Ian Hamilton

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Michael Fried (review date 22 August 1970)

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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: / Old lunatics who died here’). Largely by virtue of such modulations Hamilton more than once infuses set, almost pat, metrical formations with new feeling (‘To each lost soul, at this late hour / A medicated pang of happiness’).

Hamilton's eye is, by and large, less remarkable than his ear, though The Visit contains short passages and indeed whole poems of great descriptive force. But whereas the minuteness of his control of sound is unremitting, his images are on occasion curiously out of focus, inexact. (‘Our smoking heads / Drift back to us / From the grey fires of South East Asia.’ ‘Your hair / Hangs from my wrist.’) Sometimes, as in the first two lines just quoted, this vagueness hurts the poem. More often, however, the very lack of visual exactness is compelling. Or perhaps it is the discrepancy between the perfect accuracy of what we are made to hear and the slight uncertainty of what we are able to see that grips us: as if Hamilton's poems direct the reader not so much to visualise as to attend to particular experiences. Their quiet, poignant, exquisitely adjusted rhythms are the medium of that attention.

It is tempting to describe Hamilton's poems as written in the first person, either singular or plural. This is not wrong. But it fails to suggest the depth of conviction with which they evoke the undramatic but acutely separate presentness within the poem of another person. Antonio Machado wrote that what the poet seeks is not the fundamental ‘I’ but the essential ‘you’, el tú esencial. Obviously this is not true of most English or American poets today. But it is true of Hamilton, and is an important source of the profound lyricism of his poems. His subject matter is at the same time personal and objective, intensely felt but subtly, as it were inevitably, distanced: what Eliot described as ‘the agony of others, nearly experienced, involving ourselves.’ (‘Nearly’ here meaning not almost so much as closely, intimately.)

Hamilton's poems are the fruit of intimacies, both forced and chosen. But they are also quickened by the impossibility of feeling another's pain in one's own body, experienced sometimes as an intolerable restraint and sometimes, despite everything, as a kind of liberation. Exhaustion and renewal...

(This entire section contains 840 words.)

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interpenetrate movingly, in shifting ratios that reach a characteristically unfinal—and characteristically masterful—resolution in the last lines of the last poem in the book:

It all seems so far away. This afternoon
The smoke from our abandoned cigarettes
Climbs in a single column to the sky.
A gentle sun
Smiles on the dark, afflicted heads
Of young men who have come to nothing.

The primacy of extreme personal experience in Hamilton's poems, and even something of his specific preoccupations, have important roots in Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959). In fact I think it is fair to say that Hamilton is the first English poet to relate significantly to Lowell—to bring something of the revolutionary intelligence with which Hamilton shapes his poems, or his mastery of the simple declarative sentence, or the superb reticence with which he exposes painful material, or the relations between past and present experience throughout his book. All are manifest in the beautiful poem ‘Old Photograph’:

You are wandering in the deep field
That backs on to the room I used to
                                                                                                                                            work in
And from time to time
You look up to see if I am watching you.
To this day
Your arms are full of the wild flowers
You were most in love with.

It is impossible to imagine a poetry more naked in its means or more lyrical in its essence. The Visit is a magnificent book, on a level with Life Studies, Ariel and The Far Field, and perhaps more exemplary than any of them.

James Fenton (review date 12 January 1973)

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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 works of extraordinary brevity, characteristically on a cryptic I/thou axis, and tending always towards a cloying romanticism or, worse, a gossamer-thin aestheticism. One notices that writers who have worked with him tend at least for a short period to produce imitations of the Hamilton style. The trouble is that he knows how it works well, and they mostly don't.

As a reviewer and critic Hamilton is at his best when swimming against the tide, taking some agreed truth about some poet or movement and then testing it against his own, almost invariably sensitive, reading of the relevant works. There are several examples of this approach at its best in A Poetry Chronicle, in which he has gathered together his writings from the past decade. In an extended essay, ‘The Forties’, he sets out the received opinion about the poetry of the time—‘the decade dominated by the punch-drunk Apocalypse, the foaming horsemen, and … by a wartime hysteria which could only have produced such rubbish’. Then, by examining the work of, say, Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas, he begins to build up an entirely different sort of picture—not a complete canvas and not an uncritical encomium. But by the end he convinces one that in remembering the Forties we have been simply remembering the wrong people.

His essay on The Waste Land is less of a bibliographical work; in fact it takes the opposite tack, arguing that so much that has been written about Eliot's poem is predicated on the assumption that all the inclusions and allusions are relevant to the main purpose of the work (because the author has said so). Hamilton argues that ‘we are given too much judgment and too little evidence’, that the poem does lack a genuine emotional centre. I agree with his criticisms of the poem, but even if I did not I would feel that he was doing the poem a service, by making a fresh reading possible after the textual pundits have done their, often questionable, work.

There are casualties among his criticism as well as beneficiaries. Fifteen years' work by Robert Creeley lies stacked like trash. Ted Hughes's Crow goes limping off the edge of the page, more tattered and bedraggled, if that were possible, than when it made its noisome landing. In a rather moving volte-face Hamilton turns against Lowell's Notebook—moving because we are also provided with previous admiring reviews. The degeneration of Lowell's gift, or of his use of it, is well argued, and he hits the nail firmly on the head in the final paragraph when he points out:

The temptation to shrug off such things and to point instead to … the work's size, range, assimilative energy and so on … would be a mistake, for it seems to have been in pursuit, in easy expectation, of such applause that this fine poet has allowed himself to let things slip—as life slips, and with it life's applause.

That last line is one of the few purplish passages in the book—justifiably, since the judgment on Notebook seems applicable to many other large poems of recent years, Crow is an example of the over-eager pursuit of applause, Dream Songs may be, perhaps—dare one say it—The Waste Land was. The value of Ian Hamilton's criticism has been that he has always refused to be conned by extravagant gestures, and rhetorical sleight of hand.

Douglas Dunn (review date 3 March 1973)

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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 opened up to misunderstanding by ‘academic tinkering.’ Only a critic uncommitted to digesting libraries of critical exegesis, or presenting The Waste Land as the crucial modern poem, could ask of it, as Hamilton does: “To what extent can the poem be said to justify the claims that have been glibly made for it as an illuminating, massively inclusive, revelation of what modern life is really like? Are the ideas really transmitted into poetry, or are they just ideas? And are they good ideas?” Asking these questions, let alone answering them, sends a critic into a cold fright; but there is no mongering after critical sensations in A Poetry Chronicle.

Hamilton's fundamental position is that poetry is a serious, important and living art. He seems to have put his faith in Eliot's suggestion that a society concerned with poetry must first take seriously the poetry of its own time. However, there is nothing of Eliot's or Pound's belief that it is of importance to bring poets of the past into contemporary understanding. He goes no further back than Eliot, Frost, or Crane, and his only attempt to rehabilitate poets who have lapsed into contemporary misunderstanding is represented by his essay on ‘The Forties,’ where he asserts a new reputation for Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis and a contempt for the Apocalyptic poets, the reaction against them in the ‘fifties having written off the rest of the decade with the same clichés.

Although one can detect something of Matthew Arnold in Hamilton's approach, he has had neither the time nor the inclination to formulate ideas on the Arnoldian subject of the poet in society. Randall Jarrell, an Arnoldian critic, is quoted a number of times, and Hamilton clearly admires him; yet there is nothing of Jarrell's ‘taste of the age’ criticism in Hamilton's writing. This is a gap in the book which I consider important enough to point out; the nature of Hamilton's intelligence, the implicit beliefs on which his criticism is based, are enough to prove his qualifications for such a subject. Poetry and criticism are at present greatly in need of Arnoldian formulations.

Admirably written as his reviews are, a taste of journalism persists, like a residue. They are too well turned for a reader to get the impression that they were written to deadlines; but he is overfond of “a sort of …,” “a kind of …,” while, when he censures what a poet does least well, words like “naughty” or “limp” crop up too often.

Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin are the poets Hamilton is chiefly concerned with. He praises poetry in terms of “the personal allegiances that really matter,” and generally has little to sympathise with in poetry that assumes too great a sophistication or detachment from the actualities of modern life, or poems—like The Waste Land, or Crow—in which the poet's view of life seems unreasonably distorted by personality. In the case of Crow, his tolerance falters. While he seems almost, but not quite, willing to accept the way Eliot's inward obsessions conditioned how Ted Hughes looked at the world and ‘other people,’ the poet is scrutinised and conclusions are reached that more than imply the ‘immorality’ of Crow. What a man is stuck with, he is stuck with; imagination works as it must, not as it ought, and even if it seeks objects that are painful, brutal, grotesque or negative, it cannot, as testament or vision, be ‘immoral,’ though men of goodwill may recoil from it in disgust. To believe otherwise is to be a philistine. Social kindness is, anyway, a peripheral motive in art, whatever else it may be in life—and it is often a tactic, or a lie.

Against flash rhetorics, against poetry that hangs by a mere theory or debilitating cleverness over the real abyss, against incoherence and pretension, against artlessness—it is perhaps inevitable that a critic dealing with the poetry of the last decade should seem less than positive about what he actually likes. Enthusiasm, however, has never helped a writer to be precise.

Over the same period of ten years, Hamilton's magazine, The Review, has shown itself to be the only literary magazine the decade could not have done without. Because it has been in deadly earnest, in each issue, on a subject that in recent years has become associated with social gatherings and the festivals of well-meaning municipalities, its subscription list has been disappointing. A special Tenth Anniversary Issue consisting of a symposium on ‘The State of Poetry’ is still available.

V. S. Pritchett (review date 27 August 1976)

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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 touch at the time as well as a lot of high-class rubbish; their backers were often alarmed but gave in to their talent for losing their money in a nebulous cause. Looking back at old numbers, one does pick up the inner history of a literary decade, but the contributors to the magazines interest us far less than the eccentric editors. These sedentary guerrillas are the heroes of a picaresque novel. They are liable to virginal upsets; they lay down the law and assassinate, leaving a trail of comedy behind them. As a poet and editor himself, Mr Hamilton writes with irony but is fair in his histories. The making of the book [The Little Magazines] lies in his enjoyment of the follies and troubles of his predecessors. One lesson emerges: now that private patronage has vanished, public patronage will have to be as reckless at the same gambling tables of faith and fame.

My only criticism of Mr Hamilton's choice of examples is that it is limited to six—no Adelphi, which had its profitable messes; no New Writing, perhaps because he thinks it a cemetery of war-time reportage. His chief interest, except for the polemics of Partisan Review, is in poetry, where the snipings are more spirited.

Mr Hamilton opens with the ‘divine afflatus’ felt by Margaret Anderson when she started the Little Review. Saved from flatulence by Ezra Pound, she got herself prosecuted for publishing a section of Ulysses, fought off the American distrust of European poets, but found herself at war with her masterful co-editor, Jane Heap. This lady had a taste for Dada and admired the Baroness Else von Freytag Loringhoven, who pointed out that no one had done much about the Art of Madness. She wrote the immortal lines:

Thee I call Hamlet of wedding ring—chasing
ghost of honeymoon bliss—to detest
                                                                                                                        who possessed
—killed—once livebody
Of circumstance primarily—individually—
since not blood be filled into
extinct, withered-away tissue

The Baroness always managed, remarks Mr Hamilton, ‘to keep her life one step ahead’:

She appeared at smart cultural receptions with a face painted yellow, lips black; with a cancelled postage stamp on her cheek, and a coal scuttle strapped like a helmet on her head. When she fell in love with William Carlos Williams and was rejected by him, she shaved her head and lacquered it vermilion: ‘Shaving one's head is like having a new love experience.’

Bliss was it in that dawn, in the Twenties, to be alive. Still Pound, always begging and bullying, brought Yeats, Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis to the Little Review. Who else wanted them?

After this comes Harriet Monroe's long-lived Poetry, with Pound, Yeats and Eliot again, trouble with vers libre and the Imagists, and then Wallace Stevens, Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. The magazine was founded in solid indignation at American indifference to poetry. It was mocked because it started in Chicago and was nicknamed Poetry in Porkopolis. It had no policy, no enemies and no scandals beyond that of an occasional obsession with a chronically over-productive bad poet. Still, Miss Monroe's patriotic head was turned by the Panama canal:

Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, Ulysses the wanderer, Siegfried the dragon-slayer are not more typical of humanity than this modern piercing of the isthmus.

A not uncommon utterance: others had said that the real American poetry was engineering. Miss Monroe was a dogged extrovert who died in an attempt to cross the Andes with a member of the P.E.N. Club. Mr Hamilton concedes, however, that she created a ‘durable’ trade journal in the best sense of the word.

On to Eliot's Criterion, his worried attacks on communism, his silence about Hitler, and his disappearance into the dense and dismal labyrinths of theology: ‘Like many original writers Eliot had a deep weakness for pastiche of his own work.’ Good things were published but there were no discoveries, no novelists or story writers admitted, at least not until the end. It was a journal in which the editor wrote strenuously at large. The best editors have a streak of madness: they need the extravagance of the platform, not the doubts of the pulpit. John Gould Fletcher said Eliot suffered from ‘the Hellenic paranoia’. No comedy in the Criterion: he wrote, of course, for himself.

The comedy of antagonists who unconsciously swap their principles is found in the story of Partisan Review. In America the conflicts of the Thirties became one of those conscience-stripping Watergates that go on for ever, invigorated by the distance between the purlieus of Greenwich Village and the scene where confrontations were bloody and real. What I miss here are the personalities that were hidden in iron-clads like Dwight Macdonald and Philip Rahva, the latter was not so much drifting from a revolutionary position as directing himself to what he really knew and valued—literature. It must be said that English writers, with the exception of Orwell, got through the Thirties by a sort of sleight of hand. They said serious things lightly. In the America of Partisan, where it was one's duty to identify oneself with the mills of the Puritan God grinding slowly, one got to know the subject grain by grain and, as Mr Hamilton says, Partisan was never as foolish as its principles made it look.

The two very odd English editors who complete the book are the Grigson of New Verse at the rise of the wave when the Thirties began, and Cyril Connolly, who saw the wave flop to an end in the war which left everyone exhausted. Grigson, who in those days had the innocent look of an owlish schoolboy, slashed with his billhook and was savage with his Hampstead weed-killer; Connolly hid in his wit and his gourmet tastes; in the inevitable aftermath, he nursed the slothful Irish death-wish and the romantic despairs of sunset. Both had high gifts of satirical fantasy and impromptu mockery. Both had useful obsessions of the dissenting kind and were energetic disciples—Grigson perpetuating Wyndham Lewis, Connolly tied to Flaubert's struggles with the sentence and wiping out the whole of English literature in the 19th century, especially the novel, as unreadable. Later, as he matured, Grigson became an excellent critic in his special fields.

After seeing ‘the planet Auden’ rise, New Verse soon made war on nearly everyone, including its own contributors. If Grigson had one eye open for the new poem (Mr Hamilton says), he had more than two open for the fraud. He had the true minority mind. It seems to have been enough for a writer to be published in the many publications, precariously alive in those hopeful days, to be down-graded; but he did make sound critical points and was really attacking the whole literary world and its cautious, tepid reviewing. The difficulty was that his fantasy shot up to extravagances so brilliant that they left the victim in the end untouched:

He is a sluggish bore, a Hopkins-Binyon bore, a tangle of pimpled laurels bore [i.e. he was published, say, by the Listener, the Adelphi, Everyman and, once only, by New Verse itself], a costive bore, a really I do not know Sir James Frazer bore … He is also a yearning, a blind deaf word-gargling, 1930 book-bedded, prose-snipping, egg-bound bore, a bore not yet beyond B.O. breast-fingering poems, a bore pretending to purpose, a culture bore …

Wallace Stevens was a ‘stuffed goldfinch’: Hugh MacDiarmid's Second Hymn to Lenin was ‘77 pages of unvarying twittering’; Scrutiny would become ‘the perfect body builder for prigs’ unless it changed its policy. The disciple of Wyndham Lewis had to have an arch-Enemy and, this was the Sitwell family, Edith Sitwell leading as ‘the scarecrow of an advanced fool farm’. All editors, however, are prone to accident: Grigson took up Mass Observation, but when he saw its literary products he quickly scrambled back. Still, a wasp in the house livens people up and Grigson had a strict eye for the detail and essence of performance.

Horizon washed to and fro, up and down, like a jellyfish during the war, unashamed of its moods and contradictions. Writers were on quarter time: escapism was an air-raid shelter and natural to the stale drudgery of a state of siege. The irredeemable nature of Connolly, and especially his despairs, had something of the secret life of everyone in those fragmenting times; and in many of his perversities—the civilian's grunts against the idle soldiers in the early phases of the war, for example—one sniffs the bad air of the time. His conversation, his mimicries of the ‘infâme’ of the totalitarian kind had a kind of genius. If to have no real policy is a serious defect in a little magazine, he had the gift of living petulantly or moodily from minute to minute, and Horizon annoyed or bewildered to the point that one got fond of it, as Mr Hamilton can't help being.

The natural life of a little magazine, says the author, is about ten years; and Connolly tired of Horizon, as Eliot tired of the Criterion, embarrassed by what at first had seemed one of the attractions of godhead: reflecting at large. Professional editors know better than to do that; anyway, they haven't the time.

Francis King (review date 4 September 1976)

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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 country-cousins in town for the sales. Curiously, their gushing enthusiasm for a whole range of writers from Galsworthy to the bizarre Else von Freytag-Loringhoven is expressed in a style not very different from that used by Geoffrey Grigson to hack down with his bill-hook every poet of the day with the exception of Auden. In each case the same hypermania seems to be at work; indiscriminate adulation and indiscriminate detraction absolve the writers from any true critical response.

Mr Hamilton is perhaps less than fair to Horizon—in complaining of a dearth of good stories, he seems to ignore some notable contributions from Elizabeth Bowen, J. Maclaren-Ross and Antonia White; and one wishes that he could have found a place for New Writing, which was far more influential than Horizon on the young of the time. But he has an agreeably sardonic eye for literary pretension and absurdity, and he has used it to most amusing effect.

Richard Eder (review date 28 November 1982)

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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 hospitals a dozen times. The womanizing and the breakdowns tended to coincide. He entranced and afflicted his friends and, above all, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood, his wives. They stood by him, rescued him, nourished him with their lucidity and love, and finally had to give up. He consumed all the oxygen around, suffocating those near him and finally himself.

Ian Hamilton's book sets the poetry and the pain in wondrous balance. It is intensely alive. It is intimate, drawing upon a remarkable range of correspondence and interviews with those who found themselves in Lowell's magnetic-storm field. They are wives, lovers, friends, fellow-writers, most of whom not only used language and perception with artistry of their own, but felt challenged by Hamilton's spirit of inquiry and challenged by their troubled memories into digging very deep.

Hamilton, an English poet and editor, was one of Lowell's most persistent champions in the London literary world, which didn't know quite what to make of him. Hamilton published him regularly in the magazine he ran under the successive titles of the Review and the New Review. In his book [Robert Lowell] he examines Lowell's poetry with wit and illumination. And he buckles the life and the art so closely that he lets us see the poems not only as a text to be analyzed and admired, but as a series of living exploits, of sorties out of the turbulence in which Lowell moved.

There is a wealth of anecdote, and a great deal of previously unknown or unpublished material, including notes and letters by Lowell himself. They provide any number of perceptions that fix the man and the poet. There is, for example, the importance of lineage.

His father was a lesser but authentic Lowell, whose direct access to God, according to Boston tradition, is impeded only by a Cabot standing directly ahead. His mother was a Winslow. Madaket, Mattapoissett, Maine, and a gaggle of Uncle Arthurs, Uncle Devereaux, Aunt Harriets and a whole New England tradition gave rock-bound roots to poems whose foliage straggled wildly in the wind of contemporary anguish.

Elizabeth Bishop, a close friend, wrote him that she was “green with envy of your kind of assurance.” She had an Uncle Artie and she could write any amount of details about him but what would be the use? “Whereas all you have to do is put down the names! And the fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American etc. gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation. In some ways you are the luckiest poet I know.”

There are vivid portraits of Lowell's parents. His father, weak and smiling, was described by Lowell's Aunt Beatrice: “Bob hasn't a mean bone, an original bone, a funny bone in his body. That's why I can't get a word he says. If he were mine, I'd lobotomize him and stuff his brain with green peppers.” His mother, Charlotte, was lordly, witty and melodramatic. She bullied her husband into resigning from the Navy and going vaguely and unsuccessfully into business. Robert took up the bullying, and at one point he knocked his father down for supposedly insulting a girlfriend. Both parents returned over and over again to inhabit the poems, weathering gradually from bitterness to regret.

Lowell was an outsized, violent boy at St. Mark's, a Spartan New England boarding school. Violence would recur, fated or willed: He broke Jean Stafford's nose twice, once in a car crash, once with a blow. The powerful but finely controlled poetry was wrung not from grace or delicacy but from excess.

The presence of Richard Eberhardt, a notable poet, as one of the St. Mark's instructors helped to channel Lowell's temperament—his previous passion was military lore—into poetry and literature. He was the first of a series of mentors and patrons. The psychiatrist and poet Merrill Moore, called in to consider Lowell's turbulence, passed him along to Alan Tate with his flock of Southern writers at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. There were no quarters available so Lowell set up a tent in the garden and stayed for three months. “In every room in the house there's a typewriter and at every typewriter there sits a genius. Each genius is wilted and says that he or she can do no more, but the typewritten sheets keep on mounting,” one visitor to this artistic wasp-nest reported.

From Tate, Lowell was passed on to John Crowe Ransom, the patron saint of New Criticism and the new poetry. If eventually he became poet-king, he was a kind of adopted poet-prince from the start.

Hamilton's admiration for Lowell is immense, yet his book never adulates him or his poetry, as if the best service he could pay were to remain objective. This fairness results, among many other virtues, in superlative portraits of Jean Stafford and Elizabeth Hardwick and of the ordeals they went through before succumbing in the face of one final aberration or one more young woman with whom Lowell decided to make a new—brief—life. Hardwick is particularly moving, with a sanity approaching genius, and an ability to take unbelievable punishment; the final blow was Lowell's turning her anguished letters to him into the poems in Dolphin, still preserving her dignity and talent.

The author is unfailingly perceptive about Lowell's poetry. He makes a detailed, illustrated study of the poet's extensive autobiographical sketches in prose, to free his style from the clangorous rhythms of his first period, and to produce such works as Life Studies. His judgment of the loose sonnet form of the last works—History,The Dolphin—is balanced. He notes the accomplishment, but he also notes the laxness that creeps in, and speculates about the influence of the lithium that Lowell took in his last years to abate his manic-depressive cycles.

He writes with something approaching indignation of the “fulsome” praise given Lowell in his middle period. It is not only that Hamilton's sense of balance is offended by the excess; there is something more, and it is at the heart of his book's virtues. Lowell's close friends recognized the dangers to his sanity of conspicuous success; all too often, triumph was followed by the police having to take him to still another hospital.

Hamilton has written his book almost as if Lowell were still there, as if he could still shield him from deranging adulation and restore him with doses of sense. It is a biography that is virtually a dialogue with the living as, in his poetry, Robert Lowell continues to be.

Victor Howes (review date 3 December 1982)

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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 husband to women whom he loved, infuriated, and left. One marriage he compared to “simmering like wasps in our tent.”

