C. P. Snow Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) (Vol. 1) - Essay

Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) 1905–

A British novelist and physicist, Snow is best known for his series of eleven novels, Strangers and Brothers, and for his controversial The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

There are no contemporary novels quite like the Strangers and Brothers cycle; one reason is that they are not altogether novels. Snow, in opposing his work to the formal esthetic of Woolf and Joyce, has also saved himself from artistic risks and demands in which he is not interested. Snow's work is entirely personal in spirit and theme; it is as essentially private a form as any work so deeply autobiographical and historical must be. [The] novels are the record of a man's career, and the different volumes often depend on the reader's own historical experience and sympathy, on his awareness of other details in the series, in a way that makes the reading of Snow's books an emotional experience rather than the experience of an objective work of art. These novels are unusual, but they do not, as some of Snow's admirers often glibly suggest, offer a new technique to the English novel. No books so loosely personal in form can give a pattern to other novelists. Snow's achievement is a tragic conception of life, founded on the contrast between the will with which a gifted boy makes his way up in England and the accidents of life that determine his actual fate.

One of the most striking things about Snow's novels is that they are remarkably intelligent and exceedingly melancholy. They have none of the careless hearty vigor, the animal force, that one associates with English writers of the "people." They are so obviously the products of a man who has had to think long and hard that one of the real pleasures in reading Snow is actually the way in which he draws the reader into this gentle activity of reason. Characters in Snow's work are not so much presented as interpreted; the narrator and central figure in the series, Lewis Eliot, spins everything out of his reflections and memories. The method of reminiscence permits Snow the greatest possible freedom as a novelist.

Alfred Kazin, "A Brilliant Boy from the Midlands" (1959), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 171-77.

Snow's characters, as we meet them in Strangers and Brothers, are usually involved in a test or conflict when personal ambition and social conscience are at stake. Anxious to catch the conscience of an individual when subjected to everyday temptations, as well as to the large temptations that make or break careers, Snow is understanding about those who are unable to resist quick rewards, and unsentimental about those who retain their principles despite the promise of personal gain. In short, Snow is that phenomenon among twentieth-century novelists: a serious moralist concerned with integrity, duty, principles, and ideals…. His novelistic world is not distorted or exaggerated: his work rests not on artistic re-creation but on faithful reproduction, careful arrangement, and common-sensical development of character and situation.

Specifically, Snow asks, what is man like in the twentieth century? how does a good man live in a world of temptations? how can ambition be reconciled with conscience? what is daily life like in an age in which all things are uncertain except one's feelings? In his intense realism of conception and execution, Snow believes that man must constantly come to terms with himself in every act, and that the conscious individual is responsible only to himself for whatever course he does take. In brief, he has the faith of a moral agnostic….

Snow has attempted in his modest way to bring fiction back to a concern with commonplace human matters without making the novel either journalistic, naturalistic, or prophetic. Accordingly, his characters, also modest in aim and conception, are of mixed qualities, neither totally attractive nor completely forbidding….

With Snow's work, certain tendencies in the English novel from Jane Austen to the present have come full circle. Although lacking Jane Austen's irony as a comic freeing force and as a means of returning her characters to a social norm, Snow uses man's social conscience as a way of avoiding chaos. Moreover, in his concern with man's moral nature, in his use of a straight-forward narrative technique, and in his understanding and forgiveness of temporary deviations from "correct" behavior, he is indeed close to the mature Jane Austen of Emma and Persuasion, as well as to several other of the major nineteenth-century novelists. In still another way, Snow has returned to the moderation and proportion of the Greek dramatists, finding in their attitudes the wisdom necessary to preserve a balanced society in which personal interest is both present and necessary. Snow recognizes that personal ambition, if unfettered, can destroy decent life, and that with civilized people the only test of a "good" man is how far he responds to the demands of decency. The power of conscience becomes, under these conditions, a social necessity.

Frederick R. Karl, "The Politics of Conscience: The Novels of C. P. Snow," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 62-84.

The title [of Snow's novel sequence, Strangers and Brothers] itself is apt, denoting as it does Snow's concern with making brothers of strangers, with reducing the isolation that each person suffers because of his inability to connect with his fellow human beings.

It is possible to see Snow's entire career as a way of bringing people closer together, not of course through the vulgar way of the evangelist or the popular humanitarian, but through demonstrating man's common aims. In his now well-known pronouncements on bringing together the scientific and humanistic communities [The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution], Snow is simply pursuing the same theme: that the similarities among men are sufficiently great to warrant their rapprochement. In the world of knowledge, this attitude would mean the creation of a new type of men, the "New Men" Snow called them in his novel of that name. In politics, this attitude would mean mutual understanding, a reduction of nationalism, and the spirit of compromise. In the social world, this attitude would mean that each individual should gain understanding of more than himself, that he should pursue more than selfish ends, although naked selfishness is also to be expected. (pp. 25-6)

Snow's placid style and unadventurous technique are relatively unimportant in the novels whose action occurs from 1914 to the mid-1930's, but as soon as the tempo of public life quickens, then the technique is inadequate to the intention. It is here that Snow's literary conservatism cuts into material that he takes very seriously. (p. 35)

