David Caute Introduction - Essay


(John) David Caute 1936–

English novelist, historian, essayist, dramatist, and critic.

Caute's interest in political philosophies and their ramifications informs his novels and histories. His novels are considered intellectually stimulating but have been faulted for their thinly veiled political theorizing. They have involved such topics as imperialism in Africa, an early communal settlement in seventeenth-century England, and student unrest in America during the 1960s. Caute's historical nonfiction works have dealt with the responses of the Western world to communism.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, the son of an army dentist, Caute attended reputable British public schools and studied modern history at Wadham College, Oxford. He was elected a Fellow of All Souls College in 1959 and later taught as a visiting professor at Harvard, New York University, and Columbia. Caute wrote his first novel, At Fever Pitch (1959), as an undergraduate student, and it draws on his experiences in the army in the African Gold Coast colony. Caute uses various stylistic techniques, including stream-of-consciousness, interior monologue, and poetic evocation, to tell the story of a young soldier growing to manhood amidst the turmoil and chaos of an African revolution. Although the criticism was generally favorable, some reviewers felt Caute had attempted too much for one novel and that the personal and political situations were inadequately resolved.

The subject of Caute's second novel, Comrade Jacob (1961), derives from the works of Christopher Hill, renowned for his studies of seventeenth-century England and Caute's tutor at Oxford. It tells the story of Gerard Winstanley and his followers, the Diggers, in their attempt to establish a collective settlement. Caute has described the book as an allegory, "essentially about communism now." The Decline of the West (1966) returns to Africa for its setting. Caute's newly independent African nation in this novel is based largely on the Belgian Congo and he attempts to show how Africa's politics have been shaped by Western imperialism. A long and complex novel, Decline of the West received mixed reviews, exemplified by Laurence LaFore, who faulted Caute's "recurrent, feverish attacks of rich, poetic English," yet applauded his "intellectual subtlety and emotional vitality…." In 1971, Caute published The Confrontation, a trilogy consisting of The Demonstration, a play; The Illusion, a critical essay on literature; and The Occupation, a novel. Steven Bright is the protagonist of the play and the novel and the fictional writer of the essay. Like Caute, he is a university professor, and he has written a book called The Rise of the East, similar to Caute's The Decline of the West. Critics contend that Bright's personal anxieties and preferences reflect Caute's own, and that Bright is a personification of the middle-age intellectual.

Caute gained a reputation as a respected political historian with the publication of Communism and the French Intellectuals, 1914–1960 (1965). This book shows many of the characteristics of Caute's later historical studies: exhaustive research, treatment of a subject often neglected by other scholars, a generally objective approach, and a refusal to draw specific conclusions. The Fellow Travellers (1973) is Caute's attempt to define the character and motivations of influential writers and intellectuals who supported the Stalinist experiment in the Soviet Union or traveled there during the years 1928–1956. Caute uses loosely chronologized episodes to portray the political reactions of such well-known figures as André Gide, G. B. Shaw, André Malraux, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower (1978) is a survey of this period in American history. Two features of this study were generally applauded by commentators: Caute's emphasis on the noncelebrities, including schoolteachers and trade unionists, who had suffered under the purge, and his depiction of Joseph McCarthy as a man whose political fanaticism awakened America to the dangers of repression. Caute's recent work, Under the Skin: The Death of White Rhodesia (1983), depicts the last days of Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe. In it Caute intermingles interviews with white settlers, anecdotes, and his own observations. The K-Factor (1983) is a novelization of much of the material in Under the Skin.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol, 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14.)