He was a poet who at 19 could punch his father in the jaw over an offense given to the current financee. He was a poet who at 57 could, in the words of one irate reviewer, “appropriate his ex-wife's letters written in the stress and pain of desertion, into a book nominally addressed to the new wife.”

In Ian Hamilton's biography [Robert Lowell] we find the all-too-painful account of Lowell's tormented, gifted life—the crackups, the recoveries, the friendships, the love affairs; the quarrels, the reconciliations, the losses, the rivalries, the intimacies and the injuries, the taste for vitriol and violence, and the marvelous gift for the telling phrase, the significant symbol.

Robert Lowell knew everyone worth knowing in the poetry world, including Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Berryman, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop. Two of his wives were successful writers: Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick.

He emerges as a somewhat larger-than-life figure. The handsome head, the football player's build, the artist's slouch, chain-smoking, vodka-and-milk drinking, vibrant, aristocratic, flaky. A cross between a master and a monster.

Reading this first full-length biography of the Boston Brahmin, Harvard teacher, public figure is both compelling and repelling. Poets' biographies in our time may be the highbrow equivalent of The Amityville Horror, or Halloween III. Especially the biographies of confessional poets—harrowing, unnerving, melodramatic. One might call this book, in Lowell's own words, “a jerky graph of the heart.”

Phoebe Pettingell (review date 13 December 1982)

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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 and dehumanization, knowing that liberalism can be a form of death too.” He associated his “normal” behavior with the liberal. During his manic attacks, the kindly humanist became another character who was violent, prone to religious fanaticism, an admirer of such dictators as Napoleon and Caligula—from whom Lowell derived his nickname, Cal.

He lived a literary life as complex as his personality, with all his contradictions deliberately reflected in his verse. Neither his Boston Brahmin family nor his critics were going to let him forget that his impeccable New England heritage contained two notable poetic forebears: James Russell Lowell, that consummate literary politician, and the cigar-smoking Imagist, Amy Lowell. In fact, Robert managed to combine the kind of intellectual perceptions that made James famous with some of Amy's flamboyance.

His madness constantly intruded, making him a colorful figure against his will. Over the years he married three remarkable women. His first and third marriages, to novelist Jean Stafford (1940-47) and to Lady Caroline Blackwood (1972-77), ended because they could not adjust to his sickness. His second wife, critic Elizabeth Hardwick, was with him for 21 years; he also returned to her shortly before his death. Like Shelley, Lowell periodically fell in love with other women, usually during a manic phase, and he often wanted to arrange a ménage including wife and mistress. As a friend put it, “Cal had to be ‘in love.’ Poets were always in love. … But he'd quickly get bored—[the girl friends] wouldn't understand what he was talking about.” Both Lowell's work and Hamilton's chronicle reveal the scion of Calvinist Boston constantly at war with the wild-eyed romantic for whom illness, political idealism and messy love affairs were the raw materials of inspiration.

The rebel in Lowell kept turning against his past styles, so that those who praised one book were often dismayed by his latest metamorphosis. Initially his masters were the Southern “Fugitives,” John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate—reactionaries against the experiments of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Under this formalist tutelage, Lowell honed his gift for rhetoric to a savage cutting edge. Lord Weary's Castle (1946), written shortly after his conversion to Catholicism, displays an intense vision of a broken world on the brink of judgment. Thirteen years later he did an about-face with Life Studies, a collection of “confessional” poetry employing colloquial speech to convey many private references.

The biographer reads Life Studies as an attempt “to face the crippling and destructive ‘side-effects’ of his recurrent mental breakdowns. One consequence is that he no longer trusts his old intellectual vehemence and he knows that others trust it even less: His verbal brilliance they associate with ‘the kingdom of the mad—its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye.” Nevertheless, devotees of early Lowell continue to bemoan the move away from the condensed power of his more structured verse, even as modernists prefer the weary honesty of “Man and Wife” or the impressionistic portrait of depression in “Skunk Hour.”

A third transformation became evident with Notebook 1967-68, a series of “unrhymed sonnets” dwelling on current events and Lowell's family. There is a careless immediacy here reminiscent of journalism, not to mention some downright dull writing, unimaginable in Lowell's previous work. Hamilton thinks Notebook was partly influenced by similar techniques in John Berryman's Dream Songs. In addition, Lowell's critical mentor and superego, Randall Jarrell, had just died, perhaps freeing Lowell from “the idea of some absolute critical authority, a ‘breaking loose’ from the requirement never to write badly.”

Daringly, Hamilton maintains that another significant factor—“but to be thought of with the utmost caution—was the effect of the drug lithium, which Lowell had begun taking in the spring of 1967. There is evidence that Lowell believed he had finally been ‘cured’. … Certainly, by Christmas, 1967, he knew that he had escaped his annual breakdown and was writing friends praising his new medication.” Although the stabilization gave Lowell and his family a temporary respite, the works of this period show a “slackening of grandeur and ferocity,” with something “glazed and foreign in their manner of address, as if they sense an audience too far-off, too blurred to be worth striving for.” Lowell's last two collections, The Dolphin (1973) and Day by Day (1977), are more brilliant, but by that time his disease had returned, despite the medication.

Day by Day still seems to me a bridge to yet another stance in a career of “surprising conversions.” Lowell died suddenly of a heart attack shortly after its publication. I am disappointed, therefore, by Hamilton's accepting Caroline Blackwood's interpretation of a “suicide of wish” to account for Lowell's death, and his concluding that the poet had “perhaps properly completed both his life and his life's work.” This is too pat for a nature as involved and riven as Lowell's. He was by no means at the limit of his powers. Rather, like the Ulysses of one of his last poems, he appeared about to embark on one more journey into unexplored areas of his craft.

Hamilton wisely recognizes that it is too early to try to evaluate Lowell's stature. Indeed, one of the virtues of this book is that it so often lets its subject speak for himself. Thus Lowell's elegy for George Santayana, written in the summer of 1977, is presented as a personal testament: “He had spent a lifetime trying to drive back the New England he had been born to, its fashions, its morals, its reigning minds. They were too hateful, and in a way too cherished, for him to quite deny their existence. He said ‘I have enjoyed writing about my life more than living it.’”

John Berryman was another prisoner of his emotions. Obsessed by his father's suicide and his own alcoholism, he drove himself to excess. Nevertheless, he produced several outstanding volumes: Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), the “Henry” poems of 77 Dream Songs (1964) and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968). No success could alter his conviction of defeat, however. As he explained from his hospital bed after one of his many collapses, “It's simply my mind tearing my body to pieces.” At 57, he killed himself by jumping off a bridge near his home in Minneapolis.

Berryman played “poet” to the hilt. Near the end, his “displays of temperament had turned into a stock in trade,” John Haffenden tells us in The Life of John Berryman (Routledge & Kegan Paul). Haffenden has evidently done exhaustive research, for he can gloss practically every reference in The Dream Songs to some biographical happening. Unfortunately, much of the information is passed on to the reader because it is there, not because it clarifies anything. This makes for heavy going as one plods through catalogs of Berryman's students, women, enemies, and evasions along the sorry downward spiral. Many of the sordid details of Berryman's decline left me feeling as if I had been forced to listen to embarrassing revelations that were none of my business.

Furthermore, Haffenden's clumsy prose often detracts from the force of his points. He lurches from the gush of “She thrilled to his teaching!” to such awkward pedantry as “It would appear that at that time there occurred a ruction between Berryman and his mother of even more than usual profundity.” Ultimately, Haffenden declares that the “oversensitive and profoundly frightened [Berryman] … responded to every challenge in his life like a firework of invention and resourcefulness.” Yet the evidence actually presented bares instead a record of alcoholic self-delusion, lies, betrayals, and compulsive destructiveness toward himself and those close to him.

Where Hamilton illuminates Lowell's poetry through a profound understanding of the life, Haffenden oversimplifies and frequently reduces Berrymen's art to a mishmash of biographical irrelevancies. So far, only Berryman himself has done justice to the range of his sly artistry—by creating an alter-ego, “Henry Hankovitch.” Although the facts of Haffenden's account do manage to evoke pity at the waste of genius, a convincing biography of John Berryman remains to be written.

John Simon (review date 27 December 1982)

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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 as the works, but leaving ultimate judgment to the reader. Yet the great virtue of impartiality does not generate the kind of energy needed for an arduous biography such as Ian Hamilton's remarkable, nearly 500-page Robert Lowell, into which went extensive reading, tracking down, and interviewing. Such books can be motivated and sustained only by passion: usually love, but sometimes hate. That Hamilton's book, on such a recent and pitfall-surrounded subject, can cleave so close to calm sympathy rather than to rowdy partisanship, to critical appreciation rather than to worship or envious malice, is no small achievement in itself.

Hamilton began the job at a time when most of the major figures in the poet's life were still alive and atingle with memories that the biographer taped in extensive interviews. He also read all manner of correspondence, not only from and to, but also around Lowell. For not since Wilhelm Meister (and he, after all, was only a fiction) did anyone have such a concerned society of protectors in back of him, counseling one another on how best to be of help, and stepping forward—singly or in teams—whenever actual assistance was needed.

Moreover, as a poet and former editor of two distinguished journals, Hamilton is well equipped to deal not only with Lowell's writings, but also with their sundry revisions, for the poet had an “inability (and this lasted all his life) to read a page of his own work without rewriting it.” Thus certain parts of Robert Lowell—and they are among the best—read like the beginnings of a variorum edition of Lowell's poetry. Furthermore, Hamilton has culled the writings of some of Lowell's literary friends, associates, and spouses (e.g., Peter Taylor, Norman Mailer, Jean Stafford—though, inexplicably, not Elizabeth Hardwick) for fictionalized but not unrevealing aspects of his subject's life and personality.

Robert Traill Spence Lowell, IV (1917-1977), was the son of Robert Lowell, III, an amiable but weak naval officer who later went into business, and his powerful, domineering wife, Charlotte, née Winslow. That Robert senior came from a lesser branch of the illustrious family and that he lacked ambition were unforgivable flaws to Charlotte; and the always uneasy marriage provided young Cal (as he was to be dubbed at St. Mark's, his fancy but unintellectual school, either after Caliban, whom he once played, or after Caligula, whom he often tried to emulate) with a background in in-fighting and manipulativeness. At St. Mark's, where he distinguished himself mostly for roughness and slovenliness, he acquired his first pair of lifelong friends, followers, and amanuenses, Frank Parker and Blair Clark, as well as his first literary mentor, the English teacher and poet Richard Eberhart whom Lowell was later to surpass, criticize in turn, and finally condescend to.

After a couple of unsuccessful years at Harvard, then under the presidency of his cousin A. Lawrence Lowell—to whom Cal was to write, some years later, one of the most patronizing job applications in recorded history—the future poet was placed by his mother under the care of Merrill Moore, a poet-psychiatrist (and, subsequently, Charlotte's employer and lover) who was connected to the Fugitives, and it is by him that Lowell was directed southward, to become the disciple of Tate and Ransom at Vanderbilt, and thereafter of Ransom at Kenyon College, where he formed lasting friendships with Peter Taylor, Randall Jarrell, and John Thompson. Despite tremendous uncouthness and messiness, he ended up graduating with top honors in Classics, becoming the class valedictorian and, as it were, Ransom's poetic son and heir. At Kenyon, Cal had begun writing poetry more seriously, though at age 21 he could still commit verses such as “his sinewed eyes, wildish elliptic orbs, / compressed intensity in jellied meat” and “—O felly blank, O general review!”—perhaps the worst line of printed English poetry since the notorious “O Sophonisba! Sophonisba, O!”

There followed the marriage to the novelist Jean Stafford, whose face he smashed up in a car accident (he was the worst of drivers), and, after she underwent long and painful surgery, resmashed with his fists during one of his periodic rages; according to Blair Clark, she lost 25 percent of her good looks in the process. Jean was a Catholic, as were such friends as Mrs. Tate and Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, and Cal was converted, to become, as a friendly Jesuit put it, more Catholic than the Church. He used his faith, in verse and prose, as an eminence from which to fulminate against enemies and terrorize friends. Later, when, as Stafford felt, Catholicism had served his literary purpose, Cal began his gradual return to Episcopalianism and rabid anti-Catholicism. During World War II, Lowell refused an army commission, became a conscientious objector—although he was jailed for one year rather than the customary three, and at a minimum security prison—thus beginning his career as a public figure with the much-publicized “Declaration of Personal Responsibility” sent to F.D.R. Eventually, Cal and Jean acquired the first of the poet's beloved New England houses, and began a life of assiduous drinking and boisterous entertaining. Meanwhile Lowell had also started his career as teacher or poet in residence, which he was to pursue intermittently, here and abroad, until his death.

Then came the first major extramarital affair—with Gertrude Buckman, the ex-wife of ex-friend Delmore Schwartz, and the declaration that, reborn in this new love, Cal was leaving Jean. Stafford agonized as Lowell, now Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, was reborn yet again, this time thanks to a Washington socialite, whom, during an intimate evening at home, he almost strangled in a fury over her inadequate reading of Shakespeare's plays. A pattern was formed: about once a year Lowell's madness would come upon him in concert with “a new life” through a grand passion (though sometimes without), and leading, after some extraordinarily manic behavior, to confinement in an institution, domestic or foreign, according to where he happened to be.

Meanwhile Lowell was rapidly making his literary reputation: first as our leading formalist poet with Lord Weary's Castle; then, after a slump with The Mills of the Kavanaughs (deemed too obscure and long-winded), as our leading vers librist (under the influence of a new mentor, William Carlos Williams) with Life Studies. Divorced, Lowell had met Elizabeth Hardwick at Yaddo—where, in one of his bursts of anti-Communist mania, he waged an ugly and unsuccessful campaign against the allegedly fellow-traveling director of that artists' colony—and, in 1949, married her. She stood by him—lovingly, helpfully, heroically—through the annual outbursts of what, after many false diagnoses, was finally labeled manic-depressive psychosis; for 23 years she endured through the failures of psychotherapy, shock treatment, and Thorazine. Much later, lithium was, for four years, able to control Lowell, but by that time he was married to Lady Caroline Blackwood. When lithium and Blackwood also failed, and that marriage broke up, Lizzie let Cal stay with her for ever longer periods. Returning from a short visit with Caroline, Lowell died of a heart attack in the taxi arriving at Hardwick's door. Clutched in his hands was a parcel containing Blackwood's portrait.

We follow, too, the politicization of Robert Lowell: his anti-Vietnam War activism (fairly mild); his open letter to L.B.J. to refuse an invitation to the White House he had previously accepted; his association with and campaigning for Eugene McCarthy, which may have helped scuttle Honest Gene's unsanguine bid for the Presidency. There are the literary friendships (and virtually no enmities, unless with Auden) with older poets such as Frost, Eliot, and Pound; with contemporaries, such as Jarrell, Berryman, and Elizabeth Bishop; with students or disciples, such as W. D. Snodgrass, William Alfred, and Adrienne Rich, who was later to turn on him ferociously. There are brief but perspicacious evaluations of Lowell's poetic and dramatic output (the latter less important to Lowell: he found playwriting “so easy—it's a crime”), and fastidious excerpts from contemporary reviews of Lowell's works, not forgetting the adverse ones. Quite often Hamilton manages such lapidary insights as “it was probably harder for Lowell to discard rhymes than to invent them,” and, by way of explaining the slackness of the later work, “The death of Randall Jarrell had removed the one critical voice Lowell was in fear of.”

There are fine accounts of Cal's comradeships with men—some literary, some not—who helped him variously: editing his poems, getting him in and out of hospitals, soothing his hurt or angry women, or just listening to him; and no less fine accounts of relations with mistresses and wives, who had happy periods ensconced or traveling with him; endured bouts of vehement infidelity or violent insanity; fumed at being abandoned by him, and yet often went on caring and wanting him back—sometimes even advising him about other women. What Hamilton cannot quite convey, however, is the reason for all this love and support lavished on this difficult, sometimes charming but as often inconsiderate and hurtful, man.

Was it his poetic eminence? The magic of the Lowell name? The large, strong, good-looking exterior that nevertheless betrayed vulnerability? The albatross-like helplessness when not immersed in his own element, poetry? These and other reasons are adduced and illustrated with quotations and anecdotes, but the Lowell appeal does not become concrete and palpable. Perhaps it could not, in any biography. Hamilton evokes the fury of later composition—four pseudo-sonnets a week for a couple of years. He conveys the grimness of the years when, conversely, no poetry would come. He summons up the tragicomic ecstasy and horror of the manic phases, and the “dark, post-manic and pathological self-abasement” of those that followed. Yet out of tactfulness, or the modest wish to keep himself out even though he knew Lowell, we get something like a documentary whose voice-over narration has not yet been added to the soundtrack.

So we read Lowell's proposal, from one of his sanatoriums, to Elizabeth Hardwick:

How would you like to be engaged? Like a debutant [sic]. WILL YOU? How happy we'll be together writing the world's masterpieces, swimming and washing dishes. P.S. Reading The Idiot again.

Was ever lady in such humor wooed—and won? Doesn't this call for a comment from the biographer? Did Lowell really think he and Lizzie would be united in masterpieces? Or was he joking? Or mad? Or just reading The Idiot? Again, Hamilton gives many instances of Lowell's truly atrocious spelling, even hints at dyslexia, and reproduces early drafts of poems crawling with spelling and grammatical errors. But he does not speculate on what this means psychically, never mind psychiatrically.

Or Hamilton will quote in extensive and riveting passages the pleas of Lowell's American friends, who knew Lizzie and Harriet (Cal's daughter by her), not to publish in The Dolphin certain poems incorporating raw and embarrassing autobiographical data, such as excerpts from Hardwick's anguished letters and phone calls. He will then quote English friends, who did not know the persons and miseries involved, urging the poet to publish everything in the interest of art. And he records faithfully Lowell's own squirmings and tergiversations. But he never enters the fray himself. This is admirable. Yet why doesn't he bring in, for our enlightenment, how other poets have dealt with like problems—for example, George Meredith, in his very similar quasi-sonnet sequence Modern Love?

And although Hamilton handles Lowell's madness exemplarily—without stinting, smirking, or glossing over—he is not always fair to those who feared or reprehended it. Thus he paraphrases “enemies” of Lowell's: “How was it, they could disingenuously wonder, that this renowned spokesman for correct liberal causes persistently ‘revealed,’ in mania, a fascination with tyrants and monsters of the right?” Why that “disingenuously” and those quotation marks? There is no doubt, from Hamilton's own account, that Lowell was obsessed with Hitler—Jonathan Miller reports on Cal's keeping a copy of Mein Kampf on his shelf under a Fleurs du Mal dust jacket—and that, as Blair Clark stated, “an absolutely infallible indication of an impending manic episode was an interest in Hitler.” At the University of Cincinnati, where many mistook Lowell's mania for the proper behavior of a famous poet, they were rewarded with a lecture in praise of Hitler just before the lecturer was carted off to the psychiatric ward. (In more benevolent accesses of frenzy, helped perhaps by lithium, Cal would identify himself with Alexander the Great or Christ, not Hitler.) At an English clinic, Jonathan Raban found Lowell holding a piece of steel and declaring it was “the Totentanz. This is what Hitler used to eliminate the Jews.” Yet Hamilton seems tacitly to censure Caroline for considering “the mere mention of Hitler … a danger sign.” In view of the rages she had experienced, small wonder.

Even more unappealing—because not excusable by madness—was Lowell's snobbery. This meant “taking the … aristocracy and family tradition seriously,” as Cal wrote his parents; going on the odd “little ancestor worshiping spree” and compiling lists of antecedents, and growing ecstatic over a distant cousinship with Boswell; questioning everyone on a trip to the Orkneys about Traills and Spences; and even understatedly flaunting the sumptuous way in which he, like other Lowells, would be buried. At Milgate, Caroline's country house, Cal enjoyed playing the country squire, and was delighted to identify himself and his wife as “Robert and Lady Caroline Lowell.” He was vastly overimpressed by his fleeting association with Jackie Kennedy, and announced in one of his crazier moments that “L.B.J. has asked me to be in his Cabinet.” To Peter Taylor he recommended England as having “safe schools, no negroes.” And with snobbery came arrogance: “Father, forgive me / my injuries, / as I forgive / those I have injured.” (Not those who injured me.) No comment on all this from Hamilton.

But even on the poetry, Hamilton sometimes allows himself a slight bias. Though hard on Lowell's poorer works, he will let slip a remark about “one of Lowell's most perfect [sic] and impenetrable” images, as if impenetrability were a virtue; he will gush about the line “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will,” even though, as he says, no one has been able to explicate it. There is something show-offy even about Lowell's best poetry—a hunting for effect that Jonathan Raban was to describe as follows: “For almost every sentence that Cal ever wrote if he thought it made a better line he'd have put in a ‘never’ or a ‘not’ at the essential point.” Raban also cites Cal's first quoting Mme. Flaubert's line about her son, “Till the mania for phrases dried up his heart,” in the poem on Flaubert, then blithely changing it to “enlarged his heart,” thus reversing the meaning and rewriting history. Calvin Bedient cites Lowell's recasting “Often the player's outdistanced by the game” as “Often the player outdistances the game,” which is better, but testifies to a lack of passionate conviction. No comment from Hamilton.

Still, the book is splendidly researched and documented, and its general knowledgeableness and subtlety are couched in a pleasingly perspicuous style. I found few factual errors: the poetess Louise Labé is transsexualized into “Louis Labe,” the magazine Commonweal becomes Commonwealth, and Ted Roethke's fatal heart attack is said to have occurred on a tennis court rather than, as it did, in a swimming pool. This cancels the prophetic tone of Lowell's last letter to Roethke: “… to write we seem to have to go at it with such single-minded intensity that we are always on the point of drowning.” Nicely put; indeed, much of Lowell's prose is most impressive. On the whole, I prefer it to his poetry, which, though full of powerful images and resonant lines, is a poetry of patches rather than of rounded poems.

And what a strange patchwork the life itself was: fraught with triumphs and exultation, beset with periods of humiliating sequestration and self-torment. All the same, when you consider how Lowell was taken care of by so many devoted hands, never obliged to do uncongenial work or left in serious financial straits, and recognized and exalted during his lifetime, you will agree with Elizabeth Bishop's remark to him: “In some ways you are the luckiest poet I know!”

John Lucas (review date 13 May 1983)

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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 biography to help us to understand the work. But is that true? In this context ‘understanding’ nearly always means ‘explaining away’ or, more generously, ‘justifying’. But such justification often turns out to be a form of not-so-special pleading or a reductive exercise. Even Ian Hamilton's biography, which is far and away the best of the recent lives of American poets, does not entirely escape these faults.

Lowell had a history of psychotic illness: ‘In 1954 it had been thought that thorazine was the “wonder drug” that would stabilize him, but 13 years later it was evident that thorazine had no preventive function. In 1967 a new wonder drug made its appearance: lithium carbonate’. Lowell agreed to take the drug. At the time, or shortly after it, he began writing a mass of unrhymed sonnets:

Many of the sonnets are recognizably by Robert Lowell; they employ his verbal tricks—his triple adjectives, his gnomic oxymorons—and they are frequently dense with obscure details from his autobiography. And yet there is something glazed and foreign in their manner of address, as if they sense an audience too far-off, too blurred to be worth striving for. Or is this fanciful? It would be safer, maybe, to conjecture that the important ‘side effect’ of Lowell's lithium treatment was in how it seemed to him.

