt, levels various insults at the late Ian Hamilton, which he somehow forgot to level during Hamilton's lifetime. Schmidt uses a long-ago review by Donald Davie of Hamilton's first prose book, A Poetry Chronicle (1974), as his blunt instrument. He trots out Davie's description, from all those years ago, of Ian as “grudging”, “narrow”, “impatient” and “hasty”, qualities which, according to Davie, Hamilton's friends wrongly identified as “exacting”, “rigorous”, “fearless” and “urgent”. You bet we did. Ian was the Seven Samurai come to help the villagers. We couldn't believe our luck. How wonderful it was to discover that pretentious or long-winded poetry was actually as boring as it seemed.
What Davie and Schmidt don't acknowledge is that, in spite of Hamilton being part of dilettante Oxford instead of rigorously critical Cambridge, which Schmidt favours, he was himself taking on the Establishment of the day, and would have been...
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Carduff, Christofer. Review of A Gift Imprisoned, by Ian Hamilton. New Criterion 17, no. 10 (June 1999): 90.
Asserts that Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned represents “an important reevaluation of Arnold's poetry.” Carduff praises Hamilton's biography of Arnold as concise, witty, and insightful.
Ford, Mark. “Perishing Genius.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4648 (1 May 1992): 32.
Offers a mixed assessment of The Faber Book of Soccer, edited by Hamilton.
———. “Unimpressed But Not Unappeased.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4754 (13 May 1994): 23.
Asserts that many of the essays in Hamilton's Walking Possession are witty and incisive, as well as carefully researched and argued.
Imlah, Mick. “A Poet Aged before His Time.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4979 (4 September 1998): 4-5.
Discusses Hamilton's assertion in A Gift Imprisoned that Matthew Arnold's life can be divided into two distinct phases.
Latham, Aaron. “Credits where Credit is Due.” Book World—The Washington Post (10 June 1990): 4.
Offers a scathing critique of Hamilton's Writers in Hollywood.
Leader, Zachary. “Pride and Professionalism.” Times...
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