This avoidance of a grander style, then, hurts the series as a whole, although it works well in those novels in which just this kind of honest prose and method are called for. There is also another factor involved: Snow as a novelist shows little or no development. His material changes; he does not. There is none of the growth into stylistic discovery that one hopes for from one novel to the next, none of the experimentation on a large or small scale that shows the author is trying to confront his material with all he has. (pp. 35-6)

In terms of the series, The Masters is probably the most self-contained novel, taking place as it does within a limited period of time (during 1937) in a limited place (a Cambridge College) with a limited number of characters (the College Fellows). As such, it recalls the Aristotelian unities. It is, in its way, tragedy reworked for the modern world. Its power struggle, Snow suggests slyly, is the modern replacement for tragedy; and it works its way out in terms not of defiance but of expedience, shifting alliances, compromise, and equivocation. Gone are the grand passions, the long decline, the innate violence, the cosmic maladjustment, and in their place are the administrative qualities of moderation, deceit, and manipulation.

Of course, Snow never suggests that this modern version of life is tragic. His is the more urbane point that manipulation and moderation are the best we can hope for, and that a society based on these values, while not startling, also avoids the excesses of abnormal behavior. Above all, it is a stable society; the grand gesture is no longer necessary or even fitting in such a relatively closed society. Snow takes it for granted that society has closed sufficiently so that erratic behavior is contained before it can get too far. Implicit in his attitude is a society that wishes to perpetuate itself, and that holds to certain traditions regardless of the dissensions that may temporarily seem to split it. (p. 67)

Snow's work raises several interesting questions about the future direction of the English novel. F. R. Leavis's intemperate attack upon Snow in his farewell lecture at Downing College surely indicated, among other things, his fear that Snow might unduly influence the course of the novel. Leavis's remarks suggest that Snow, with his anti-Lawrentean emphasis upon reason and expedience, would drain both life and art of their imaginative content: that literature and science would somehow lose their sharp boundaries, to the detriment of literature and the advantage of science.

Leavis's fears are well grounded in part, although his attack often made the cause of the humanities seem more shrill and hysterical than need be. In his various comments upon the novel, Snow has, as we have seen, argued a conservative view of literature, picking out for particular attack the symbolists, the experimenters, the "irrationalists." If literature were to follow the course suggested by Snow, it would become an arm of social criticism; the "untruths" that literature should tell us would become transformed into social commentary. As soon as literature becomes involved directly with issues, it becomes newsworthy instead of creative. (p. 154)

What Snow … has provided is an intelligent view of society, full of many mature judgments and an adult awareness of human nature. What he has failed to provide is the larger sense of the world in which details become symbolic of greater things, in which man not only is involved in doing his job or making an important decision, but is also concerned with the grander questions of his fate in a seemingly meaningless universe. (p. 155)

Frederick R. Karl, in his C. P. Snow: The Politics of Conscience (© 1963 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1963.

C. P. Snow—scientist and civil service commissioner—embarked in 1940 on a sequence of novels [completed in eleven books in 1971], each self-contained but linked by the presence in each of the character named Lewis Eliot. The first, Strangers and Brothers …, was, relatively to later volumes, clumsily written, and Lewis Eliot tends to become a boring presence in more than one of the novels. Snow is not a continuously enlivening writer and when, as in The Masters (1951), he delves into university politics the effect is one of enclosed parochialism. Yet, while in the same milieu, The Affair (1960) is tense and exciting, though sympathy is strained for the boorish but brilliant young scientist accused of faking, and wrongfully deprived of his college fellowship, until he is reluctantly vindicated. This volume and The New Men (1954) can be related to the theme of Sir Charles Snow's … controversial Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, at Cambridge in 1959, where he speaks of 'a gulf of mutual incomprehension' existing between scientists and 'literary intellectuals'.

A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, pp. 87-8.

Snow [is] unromantic, cautious, worldly in the sense that he is very much of the actual world of the here and now, committed at most to a stoicism proceeding from a view of man that might be called moral agnosticism. Yet Snow … is writing in terms of fiction the history of his own times as interpreted through his own experience, an experience … rather different from that of most English novelists….

[The novels comprising Snow's Strangers and Brothers series] constitute an investigation into human ecology—or at any rate certain areas of human ecology. Snow is always concerned with the limits of the possible. It is not, as is sometimes suggested, that his theme is anything so crude as that of power; but the world that concerns him is a very masculine one. He knows men particularly well in what are their traditionally masculine attributes, men as they are in the company of other men and in competition with other men. There is little he does not know, one feels, about ambition and about the conflicts between ambition and conscience or the stresses of the private life. This knowledge, which pervades the whole series, comes to its finest fruition in The Masters….

The clue to Snow's view of human beings is really to be found in the overall title of his sequence. Men are brothers—because they have to be: society and in the last analysis existence itself are impossible without cooperation. But even while they are brothers, men are still strangers one to another, doomed to be strangers by virtue of their being human….