Those anxious qualifications show that Hamilton is perfectly well aware that there's a problem in his kind of approach. But being aware of the problem isn't the same thing as avoiding it.

Still, it would probably be wrong to make too much of this. Robert Lowell is impressive because it doesn't press. For example, having shown us something of Lowell's odd upbringing, his bullying adolescence, his vastly ambitious programme for reading and preparing himself for a life of writing, Hamilton quotes from a letter of 1940, in which Lowell remarks that he must ‘keep spiritually alive and brilliantly alive, for poetry is, as the moral Milton conceded in practice and precept, a sensuous, passionate, brutal thing.’ A lesser biographer would have fallen on Lowell's substituting Milton's ‘simple’ for his own ‘brutal’. Hamilton lets it pass.

This is the more remarkable because it would be possible to make much of the links between the two poets. Both were avid for success, they thought of themselves as public poets, they had an intense dislike, amounting to near-hatred, of much of the life they saw about them, and both placed themselves at the service of the state. They also made life appallingly difficult for their wives (both were married three times) and there are grounds for thinking Elizabeth Hardwick is more entitled than Katherine Woodcock to the epithet of espoused saint.

Yet none of this would be of any account were it not for the fact that Lowell is probably a great poet. And this is where Hamilton's biography, although it partly fails, at least comes nearer to succeeding than most; for Hamilton has a sense of the salient fact, moment, decision. Without improper emphasis he mentions Lowell's seeking out of Allen Tate and frantic conversion to Catholicism (useful because it allowed him a perspective by means of which to distance himself from the New England that nevertheless obsessed him); he notes his sudden conversion to W. C. Williams, presumably made because it helped him accept the America he had once powerfully and, it must have seemed, finally renounced, so that nothing less than conversion would allow for so absolute a change of direction. He outlines Lowell's Marvellian phase, which also had the drama of conversion about it. (Hamilton is wrong to think Lowell was trying to imitate the metre of the ‘Horatian Ode’, which isn't in octosyllabics, but he is obviously right to see that in his political poems of the mid to late 1960s the poet was struggling to achieve Marvell's sort of quizzical impartiality—although, granted the absolute difference in temperament, it was bound to fail.) And he quotes a letter that Lowell wrote when he had become involved with Caroline Blackwood, in which, in a final would-be conversion, Lowell attempts to take on the tone of the patrician Englishman: ‘Already one feels reborn.’

Perhaps this makes Lowell seem a poseur. Certainly his life is not pleasant to read about. But only someone in whom self-protecting shrewdness was matched by such crazy vulnerability could have behaved as Lowell did—and all, it has to be said, in the interest of producing poems. When Lowell sent Randall Jarrell his manuscript of Lord Weary's Castle, Jarrell wrote back: ‘I think they are some of the best poems anyone has written in our time and are sure to be read for hundreds of years.’ Time will almost certainly prove Jarrell right. It is time, rather than biography, which forgives everyone by whom language lives.

Anthony Thwaite (review date 14 May 1983)

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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 agreement the most gifted poet of his generation in America, and one whose reputation was—and probably still is—as high in Britain as in his own country. Hamilton is an incisive writer, a firm and trenchant critic, who understands America and American literary life but who stands at a distance from them. (Helen Vendler, reviewing Hamilton's book in the New York Review of Books on its US publication towards the end of last year, seemed to find it amazing that an Englishman could have done the job so well, and almost seemed to be drawn to making Johnsonian parallels with dogs walking on their hind legs or women preaching.) He also understands mental breakdown, and writes about it sympathetically, without being jargon-ridden or maudlin.

Much of Lowell's material, and increasingly so in his later poems, was his own life, so that he is a peculiarly good subject for Hamilton's purpose, which is to assemble a life-and-letters in which literary comment and criticism march side by side with the narrative. The distinguished New England ancestry; the dominant mother and the weak father; the tough, even bloodthirsty boy, with a fierce competitiveness; the early idiosyncratic apprenticeship in the South to John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate—all these are established with masterly but not oppressive detail. The manic-depressive bouts, possibly caused by chemical imbalance, began quite early—‘antics’, ‘pranks’, the fuel for a succession of ‘Cal stories’ throughout his life (‘Cal’ was a schoolboy nickname that survived, an amalgam of Caligula and Caliban). Lowell knew what was happening to him, learned to recognise the signs, but such knowledge was little help. As he wrote to his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick: ‘Surely, there's some terrible flaw in my life that blows a bubble into my head every year or so’.

Lowell's own hitherto unpublished account of the pattern of one of these psychotic episodes, in 1954, seems chillingly distanced in its accuracy. The clowning is dispassionately put down. Like Dylan Thomas before him, he often had a ghoulishly willing audience for his ‘antics’: ‘he was behaving just as some of them hoped a famous poet would behave’. The leaps, the plunges, the abraded nerves, the dramas and the self-dramatics, the violent assaults and the furious voltes-faces were a spectacle; but they were also part of the exhausting baggage that had to be borne by three wives in succession (Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, Caroline Blackwood), numerous other women, and a number of loyal friends, such as Frank Parker and Blair Clark from early days, down to Frank Bidart, his literary aide and amanuensis in later years.

But these people were won to him, and in some sense stuck by him—even the estranged wives—because of Lowell's magnetism, and also because he was so clearly a man who needed, indeed demanded, emotional commitment. He was also, or could be, witty, concerned, compulsively entertaining, lovable, and brave. His conscientious objection during the Second World War (and his resultant time in gaol), his public refusal to attend a White House ‘Festival of the Arts’ in protest against American foreign policy, his part in the ‘draft-card demonstration’ in 1967, were serious acts of conscience by a man to whom public responsibilities and private agonies were closely bound together.

If Hamilton's biography [Robert Lowell] increasingly becomes a hectic fever-chart of madness, that doesn't seem a twisting of the facts or a wrong emphasis. To Lowell, however much he resented them, the manic bouts seemed to provide moments of almost sublime energy. Afterwards, there was (in Hamilton's fine phrase) the ‘pure lament for the surrendered infancy of madness’. In an early draft of the poem ‘Home After Three Months Away’, Lowell ended:

For months
My madness gathered strength
to roll all sweetness to a ball
in color, tropical …
Now I am frizzled, stale and small.

Tamed and tranquillised, he went through purgatorial times of remorse and listlessness. Even when he was ‘well’ he could write, in another letter to John Berryman, ‘these knocks are almost a proof of intelligence and valor in us’. Such edgy spiritual pride cannibalised itself in the prolific work of his later years, in Notebook, History, The Dolphin, For Lizzie and Harriet, and Day by Day: even the bits of ‘history’ in many of these poems read like aggrandised autobiography, so that Lowell's personality—as so often in his manic periods—is refracted through Alexander, Caligula, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler. The real and the imagined blur, the accumulated poems become a life; or as Lowell wryly put it in a poem from The Dolphin, ‘everything is real until it's published’.

It seems to me that Lowell's work is far better than, say, Berryman's because Lowell, even in disorder, never lost control of what he was doing in his poems. His garrulousness had a shaping spirit behind it; and his best poems, from the early sculpted rhetoric of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ to the freer annotations of such Notebook sonnets as ‘In the Family’, have an ungainsayable authority.

Ian Hamilton's biography has a comparable authority. There were occasional moments when I felt a loose end could have been tied up, for example when mention is made of ‘the suicide earlier in that same year of Lowell's former student, Sylvia Plath’. I had some vague memory that Plath had attended Lowell's writing classes at one stage, but would like to have had the facts tucked in here or somewhere else in the book. Clearly she and her work made a strong impression on Lowell. But as a whole, the book is a considerable achievement, one of the best literary biographies of a modern writer I have ever read.

William Pratt (review date summer 1983)

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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 Lowell's public success only seemed to plunge him deeper into private despair. Being a Lowell of Boston meant growing up in the shadow of greatness; his father never lived up to his wife's expectations, and young Robert, after enduring a Boston prep school (where he showed his first poems to Richard Eberhart) and a year at Harvard (where he met Robert Frost), escaped to the South; there he spent one of his few happy interludes, at Allen Tate's country house in Tennessee, in the spring and summer of 1937, when he was twenty. The house was full of writers (Lowell had to pitch a tent on the lawn), and all were busy—as Ford Madox Ford's wife put it, “In every room in the house there is a typewriter and at every typewriter there is a genius.” The intensity of this literary life suited him, and at the end of the summer he followed John Crowe Ransom in his move from Vanderbilt to Kenyon College, accompanied by a small writers' colony that included Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor. Lowell went from Kenyon, where he contributed his first important poems to the Kenyon Review, to Louisiana State, where he taught and contributed more poems to the Southern Review, edited by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. His early fame reached its peak with his second volume of poems, Lord Weary's Castle, which received a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 and soon won him the further honors of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an appointment as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress.

Having climbed to such a pinnacle at the age of thirty, Lowell seemed to have nowhere to go but down, and in 1949 he suffered the first fit of manic depression which troubled all his remaining thirty years. His first wife, Jean Stafford, and loyal friends like Tate and Jarrell and Taylor were unable to save him from the self-destruction which his genius seemed to require, and they watched appalled as he raved madly through jails and asylums, miraculously recovering long enough to produce new poetry out of the wreckage of his life. The remainder of Lowell's poetic career was a precipitous sequence of public triumphs and private breakdowns, during which he became the most admired and influential poet of his generation while leaving a trail of wailing women and children, the raw material for poems distilled out of despair.

As biographer, Hamilton maintains a fairly objective view of Lowell's explosive personality, but as critic he shows a bias toward the later poetry, disparaging “the elemental moonscape of Lord Weary” while praising “Life Studies' important gains.” This preference for the later over the earlier Lowell is also reflected in Vereen Bell's study, Robert Lowell: Nihilist as Hero, with its title drawn from one of the late, irregular “sonnets” of Notebooks. Bell treats Lowell as a nihilist throughout his poetry, speaking of the “religious nihilism” of the early Lowell as if it were simply a prelude to the later, agnostic nihilism: “The order of the early poems is violently formal,” he says, “Not God's but the poet's.” Though Lowell was a converted Catholic “more Roman than the Romans” when he wrote Lord Weary's Castle, and though he experienced what he himself believed was “an incredible outpouring of grace” shortly before his first breakdown in 1949, both Hamilton and Bell cast doubt on the sincerity of Lowell's faith and regard his later “confessional” style as a truer expression of his real skepticism than his early “apocalyptic” style was of his presumed belief. It is clear from the biography, however, that Lowell's madness increased as he grew older, and that writing poetry came to be more and more a form of therapy, a relief from his bouts of uncontrollable violence. Bell sees no apparent contradiction in stating that Lowell's last collection, Day by Day, shows that “the poet himself has failed in his own eyes as a human being” while “the poems of Day by Day are closer to us than Lowell's other work, more immediate and more intimate.” If failure as a human being leads to success as a poet, the only logical conclusion to draw is that nihilism is good for poetry—a terrible lesson to learn from any poet, however gifted.

Robert Lowell remains an impressive but disturbing figure, whether as man or as poet, and it may be a long time before a completely fair and objective appraisal of his life and work can be made. Hamilton's biography is the fullest presentation of his life so far and is to be welcomed in spite of the morbidity of the subject. But the achievement of the poetry is bound to be seen as something greater than nihilism; for as the enthusiastic response of Randall Jarrell to the poems of Lord Weary's Castle reminds us, when they are quoted in the biography, “They are some of the best poems anyone has written in our time and are sure to be read for hundreds of years.” The unhappy life may have been the price Lowell had to pay for his poetry, but the poetry at its best redeems the life. Lowell asked in one of his last poems, “Is getting well ever an art, or art a way to get well?” His poetry did not cure his madness, but the best of it—early as well as late—goes on illuminating the darkness that was, as he recognized, not only part of him but part of his age.

Robert Richman (review date spring 1984)

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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 wasted. Robert Lowell was the premier American poet of a highly talented generation whose members included John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Theodore Roethke. He was, for a good part of his career at least, a brilliant technician whose best poetry, unlike that of some of his notable contemporaries, is as powerful today as the day it was written. At the same time, Lowell was a lifelong mental patient who suffered—and made others suffer—greatly. If we add to this his impeccable American pedigree, his rather overwhelming good looks, and his numerous love affairs, there is more than enough appeal for any number of gossips and intellectual groupies who have never cracked the binding of any of his books. Biographers do not, as a matter of course, concentrate on the details of the life so much that the intellectual concerns of the poet and man of letters are obscured. But in the case of Lowell, there is such an array of indelicate and unseemly facts—as Ian Hamilton makes abundantly clear—that little practical chance exists for the work (and the sensibility and rich culture that produced it) to get its proper due. This is unfortunate, for Lowell was a paramount figure in American culture, and we desperately need an intellectual biography of him. For the time being, we must apparently settle for a good deal of dirty linen.

Let us consider some of the events of Lowell's life as Hamilton has chronicled them. Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Jr., was born into considerable privilege in Boston in 1917. His father, a career naval officer named Robert Lowell, had as an ancestor James Russell Lowell, the eminent New England poet. His mother was Charlotte Winslow, the descendant of a distinguished Boston family. Her father, says Hamilton, was “ridiculously proud” of the fact that his forebears had supported George III. Scornful of his deeply ineffectual father and fearful and perplexed by his overbearing mother (after a row one night with her husband, Charlotte hugged her small son and declared, “Oh Bobby, it's such a comfort to have a man in the house”), the young Lowell developed into something of a bully. At St. Mark's School, he was frequently involved in scraps with schoolmates. He also collected soldiers, read military history, and wrote an essay called “War: A Justification.” His general deportment at St. Mark's earned him the nickname “Cal,” after either Caliban or Caligula. He lorded over a small circle of friends with, in Hamilton's words, a “brutal, childish” tyranny. Two of them, Blair Clark and Francis Parker, would admirably stick by Lowell throughout his life. Lowell did not do well academically at St. Mark's, but did come in contact with the poet Richard Eberhart, who was teaching there at the time.

It was while Lowell was a freshman at Harvard that he decided to become a poet. He was determined to let nothing deter him, least of all Harvard, which he left after one year. (Robert Frost, the Norton Lecturer during the year Lowell was there, reacted coolly to the young poet's work.) He chose his first girl friend—a recent debutante named Ann Dick—because of her willingness to become, as Hamilton relates, “a new, and utterly devout, disciple.” Dinners at her family's home were occasions for Lowell to recite Milton, Shakespeare, and Donne. The relationship also provided Lowell with the opportunity to clash once again with his father. Mr. Lowell, it seems, had written a letter to Ann Dick's father suggesting improper behavior between the two young adults, with the further suggestion that they stop seeing one another. Upon learning of this letter, Cal returned home and knocked his father down.

Merrill Moore, the psychiatrist who at this point intervened, suggested that Lowell move to Vanderbilt University where a friend of Moore's, Allen Tate, was then teaching. The eager novitiate poet quickly became a member of Tate's household. Lowell began writing his first experiments in poetry on the Tate model—“organized hard and classical,” as Lowell said. Then, after a year at Vanderbilt, he moved to Kenyon College in 1937 to study with John Crowe Ransom. It was here that Lowell met Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, and Robie Macauley. Earlier in the same year he had met another writer, Jean Stafford, at a conference he attended with Tate. In the spring of 1940, Lowell and Stafford were married. A few weeks later Lowell was graduated from Kenyon, the valedictorian of his class.

Between the brief time spent at Louisiana State University as a graduate student (studying with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren) and his move to New York City the following year, Lowell became a Catholic. He forced Stafford, who had converted a few years earlier herself (but had recently lapsed), through a second, Catholic, marriage ceremony. The couple celebrated mass in the morning, benediction in the evening, and two rosaries a day. A Jesuit priest called Lowell “more Catholic than the Church.” This assault on the Lowell-Winslow lineage—religion as war by other means—was not the same as striking his father, but it must have been even more painful.

As part of Lowell's new commitment to Catholicism, he refused to be drafted during the war. He put forth his objections to the Allied bombing of German civilians in a telegram to President Roosevelt. As Lowell would later say in a draft of the poem “Memories of West Street and Lepke” (from Life Studies), “My conscientious objector statement meant to blow the lid off / the United States Roosevelt and my parents.” While Lowell was serving a prison sentence of a year and a day, Charlotte Lowell blamed the entire unhappy episode on the Tates, who, she claimed, had encouraged in her son “the emotional excitement of poetry.”

The “retributive gusto,” as Ian Hamilton calls it, of Lowell's Catholicism inspired the poems in his first book, Land of Unlikeliness, published by the Cummington Press in 1944. Hamilton sees in the poems “a high fever, a driven, almost deranged belligerence in both the voice and the vocabulary, as if poems had become hurled thunderbolts, instruments of grisly retribution.” But Allen Tate's description of the character of the poems in his introduction to the volume includes an uncanny prophecy about the future course of Lowell's career. Tate wrote:

On the one hand, the Christian symbolism is intellectualized and given a savage satirical direction; it points to the disappearance of the Christian experience from the modern world, and stands, perhaps, for the poet's own effort to recover it. On the other hand, certain shorter poems, like “A Suicidal Nightmare” and “Death from Cancer,” are richer in immediate experience than the explicitly religious poems; they are more dramatic, the references being personal and historical and the symbolism less willed and explicit.

“Intellectualized” versus “immediate”: Lowell's movement between these two poles will, as we shall see, become a permanent feature of his poetic career and, indeed, of his life.

Meanwhile, the Lowells' marriage, which, as Jean Stafford jokingly put it, had suffered from a diet of “too many iambs,” ended. The real reason, however, was Lowell's having fallen in love with Gertrude Buckman, Delmore Schwartz's first wife. But “falling in love,” in this case, was actually a symptom of the first stage of the dreaded manic-depressive cycle that now set in and would haunt Lowell to the end of his life. Each time the chronology of symptoms was exactly, horrifyingly, the same: an emotional winding up, an ecstatic flight from his present surroundings for a “new life” (the words Lowell himself repeatedly used), usually with the nearest available woman, a violent climax, and a denouement of straitjackets, padded cells, and, at least in the early years, shock treatment.

Lowell's second book, Lord Weary's Castle, appeared in 1946. After seeing the manuscript, Randall Jarrell wrote to Lowell, “You write more in the great tradition, the grand style, the real middle of English poetry, than anybody since Yeats.” The book won a Pulitzer Prize and brought him an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and a Guggenheim. The reviews glowed with the highest possible praise. There was reason for this clamor. Lowell's new work is more supple, more deft and ironic, than his previous work. The cascade of alliteration, allusion, and imagery in the poems in Lord Weary's Castle is held together by a firmly knit iambic pentameter line. But Lowell's determination to explore the paradoxes of Protestant America's past, using the searchlight of his new religion, reaches an almost mad level of intensity. The subject of his New England ancestry, which he will return to again and again (though in different forms), is at once full of rich particularity and deep philosophical resonances. Meanwhile a Boston Globe headline proclaimed: THE MOST PROMISING POET IN 100 YEARS … MAY BE GREATER THAN JAMES AND AMY? Reacting to the achievement of his twenty-nine-year-old son, Lowell's father remarked: “Poets seem to see more in his work than most other people.”

In 1948 Lowell met the novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick at Yaddo, the writer's colony; they were married a year later. Following the death of Lowell's father in 1950, the couple moved to Italy. In 1951 Lowell published The Mills of the Kavanaughs. The book consists of a number of shorter poems and the 608-line title poem. In the marvelously successful shorter poems, such as “Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid” and “Mother Marie Therese,” Lowell again plumbs the depths of history and poetic tradition. And the remarkable Lowell rhythms, which are like no one else's, are again metrically well contained, this time by heroic couplets. But the long title poem, about a woman lamenting her absent husband, was considered by most critics a colossal failure. Lowell's attempt to conflate a large, symbolic, historically impressive structure and highly personal subject matter resulted, according to its critics, in a forced symbolism and a paralyzed story line. In other words, Lowell was stylistically stuck between the two poles in Tate's prophecy: the intellectualized and the immediate. Even Lowell's friend Randall Jarrell had to admit that the poem's “people too often seem to be acting in the manner of Robert Lowell, rather than plausibly.”

But even more disturbing—and, in the end, influential—critical observations were put forth by William Carlos Williams in his review of The Mills in the New York Times Book Review. America's doyen of free verse chided Lowell for the “formal fixation of the line” and the “rhyme-track.” Lowell, said Williams,

appears to be restrained by the lines; he appears to want to break them. And when the break comes, tentatively, it is toward some happy recollection, the tragedy intervening when this is snatched away and the lines close in once more.

A year earlier Williams had called Lowell a “tiger” behind the “bars” of rhyme (the zoo, in this case, being traditional verse forms). “More and more,” writes Hamilton, “Lowell was inclined to learn from Williams.” Lowell, in a letter to Williams, stated as much himself: “Still I wish rather in vain that I could absorb something of your way of writing into mine.”

The critical failure of The Mills deeply affected Lowell—so much so that he wrote little poetry during the next few years. He seemed to be rethinking his whole approach to his craft. After his mother's death in 1954, Lowell left Italy for Marlborough Street in Boston, very near the house in which he spent his childhood. During a short teaching stint at the University of Cincinnati, Lowell delivered a most curious lecture on Hitler, “more or less extolling the superhuman ideology,” in Hamilton's words. In fact, Lowell was “speeding up” again, and shortly after this incident he had a severe breakdown. As part of his therapy, Lowell was given, for the first time, a new drug called Thorazine. Hamilton reports that the drug's side effects make its takers appear “sluggish, dazed, somnambulistic.”

Given this clinical fact, it is scarcely surprising that Lowell was unable to complete many poems during this period in his life. But he does undertake, as part of his new therapy, a prose autobiography. In the generous selections Hamilton makes available (Lowell's draft remains unpublished), we see a noticeably “looser” Lowell discussing, in the most raw and “immediate” style he has yet achieved, the devastating experience of mental illness.

I began to talk aimlessly and loudly to the room at large. I discussed the solution to a problem that had been bothering me about the unmanly smallness of the suits of armor that I had seen “tilting” at the Metropolitan Museum. “Don't you see?” I said, and pointed to Anna, “the armor was made for Amazons!” But no one took up my lead. … Nobody paid any attention to me.

It is difficult to say with certainty how much Lowell's new “aesthetic,” as evidenced in this excerpt from the draft autobiography, was abetted by Thorazine. Whatever the case, in March 1957 (two years after starting work on the autobiography) Lowell had developed, in his own words, a further “disrespect for tight forms. If you could make it easier by just changing the syllables, then why not?” Following a reading trip to the West Coast, where he encountered the beat poets who were pursuing ideas very similar to his, Lowell began work on new poems. By October he finished eleven of them, “turned into free verse,” Hamilton relates, “from a first draft in couplets.” Lowell sent the new work to his new mentor, William Carlos Williams, with a letter in which he stated: “I see I forget to say that I feel more and more technically indebted to you, growing young in my forties!” Lowell also sent the manuscript to Allen Tate. Now clearly repudiated, Tate wrote back:

All the poems about your family, including the one about you and Elizabeth, are definitely bad … the poems are composed of unassimilated details, terribly intimate, and coldly noted, which might well have been transferred from the notes from your autobiography without change.

The free verse, arbitrary and without rhythm, reflects this lack of imaginative focus.

Tate even wondered if the new poems were the prelude to another manic spell. He turned out to be right. A few days later Lowell was admitted to the Boston Psychopathic Hospital.

