Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909

Charles Percy Snow, British novelist, scientist, and literary critic, is notable for both his realistic fiction and his commentaries about the “two cultures” of science and literature. He was born on October 15, 1905, in the lower-middle-class district of Leicester. His father, William Edward Snow, a clerk in a shoe factory, was an amiable but remote figure in Snow’s early life, who seems to have neither helped nor hindered his son’s intellectual growth. Snow’s doting mother, Ada Sophia Robinson, on the other hand, encouraged her son’s precocity and, despite the family’s poverty, sent Snow to private grammar schools until the age of sixteen.

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In 1925 he entered Leicester University College, where he received his B.S. in chemistry in 1927 and master’s degree in physics in 1928. Having determined from his youth to become a novelist, Snow nevertheless chose science for a career, following his own pragmatic instincts and aversion to poverty. In 1928 he gained acceptance into the Ph.D. program in physics at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and its prestigious research core, the Cavendish Laboratory. This pivotal event in Snow’s life marked his entry into the “corridors of power” (a phrase he coined), as the University of Cambridge was clearly the exuberant center of a new “heroic age” of scientific discovery, where men such as Lord Ernest Rutherford, J. D. Bernal, John Cockroft, and P. M. S. Blackett were revolutionizing physics and biochemistry. Upon completing his doctorate in 1930 Snow, who wore thick horn-rimmed glasses and looked well beyond his twenty-five years, was elected a fellow at Christ’s College. Now comfortable in science, he turned his attentions to his first interest, fiction writing.

Snow began writing in deliberate reaction against the purely aesthetic mode of fiction typified by writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. This antirealistic trend, he believed, was self-indulgent and pernicious, and it threatened the breakdown in society of morality and individual responsibility. His early novels are apprentice works: Death Under Sail, an intriguing detective story intended for a popular audience; New Lives for Old, a story about rejuvenation, for which he was compared with H. G. Wells; and The Search, a weightier novel about the ambitions of research scientists, the fruit of Snow’s close observations of the academic power structure and the brilliant, temperamental scientists who controlled it.

On holiday in Marseilles in 1935, Snow was suddenly struck by the idea of a roman-fleuve, a series of novels to be connected by a central protagonist (Lewis Eliot) whose private pursuits would intertwine, and often clash, with his public actions. Snow’s objective was to examine the actions of man alone and man in society, and his inner design was to create a “resonance” between what Lewis Eliot sees in observing people and events outside himself and what he feels as similar experiences enter his own life. The novel Strangers and Brothers was completed in 1940; however, between 1940 and 1944, Snow’s war job as technical director for the Ministry of Labour retarded his progress on the series. The Light and the Dark and Time of Hope earned for Snow wider recognition. The Masters, by consensus his most exquisitely constructed novel, intrigued many with its behind-the-scenes analysis of committee politics and personal ambition. The New Men, Homecomings, The Conscience of the Rich, and The Affair all helped to establish Snow’s international reputation as the preeminent novelist of the individual in society.

In 1959 Snow delivered the time-honored Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge, an event that sparked one of the most heated debates of the decade between scientific and literary intellectuals. In the lecture, titled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Snow warned that a “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between the literary culture and scientific community threatened Western society and implied that this ignorance of science by nonscientists was irresponsible. Rebuttals followed, the most scathing of which came from Cambridge professor of English and literary critic F. R. Leavis. Snow weathered these attacks as well as bouts of ill health in the 1960’s. He produced one of his most widely admired novels, Corridors of Power, and finished his series with Last Things in 1970.

Like his literary predecessors Anthony Trollope and Matthew Arnold, Snow assumed a humanitarian stance with an insistence upon the moral function of art. His thematic landscape is marked by polarities that create the central tension in the novels, for example, power and responsibility, private ambition and social ethics, personal suffering and public performance, and redemptive love and possessive love. Underlying the series is the moral directive that a person should do what he or she can to improve the human condition, that even though the individual life may be tragic, the social life need not be so. Most readers detect a darkening of moral vision in The Sleep of Reason and Last Things. An aging protagonist here records the effects wrought by a permissive, affluent society in which individual social responsibility has been abdicated.

Snow was once anachronistically referred to as the greatest living nineteenth century novelist. When the mood of the time was predominantly antiexperimental, Snow’s literary reputation soared. All tallied, however, the critical reception of Snow’s novels has never been strongly positive, there being several persistent complaints, such as a failure to integrate the personal and external experiences of the protagonist from one novel to the next, the plain and functional prose style that many find dull, and the lack of empathy for the protagonists.

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