Throughout these novels there run a humility and a largeness of mind in the face of the extraordinary variety, and of the vagaries, of human nature which much more than compensate for Lewis Eliot's occasional pomposities and pretentiousness. The impulse is always to see and to understand, not to judge. And it is Snow's sense of the reality of individual, private human suffering that makes us accept his picture of men in society.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 248-51.

The characters in C. P. Snow's fiction operate according to a sensible plan or try to impose upon their world what they assume is a sensible plan. Unable to conceive of man's arrangements for himself as being so much confusion and chaos, Snow accepts what man has wrought as a form of order, not disorder, as pattern and scheme, not as accident or muddle. He sees the world as basically a projection of man's rationality, not as a manifestation of man's confusion and irrationality. He claims, further, that man's struggle with his self has been won—at least in part.

Neither Snow nor his characters would agree that man's arrangements are impermanent, a consequence of his fears, inadequate for happiness, and shot through with uncontrollable destructiveness. He eliminates soul-searching anxiety, or else submerges it deeply beneath his characters' public personality.

All this might be refreshing. One reads and feels untortured, somehow surrounded by people who seem vital and progressive, scientific, even liberal and decent….

Snow's view, acceptable as it may appear to those who accept it, is also very sad. For it is untrue and impossible, historically untrue and psychologically impossible. Men are not like this, have never been like this, and, short of being produced in test tubes, will never be like this. It's all a wishful dream….

Snow is really not concerned with people. Instead he gives us a sense of the things that exist in the modern world. His is a universe of events, happenings, circumstances, situations, conditions—all those aspects of life which can be given a final solution….

In Snow's view, there is little sense of being, or whatever one chooses to call it. Man's "courage to be" is transformed into his need to work. This may be partially true as a diagnosis of modern man, but it is surely nothing to applaud. Snow praises man's ability to sublimate his inner being in favor of his outer role, and this too is hardly commendable. Such a repudiation of identity should be a source of grief, not celebration….

Snow, unfortunately, has tried to be the naturalist of the contemporary scientific and political world, and when we measure his achievement at its best—as in The Conscience of the Rich and in parts of The Masters and The Light and the Dark—we see that even here his regard for tradition, for continuity, and for the amenities blinds him to the real nature of man and the real issues. Were he able to come to grips with these, then his naturalistic-realistic approach would no longer suffice for him and he would have to confront the very absurd world he has so often deplored in modern fiction.

Frederick R. Karl, "C. P. Snow: The Unreason of Reason" (© 1965 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary British Novelists, edited by Charles Shapiro, Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, pp. 114-24.

There are many exciting things about the Strangers and Brothers sequence—the confidence with which it taps the current of time, so that, in writing it, Snow has always looked forward to a future not yet in existence as well as back to a known past; the mature knowledge of men and affairs, given extra authority by our knowledge that Snow is no slippered writing recluse but a man actively involved in the practical mechanics of high policy-making; the reserved personal relationships of the 'strangers' and the wholehearted ones of the 'brothers'; the 'resonance between what Lewis Eliot sees and what he feels'. There are certain dangers in so massive an achievement. Snow seems to have robbed the novel-form of its power to feed the senses: the world of colour and texture and scent has disappeared—most conspicuously in Corridors of Power—and life seems reduced to a number of paradigms, as though this were a grammar-book and not a novel. But perhaps that is a small price to pay for this feeding of a new side of the imagination, this opening up of a region of human life which has, heretofore, been practically closed to the fictional voyager.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, p. 88.

It is easy to be supercilious about Snow's achievements…. It is somewhat harder to be just to the moral earnestness, the cumulative weight of social detail, the fascination with the prosaic forms of public administration. It is probably too much to say that Snow's novels read like a committee report, but the private voice becomes more and more lost in the public man who narrates them.

Martin Price, in Yale Review (© 1969 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1969, p. 466.

C. P. Snow was a spectroscopist and had a scientific training—in patience. The hectic revelations of the science fiction professor are not for such as he, whose very material is unsubstantial light. In [his] books he would appear to be sensitive to all grey tones, finding in them such light and such dark as he needs for the blending, knowing that the drama of light itself is that it is made up of waves which blend or overcome one another according to what finally strikes the eye. He blends his tones—the fog, the snow, an apple-green sheet. His moods have most often a sombre tone; when he is happy his warmth is mellow and autumnal.

The experience of a lifetime is seen then within the range of a spectrum such as might be found in a richly furnished room on a September afternoon, the light playing on all the precious objects the sun discovers there.

James Parkhill-Rathbone, "The 'Gravitas' of C. P. Snow," in Books and Bookmen, November, 1971, pp. 6-8.

[Snow's] novels are no good. And I think Snow knew it. That is why he took himself off to the fringes of the scientific and cultural-political bureaucracy where his scraps of culture and literary pretensions would summon a respect they could not command among writers of talent. It was a shrewd move, and Snow is, above all, a shrewd politician, particularly where self-advancement is concerned.

Alan Burns, "Snow of Yesteryear," in Books and Bookmen, December, 1971, p. 47.