Life Studies, the book in which this new work appeared, was published in 1959. Lowell focused his new “terribly intimate” eye on, among other things, his (evidently) difficult marriage, his father (“91 Revere Street” is about knocking him down), and the literary figures he felt close to at the time. Lowell's coldness, as Tate put it, often reads more like a form of emotional deadness. As for the free verse, there is little question that it is “arbitrary,” to use one of Tate's words again, but at the same time it never strikes us as purely undigested or lacking in concentration. And as much as Lowell bemoaned, in another letter to Williams, “the apparatus of logic and conceit and even set subjects,” he by no means gave up entirely on any of these. What was gone forever was the grand Miltonic style Lowell had achieved in Lord Weary's Castle. “You speak more to us,” Williams assured Lowell.

The high praise that greeted Life Studies must have finally convinced Lowell that he was on the right track. As the decade of the sixties began, the Lowells decided to view the proceedings from the vantage point of Sixty-seventh Street in New York City rather than that of Marlborough Street in Boston. They moved, with their three-year-old daughter, Harriet, in 1961. But the “wild electric beauty” of New York provided no haven for Lowell's sickness. During the next two years Lowell was wracked by more mental episodes, and he left Hardwick for a time. Still, in 1963 he gathered together the poems for his next book, For the Union Dead. The work in this volume for the most part consists of recastings of other writers' prose: letters from Elizabeth Bishop, essays by Jonathan Edwards, etc. Now and again Lowell revamps his own earlier poems. He seems even more relaxed with respect to the construction of his poems, as well as in his emotional regard for his subjects. Everyone now supplies fodder for his poetic canon. The man who wrote “Where the Rainbow Ends,” in Lord Weary's Castle, is someone Lowell might never have known—might even have refused knowing.

But the greatest change in For the Union Dead is its political topicality. The title poem expresses, as Lowell said in an interview he gave a few years later, his “pious … [but] very bitter feelings” about America. These sentiments foreshadow, over the next few years, Lowell's participation in the civil rights movement and anti-war activism. Times were changing, and Lowell found himself at the cutting edge. When he declined a White House invitation in 1965 and used the occasion to make a public statement against the war, it became front-page news. In many ways, this incident, like his decision to march on the Pentagon two years later, was a way of acting out his poetic dissent, which in turn was an extension of his personal revolt against his family.

In one form or another, these public events crept into Lowell's Near the Ocean, published in 1967. The book also included a number of his idiosyncratic but interesting translations. The fact is, Lowell knew well few of the languages from which he translated. He simply considered the original verse so much booty to be plundered as an excuse for his own poetic expression. It was the identical attitude Lowell had toward conversations, poems, private actions—indeed, the whole world. “You can say anything in a poem—if you place it properly,” he declared at the time.

In 1967 Notebook appeared. The book was literally a diary of unrhymed sonnets that Lowell would perpetually revise (it remained the source of all his future books). The first new version came out in 1968. These “sonnets” are, almost without exception, chunks of unprocessed prose, often of an obscure, intransigently personal meaning. As usual, private conversations and letters are used freely in the poems. When historical details or people are discussed, the details float in a free-associational vacuum. There are, nonetheless, a few diamonds in this rough—Lowell did not lose his ability to write great isolated lines—but they remain unintegrated. With the popularity, at the time, of theories of disposable or constantly changing art, it is no surprise that Lowell was praised as a poet in the forefront of the new aesthetic.

In the same year, Lowell was taken off Thorazine and put on a new drug called lithium carbonate. Its users, Hamilton reports, tend to appear “suspended, uninvolved, disinclined to ‘follow through’ their feelings.” Regardless of Lowell's new treatment, he was still prone to attacks and breakdowns. He and Elizabeth Hardwick finally divorced in 1972. During this time Lowell worked on the poems that would appear in three books published the following year: For Lizzie and Harriet, The Dolphin, and History. Comprised largely of revisions of the Notebook poems, Lowell goes a step further by making unprecedented use of some desperate and vulnerable letters written by his distraught wife during the breakup of their marriage. Lowell's fervently pursued ideal of an exact correspondence between art and life reaches its cruel and tasteless conclusion in the mockery of Elizabeth Hardwick that is implicit in these poems.

Before Lowell published these books, Elizabeth Bishop warned him that “art just isn't worth that much.” Lowell never adequately explained to Elizabeth Bishop why he chose to publish them; in fact, he never adequately attempted to explain it to anyone. Ian Hamilton chooses not to speculate on the question. And in Lowell's last book, Day by Day, published in 1977, the year of his death, he only writes: “We were asked to be obsessed with writing / and we were.” Having observed the noble calling of poetry degenerate, in Lowell, into a form of abuse, the lines lose their intended Romantic effect. In the light of Lowell's late career, it reads like no more than a poor excuse.

What the foregoing chronology of the life and career of Robert Lowell omits is that which constitutes a sizable bulk of Hamilton's book: the unspeakably sad narrative of Lowell's lifelong struggle with insanity. Nothing quite prepares the reader for the shock and horror of this. The fits of violence (he broke Jean Stafford's nose twice), the abusive telephone calls, the cold imperiousness to his friends and family, the handcuffs, the jails and the mental clinics—each episode more terrible, and more difficult to read, than the last. Interestingly, there are few remarks by Lowell himself on his illness (apart from the selections from the draft autobiography). But when he does speak of it, he is chillingly eloquent.

The night before I was locked up I ran about the streets of Bloomington Indiana crying out against devils and homosexuals. … I suspected I was a reincarnation of the Holy Ghost. To have known the glory, violence and banality of such an experience is corrupting.

More often we are given the testimony of the friends and witnesses who suffered along with Lowell. Of these, Elizabeth Hardwick suffered the most and has the most to tell. Throughout, she does so with exemplary tact and evenness of tone. Reading her comments we cannot forget that all the details she provides must really only be a very small part of the whole sad story. As others who have written about this book have remarked, manic depression involves long, private, and, in the end, unconveyable silences.

Next to Elizabeth Hardwick's brave and forthright account, the tales of certain other people interviewed by Ian Hamilton seem shoddy in the extreme. Unlike Hardwick, these people forget Lowell's greatness as a poet, or are above mentioning it. There were, for example, the faculty members at the University of Cincinnati who believed that the insane Lowell “was behaving just as some of them hoped a famous poet would behave,” or that “‘mad’ was … another mask of Lowell's genius,” or that “his ranging eloquence [was a] sign … of a newly liberated spirit.” Alongside such idiocy, Hardwick's wisdom and magnanimity seem all the more impressive.

That Hamilton has fashioned a rather disproportionate picture cannot be denied. But neither can the fact that he has done hard and valuable work in writing this book. Apart from his numerous interviews, he has read all the important letters to and from Lowell's friends and colleagues, chief among them Allen Tate, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, and Randall Jarrell. He has also read the work of all these people as well, and immersed himself in the culture they helped create in the years after the war.

Hamilton's sparse critical remarks—clipped as they sometimes seem as a result of the book's factual emphasis—have an admirable objectivity about the uneven quality of Lowell's oeuvre. Though scarcely perfect in this regard, he shines when considered alongside most of his American counterparts. He understands, for example, that the “high rhetoric” of Lowell's early style “need not inflate or falsify”—a notion that is at odds with Lowell's later aesthetic position. However, he is less charitable than he should be toward “The Mills of the Kavanaughs” and tends, now and again, when discussing the later free-form poetry, to fall into the conventional trap of the critical proponents of avant-garde American poetry: namely, to point out a good rhythm here, a fine colloquialism there, and a touching, if wholly personal, allusion around back. (One might as well be criticizing a technical manual, if that's all poetry demands of the critic.) Still, when all is said and done, Hamilton is more rigorous than most have been when dealing with Lowell's poetry.

Nonetheless, one does feel that a large and significant part of Robert Lowell is missing from this biography. Where is the man who worked, when he wasn't sick, sixteen hours a day? Where is the poet who spent, as John Berryman related, one hundred hours on a single stanza of “Beyond the Alps”—only later to delete it? Where is Lowell's intellectual connection with all the books he read so voraciously? Nowhere, alas, in Hamilton's book.

When one has plowed through all the hospital reports, the number of policemen it took to subdue Lowell on this or that occasion, the accounts of Lowell's endless rantings about Hitler and Christ, the revelations of various girl friends (such as the one from Cambridge who found Lowell “wasn't crazily sort of sexy at all. He was very huggy”), one is left less with a chronicle of an important poet with a powerful sense of poetic vocation than with a sad madman who made life hell for everyone around him—and not least for himself. After all this, it is difficult to remember that Robert Lowell was also an artist, and that the appreciation of an artist begins, not with voyeurism, but with his art.

Michael Hofmann (review date 25 March 1988)

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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 mental illness and a father's death from cancer. The few exceptions are just as sombre. There is something terrible and heroic in this narrow focus, in the way that these few poems, produced over many years, should have settled so close by one another, with their themes of breakup and breakdown, their shattered atmosphere, their identical reference points of hands and heads and hair and flowers and grass and snow and shadow.

It is finally, I believe, these things that have appointed the poems and set them their range, and not the human subject-matter:

Your breathing slightly disarrays
A single row of petals
As you lean over him. Your fingers,
In the air, above his face,
Are elegant, perplexed. They pause
At his cold mouth
But won't touch down; thin shadows drift
On candle smoke into his hair.
Your friendly touch
Brings down more petals:
A colourful panic.

(“Last Respects”)

The poems' stylistic “devices” (a heartless word to use) show as little variation and development as the poems themselves. They are short—half are ten lines or less—clipped and brilliant. Their compression, the denial of anything centrifugal or inessential, the absence of more than a single ornament (the petals, for instance) so that poem and ornament are coextensive, give each poem its somewhat oriental and exquisite air. Classical Chinese poetry seems close, and so does Lowell at his most imagistic—the Lowell of “For Sale” and “Father's Bedroom”, whom William Carlos Williams admired.

Then there is the brevity and brittleness of the lines; it seems always possible that a poem may not find it in itself to continue, and will interrupt itself: “Half-suffocated, cancerous, deceived.” The “deceived” stands alone. These are not the lines of turning the plough round and going on to the next furrow. Perhaps, with so little propulsion and stability, this is also the reason why the tally of Hamilton's poems is so low. Just as rare, nowadays, is their unwavering intensity.

Robert Ward (review date 1 April 1990)

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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 Greatest Hits. You won't find any of these subjects written about in great depth here; for that you'll have to look at the primary texts. After all, hundreds of pages have been written about Chandler's and Fitzgerald's Hollywood experiences alone. However, that being said, I must confess that I found Writers in Hollywood a joy from start to finish.

First of all, the book debunks the myth that directors are the true creators of the medium. Anyone, including any honest director, knows that the script is the single most important ingredient in the making of a movie. A bad script with a cast of Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher is still going to be a rotten movie. Hamilton understands this only too well, and in his introduction does a neat scalpel job on the myth of the auteur:

“I remember conversations in Oxford, circa 1960, when I used to go to the cinema five times a week. Outside the darkened theaters, in junior common rooms across the land the ‘auteur theory’ was beginning to take hold. On one occasion, I was particularly struck by the dialogue in Sweet Smell of Success (the ‘Match me, Sidney,’ ‘You're dead, go get buried’ sort of thing), and I was eager to acquire a copy of the script. To disdainful cinéastes of my acquaintance this seemed a pretty low response. I should have been concentrating instead on the ‘voice’ of the director, the recurrences and antinomies by which he had made the narrative ‘his.’”

Hamilton attempted to do just that. He looked up the other works of the director of Sweet Smell, Alexander MacKendrick, but found only one other picture, some horrid “soft focus tear-jerker about a deaf-and-dumb juvenile.” The two pictures have nothing in common; one of them is good primarily because Ernest Lehmann and Clifford Odets wrote a great script.

After reading the introduction, one might think that Writers in Hollywood is going to be a book that rescues the names and reputations of writers who have had to play second fiddle to actors and directors, but Hamilton is too sophisticated to take this tack.

Things are never as simple as good guys and bad guys except in the movies. Many writers discussed in this book were either literary men just looking for a payday to help get them past rough times or screen writers who felt as though what they did was second-rate, that if they were “real writers” they would be either novelists, short-story writers or playwrights.

Everyone knows with what loathing Scott Fitzgerald took on the job of screen writer, and how Faulkner suffered, but few people realize that Dudley Nichols, the great scenarist who worked with John Ford, also desired to be a playwright. Even though he won an Oscar for The Informer, he still dreamed of taking off and doing his own work. As Hamilton explains it, one can hardly blame him. Here's a first-hand account of how The Great Ford treated Nichols while they “collaborated” on The Informer:

“Nichols often found himself standing up and shouting to make himself heard. John's typical response if they didn't agree was that Nichols didn't ‘understand the Irish temperament’ or that ‘he had no first-hand experience with the Irish people.’ When that didn't work, John exploded in a tirade of personal insults, calling the writer ‘a supercilious egghead’ who wanted to write ‘a doctoral thesis on the origins of the Irish proletariat.’ When they finally did agree on a scene, Nichols would write it down, and John would go over it, making brutal cuts in Nichols' dialogue.”

Given this brutal, bullying method of work, who can blame Nichols for wanting out? Hamilton tells us that Nichols actually made it to a farm in Connecticut, where he intended to write plays, but he lasted only a year and came back to the money and security of Hollywood once again.

The book briskly covers the experiences of Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Chandler. All three hated screen writing to a greater or lesser degree, though Hamilton points out that Fitzgerald attempted to persuade himself that he was working in a new and powerful medium that had superseded novels. Indeed, Fitzgerald even persuaded himself that he had succeeded in becoming a good screen writer, and there is a long, brilliantly realized chapter in which Hamilton dissects a fight that Fitzgerald had with Joe Mankiewicz over their collaboration on Three Comrades. Fitzgerald struck a pose that he was on the side of art and quality while Mankiewicz was a paid hack ruining his genius, but Hamilton points out that in this picture, neither of them wrote very good dialogue.

Fitzgerald, by any professional standards, was a lousy screen writer, and for a time, a ridiculously overpaid one. The idea that Hollywood didn't appreciate him is absurd. Producers over-appreciated him until they finally got the drift. The great prose writer couldn't learn the new craft.

As entertaining as all of this is, I can't help but wish Hamilton had dealt with the question of why neither Faulkner nor Fitzgerald were any good at their new craft. I think it has to do with artistic obsession. Novelists, especially American novelists, tend to mine their obsessions time and again.

We all know the ruined Fitzgeraldian hero—the rich young man gone to seed as he overdoses on money, Champagne, romance. We all know the Faulknerian hero—the sex-and-family-obsessed backwoodsman—a Snopes or a Compson. These are richly developed characters, multilayered, tragic. The plots of their lives revolve around their own obsessions, and on the rich ironies that their creators invest in them.

Screen writing, on the other hand, is something else entirely. Here's Huxley, as quoted in Hamilton's book:

“I work away at the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for the moment—an odd, crossword-puzzle job. One tries to do one's best for Jane Austen; but actually the very fact of transforming her book into a picture must necessarily alter its whole quality in a profound way.

“In any picture or play, the story is essential and primary. In Jane Austen's book, it is a matter of secondary importance (every dramatic event in Pride and Prejudice is recorded in a couple of lines, generally in a letter) and serves merely as a receptacle for the dilute irony in which the characters are bathed. Any other kind of receptacle would have served the purpose equally well, and the insistence upon the story as opposed to the dilute irony that the story is designed to contain, is a major falsification of Miss Austen.”

It seems to me that this is the very crux of the matter. And not only is plot more important than character; in movies, character is completely dictated by plot. In short, “What does the hero do?” is the main question, not “How does he feel?” or “What does he think?”

Huxley, by the way, was very successful in Hollywood. He saw screen writing as a kind of interesting puzzle that he wanted to solve. He greatly enjoyed his stay in Los Angeles, as did Ben Hecht, who railed against the stupidity of Hollywood but had a hell of a good time. And screen writers Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges became hugely successful writer-directors, which is the smart bet. As anyone in the game knows, becoming a director is the only way to protect what you have written and assure yourself that you'll see it on the screen.

Among the many amusing stories in Writers in Hollywood, one of my favorites is about Brian Foy, a man known in 1933 as the “Keeper of the Bs” because of his low-budget assignments. Foy bragged that while he was at Warner, he made one picture 11 times. First he made a movie called Tiger Shark, a fishing story, in which Edward G. Robinson lost his arm. Then he remade the picture with the exact same plot as Lumberjack, only in the second version the hero lost his leg. Then he remade it again as Bengal Tiger, but this time the hero was a lion tamer and lost his arm. Etc., etc.

It's easy to laugh at Foy's cynicism, but it's also instructive. A hero fighting against the odds, one of his arms ripped off; a tiger, a shark, a giant ape standing between him and the girl, the treasure; saving the town, the country, the world … This is the stuff of most movies, not vision or personal obsessions.

Remember, folks, they made it 11 times because all 11 times it made money.

Frederic Hunter (review date 21 May 1990)

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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 writers like second-class citizens.

There are other reasons, too.

In the early years, writers scorned “pictures.” A “scenarist” was not really a writer. Few writers took seriously the notion that screenwriters were exploring a new medium and reaching new audiences.

Instead, writers felt they would be factory hands producing junk in a cultural desert, surrendering artistic control (an accurate assumption) and “prostituting” themselves and their art for money (not necessarily accurate).

Although Hamilton does not stress the point, his readable Writers in Hollywood, 1915-1951 suggests that writers who worked best in “pictures” were those like Anita Loos and Billy Wilder, who grew up in the business.

Of the recruits to Hollywood, newspaper reporters adapted best to the studio system's demands. Reporters were used to collaborating with editors, rewrite men, and other reporters. They were accustomed to being shifted off one story and onto another. They acquiesced to publishers interfering in pursuit of their own interests, just as studio heads did.

Newsmen like Ben Hecht, Nunnally Johnson, and Dudley Nichols, whose credits are familiar to most of us even today, made first-class screenwriters. Hamilton profiles all three.

Although neither is profiled, playwrights like Lillian Hellman and Robert E. Sherwood seem to have fared well enough. They were used to the collaboration required by dramatic writing. To some extent they also understood about visualizing scenes.

Novelists like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald had trouble with screenwriting. It seems that the better the novelist, the more accomplished the artist in creating special worlds, peopling them with characters, controlling and establishing mood, the more difficulty he or she had writing for the screen. “I can't see things,” Faulkner complained; “I can only hear.”

Writers in Hollywood offers a grand tour of its territory. It hits the high spots and moves on. If this is Tuesday, it must be “Big Name Wrecks”—that is, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, and Nathanael West, all of whom Hamilton profiles.

The tour starts with D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, “the first American movie that can be talked of without condescension as a work of art.” It continues with the studios' recruitment of writers, once they realized they would need word men, especially after the advent of sound.

The book discusses how the studios developed and how they established their identities. 20th Century-Fox was known as a writers' studio, for example, because Darryl Zanuck cared about scripts. By contrast, Paramount catered to directors and MGM to producers.

The clash of creativity and commerce has always provided hilarious and improbable anecdotes. Hamilton offers a delightful sampling. He even usefully attempts to assess the authenticity of some.

The book looks repeatedly at screenwriting's political issues: censorship (the Hays Office, the Legion of Decency, et al.) and writer efforts to live with it; the fight to establish what is now the Writers Guild of America, in which politics intertwined with economics; World War II propaganda and the Bureau of Motion Pictures, staffed by government bureaucrats who dictated wartime content; as well as the postwar idealism that soured into the misguided patriotism of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.

The tour concludes on this sorry affair with its witch hunts and blacklists, its loyalty oaths and craven betrayals. At about the same time they occurred, a Supreme Court decision outlawed Hollywood's theater ownerships and block-booking methods. This destroyed the studio system and ended in the early '50s what has come to be known as “Hollywood's Golden Era.”

That era seems golden only when bathed in the light of nostalgia. Hamilton performs a useful service by readably showing that era in the light of scholarship and historical research.

Sean French (review date 15 June 1990)

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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 in Hollywood] is both fascinating and enjoyable, partly, at least, because the subject has been so extensively mythologised by the writers themselves. No one has been so dismissive of the Hollywood world as S. J. Perelman, who collaborated on a few Marx Brothers scripts in the thirties. But even after F. Scott Fitzgerald had been repeatedly humiliated by his sojourns out west, he was still able to create the compelling, if ludicrously over-idealised, portrait of Irving Thalberg, head of MGM, as Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon.

Ian Hamilton, previously the author of biographies of Robert Lowell and J. D. Salinger, has always been preoccupied with the penalties that writers pay in their private lives. The experience of writers in Hollywood has been systematically turned into a fable of destruction and waste, but as Hamilton shows with beady-eyed conviction, the truth was more complicated, and often more comic, than that.

Herman Mankiewicz was himself a byword among the Hollywood community for betrayed talent and the stories of his decline into alcoholism are legion. A favourite of mine (not included in this book) concerns a dinner party at the house of Arthur Hornblow, head of production at Samuel Goldwyn and a famously punctilious host, during which a drunken Mankiewicz actually vomited over the table. Amid the stunned silence he turned to his host and said: “Don't worry, Arthur, the white wine came up with the fish.”

But it's hard to believe that Mankiewicz really betrayed his true vocation. When he came to Hollywood he was a second-string theatre critic. After years of cynicism and self-loathing in the film business, he wrote, or co-wrote, the original screenplay for Citizen Kane, for which he won the film's only Oscar. That was worth more than a careerful of second-rate novels.

There are plenty of other good stories that Ian Hamilton includes, but he doesn't just use them as good stories. He never allows his book to degenerate into an anthology of comic turns as this sort of account so easily can.

For example, he tells the very famous story of William Faulkner asking Darryl Zanuck (of 20th-Century Fox) if he could write at home. Then, the next time the studio tried to contact him, they discovered that he had gone home to Oxford, Mississippi. But it wasn't only the writers who created apocrypha. Hamilton shows that this story did the rounds, along with much other Faulkner lore. Zanuck told it but according to the account by Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers) in his autobiography, the story happened when Faulkner was at Warners. Everyone wanted to have been insulted by a Nobel Prize winner.

This book is based almost entirely on secondary sources but it is valuable to have a survey of this field from a literary critic, particularly from a critic with no axe to grind about great writers demeaning themselves in a lesser medium. Hamilton demonstrates no particular enthusiasm for individual films (with the almost sole exception of Casablanca) but nor does he subscribe to the myth that Hollywood destroyed the writers it hired. American writers have generally shown themselves capable of destroying themselves without any help from anyone else, and if anything Hollywood emerges from Hamilton's account as an imperfect, arbitrary sort of arts council to which writers could turn when the going got tough.

He quotes Nathanael West's dignified response to Edmund Wilson's questioning of why he was in “that ghastly place” betraying his artistic talent:

“I once tried to work seriously at my craft but was absolutely unable to make even the beginning of a living. At the end of three years and two books I had made a total of $780 gross. So it wasn't a matter of making a sacrifice, which I was willing enough to make and will still be willing, but just a clear-cut impossibility.”

Ian Hamilton is also interesting on what exactly the writers wrote while they were in Hollywood, so much so that I wish he had devoted less attention to the mechanics of the Writers' Guild and more to the actual scripts that his subjects produced. Hamilton's attempts to trace William Faulkner's hand in the various scripts he produced is particularly interesting and he usefully points out how hard Faulkner worked while he was supposedly trying to earn easy money, even though one of his treatments was described by an MGM reader as “an evil, slimy thing, absolutely unfit for screen production”.

Hamilton also kills the myth that major writers devoted little energy to their screen work. In fact, writers like Huxley and Fitzgerald devoted enormous time and trouble to achieve success but also to produce good work. The trouble was that they weren't on the whole very good at it (though I rate Frank Borzage's Three Comrades, Scott Fitzgerald's only screenwriting credit, more highly than Hamilton does).

Almost without exception, the screenplays of the best Hollywood films have been written by journalists or creative writers definitely of the second rank or worse in other genres. This has been often pointed out and it emerges clearly from Hamilton's individual chapters on different screenwriters. It's a pity he doesn't pause to explore the reasons for it.

John Mortimer (review date 23 June 1990)

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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 had learned the stern lesson of honour we should not grieve that she found sweeter the opal gates of death’. When the talkies began, and dialogue was required, the writers became the lowliest of studio employees. ‘A writer is expected to arrive at nine o'clock in the morning and leave at five. His outside calls are monitored. He is not permitted on the set without permission,’ so ran the regulations at Warner Brothers. Writers were never allowed to watch the rushes or attend a preview and if they wanted to see their own pictures they had to buy a ticket.

The truth of the matter is that most film producers didn't, and many still don't, understand the process of writing. This misunderstanding explains both the temptations and the terrors of writing for the movies. The temptation lies in the fact that, by and large, producers don't read books and have to pay for them to be translated into scripts so that they can decide that they never wanted to make the film anyway. This means a great deal of highly paid work for writers who can live in luxury writing films that are never going to appear on the screen. This is a soul-destroying way of earning a living and compares unfavourably with the job satisfaction of lavatory attendants.

It was when at work on scripts which might be made into films that producers were most dangerous. They invariably called for treatments, or ‘story outlines, which are plans which are meant to regulate the characters’ behaviour during the story, although all writers know that no worthwhile fictional character will ever stick obediently to a ‘story outline’. Producers also wanted to discuss the plots, or ‘talk story’, in smoke-filled rooms, whereas writers know that any self-respecting story stuck in a smoke-filled room throws open the window and makes a dash for freedom. More fatally they called for endless rewrites; although writers know that if a script is not much good the first time, incessant changes will not make it any better, particularly changes insisted upon by executives who could barely write a letter. Sometimes one writer was kept at the Sisyphean task of re-writing, sometimes scripts were constructed like the pyramids and troops of writer-slaves died on the job, to be replaced by other labourers. Ben Hecht, a screenwriter of genuine talent and originality, put the situation vividly:

My chief memory of movieland is one of asking the producer's office why I must change the script, eviscerate it, cripple and hamstring it? Half of the movie writers argue in this fashion. The other half write in silence, and the psychoanalyst's couch or the whisky bottle claim them both.

Mr Hamilton's book, which pursues the unhappy authors to the bottle or the shrink, finding what comfort they could in money which far exceeded what they got for writing well, and the company of an occasional starlet or production secretary. The cool-headed author does not ask us to waste too much sympathy on them. After all, they knew what they were getting into, they were content to be paid by people they despised and sometimes, as in the worst of Scott Fitzgerald's scripts, their work was not much better than the rubbish dreamed up by their producers. The best of them, such as P. G. Wodehouse, blinked with surprise, said, ‘They pay me $2,000 a week and I cannot see what they engaged me for. Isn't it amazing?’ and went home. Apart from him, the writers in this book do not appear in a particularly sympathetic light. Fictional tarts may have hearts of gold, but there are not many moments of nobility as the characters here remembered take the money and roll obediently over on to their backs in the script conference.

More seriously we are left wondering if the movies might not have been a great deal better if the writers hadn't been treated with such scant respect. The theatre is undoubtedly a writer's medium, and even television drama, when the conditions of work are as good as they have been, and may soon cease to be, in this country, has been a world in which the writer is treated with great consideration. Films are traditionally regarded as the work of the director, and audiences who cannot remember the name of a single scriptwriter can discuss dozens of favourite directors. No doubt the popular belief is that writers only do the dialogue anyway and all the rest of the film springs from the director's head, although no one ever suggests that Shakespeare didn't write the knocking in Macbeth or the storm in Lear. The fact that every moment of a film has to be written by someone alone in a room, even if no longer confined in an office from nine to five, is generally forgotten. The highest moments of comedy, the bloodiest battles and the most breathtaking chases all begin as words on a page.

So was it inconceivable that a great dramatist should arrive by way of Hollywood? On the evidence of this book it seems unlikely. Having been kept below the stairs for so long, the screenwriters were suddenly accused of having far too much influence and filling the cinemas with communist propaganda. At least the witch hunters of the Unamerican Activities Committee took writing for films seriously. The only other person to do so seems to have been Orson Welles, who said that writers should have ‘the first and last word in film making, the only better alternative being the writer director’. But how many writers would be prepared to take on the slow, repetitive task of directing? Aldous Huxley was amazed at the patience of the producer of his script of Pride and Prejudice who sat for weeks and weeks cutting and recutting the picture and watching it over and over again. ‘He is mad,’ the author concluded. ‘They are all quite mad. You can't blame them when you see it done.’ Reading this book, you can't help thinking how much more golden the great years of Hollywood might have been if they had all learned to understand each other better.

Tom Dardis (review date 2 March 1991)

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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 quip about Goldwyn: “There is only one difference between Mr. Goldwyn and me. Whereas he is after art I am after money.”

There is virtually nothing new here; the book is, indeed, a veritable chestnut anthology of all the most quotable stories that have appeared in some dozen or more books published in the past two decades. Writers in Hollywood includes predictable chapters on the creation of the Screenwriter's Guild in the 1930's, the House Un-American Activities Committee's assault against the Hollywood Ten—or “scoundrel time” as Lillian Hellman called it. Hamilton pays dutiful tribute to the authors of the standard works on these two subjects—Ceplair and Englund's Inquisition in Hollywood and Schwartz's The Hollywood Writers' Wars. He rarely quarrels with these sources; his views on Hollywood's history are the result of believing many of the myths set forth by earlier writers. For example, Hamilton notwithstanding, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg were indeed Philistines.

There are many factual errors in Writers in Hollywood. M-G-M's Red Dust is a 1932 release, not 1930. This may seem slight, but when Hamilton tells us that Andrew Turnbull's biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald was published in 1952 rather than in 1962, he completely destroys the point he is trying to make about that book's influence on a 1952 Nunnally Johnson letter—Johnson could not have been influenced by Turnbull.

Hamilton credits Bertolt Brecht with the direction and production of a 1931 film, Whither Germany? This is the British release title for the 1932 Kulhe Wampe, based on a script by Brecht, who neither directed nor produced it. Nor does that film contain any material relevant to Brecht's Epic Theater theories (has Hamilton ever seen this film?).

The peak of Hamilton's errors in chronology can probably be found in his treatment of Preston Sturges's career. By placing Sturges at the directorial debut of Billy Wilder in 1936, rather than in 1942 (“The Major and the Minor), there ensues a total confusion about all the early Sturges films discussed on the following page.

There is a lot of just plain nonsense in the book, as when Hamilton tells us that when William Faulkner returned to Oxford after the completion of his 1937 Fox contract, he was “drunk and depressed.” While it is true that Faulkner was often drunk and depressed, there is no documentary evidence to support the view that he felt that way in the summer of 1937. Hamilton repeats here all the completely false gossip about Maria Huxley's sexual life, which appeared only recently in David Dunaway's Huxley in Hollywood; Robert Craft's recent piece in The New York Review of Books effectively deals with these stories by revealing them to be the inventions of some of Huxley's Hollywood friends who had their reasons.

Publishers should declare a moratorium on what I like to call the ransacking school of film history—that is to say, the wholesale appropriation of other writers' research. A moratorium is especially in order now that the most recent offender has managed to get so much of his borrowings wrong.

Albert E. Kalson (review date summer 1991)

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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. Hamilton's point seems to be that Hollywood writers were frequently pissed—hardly an earth-shattering revelation.

Hamilton's entire book as unfocused as his telling of the Brackett-Hackett-Hammett affair, is a hit-or-miss study that may disappoint all its readers. Movie buffs in search of gossip have heard the stories before, and students of American literature will learn nothing new about Fitzgerald and Faulkner in Hollywood. Hamilton admits that the film career of the former has already been well documented, that for three decades “scholars have been poring over” his adaptation of Remarque's Three Comrades, the only film for which Fitzgerald actually received credit. But literary historians have finally been defeated for the very reason Hamilton offers: scripts go through countless revisions at the hands of so many writers that attribution for a particular scene or line is a matter of guesswork. Writers in Hollywood is less an analysis of the screenwriter's craft than an account of writers' problems with powerful producers.

The successful film writer like Ben Hecht, who plays a prominent role in the early part of the book, was not overly concerned about credits. Hecht, who had an uncredited hand in Gone With the Wind, gave value for the enormous salary he commanded. He understood that movies were a collaborative affair and did not overestimate his contribution to the finished product. Part of his success was his acceptance of a cold fact that many other writers could not cope with: in filmmaking, the image takes precedence over the word. This too presents the historian with a problem. The coin-flipping that defines the George Raft character in Scarface may have been Hecht's invention, but other candidates are director Howard Hawks and the actor himself. As Hamilton states, “Once an argument about attribution begins, there is almost no point in pursuing it,” but he adds, “it's the way Hawks employs the coin device that captures our attention.”

Yet Hamilton does not analyze how Hawks employs it. Instead, he includes a lengthy quote from a more essential book than his own, Gerald Mast's Howard Hawks, Storyteller. Mast's analysis is incisive, one of the many extensive, enlightening quotes liberally sprinkled throughout the book that suggest that the reader is spending time with the wrong work. One might profit more from a perusal of the Fitzgerald Letters and Hecht's Child of the Century, among the numerous works that touch on Hollywood writers, than a careful reading of Hamilton's book, which finally is culled from better, more informative works.

Hamilton reveals himself to be an assured, intelligent critic when—too infrequently—he gives his own appraisal of a particular film. He does not make the mistake of those who indiscriminately praise every film by writer-director Preston Sturges, recently elevated to the pantheon of the greats. Of Unfaithfully Yours he writes, “Nowadays the film is hard to watch. … [It] trudges, then leaps about, then tries to stroll, but the governing rhythms are all wrong.” AMC's frequent telecasting of the film, which, unlike Sturges's still-engaging Sullivan's Travels, is indeed hard to sit through, indicates that Hamilton is an astute critic who ought to have devoted more space to actual film analysis. His unexplored linking of The Snake Pit, a 1948 film about mental institutions, to the HUAC hearings is sound, but a single paragraph merely whets the appetite for what is unforthcoming. He writes, “In postwar Hollywood, wrong accusations of insanity update the old gangland frame-up, the false witness: how terrible to be ‘put away’ because they say that you are mad,” but he leaves it at that.

Hamilton's most useful account of the work of a single writer is a section on John Ford's favorite scriptwriter, Dudley Nichols (The Informer). He demonstrates how a Nichols script always leads to a character's transfiguration—mawkish but effective. Nichols's valuable advice on how to write for the camera is taken from the scriptwriter's own article in Theatre Arts (December 1942), suggesting yet again that Hamilton's book is ultimately light reading for the beach, not the study. Aside from the footnotes that will lead the interested party to more complete information, Hollywood Writers need not occupy a space on a readily accessible shelf in the scholar's library.

Patrick McGilligan (review date fall 1991)

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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 research and lots of interviews. His spadework is admirable, especially the material relating to Hecht's pre-Hollywood, newspaper/literature renaissance years in Chicago. What years!

Yet his treatment of the Hollywood times is catch as catch can, as MacAdams scrambles to sort out the claims and counterclaims, the Hecht from the Hechtian, as it were. The author gets overexcited about Hecht's vast quantity of “uncredited” work, as claimed by directors and Hecht himself. (The claims, always, a little vague.) One can appreciate MacAdams's seeking out and interviewing vaunted directors, Ford and Hawks and Tashlin (especially Tashlin, whose reminiscence is priceless) for their points of view. But he loses sight here of the themes developed in the chapters on the early years, and of pertinent questions about Hecht's script contributions—the relative quality of work sometimes done hurriedly and cynically. The scripts themselves are virtually ignored, barely quoted, whereas earlier in the book MacAdams cites key passages, or gives a better idea of, the columns, novels, poetry, and plays.

Worse, MacAdams loses sight of Hecht the man. There is too much totting up of credits (an extensive bibliography and filmography), not enough feeling for the flesh. No visceral sense of Hecht's attractive qualities—his sense of humor, his dazzle as a “a verbal Coney Island.” Hecht's Zionism and singleminded crusade on behalf of the state of Israel are given space, but never quite integrated and made credible. His marriage to his strange, enigmatic wife Rose, his highly productive and (I gather) highly charged collaboration with Charles MacArthur—these don't come off on the page.

MacAdams strains to give Hecht his due, but I wonder. His novels sound interestingly pretentious. His plays (especially Twentieth Century) deserve a Broadway footnote. His best films were repair work or together with someone else. The Hecht-MacArthur Astoria films were infinitely more important for what they represented (writerly freedom) than for what they were (mostly not very good). Ironically, Hecht's best book may be his exaggerated, completely entertaining autobiography, A Child of the Century—with its surprisingly scant mentions of Hollywood.

By comparison, Ian Hamilton's Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951 is a real goof-off. His liberally excerpted script material provides some highlights in an otherwise entirely dispensable book that is a synoptic rehash of all the other best-known or most obvious books about screenwriters (check out the long list at the back; they're all there, my own Backstory—I humbly mention—included). Like Otto Friedrich, whose City of Nets collated so many other books to explore his theme of Hollywood in the 1940s, Hamilton is defiantly upfront about being derivative.

The most interesting, probably the most original, section of the book fills in the history of scripts and scriptwriters in the silent era. But once into talkies, Hamilton tills familiar soil, and tills it familiarly. On such questions as Orson Welles vs. Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote Casablanca, the Hollywood bind of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other burnt-out literary cases, and the blacklist, who wouldn't be derivative? Hamilton adds little to subjects done better and at greater length and subtlety elsewhere.

His tone is witty and assured, the book tidy and cleverly written. His section on Dudley Nichols is devastating and almost convincing, damning of Nichols and approving of that rascally tyrant John Ford. Does Nichols deserve it?

Sometimes the story behind a book—the why and the how of it—might make the better book. MacAdams says he became “obsessed” by Hecht in his teens, and began his book almost twenty years ago by interviewing Ford and others before their deaths. That labor of love produced a useful, diligent book—one that Hamilton may plumb in the future if he considers a further installment on screenwriters like Hecht floundering post-1951.

But Hamilton—whose biography of J. D. Salinger spurred the court decision that sharply limits biographers—why did he choose this well-trampled ground? Does he like screenwriters very much? It is not evident. Does he even like the movies he is writing about? It is not evident.

Martin Fletcher (review date 21 February 1992)

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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 unfailing cause of ill-will”—warfare minus the shooting. Referee!

But mostly, we're treated to a cheering spectacle of fair play [in The Faber Book of Soccer]. There are the highs: Hugh McIlvanney, in a masterpiece of controlled emotion on that gloriest of glories—hoisting the World Cup in '66; Brian Glanville charting the career of one of soccer's most successful strategists, Danny Blanchflower; and, of course, the lows: Geoffrey Green on the horror of England's first-ever defeat by the foreign invader, when our boys were trashed 6-3 by Hungary in '53; Arthur Hopcraft's sympathetic study of the tragic downfall of Sheffield Wednesday's wing-half Tony Kay, imprisoned for match fixing.

A short sharp shock from Frank “Bang to Rights” Norman contains a memorable paean to paracetamol: “a pain in the head caused by half a house brick wraped (sic) up in a sock”. Then comes a gambolling canter by John Moynihan on the new artist's playpen of Sunday soccer in the 1960s. His exuberant reminiscences of the Chelsea Casuals, a team spawned by the smoke-filled recesses of The Queen's Elm pub in Fulham Road, is enough to bring tears to the eyes.

No selection would stand an earthly without the patient graft of Hunter Davies, who, with absorbing behind-the-scenes detail, captures the brooding greyness of a poor performance by Spurs in France; or Eamon Dunphy (aka “Eamon Grumpy” in Shamrock Rovers' fanzine Glenmalure Gazette) who contributes a tenacious, unembellished account of the Second Division game: “kick and rush and bite and fight.”

And then the young, up-front merchants take to the field with their weave and swerve, their brash, rough play, and you know it's injury time. With the deadpan insouciance of a Glasgow kiss, Jay Allan delivers a chilling piece about organised violence on an excursion with the Aberdeen Casuals firm. Football hooliganism is perhaps a thing of the past as legislation attempts to gentrify the terraces, but not to Bill Buford, who careers onto the scene with the relish of a new recruit. His two-step through the moral mire of crowd lawlessness is ghastly to watch, but strangely compelling. It is left to the sage and sober Karl Miller to cast a judicious eye on the game with an overview of the 1990 World Cup.

And The Faber Book of Soccer? A deserving winner. It's got class; it's got heart; it's got balls.

J. L. Carr (review date 7 March 1992)

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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 mistresses toeing the touchlines like exotic mares,

there are pockets of soccer where surging forwards do not cry ‘Pass, pass!’ but, more urgently, ‘I want a woman.’

Such cheering glimpses are near enough an echo of the football I knew in The Bishop Waltham & District League where, at Boarshunt we changed in a ditch under a hedge. And at Fair Oak, a giant, wearing a beret, ranged from goal to goal punching those of us foolhardy enough to hang onto the ball for more than three paces. Now that was a game (and surely soccer is a game?) which overflowed its sawdust limits, beyond the goalposts, beyond the five spectators, as we (and the ref) fled from both striker and ball. Perhaps, after all, soccer is a deadly serious pursuit.

Those long-gone encounters must have burnt me out. Or it may be that once, witnessing Ted Drake hammer in all five or six goals against Villa, I knew I'd seen it all? Nowadays I only see the game secondhand. But I hear it through my garden's fence. ‘Hey ref, foul ref, offside ref, you wait you b … er, get some f … ing specs ref. GOAL! I wanta kissyer.’ A doctor told me it is brought on by rich food with additives.

This collection is culled from 16 reminiscent books (four of them fiction), a few magazines but, oddly enough, only eight are newspaper-cuttings—six of these from the Observer. There is a page and a half from a Pinter play, Alan Ross's poem celebrating Sir Stanley Matthews—and one strayed court-circular. There is nothing from The Green 'Un nor The Pink 'Un.

Most of the pieces are by well-known professional sports-writers but some are provided by authors better known for other literary activity—Albert Camus, Arnold Bennett, Nabokov, Martin Amis and, standing in for the Common Man, J. B. Priestley and G. Orwell.

Introducing these, Mr Hamilton (Darlington Grammar, Keble and founder of The Review) disbelievingly quotes an unattributed author: ‘Thinking books about soccer have no market because soccer fans don't think.’ He then mildly complains that soccer, unlike cricket, hasn't much of a literature.

This must be true, for his book has only 52 contributions from 45 writers. Compare this with The Faber Book of Cricket (edited by Michael and Simon Davie) which has 180 glimpses of that game by 170 contributors. But is this dearth really explained by Mr Hamilton's ‘Soccer, unlike cricket, has few links with higher education’? After all, basically, writing was invented to pass messages suitably adjusted to someone beyond earshot. And circulation-counts suggest that more readers prefer Sunwriting to Timeswriting.

Again, it could be that we hear so much about cricket literature because more cricket fans encourage publication by buying hardback books. As I watched away-supporters met at Leicester station by police on horses and police inLand Rovers, it occurred to me that few of them might be disposed to fork out near enough 15 pounds for an unstitched book bound so tightly that it needs to be restrained by both hands. And then discover it to be not about the soccer they know.

Perhaps the true soccer fan, who keeps the game going with cash at the turnstile, looks for his literature in fanzines.

Fanzine n.—magazine for football fans.

Fanzine vb.—prose articulation well beyond terrace chant.

Fanzinity n.coll.—manifestation of energy seeking eloquence.

Phil Shaw says there are hundreds of fanzines, unofficial desk-top publications which can be purchased on the terraces and outside grounds at home fixtures. The Soup (Kidderminster Harriers), Tired & Weary (Birmingham City), King of the Kippax (Manchester City), The Memoirs of Seth Bottomley (Port Vale). It is said that directors, management and players dislike them. That and their titles say it all. Hope dawns.

Is this where future anthologists will need to quarry? But not now, not yet? It may be that the fans don't want their game celebrated by the likes of Sir Neville and Mr R. C. Robertson-Glasgow. They're a different lot. (Why, I recall travelling to play Tadcaster as the Bramham Moor Hunt crossed our path and my companions in the converted lorry stood up to cheer the fox.) So it may be that these fanzine subscribers are seeking ‘energy in search of eloquence and not too much going over-the-top about it.’

Anyway, illiteracy has a longer history than literature and Scripture does not reveal whether or not Peter and Judas Iscariot could read. Personally I doubt it. For why else did their saviour from obscurity only tell them simple stories with no flash adjectives?

Paul Binding (review date 16 October 1992)

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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 hindsight, this too is significant: Spender and his fellows were to write from a heartfelt involvement with European matters that distinguished them from virtually all predecessors.

You will search in vain in Hugh David's biography for any discussion of either these seminal poems or the issues they raise. Called by the author a “portrait with background”, David's book is marked by an almost breathtaking lack of knowledge of the climate in which Spender and his friends emerged as artists.

One instance can serve to show what I mean. David presents Spender's time at Oxford as similar to that described in Brideshead Revisited (indeed, the blurb refers to “Spender's Brideshead days”). In fact, Spender and his associates felt a great distance from, and a decided moral distaste for, the earlier sybaritic aesthetes. Their own ethos was utterly different, shaped by social conscience (related to the 1926 General Strike) and acknowledged class guilt.

If you can get this matter wrong, you can get almost anything wrong, and David does (see the accounts of Berlin). A portrait with such a background is, to say the least, disadvantaged, especially as David has had to rely on second-hand sources and conjecture to fill out the central figure.

David's situation vis-à-vis Spender has already acquired notoriety. Under the impression that Spender had given approval to a biography, David secured a contract and an advance from Heinemann. Spender refused to cooperate, denying David the right to quote from either published or unpublished works. Undeterred, both publisher and writer proceeded.

Spender was not allowed to see proofs, and has now made public his objections to the book's mistakes of fact and emphasis. But he has lost his battle to preserve his privacy. Was he right to have tried to fight it? How much moral weight is there in the arguments that writers should not have their lives written if they don't want it? David's reply is that since Spender's work is of such an autobiographical nature, any objections to an inquiry into the realities behind it are invalid.

To assist us with this fraught subject, we now have Ian Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame. Hamilton is an eminent biographer (of Robert Lowell), but the biographical flame has also severely singed him. J D Salinger withdrew his support for a life, while Hamilton was at work on it. Hamilton's present book describes the struggles for dominion over their own lives of many British writers from, John Donne Junior (on his father's behalf) to Philip Larkin.

I missed a strong line of development from one chapter to the next, and felt that throughout Hamilton was over-diffident about passing any judgment on the (usually fruitless) endeavours that he describes. Still, his book is extremely interesting, told with a raciness that does not exclude sympathy, and always displaying real knowledge.

What labours lost! Hardy dictating his life to his miserable second wife, continually seeing to his own elevation on the social ladder; Fanny Stevenson and Sidney Colvin banishing all sexual indulgence from Stevenson's bohemian years; Elsie Bambridge, Kipling's daughter, banning a well-written and researched life of her father by Lord Birkenhead on the grounds that: “I consider it so bad as a book that any attempt at palliative measures … is not feasible”. The effect of such cases, though, is to make one feel both that there are no satisfactory posthumous lives written with the consent of the subject (but what about Furbank on Forster or, recently, Gathorne-Hardy on Gerald Brenan?) and that unease is the only reason for not wanting one's biography done.

But almost a majority of creative writers are in this position (Henry James, W H Auden, T S Eliot). There is surely an excellent reason for it. Out of his/her own predicaments, the serious artist fashions works of objective value, even while they plunder intimate experiences. The good confessional literary creation is as much an independent artefact as the hermetic work. Authors rightly fear that if discrepancies between “life” and “art” are too much dwelled on, then the “art” over which they took such immense pains will be diminished. The “life” will ironically undo its overriding concern.

To return to Spender's case, it is manifestly stupid of David to insist that the autobiographical nature of the work gives him some automatic right to go routing about in his personal career, and even to make pronouncements on it. There is no call for highly personal poems or stories to adhere to outward facts, and to use them, as David does, as whipping-boys for their creator is peculiarly crass.

Furthermore, a writer is simply not a public figure in the way that, say, a politician or a religious leader is. If, while they or their nearest are alive, they want only their writings to be the object of attention, so be it. But it's very hard to go beyond this strong personal conviction to any legal codification.

In the matter of Spender versus Hugh David, the real villain is the publishing house. Disappointed in his loss of stature as a quasi-official chronicler, David has resorted to a vulgar diffused malice. He chooses (unconvincingly) to denigrate his subject, ascribing motives of social ambition or lust without real evidence, and twisting sympathetic sources (such as Christopher Isherwood) to suit his detracting purpose. Towards the end he relents somewhat, and bids Spender farewell in an almost kindly manner—as if to make respectable the shoddy treatment before. What were the publishers doing to allow such transparent pique to prevail, especially as it goes hand in hand with such inaccuracy and ignorance?

The answer is that they had committed themselves, feeling they had a good subject for a commercially strong biography. What matter that a distinguished man of 83, who has given his life to the service of the humanities, objected to an account which he knew would be neither truthful nor penetrating? What matter that neither politics nor literature engage this biographer, only prurient (and misheard) tittle-tattle? It's not just difficult but impossible to imagine Spender's non-British friends and peers—Octavio Paz, say, or the late René Char—being treated in this way. It seems that, here in Britain, the keepers of the flame are publishers' publicity and marketing departments.

Rupert Christiansen (review date 5 December 1992)

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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 fifty years is not too long for us to wait for the ‘whole truth’ about a private life. In the meantime, no one should burn anything, however certain he or she might feel about what the lost loved one ‘really would have wished’. All this may sound fishy … but there it is. We live and learn.

Fishy indeed: this smells to me of an eel-like retreat I myself made before a fundamental ethical question. Should a biographer simply tell the truth, as he or she honestly sees it, or should the picture be airbrushed in deference to the sensitivities of surviving interested parties? Where, as Henry James mused, is the justice in our biography-ridden culture of ‘the rights and duties, the decencies and discretions of the insurmountable desire to know’? To put it crudely, would you stand back and watch Kitty Kelley claw your mother?

The principal barrier to any sort of answer is that the subject is so vast and so ramified—not least in its murky and tedious legal complexities—that it is impossible to grasp it coherently. My own book might have started with Virgil's deathbed injunction to destroy the manuscript of the Aeneid. Had this not been countermanded by the poem's patron, Augustus, western literature would have run a radically different course. I suppose Augustus was justified, but in other circumstances one might feel that a work of art is the artist's property, something he can dispose of as he wishes. How this level of the problem relates to the matter of the exhibition of a writer's personal linen, dirty or otherwise, I cannot decide; and I don't think Ian Hamilton can either.

Sensibly, he has limited his scope to post-Renaissance Britain, starting with the shady behaviour of John Donne's son and the editors of the First Folio. At the other end of the time-scale, he stops short, skimming over most of the recently laid minefields—Rebecca West, Orwell, Connolly, Auden, Day-Lewis, Maugham, Antonia White, to name but the most obvious—and ending with disappointingly tactful accounts of the aftermaths of Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin.

In between, Hamilton is erudite and entertaining, but unfocused, and the early chapters in particular emanate a miscellaneous anecdotal flavour worthy of John Aubrey. Although the landmarks in the story (like the weakening of the publisher's power over an author's work following the first Copyright Act of 1710, or the ground-changing effected by Boswell in his Life of Johnson) are acknowledged, you read on wondering precisely what the subject of the book is. The history of biography? The social status of a writer? The legal status of ‘creative’ writing? Or just a gossipy romp through the extraordinary machinations of literary hangers-on and survivors?

It is at this latter level that the book functions most successfully. Perhaps what Hamilton should have written—what I might have ended up writing had I persevered—is a more concentrated study of the ‘widows’ and their attempts to keep the memory of the dear departed in pristine condition: Mary Shelley and her daughter-in-law, Lady Jane, painting a pastel portrait of PBS, desexed, unworldly, and ethereal; George Eliot's husband, John Walter Cross, amending references to ‘toes’ in her letters to ‘fingers’; the perfectly dreadful Elsie Bambridge, Kipling's daughter; and the more sympathetic Valerie Eliot (although Hamilton rightly wonders how on earth she could have countenanced the mangling of ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ into Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit song ‘Memory’).

There is a rich book to be composed out of such a galère, and Hamilton has half-written it. I only wish he hadn't diluted the brew by flinging in so many other superfluous ingredients. But I don't suppose that I could have done any better.

Philip Horne (review date October 1993)

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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 moral, of authors and their executors with respect to the alteration, destruction, suppression or publication of personal documents: these are general issues to which strong prejudices attach, for the ‘revealers’ as well as the ‘concealers', quite apart from the circumstances of any particular case (such as, recently and painfully, Larkin's). What gives Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame real urgency and value in its ‘arguing about biography’ is that his mind is far from made up on these topics, in spite of his own considerable record as a biographer of Robert Lowell, and almost—notoriously ‘almost’—of the reclusive J. D. Salinger. Salinger took Hamilton to court and finally obtained a ruling that wrenched ‘the expressive heart’1—the quotations from unpublished material—out of the book he had already written in defiance of Salinger's publicly announced displeasure. His gutted, slim In Search of J. D. Salinger (1988) is a different book, not quite A Biography by Ian Hamilton as the hopeful Random House jacket declares, and the book inside, on spine and title-page, remains just truthfully In Search … without the sub-title.2

The Salinger débacle seriously disturbed Hamilton, as it well might. It seemed to fulfil Henry James's prediction in an 1897 essay on George Sand of ‘a regular organisation of the struggle’ between authors and biographers, and to exemplify a time when ‘the cunning of the enquirer, envenomed with resistance, will exceed in subtlety and ferocity anything we to-day conceive, and the pale forewarned victim, with every track covered, every paper burned and every letter unanswered, will, in the tower of art, the invulnerable granite, stand, without a sally, the siege of all the years’ (quoted in Keepers, p. 214). Salinger's tower was a bunker, ‘a tiny concrete shelter with a translucent plastic roof’ in Cornish, New Hampshire (In Search … p. 167); he certainly hadn't managed to burn every paper (there were a good number already in archives at Princeton and Austin); and the old man's grim trip down to testify in New York was a painful (though ultimately effectual) sally. But he clearly viewed Hamilton as ‘envenomed with resistance’, in a way which clashed with and dented Hamilton's images both of himself as a devotee and sympathiser and of the literary biographer's enterprise in general as a respectable tribute to the author.

In Search of J. D. Salinger, recreating Hamilton's crisis, concocts a moment which recalls Juliana Bordereau famously hissing ‘Ah you publishing scoundrel!’ at the even more defeated narrator, also a self-styled devotee, of James's The Aspern Papers (1888).3 ‘My admired quarry, had finally been forced to speak, and his first words had been: “It's you I hate. You are a snooper and a thief.”’ (p. 196) Alarm is caused on both sides. Hamilton's Salinger book responds to the disaster of wholesale, legally enforced excision by narrating the search, meditating uneasily on its own processes and dramatising its own failure. It self-consciously splits Hamilton himself in two, like the divided hero whose false position is the central interest in The Aspern Papers: the hard-nosed professional, ‘my “biographer”, my sleuthing other self’ (p. 7), and the decent chap, the unofficial person, the ‘I’ who narrates the book and is receptive to inconvenient considerations. Browsing in the great Texas archive at one point, Hamilton, notable after all as more than a biographer, finds a dozen of his own letters. ‘Why,’ he stagily exclaims, ‘anyone could just walk in and …’ (p. 68). He hadn't directly thought, this conveys, whether he would care to be done by as he's in the process of doing by his subject. In the telling, Hamilton's biographer-self, who has entered the history-books as Salinger's legal adversary, is distanced by the narrating decent chap into the third person.

The discomfiture of the Salinger affair has apparently rankled with Hamilton, and grown into a dissatisfaction with the available, polarised set of attitudes to literary biography. Keepers of the Flame, which attempts to clarify the attitudes by studying the history of English literary estates and their dealings with biography from Donne to Larkin, shows a less constrained, more disinterested thoughtfulness about the whole subject of the publication and suppression of details of authors' lives, as is open to a writer who this time hasn't taken a large advance to do something he isn't altogether sure is right. Unexpectedly for the tough nut he can sometimes seem, Hamilton is repeatedly drawn in the book to Henry James, whose work keeps returning to the morally negotiable area stretching between total biographical exposure and utter archival closure (or pre-emptive destruction). He picks up, for example, on James's prohibitory short story ‘The Real Right Thing’, in which the commissioned biographer of a recently dead author is visited by the ghost of his subject, and admonished not to continue: ‘The artist was what he did—he was nothing else’ (quoted in Keepers, p. 211). Hamilton's own warnings came in the form of letters from Salinger and his lawyers.

Yet for all his anti-biographical fables, which indeed derive their force from his openness to opposing impulses, James, like Hamilton and like most of us, equally knew the desire for intimate saturation with an author whose printed voice in ‘what he did’ has cast a successful spell. Confronting ‘the whole question of the rights and duties, the decencies and discretions of the insurmountable desire to know’, James characteristically refuses to draw prescriptive boundaries for biography: ‘To lay down a general code is perhaps as yet impossible, for there is no doubt that to know is good, or to want to know, at any rate, supremely natural’.4 Commenting on this acknowledgment of a conflict of interests, Hamilton rightly notes that ‘The strength of James's meditations on the subject of biography—in his tales and in his criticism—is that he knows what biographical curiosity feels like, he has experienced that voyeuristic thrill’. Strictly speaking, Hamilton's spicy ‘voyeuristic’, with its problems of definition and its pejorative connotations, may concede too much to the disapproving about what may be ‘good’ or at least ‘supremely natural’ in the human impulse to interrelatedness as expressed in decent ‘biographical curiosity’ (though he may not intend such an equation). But at any rate, as James says, we can't in practice, given the world we live in, wish literary biography away, or the impulses that lead to it; and even if we somehow could eject it, might well find ourselves on the rebound wishing it back, or finding that in fact everything else goes with it. To lay down a general code is to court contradiction, or stultification. We need an anti-biographical voice, but one which knows its task is to hold biography in check, not to abolish it.

An example of the extremist's liability to the self-contradictory rebound, apparently quite unconscious, comes to hand in the Introduction to Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, which vehemently deplores the publication of private letters by analogy with the ‘betrayal’ of private conversation: ‘The most valuable conversation, and that which best illustrates character, is that which passes between two friends, with their feet on the fender, on winter nights, or in a summer ramble: but what would be thought of the traitor who should supply such material for biographical or other purposes?’ At the bottom of the same page, in support of her point that wholesale reprinting of letters has led anxious public figures to a dreary clampdown on epistolary candour in ‘an infringement of personal liberty’, Martineau cites an authority: ‘Seventy years ago, Dr. Johnson said in conversation “It is now become so much the fashion to publish letters, that, in order to avoid it, I put as little into mine as I can”’.5 We shouldn't want to lose Johnson's surly remark, but it comes to us through Boswell's report of his conversation, in apparent violation of Martineau's principle: the combination of the declaration's provenance with its usefulness, that is, cuts some of the ground from under the feet of Martineau's analogical argument. It doesn't seem likely, moreover, that Johnson made his conversation more insipid because he knew Boswell was recording it. If we can't help using such bootlegged material, maybe we shouldn't too much commit ourselves to the rhetoric of prohibition, or we'll find ourselves with a double standard.

To put the anti-prohibitory case with some emphasis and using a different analogy from Martineau's, it could be argued that ‘betrayal’ in less and more serious forms, desirably as well as reprehensibly but at least to an extent inevitably, is a major form of currency in human culture: there is a large social economy of information about ourselves and others in which we all trade with greater or lesser gusto. Ethical beliefs (such as the absolute undisclosability of the intendedly private utterance) play a vital part in this economy, but do not govern its operations absolutely, as they should. The matter of ‘literary biography’, with all its attendant editorial enterprises, is only a special section, with its own conventions, as perhaps art itself is, of this economy.

Ethics thus has its important contribution to make on the subject of literary biography, but has to adjust its categories to meet the special conditions. The particular conventions and relations implicit in literature itself make great differences to the kinds of moral thinking that are appropriate, and complicate things in many ways. The contention that many if not all authors, in publishing their works, ‘ask for’ a degree of literary biography can certainly be sustained. Artistic ‘invention’ being the recombination of existing elements, characters and experiences in the works of art addressed to us are in part derived from reality. If the differences between ‘creation’ and ‘original’ are partly constitutive of the work of art, so are the similarities, and the understanding and appreciation of the work of art involve comparison, and thus some measure of knowledge of the artist's conditions of life. As T. S. Eliot, in his own back yard a firm anti-biographical prohibitionist, declared of one of Hamilton's subjects (in a piece not mentioned by Hamilton, the introduction to My Brother's Keeper by Stanislaus Joyce).

In the case of James Joyce we have a series of books, two of which at least are so autobiographical in appearance that further study of the man and his background seems not only suggested by our own inquisitiveness, but almost expected of us by the author himself. We want to know who are the originals of his characters, and what were the origins of his episodes, so that we may unravel the web of memory and invention and discover how far and in what ways the crude material has been transformed.

Even the trajectory towards Eliotic ‘impersonality’, in fact, begins with the desire to escape from personality, from the immediate conditions: biographical considerations, the state of the trajectory, can never really be set aside in the attempt to reach an understanding of an author's work.

It seems reasonable, then, that ‘autobiographical’ works of art should be understood as provoking some degree of biographical investigation by their critics, but the author and biographer are not the only figures to be thought of: awkward questions about intrusion and infringement of privacy, more striking in the biographer's case, too seldom get seriously asked about the primary author (and the primary activity itself). James Joyce, for instance, reading and raiding the private journal of his brother Stanislaus, out of which he lifted passages for his own use without permission, not only himself transgresses many of the usual decent demarcations, but in the process builds Stanislaus into the foundations of his highway to literary fame, liable for exhumation in the future by literary investigators, who will justify themselves by reference to Joyce's greatness. The bucks pass back and forth, the author's excuse lying in the claim to have created an autonomous imaginary world with any umbilical attachments to his or her own essentially severed, the biographer's in the truthfulness of revealing intact connecting threads leading back to original realities. We might in dark moments see the long-raging war between the parties as profitably symbiotic, involving on one side disingenuously high-flown, overblown claims for the magical creativeness of Art, and on the other a veiled Philistine reductivism pointing accusingly to the intimate nuts and bolts of the disassembled works. Neither side is as a rule particularly concerned at the double exposure, occasionally hurtful, of neutral third parties who have strayed into the author's line of vision and thus later the biographer's. Anti-biographical authors, then, ought to be careful how they pitch their objections.

Like Michael Millgate in his excellent Testamentary Acts: Browning, Tennyson, James, Hardy (Oxford, 1992), Hamilton attends in the course of his colourful survey of the history of literary biography to some of the most tangible effects of literary careers on another group of people we could also view as relatively innocent bystanders—his eponymous ‘keepers of the flame’, the heirs and executors, often not very literary themselves, whose responsibility it becomes to protect the interests of dead authors. Whether or not the authors in question have been scrupulous in their use of a writer's power of manipulation in speaking of others, they have usually a highly developed sense of the vulnerability involved in being the object of someone else's speech and manipulation, and naturally want to avoid its worst effects, in their lifetime and after. Their surviving friends and familial relicts are thus often hopefully recruited and deputed, usually with limited success, to represent their intentions and interests in subsequent circumstances they haven't fully imagined in their frequently ambiguous wills.

Millgate's impressively scholarly account of four authorial attempts, all more or less eventual failures, to exert such ‘posthumous control’ (p. 2) over their public profiles seems to have grown like Hamilton's out of earlier experiences, in his case the writing of Thomas Hardy: A Biography (1982) and the subsequent editorial disentangling of Hardy's own final version of his ventriloquised third-person memoir, published by Millgate as The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (1984). Millgate's dead Hardy shared with Hamilton's living Salinger an extreme reluctance to allow his ‘extraordinarily private self’ (Thomas Hardy, p. 519) to be gone over by biographers, and struck pre-emptively in a series of careful bonfires as he measured out his memoirs. Millgate has lived with and dwelt on the effects, as Testamentary Acts witnesses: ‘biographers, forced into dependence upon [the memoir's] unique record of many aspects of Hardy's life, have found themselves trapped within the limiting patterns established by its silences, special emphases, inaccuracies, and textual distortions’ (p. 164). As a scrupulous scholar at the upper end of the biographical market, he finds such reluctance irrational and perverse, and subscribes to the recent, Foucault-influenced sense of ‘control’ and ‘construction’ as unavoidably sinister. Writers who have devoted their careers to a practice of delicate adjustments and finely-judged selections are only consistent, however, in not welcoming the prospect of such indelicate exposure as, looking around them, they have good reason to expect. Envy, prejudice and stupidity are objectively observable phenomena of the literary world; biographers and editors have their own egos too, not always securely on the leash.

Bristling at authors' aspersions on biography, Millgate casts one or two back. He cites Browning in a letter of 1887 about his hostility to biographies of the late Elizabeth Barrett Browning, referring to ‘the indelicacy with which the writers, male and female, of such things will in all cases try hard to get information, and, failing that, tell you with the utmost impudence, that, “after all, such a life is public property and must be given to the public somehow”—this last intimation being in the nature of a threat’. Browning says he always refuses his consent to biographers because ‘intimately in possession of my wife's feelings on the subject’. Millgate jumps in to correct him:

His wife's recorded feelings on the question of privacy were in fact less restrictive than here represented. In 1846 she had been ready to declare that letters were ‘the most vital part of biography’, and in 1852, following the painful public exposure of some of her own most intimate feelings in Mary Russell Mitford's Recollections of a Literary Life, she had protested only that ‘one ought to be let alone while one's alive—The vultures SHOULD wait a little till the carrion is ready, & not pluck out the living eyes.’

(p. 17)

Millgate is here himself writing biographically, and representing the interests of biography. He contrives to find in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's wounded protest a tacit approval of not being ‘let alone’ after death, and his ‘only’ seems comically inadequate to her gruesome (and implicitly ‘restrictive’) image of vultures and carrion, recalling the prompt adversarial readings proffered by the narrator of The Aspern Papers in defence of his professional pursuit.

Though not typical of Millgate's book, the moment is telling. Literary biography is an activity that brings some of its own values, and in performing its necessary self-justifying task of differentiating itself from the authorial version it is under some pressure to assert the higher accuracy that emerges in phrases like ‘in fact’, and also at least to leaven its praise with occasional disapproval. Johnson said of biography that ‘It is rarely well executed’6 and this remains true, especially now that it is being put forward by one of its grandest proponents as ‘a primary art form’.7 There is a role for the anti-biographical voice in pointing out failures of execution, of accuracy and of justice.

One of the most pervasive predilections of the modern biographer seems to derive from the powerful model of the Freudian analyst against whose interpretation resistance is useless (and a priori self-defeating). Leon Edel, the grand proponent just quoted, asks us also to ‘recognize that the explorations of Sigmund Freud and his successors have created a new province for biographical adventure and knowledge’ (Writing Lives, p. 26), using a metaphor of conquest and exploitation which a biographer might well seize on. In fact (to apply the biographical trick) Freud once commented that a biographer ‘commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishments, and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had, and, even if one had it, one could not use it.’8 (This may, of course, but needn't, be read as Freud's repressive resistance to his own true perception.)

Edel's own highly patterned biography of Henry James has been aptly criticised by William H. Gass for its effectual devaluing of outward experience, and its resultant failure to give a true sense of James's uniqueness:

what we tend to lose with such a stress on traumas is any feel for the weight of the ordinary, any sense of the accretions or the erosions of every day … Sibling rivalries, castration complexes, homosexual tendencies, oedipal longing: these are common, we may suppose, to many men, none of whom possesses the style and the mind of this master.9

What makes James most himself is not his conformity to a set of psychoanalytic archetypes. Gass sidesteps Edel's Freudian stress on James's inner depths, arguing persuasively that ‘a good part of his best self is simply composed of the outside, “the other”, the precisely observed’ (‘In the Cage’, p. 174).

The Freudian vocabulary often squeezes out engagement with the moral universe of pre- or non-Freudian subjects. Gass sees James's ‘moral anger … directed at all those who infringe human freedom … (though these ethical matters Mr. Edel rarely mentions)’. Moral passion becomes a symptom of some imbalance: for instance, Millgate make an all too familiar move when—citing only a speculation by Charles Tennyson—he describes Hallam Tennyson as ‘almost pathological in his devotion to his parents' memory’ (p. 71). And such unsympathetic biography, whether Freudian or not, can seem to institutionalise disrespect, as the twice-shy Hamilton imaginatively recognises—despite and because of his own amply-demonstrated capacity for beady-eyed biographical acuity about motives—in his speculation about the reasons for Elsie Bambridge's suppression of Lord Birkenhead's 1948 biography of her father Rudyard Kipling:

‘Kipling's constant dirty language becomes boring’; ‘a streak of vulgarity in his nature’; ‘bound up with this coarse streak was the abuse of dialect’; ‘[he was] like a hearty extrovert in the locker-room of a provincial golf-course’; ‘there was something in him that made him repellent to many intelligent people’. Jibes like this are scattered throughout Birkenhead—they are usually thrown off in passing and are the less noticeable because they chime in with the author's customary tone. By the 1970s, this kind of casual biographical disparagement was commonplace, taken for granted. In 1948, to non-literary types like Elsie Bambridge, it still had a repugnant novelty.

(p. 266)

Hamilton calls this ‘the biographer's as-from-above inspection’ of his subject, and seems candidly to see, unlike Millgate, what might be objectionable about such condescending ‘jibes’, abuses of power masquerading as pure descriptions. A disinterested ability to see the other side of the question, like Hamilton's here, and to take a generous pleasure in doing so, is to be valued as a form of moral energy. In the weary battlefield of conflicting impulses I have touched on, indeed, the high valuation of such intelligent doubleness seems the critical opinion best worth cultivating.


  1. Ian Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger, (New York, 1988), p. 201.

  2. For the Library of Congress classification it bears in tiny print another title, In search of J. D. Salinger: a writing life (1935-65). This conflates the new title and its baffled Search with that of the originally written book, J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life, which as Hamilton directly tells us was ‘a book somewhat different from the one you're reading now’ (p. 191).

  3. Henry James, The Aspern Papers and Other Stories, ed. Adrian Poole, (Oxford, 1983), p. 79.

  4. From the 1893 essay on Flaubert's letters, quoted in Keepers of the Flame, p. 212.

  5. Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, edited by Maria Weston Chapman, (Boston, 1877), 2 vols, I, pp. 3-4.

  6. Boswell's Life of Johnson, together with Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Johnson's Diary of a Journey into North Wales, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, (Oxford, 1934), 6 vols, II, p. 446.

  7. Leon Edel, Writing Lives: Principia Biographica, (New York, 1984), pp. 23-24.

  8. Quoted in Steve Weinburg, Telling the Untold Story: How Investigative Reporters Are Changing the Craft of Biography, (Missouri, 1992), p. 10. Hamilton quotes Wordsworth to a similar effect, though appealing rather to ‘philosophy enlightened by the affections’: ‘If … it were in the power of a biographer to relate the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the friends and surviving kindred of the deceased, for the sake of general benefit to mankind, might endure that such heart-rending communication should be made to the world. But in no case is this possible’ (Keepers, p. 105).

  9. ‘In the Cage’, Fiction and the Figures of Life, (Boston, 1979), p. 170.

Michael Horovitz (review date 11 February 1994)

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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 themselves. The Companion contains much less actual poetry and is tarnished, as its predecessors are not, by literary politics—especially as regards the UK.

From 1965 to 1973, Ian Hamilton selected the poems and edited verse reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, imposing and consolidating a narrow hierarchy that favoured roughly 7 per cent of working poets, and disparaged or ignored the rest. “Thou Shalt Not” was writ over the door of TLS-man's establishment, visiting blight upon the harvests of oral, experimental, political and supranational poetics that steadily grew across Albion over those years.

Many of the Companion's contributors are long-standing members of its editor's TLS/New Review gangs, and many of their résumés conform to the firm's prejudices rather than illuminate the craft and more profoundly sullen art. There are discerning critics among them, but in their kit here they tend to be subbed into Hamilton's hackademicals.

The boss's introduction exposes the superficiality of his poetic scenario. He sketches the Companion's “plot” as concerning a “shift from ‘poetry’ to ‘poetries’” that allegedly began in the early 1960s. This plot, he says, “inevitably centres on the relationship between the poetries of England and America”. He then suggests that the “other English-speaking territories covered in this book are involved in the central romance: they have felt the need to take one side or the other, however determined they have been to establish identities of their own”.

This is tendentious TLS-manly nonsense. Poetry is not written by territories involved in theoretical romances, nor do its makers need to support either England or America in a shiftily administered world-cup competition. They articulate individual bodies, minds and spirits. The voices of Auden or Lowell, Ginsberg or Baraka, Plath or Gunn—let alone those of Soyinka or Walcott—are never The Voice of America.

Hamilton's introduction shovels the same generalised scorn that TLS-man has always pitched at the same alleged poetic “enemies”: American practitioners of “breath, pulse and open field” notations, and English “disaffiliates” with “their student-union poetry readings and their insistence that ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’”. The latter challenge, issued by Adrian Mitchell in 1964, has been proved cogent (and reversed again and again, not least via readings) throughout the decades since, all over the planet.

Most of the recurrent targets for Hamilton's derision—breath, disaffiliation, communication—have been of the essence since poetry began. It is wilfully ill-read, self-satisfied and dismissive of orthodoxies that are more patently the enemies of imagination and discovery. Thus, in 1974, the anthologist Geoffrey Summerfield thought that “Britain in the last 15 years has not produced a woman poet of real stature”. Scores of women poets were developing well at that time, albeit unbeknown to official stature-brokers. The glaring stupidity is to look to Britain (or any place or time) to “produce” poets.

Thus the entry on Kenneth Patchen declares that Patchen “never managed to gain any real control over his work. Critics deplored his ‘carelessness’, which was always evident.” Really always evident? The perpetrator of this judgment is Martin Seymour-Smith, the Companion's most ubiquitous commentator, who seems like many others merely to have rehashed his old files and cannibalised previous source-books (notably his own uneven Guide to Modern World Literature).

One of several likely consequences is the perpetual recycling of similarly “established” errors from such indirect sources. The Companion certainly displays more uncontrolled carelessness than any other avowed history, map or reference book on poetry I remember consulting. Mis-spellings, wrong dates and howlers abound. Dream of Fair to Middling Women, not Murphy, was Beckett's first novel. James Berry's second volume is Lucy's Letters—a brilliantly sustained Jamaican-dialect sequence of them—not a single Lucy's Letter. The “distinctive concern” of Thom Gunn's On the Move is not “homo-erotic hedonism”. Kathleen Raine's most recent book is not The Presence of 1987 but Living with Mystery: Poems 1987-91.

The slovenly prose of some of Hamilton's “celebrated poet-critics” is equally dismaying, as when readers learn that Ted “Hughes' primitivism forms the basis of his writing for children (a gifted children's writer, his story, The Iron Man, is widely popular)”. On the same page, Langston Hughes' 1951 Harlem cycle is named Montage of a Dream Remembered instead of … of a Dream Deferred. This is a particularly misleading goof because the book's theme is that the American dream had never remembered, always deferred, its black citizens' own dreams: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up? / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore— / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over— / like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load? /Or does it explode?”

More's the pity that a lot of black American dreamers whose poetry did explode in the 40 years since—Mari Evans, Calvin Hernton, Ted Joans, June Jordan, Ishmael Reed et al—are excluded from the Oxford Companion. So are the likes of Jean Binta Breeze, Ivor Cutler, Merle Collins, Maureen Duffy, Mahmood Jamal, Judith Kazantzis, Michèle Roberts and Heathcote Williams. Yet space has been made for a routine hatchet-job by the deputy editor of the TLS on David Sweetman's one slim volume. This was presumably on the customary paid-up gang-member grounds: Sweetman was the third man called in by Craig Raine and Chris Reid to bolster their mutual, brief, overblown promotion as the Martian School.

The blurb boasts of “intriguing author/subject combinations”, but most of the two-dozen or so longer articles simply condense researches already oft republished in purer extended versions: Heaney on Lowell, Morrison on Heaney and Larkin, Dunn on MacDiarmid. Motion on Edward Thomas. The dustjacket cites as a “lively assessment” Anne Stevenson's characterisation of Sylvia Plath as “a martyr to the psychodrama” of her “wounded personality”; a cliché new only to those Martian schoolkids blissfully unaware of Stevenson's hostile biography of Plath. However, Dan Jacobson's Hardy, Amit Chaudhuri's Lawrence, Alan Brownjohn's Spender, M L Rosenthal's Carlos Williams and Glyn Maxwell's Gary Snyder were worth commissioning, and the incisiveness of Hugh Haughton's anatomy of T S Eliot puts almost every other entry to shame: “Much of Eliot's later career can be understood as an attempt to escape The Waste Land's consequences.”

The editorial power-structure behind this compilation brings home the extent to which English-speaking poetry in the late mid-century has pursed its lips to the service of Eliot's prototypical English-gent careerism. Happily, poetry today, “abroad” and in Britain, knows thousands, perhaps millions, of more genuinely committed companions.

Thomas Mallon (review date June 1994)

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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: “Froude wanted to write a Carlylean Carlyle; Mary wanted straightforward, old-style, mealy-mouthed commemoration.” A century later, Philip Larkin, ordinarily a master of plain speaking, waited until he was in the hospital and near death before signing off on a bundle of contradictions. Even when the marching orders are clear, executors have a tendency to think that they know better than the dead and are free to contradict their wishes in fulfillment of some higher responsibility toward literary history.

Along with the wills, there are the widows, often as exasperating as the written instructions, and trouble ever since Mary Palmer, Andrew Marvell's landlady, insisted after his death that she had really been Mary Marvell, his wife. Keepers of the Flame is very amusing when it comes to battles between survivors and biographers (Robert Louis Stevenson's widow versus Sidney Colvin; Rupert Brooke's mother against Sir Edward Marsh; Kipling's daughter versus Lord Birkenhead), though Hamilton might have found room for one or two helpful helpmeets in his gallery of termagants.

Hamilton does a particularly good job on the question of literary celebrity, which got its real start with Pope, who contrived a way to publish his own letters while still alive, and was the first writer to complain of his privacy's being invaded, a complaint that was of course “a boast.” After his death, his executor, Bishop Warburton, so enjoyed the job that “it seems as if he became Pope, even handing out books from the poet's library inscribed ‘From Alexander Pope.’” Hamilton traces the progress of Boswell's reputation from being the starstruck idiot described by Macaulay (“Servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot …”) to being the artistic shaper of all the raw booty that remained hidden in Malahide Castle and Fettercairn House more than a century after his death. By the early nineteenth century, authorial celebrity had progressed to the point where Byron's death in Missolonghi, when it came in 1824 (still a generation before “mass-circulation magazines and news sheets had turned authors into breakfast-table stars”), could be seen the way Truman Capote's would one day be described, as a good career move. The “supreme egotist died for a foreign cause” at a time when his “myth was in need of some grand revitalising gesture.”

Rather than plumbing further into personal depths and passions, the Romantics, somewhat unpredictably, helped push biography toward its temporary Victorian squeamishness. If inconsistent with their lust for self-expression, the new calls for restraint jibed with the Romantics' “idea of the poet as a type of saint, extraordinary, set apart,” against which “a Boswellian pursuit of the whole truth” might prove destructive. Wordsworth, who as a young man had appreciated Boswell, took up the cause of Robert Burns (against biographers who would portray him as a drunken rake) less out of fidelity to the ploughman-poet's memory than as a counterattack upon the pugilism of Francis Jeffrey, from which he had begun to suffer: “there was a connection, [Wordsworth] perceived, between Boswellian biography and the Edinburgh's ad hominem reviewing. The impulse in each was to de-sanctify; for Wordsworth, to desanctify was to destroy.” (His own fears of a posthumous sex scandal over Annette Vallon also motivated him to urge caution upon biographers.)

So Victorian hagiography, a “Reticence in three volumes,” according to Gladstone, was an extension of Romantic reverence. Before publishing his own Life of Carlyle, Froude edited the author's Reminiscences (1881), and found himself attacked for not cutting out more dark matter than he did. Then, as today, however, the revelation of unpleasantness can be mitigated by shrewd scheduling. At Froude's suggestion, Carlyle's memoir was published before his wife Jane's letters: If “the defense [was] heard before the prosecution,” the shock would be less. (Last year, American readers were inoculated against Philip Larkin's misanthropic letters by the prior appearance of Andrew Motion's Larkin biography. In Britain, the letters had preceded the biography, and the shock was a bit more rude.) The principal difference between the Victorians' cries for restraint and our own occasional censures of unnecessary disclosure is that the Victorians probably meant theirs, whereas ours are mostly the crocodile tears of a trash-cultural appetite that may experience moments of shame but never gets up from the table.

Things were changing by the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and Hamilton does good work debunking the myth that debunking biography sprang full-blown from the hairy head of Lytton Strachey, when he produced Eminent Victorians in 1918. In fact, E. F. Benson, by 1895, was complaining that such enterprises as the “English Men of Letters” series were “stripping the mystery off anything that is lovely.” Strachey's influence, Hamilton argues, “may have been more peaceable than is usually supposed.” He was not one for original research, and “for most keepers of the flame, a cartoon-style irreverence or a fanciful hypothesis is more readily tolerable than a straight-faced perusal of the facts. On the other hand, of course, a plodding sleuth—armed with a Stracheyesque contempt for old habits of decorum and respectfulness: well, he might turn out to be the worst development of all.”

With this sentence Hamilton might be said to define the modern academic literary biographer, someone hoping to splash out of his humdrum pond and toward the real shores of literature by collecting all the sordid facts that lie baking in the Texas sun, even if he can't marshall them into anything readable. Keepers of the Flame, by contrast, is almost always stylish and good-humored. The preface to Sprat's Life of Cowley is, according to Hamilton, distinguished by a “pioneering timidity”; and after all the wildly discrepant physical descriptions of Shelley by his early biographers, Hamilton finds it “small wonder that Shelley's son took up photography.” One could do without his frequent use of the term “biographee,” venerable coinage though it may be, but on the whole he brings such wit to the genre that one begins to believe it might yet be rescued from those trade-published professors who roam the academic landscape year after year, eating up libraries' special collections like dull-eyed pandas on some grant-funded bamboo binge.

Hamilton's opinions are independent without being perverse, even if they extend to a preference, in human terms, for John Donne the Younger over the crafty Dean of St. Paul's. His easy range of reference is confidence-inspiring. He tells us, for instance, that Carlyle, when he met Froude, “was fifty-four, Johnson's age when he met Boswell.” One doesn't write a sentence like that unless one simply knows these things. The following passage on the change in Henry James, after his removal from London at fifty-five, does in half a paragraph what it might take some biographers half a volume to accomplish:

He shaved off his beard, affected sage-like airs and orotundities, welcomed young pre-Bloomsbury devotees and encouraged them to call him Master, cher maître, maestro and the like; he even permitted himself the odd feelingful dalliance with certain of his better-looking male disciples—nothing physical, we understand (“I can't, I can't, I can't!” cried James, when young Hugh Walpole offered himself to him), but, expressed in letters, more unguardedly frolicsome than might have been expected—expected, that's to say, even by James.

Keepers of the Flame is full of similarly concise sketches, ones that remind a reader of the real reason modern literary biography, certainly its American variety, is so bad: its prolixity, its preference for accumulation over perspicuousness. It sees nothing steadily and whole, leaving the business of selection and final analysis to the reader, after a truckload of fact has been dumped, chronologized but otherwise unsorted, in front of his eyes. In our own time, life is long and biography even longer.

Hamilton's own conclusions have a moderate, almost Johnsonian, good sense to them. For heirs and executors, he advocates the embargo instead of the bonfire, and for biographers a decent interval over an avid rush; but he makes no pious insistence that writers themselves owe candor to posterity. He has, in fact, no problem with their performing whatever pre-emptive manipulations they like: “writers, indeed, any potential or probable biographees, should follow Henry James and try to serve as their own keepers of the flame.” James's failure was “to cover all the angles.” He left Leon Edel and the rest of his biographers with far more material than he was able to get rid of. James being James, the posthumous trove has provided “more mysteries than glimpses,” but he still told his executor that his “sole wish is to frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter,” a determination in keeping with his larger awareness that “the way for a writer to promote himself … is by not having a self to promote. The point about relics is that there must be very few of them, and even these should be of questionable authenticity.” Perhaps the most vivid illustration of the rule is provided by Hamilton's chapter on Rupert Brooke, whose progress from heroic icon to neurotic boor has progressed at roughly the speed with which his literary remains have seen light.

The literary-biography debate, and Hamilton's book, keep coming back to “the old insolubles.” The issues are basic and enduring, and the genre itself has not much advanced from its real eighteenth-century beginnings. Johnson “was not the most conscientious of biographers” (“if it rained knowledge I'd hold out my hands, but I would not give myself the trouble to go in search of it”), but he was the form's best theoretician, identifying its appeal and problems with a definiteness that has not required improvement. Latter-day causes célèbres guarantee bombast, not breakthroughs. The witchy cauldron of “Plath studies” that Janet Malcolm has stirred to such a boil of publicity is not very different from the century-old fight over Froude's book on Carlyle, which split the subject's readers into two parties—“husband's men and wife's men,” according to Augustine Birrell. Hamilton's cheerful, straightforward thoughts are more enlightening than Malcolm's, which seem, as usual, more connected to her own personal history than the matter supposedly at hand.

The only thing lacking in Keepers of the Flame, aside from a consideration of biography's modern shapelessness, is a real discussion of the one sea change there has been to the waters on which the genre floats—the inability any longer to pretend that we are interested in the life in order to illuminate the work. Most readers of modern literary biography have, if they have read them at all, little interest in the writings of the subject. Plath's poetry may be an exception, but its audience is made up of cadres, not readers. To take Hamilton's other contemporary example, Larkin, one doubts that many who went out to buy Andrew Motion's supposedly surprising biography are reading Larkin's poetry as anything more than illustrative material, blocks of quotation to buttress the biographer's points, and as such even less important than the “original material” out of which directors adapt novels for the screen.

Ann Hulbert (review date 22 August 1994)

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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 debate about it. Henry James characterized the quarrel as “the eternal dispute between the public and the private, between curiosity and delicacy,” and Janet Malcolm's foray into Plathography is the latest evidence of the deep-seated antagonism: like a siren Sylvia Plath invites exposure, while Ted Hughes stands as the embodiment of defensive reserve. As Ian Hamilton writes in his three-century tour of struggles among writers, executors and biographers, “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.” And both sides concur in a stark conception of the enterprise as a struggle between the pursuer and the pursued.

[In Keepers of the Flame] Hamilton does not present himself as an agent of disclosure, though as the biographer of Robert Lowell and (abortively) of J. D. Salinger, he has the pedigree of an especially zealous revealer. After all, first he tackled a confessional poet, who invited invasive scrutiny. Then he tried to flush out the most reclusive of writers. But Hamilton felt burned by his previous aggressive pursuits, not unlike Malcolm, whose experience with portraiture got her in trouble (the license she took in her account of Jeffrey Masson landed her in court). Hamilton was disheartened by his probing of Lowell, whose dramatic troubles inevitably entailed more “pathography” than he had expected. And his efforts to expose Salinger's life were utterly daunting. They embroiled him in a lawsuit over copyright violation that led to tighter restrictions on the use of unpublished material.

The lesson that Hamilton draws, however, is rather different from Malcolm's moral. She chose partisan alignment on the side of reticence, championing taciturn Ted Hughes against the snoopers and making an iconoclastic cause out of it. Her book began by diagnosing the dirty secret of the genre: it all comes down to the ignoble biographer trying to “peep through the keyhole” vs. the noble subject pulling down the shades.

Hamilton aims for lower-key detachment, wryly surveying many examples of wrangling. He doesn't take sides, and he sees Malcolm's purportedly dirty secret for what it really is: an enduring stereotype. Biographers have long been suspected, and suspected themselves, of mixed motives, and their subjects have always been understandably uneasy about exposure. The spirit of Hamilton's approach is studious (though not at all dry). Are there, he wonders, patterns to be discerned in the ongoing quarrels over the genre through the centuries—“Boswellism versus Romanticism, Victorianism versus Stracheyism”? “Or was it—is it—all to do with human nature, a matter of competing vanities and envies, deadlocked special interests, cash?”

The aim of Hamilton's undertaking is hard to resist: to transcend the polarized conceptions of the genre, which have obviously done little to help its development. The most remarkable feature of his gallery of quarrelers is the way that it undermines the stark opposition between high-minded, defensive biographee and low-minded, intrusive biographer. His survey is full of ironies to confound, or at least complicate, each side's categorical views. And all of the examples of biographical drama make short shrift of any notion of a documentable “total picture.”

The Boswellian school, in which agents of disclosure first staked a claim to respectability, was never quite the sturdy institution it seemed. Its allergy to “panegyrick” was justified by the compassionate and exhaustive quality of its intimate intrusion into personal life. The biographer was to be high-minded and intrusive. That the compassion had a tendency to reveal “complicated virtue,” in Johnson's words, and was therefore a source of controversy, wasn't a great surprise. The real vulnerability of the Boswellian approach was less its irreverence than its unreliability, which was clear from the start.

Boswell made no bones about his subjectivity (his quirks were constantly on display), and at least he was an energetic sleuth, willing to devote whole days to tracking down the most trivial details. The more disconcerting omen lay in Johnson's own biographical attitude, evident even in his path-breaking Life of Savage: “If it rained knowledge, I'd hold out my hands but I would not give myself the trouble to go in search of it.”

Not that a search guarantees trustworthy evidence in any case. Was Richard Savage's alleged mother, Anne Brett, really his mother? And was she guilty of the crime of which he and his biographer accused her, rejecting her bastard son? Johnson never bothered to seek out her opinion on the matter, or on any other matter concerning the obscure poet and convicted murderer that Savage had become. But even if he had, she could hardly be counted on to clear things up, as Richard Holmes points out in Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage. Brett, a reclusive widow who had by then suffered more than her share of public scandals, might well not have been a particularly credible witness. The elusive nature of truth, Hamilton observes, is hardly a recent discovery. “Witnesses … were likely to be either mendacious or gullible or both,” biographers, and even readers of biography, appreciated long ago; “letters were probably composed with publication in view and could anyway be forged; conversation was easily tailored to fit the susceptibilities of the stenographer.”

The tenets of the Romantic school, in which the agents of reticence found a collective and compelling voice, similarly portended trouble. In elevating “the idea of the poet as a type of saint, extraordinary, set apart, ablaze with mysterious sensitivities and insights,” Hamilton writes, the Romantics naturally promoted a correspondingly un-Boswellian biographical approach. They called for celebration of the creative dimensions of “the poetic character,” rather than mundane investigation of the personal character, with all its typical blemishes.

The irony was that the personal lives of the Romantics tended to be titillatingly atypical, not merely blemished but scandalous, and often on a spectacularly public scale. Whether or not poetic genius excused unconventional private morality, it seemed to encourage it—and the flaunting of it. Rather than high-minded and defensive, the biographee seemed on the offensive, and none too elevated about it. Byron, to take the most famous example, didn't pull down the shades. After The Separation (as it was called) from Lady Byron, he kept opening and shutting the door on the mysterious marital offense that had caused the rift, which of course fanned the biographers' fascination. Lady Byron was provocatively reticent (“There is no vice,” she said, “with which he has not endeavoured to familiarise me”), Byron was a coy but very public spokesman for his case from exile and readers were avid to decode the poetry. Was his sin mere infidelity, homosexuality perhaps, or worse, incest with his half-sister Augusta Leigh? As Hamilton sums up, “the Romantics mistrusted the desanctifying tendencies of Boswellism and yet, in their private conduct, they supplied the opposition with all manner of alluring docudramas.”

The tensions sound healthy enough. A little doubt about Boswellian methods of penetrating lives and a little dilution of the Romantic motive of venerating art would seem to be just the compromise the conflicted genre could use. But the next phases in literary biography's development, though Hamilton doesn't chart the way quite so schematically, did not reflect such a sensible synthesis. Instead came the deadly fat Victorian memorials and the ominously lean portraits à la Strachey, which veered toward new unbalanced extremes. The Victorian approach, with its emphasis on the authorized tome, gave the agents of reticence a bad name. Never mind capturing artistic genius, the main goal was not to betray personal foibles. The classic form of the exercise was an unwieldy mass of inoffensive documentation. The two-volume life of Thomas Hardy ostensibly written by his second wife, Florence, was a belated caricature of it. The account had been secretly written in a painstakingly plodding manner by Hardy himself.

The Strachey style, which gave the agents of disclosure a bad name, was “gleefully unauthorized,” as Hamilton puts it. Forget about capturing “complicated virtue,” the goal was to debunk eminence at all cost. Cavalier with documentation (the approach, Hamilton notes, “required someone else to have already done the legwork”), these concise portraits were unapologetically skewed. They were Strachey's answer to the bloated volumes he attacked in the preface to Eminent Victorians for “their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment and design.” In short, the old antagonism had assumed a new, and hardly more promising, permutation. Instead of presenting biographees as noble artists, the Victorian treatment had a way of unwittingly reducing them to stuffed shirts. And in exploding the notion of biographers as mere lowly scribes, the Strachey method endowed them with sweeping artistic pretensions.

As Hamilton drily points out, there was a less auspicious permutation yet to come, the one that is now standard: “a plodding sleuth—armed with a Stracheyesque contempt for old habits of decorum and respectfulness: well, he might turn out to be the worst development of all.” Yet the usefulness of his book is precisely that it doesn't progress toward an indictment of that all too familiar incarnation of the genre; the pedestrian examples of it aren't worth the trouble. Hamilton also steers clear of a culminating statement of anything so grand as his own “philosophy” (beyond the practical tip in his foreword to hold off on a full portrait until the writer has been dead fifty years). But the gist of the approach that he favors can be discerned from his interest in a rarer but recurrent sort of case. His wryness gives way to warmth when he describes biographers whose careful sleuthing is informed by a creative impulse that seems attuned to the subject's own creative approach, or at least aspires to take account of it in a way that isn't reductive. In other words, where a kind of synergy, rather than antagonism, is at work.

Hamilton's examples show that such a course isn't smooth by any means. In fact, the spirit that guides it is a remarkably demanding one: empathy, which aims at understanding rather than clinical explanation. Such an effort entails delicacy about aesthetic intentions, not merely curiosity about psychological symptoms. And it demands tireless methods and tactful motives, never a natural combination and currently a very unfashionable one. Methodologically, the empathetic approach depends on finding and working with as much immediate evidence, and original texture, as possible—which is precisely what prevailing protocol makes difficult. In the wake of Salinger's suit against Hamilton, biographers are now restrained by law from quoting from unpublished documents, except with permission. And if permission is denied, the only recourse is to paraphrase in a spirit that, according to the legal doctrine of “fair use,” must not be too faithful to the original. As for careful motives, the empathetic biographer doesn't begin by presuming that any amount of material is likely to be a smoking gun, in particular where questions of artistic creativity are concerned. Again, that means bucking biographical convention, which is to aim for a dramatic exposé.

Sheer doggedness and delicate empathy are inevitably in some tension, even when a biographer is dealing with the most congenial, accessible subject. Sometimes, in fact, an accommodating biographee can be especially taxing. Thus poor James Anthony Froude, Carlyle's biographer, endured agonies in his efforts to live up to his subject's fierce standards of candor, which Carlyle clearly wanted applied to himself, no matter the costs. Thanks to the heaps of material that Carlyle had made available, Froude knew all about Carlyle's cruel treatment of his wife (“blue marks” on her arms); his worshipful affection for Lady Ashburton, whose circle he had joined; his impotence; and his terrible self-recriminations after Jane Carlyle's death. “These things were communicated to me, and I was to be Carlyle's biographer,” Froude wrote in distress. “What was I to make of them? It was so weird, so uncanny a business that the more I thought of it the less I could tell what to do.”

Of course, as Hamilton's book has by now amply shown, biographees can hardly be counted on to encourage complicated empathy (which need not, in fact rarely does, issue in conventional admiration: Froude was pilloried by many who saw his “demonic” portrait not as deeply tragic but as slanderous). Yet even here, appearances can be deceiving. In closing, Hamilton pauses over the currently hot troublemaker, Ted Hughes, and shows that he isn't, or hasn't always been, quite the adamant agent of reticence whom Janet Malcolm describes.

In Hamilton's astute version of the saga, Hughes has in fact played a constructive, even encouraging role in the biographical boom occasioned by Sylvia Plath. His reputation as an inhibiting presence misses an important part of the story. Hamilton persuasively credits Hughes with acknowledging that “his own loathing of biography ought not to be imposed on [Sylvia Plath].” An appreciation of her radically confessional art, Hughes saw, demanded an approach very different from the hands-off treatment that he felt his own much more impersonal style entitled him to insist on. Plath's poetry depended heavily—perhaps totally—on a sense, as he put it, “of the incidental circumstances or the crucial inner drama that produced it.” In other words, Hughes himself has embraced, however ambivalently, the notion that an empathetic sense of the art should help guide standards of disclosure about the life. It was this recognition, not simply a need for money, that impelled him to publish editions of Plath's letters and journals. Though they have been attacked for what they omit, they are also remarkable for what they leave in.

E. M. Forster, in his demure way, is as unexpected a double agent as the dramatic Hughes. His case, so unlike the bitter Plath debate—and the many biographical battles that preceded it—beckons as a model for the genre. The man who swore by “tolerance, good temper and sympathy” can perhaps remind an embattled enterprise of the underrated power of those virtues as a guide to modulated and yet vivid portraiture. And in fact, that's just what Forster's example does, in a typically unheroic Forsterian way. His perspective on literary biography, and his fate at its hands so far, is decidedly mixed. The great quarrel at the core of the enterprise, he knew, won't end in perfect harmony. But rather than worry over the disharmonies (worry, he warned, is “terribly insidious,” for it tempts the victim to simplify in search of peace), he welcomed them.

Forster lived and wrote like an agent of reticence. He was a painfully shy man whose life was almost a paradigm of retreat, whose fiction was notably circumscribed and who in his critical writing condescended to biography as merely “a serious form of gossip.” He understood the interest in all kinds of information about the “surface personality,” but he believed that the “lower personality,” the creative self, remains elusive. What cannot be encompassed, Forster emphasized in his essay “Anonymity: An Inquiry” (from which his new biographer, Nicola Beauman, takes her epigraph), is the aesthetic power of the artist and his art. Biography “teaches us everything about the book except the central thing, and between us and that it raises a circular barrier which only the wings of the spirit can cross.”

After his death, however, Forster was revealed as an agent of disclosure. He left mountains of letters, and then within those letters did the opposite of censor; he made sure, when he changed a phrase, that the original formulation was still legible. Not because he thought there could be a total picture, but because he knew there couldn't be. “We don't know what we are like,” he wrote in “What I Believe”; “We can't know what other people are like.” But his skepticism about the “self” as an “entity,” very fashionable now, didn't preclude a leap of faith in that self. He expected curiosity, and left plenty of clues. There also remained a manuscript of an unpublished novel, Maurice, which was plainly autobiographical in its revelation of homosexual desires, as well as various stories on similar themes. “When I die and they write my life,” Forster announced, “they can say everything,” a motto that became an epigraph for his biographer P. N. Furbank, whom he authorized and then left completely to his own devices.

Forster's conversion is obviously atypical among writers; cavorting followed by a posthumous cover-up is the much more familiar pattern. But his attitudes are unexpected on a more personal level as well. This proponent of Romantic veneration of art (“the entry of Heaven” was the way he described the moment of supreme aesthetic experience) had a decidedly un-Romantic, even prosaic perspective on himself as a writer. “You can gather,” he wrote matter-of-factly to a friend, “that I know I am not a real artist. … In fact my equipment is frightfully limited but so good in parts that I want to do with it what I can.”

And this defender of Boswellian curiosity about life led a remarkably narrow, unadventurous existence, most of it with his mother. Until he was 30, Forster claimed, he had only the vaguest ideas about sex; he had his first real affair at 38, with Mohammed el Adl, a tram conductor, in Alexandria. It was only at the age of 45 that he dared arrange an apartment in London, so that his life away from his mother needn't be constrained by the last train home. He spent time in India as well as Alexandria, but the primary drama of his creative career lies in its very premature closing. He published the first of five novels in 1905 at the age of 26 and the last in 1924 when he was 45. In the forty-six years that remained after A Passage to India appeared, he published no more fiction. (Maurice, his sixth novel, was written in the interlude between Howards End, which was published in 1910, and A Passage to India, but it only appeared posthumously, in 1971.) He took to writing criticism and established only slightly greater independence from his mother; he continued to live a remarkably discreet and undramatic life until his death in 1970.

Forster seemed to have set himself up for precisely the sort of biographical treatment he said was a “curse”: the most common kind, which “concentrates our attention on the relation between a writer's life—his surface life—and his work.” After all, here was a “lower personality,” an artistic self, that presented a modest and workmanlike pose—the opposite of a forbidding, grandiloquent Genius. What's more, that lower self had left the most titillating, untranscendent clues about its main mystery. The early silencing of the creative personality, as Maurice and Forster's unpublished stories also on homosexual themes suggested, was bound up with the late unfolding of the sexual personality. And if the rest of the evidence about the “surface personality” wasn't exactly fast-paced, it had a good literary pedigree. Forster's Bloomsbury friends, too, were a graphomaniac crowd; their relevant letters and memoirs were ample and artful.

The urge to transgress, to violate a subject's sense of propriety in portraying him, is the temptation that Janet Malcolm claims always lies in some form at the heart of the biographical enterprise. And yet that is exactly what Forster's three main chroniclers—Furbank focusing on the life, Lionel Trilling on the work and now Nicola Beauman attempting both—have tried to resist. The success of the first two is a refreshing reminder that Boswellian interest in daily details isn't all low-mindedness and that concern with creative intentions isn't all high-mindedness. That the middle route, balancing curiosity about life and delicacy about art, is inevitably a muddle, as his latest portraitist proves, is just what Forster would have predicted.

With Trilling and Furbank, Forster got the best of two biographical worlds more or less as he prescribed them. Furbank's E. M. Forster: A Life (1978) offered Boswellianism at its best, a reliable and intimate picture of the man, marked by moral realism and a comic touch, full of truths but with no claim to the Truth. And Trilling's study, published in 1943 before Forster had become well known, was aesthetic scrutiny stripped of veneration. Central to his understanding of Forster's vision was an emphasis on his “refusal to be great,” which could be irritating but was also illuminating. His work, Trilling argued, was the product of an imagination that aspired to liberation at the same time that it embraced limitation. In that ambivalent process, Forster comprehended something the triumphalist, untragic “liberal imagination” could not fathom: “the idea of good-and-evil.”

Furbank and Trilling each crossed the line between life and work but kept their priorities clear and didn't aim at a synthesis. But what about attempting a more complete harmonizing of the hardy antagonisms of the genre? The idea of life-and-work, it perhaps should come as little surprise, is harder for the biographical imagination to fathom. So hard, in fact, that literary biographers tend to be blissfully unaware of the difficulty. The prevailing attitude is confidently cavalier—just cram in some plot summaries and quote reviews, or else play the match game, identifying real-life counterparts of fictional characters. To her credit, Beauman takes some trouble to reflect on how she plans to carve out a place for herself between her predecessors.

She doesn't fudge her straddling role, she intends to make it her focus: “I learnt a good deal about Forster the man, indeed more than I needed to know. And I learnt a good deal about critical method,” she explains in her introduction. “About Forster the novelist there was a strange reticence.” She proposes to “describe the unfolding of his creative development,” warning that “the meticulous chronicling of day-by-day events would be relevant only insofar as it illuminates the inner life.” And she empathetically promises to do it in the conversational, informal, intuitive spirit of her subject.

But it quickly becomes clear that Beauman has too blithe a faith that her eager collaborative spirit can surmount all obstacles. She doesn't quite know what to make of Forster's emphasis on a firm barrier between the inner, creative life and the “upper personality” that “does things like dining out, answering letters, etc.” She has a stake in ignoring his dictum, and yet she also intermittently invokes it. What she doesn't do is thoughtfully challenge Forster the critic's whimsical formulations about “the lower personality [as] a very queer affair,” subject to no conscious forces. Yet the trickiest task of empathy is to know when not to listen to the upper self precisely because it can be out of touch with the creative personality.

Both her predecessors were alert to the need for careful second-guessing. Forster, Furbank remarked, was superstitious about the sources of his literary success; his “ordinary self” had a willful lack of desire to scrutinize the “lower self” too closely. It was as if he thought that by casually waving attention away from that strange creature, he could protect the gift he never quite trusted he deserved. But in fact that lower self, as Trilling saw, had its own, far from diffident voice. If Forster the man made his creative drive seem magical, as all such gifts are to some extent in their origins, Forster's writings reveal it very purposefully at work. “Guiding his stories according to his serious whim,” Trilling wrote,

Forster takes full and conscious responsibility for his novels, refusing to share in the increasingly dull assumption of the contemporary novelist, that the writer has nothing to do with the story he tells and that, mirabile dictu, through no intention of his own, the story has chosen to tell itself through him.

Trilling's emphasis on control is a message to literary biographers, too, to reconsider a dull assumption of their genre. To hypothesize about the unconscious causes of creative gifts, that favorite biographical pastime, is bound to be less interesting than trying to make the richest sense of the consequences of those gifts. Yet Beauman can't resist the diagnostic habit, and shows less zest for analyzing imaginative purposes or processes. Without quite noticing it, she ends up devoting as much attention to the unfolding of Forster's sexual development as to his creative development. The two, in fact, become somewhat blurred.

She isn't crude or prurient. Beauman has some revealing connections to make between Forster's belated, somewhat bewildered sexual awakening and his imaginative progress. She argues, for example, that visits with Edward Carpenter, a proponent of sensual freedom, led him finally to finish A Room With a View (1908); the suicide of a friend who was probably homosexual spurred work on Maurice; Forster's sexual initiation in Alexandria freed him to define himself more as a writer and led to the resumption of A Passage to India. But too insistent an emphasis on Forster's physical and emotional desires inevitably fails to do justice to Forster's fictional designs, or to his fictional frustrations. Even though she has chosen to dwell only on the productively creative half of his life, a sense of stasis creeps in. Compared to Trilling's analysis of the sense of limitation and division that played such an important part in Forster's novels, Beauman's descriptions of the actual limitations of his life end up making his vision seem too, well, limited.

As if to compensate for the constriction, Beauman at other points lets her fidelity to the Forsterian motto “only connect” lead her far from mere “surface” facts, and she soars with intuitions born of fondness for the man and his work. Supposition overtakes perception, as she makes all sorts of dubious pronouncements about his feelings and his life. She is quite coy about her most spectacular—and very speculative—leap: she insinuates that Forster's father was homosexual. More important, she goes all silly and slack when she comes to the novels themselves:

(But do I know where I'm going the biographer asks herself, the moment having come when somehow—but how?—she must convey, not merely précis, the plot, and at the same time try and convey why, to her, this [Where Angels Fear to Tread] is one of the most perfect novels of the twentieth century, aware that if she uses hyperboles like these her ever-vigilant husband will write “truly wonderful” in the margin and she will realise that, yes, she has gone over the top. But then what vocabulary will do? …)

This can serve as an apt illustration of the obvious danger of empathy—that it becomes overweening or worshipful or both. A Forsterian spirit of a counterproductive sort is at work behind Beauman's overconfident projections about the life and her prostration before the novels. Dubbed “the Important One” in letters between his mother and his doting great-aunt Marianne Thornton during his childhood, Forster plainly inspired womanly ministrations that were well-meant but often missed their mark—and he was patient with the oppressive fussing. Beauman clucks over all the feminine clucking that her dear “Morgan” had to endure, deaf to the misplaced condescension in her own tone. Similarly, given his distrust of criticism, Forster had nothing against oohing and aahing at “the entry of Heaven.” Beauman blithely assumes that her breathless parentheses would suit him fine.

But in fact neither of those inclinations—to put up with cramping intrusions into his life, and to rest easy with reticence about art—was simple on Forster's part. He knew he could be far too patient with the demands that his women placed on his days and moods, and in his literary criticism he stood back but he rarely bowed down. Beauman recognizes, but can't quite figure out how to take account of, the uncanny tension in him between personal passivity and creative certainty. “Mystic, silly, but with a child's insight,” was the way Virginia Woolf put it; “oh yes, & something manly & definite too.”

Especially about his own creative gifts, Forster was calmly unreverential, a spirit that his biographer might have aspired to more often. “I am quite sure I am not a great novelist. Because I have only got down on to paper really three types of people,” he said in an interview:

the person I think I am, the people who irritate me and the people I would like to be. When you get to the really great writers, like Tolstoy, you find they can get hold of all types. But most novelists, including myself, are much more constricted in their imagination and their sympathy. I do not get down very much.

Forster was too hard on himself. His great gift was to see that all three kinds of people usually cohabit in a single person. Self-knowledge, self-hate and the salve for both, the hope of self-transformation (in which the unillusioned Forster put only very modest and unmilitant faith for himself, but more for his characters) make the “self” a radically shifting and multifarious thing.

Adamant agents of disclosure and agents of reticence rarely appreciate such a full picture. The exposers are blinkered because their confidence in revelation leads them to attempt a static total picture. The concealers stand in the way of scrutiny because they are convinced no total picture is possible. Both have a stake in overlooking the obvious fact that some pictures are fuller than others. And part of what makes one literary biography better than another is a biographer's recognition that the problem of certainty, of total truth, won't be solved at the end of the endeavor but shouldn't be the reason not to begin. “Though A is not unchangeably A or B unchangeably B,” as Forster commented about the elusive nature of a “Person” in “What I Believe,” “there can still be love and loyalty between the two.” Why not let A stand for artist and B for biographer? Bs don't have to love their As, or pretend that they do. But they can't be loyal even to themselves unless, while seeing their blindness, they have faith in feeling their way toward clarity, which as Forster knew is rarely the same as simplicity.

Victoria Glendinning (review date 23 October 1994)

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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 wanted—do we know?”

He proceeds chronologically, by means of case histories, each marking some change or development in the perceived function of the custodians of greatness. This leads us into the history of publishing and of the law on copyright, into the company of some egregious crooks and creeps, and into some stimulatingly unprovable statements from Hamilton. The poet and priest John Donne (d. 1631), for example, was “the first” important writer to leave a substantial collection of letters, and his no-good son was “the first” to see that there was money to be made from a literary parent's leavings. Edmund Curll, the 18th-Century publisher, was “the first” to cash in on scurrilous instant biographies. Robert Burns was “the first” to have his frailties exposed by a biographer (he drank himself to death). Just occasionally, Hamilton is wrong. He writes that Thackeray's daughter “vetoed all thoughts of a biography,” thus fueling speculation about skeletons in cupboards; in fact, she commissioned Trollope to write a book about her father, which he did. Admittedly, she gave him very little material to work on.

The book is full of tasty details about cabinets and laundry baskets of letters and manuscripts falling into greedy hands or being used as wrapping paper for groceries. Keepers of the flame tended to be self-appointed. The poet Andrew Marvell's landlady posed as his wife in order to get money owed to his estate. Sir William Davenant liked it to be thought that he was Shakespeare's illegitimate son. Thomas Hardy had the bright idea of controlling his after-fame by ghosting his own biography, ostensibly authored by his second wife.

The book is free from academic pedantry. Hamilton remarks that Johnson's life of Dryden contains “the funniest and cruelest” of the “many wildly improbable” accounts of Dryden's funeral, quoting none of them, and thus whetting the reader's desire to find out more. Likewise, he writes of William Warburton, the adviser and editor of Alexander Pope, that Pope guided him to a rich wife “and then (via her very rich uncle) to a bishopric and a palatial estate.” Most scholars would have ruined their narrative flow by dutifully identifying, if only in a footnote, the “very rich uncle.”

Not Ian Hamilton. His pace and semi-satirical tone extract the maximum entertainment value from pompous literary mayhem. He writes with informed malice about the frequent rivalry between a dead author's self-aggrandizing “best friends” as to who is the true keeper of the flame. Disciples are often catty about co-disciples. One reviewer of “The Life of Dickens” by his friend and champion John Forster complained that it “should not be called ‘The Life of Dickens’ but ‘The History of Dickens’ Relations to Mr. Forster.’” Yet Forster was cavalier about his hero's materials. He chopped extracts out of Dickens' letters (discarding the tattered remains) and pasted them into his manuscript, which was thrown away afterward by the printers. Boswell was the most successful flame-keeper of all time, making the relationship between subject and biographer the central pillar of his “Life of Dr. Johnson,” to the extent that Boswell is now a more lively commercial proposition than Johnson himself.

They believed in “definitive” biography in the past, and possessive jealousy such as John Forster's found destruction preferable to the gaze of alien eyes. John Cam Hobhouse, neurotically possessive about the late Lord Byron, engineered the burning of his idol's autobiography, unread, because it had been shown to Tom Moore and not to him. Hobhouse was uneasy lest there be something uncomplimentary about himself in it.

When Henry James was given a private view of Byron's scandalous private papers he was so appalled that he went home and destroyed 40 years accumulation of his own correspondence, manuscripts and notebooks, expressing an “utter and absolute abhorrence” of any biography of himself. And what was the upshot? Leon Edel's five-volume “Life of Henry James,” and four volumes of letters.

Henry James did not have much to hide, or else it remains hidden. He is an exception. Readers are sometimes shocked when they discover that authors whose books they admire were less than admirable in private life. Hamilton poses the most difficult question that biographers and critics must address: “Does poetic genius excuse or mitigate bad conduct; does/should knowing about the life have a bearing on how we read the work?”

In the 19th Century, most spouses and devotees thought it their duty to suppress all evidence of “bad conduct.” Biographers worked “to the sound of snipping scissors and paper crackling in the grate. … After the funeral would come the slamming of doors, the scrubbing of marble and then, within two years or so, the emergence of what Gladstone called ‘a reticence in three volumes.’” George Eliot's reputation for unrelenting high seriousness was largely established by her widower's cutting all jokes and familiar turns of speech out of her published letters and journals.

The problems remain much the same today. The biographer of a modern subject is caught between wanting to tell “the truth” and the need to maintain good relations with informants and access to the archive. The eternal dispute, as identified by Henry James, between “the public and the private, between curiosity and delicacy” may have been resolved to Kitty Kelley's satisfaction, but it still exercises most biographers.

Coming to our own time, Hamilton is sharp about the costiveness of T. S. Eliot's widow in publishing his letters and declining to authorize a biography, while she allows Eliot's words to be mixed with Trevor Nunn's in the song “Memory” in the lucrative show “Cats”; Hamilton pays tribute to Peter Ackroyd's subtly “widow-proof” account of Eliot's life. Yet he shows sympathy with Ted Hughes who, as he writes, cannot even destroy any of his own private papers without being accused of interfering with “Plath Studies.”

This book was first published in Britain two years ago—before the very pertinent furor caused by the publication of the biography of Philip Larkin by Andrew Motion and of Larkin's Letters, before the contentious overview of the saga of the Plath biographies by Janet Malcolm in the New Yorker (issued Aug. 23 and 30, 1993), before the proposal for a new and Draconian “Privacy Bill” in Britain, and before it was decided that the 50-year copyright period should be increased in Britain to 70 years, in the interests of harmonization within the European Union. It would have been helpful, in the American edition, to have had an afterword on these matters.

Hamilton's own position is that writers must, in the first instance, be their own keepers of the flame: In other words, having read this review, you should at once burn all your diaries and love letters. Or not; as Izaak Walton wrote in the 17th Century, a wish for self-perpetuation is “rooted in the very nature of man.” But you should never, Hamilton thinks, burn anyone else's private papers. Larkin in his last illness requested that his diaries be destroyed. His friend Monica Jones shredded the 25 volumes within hours of his death. She did not have to. However vehement the wishes of the deceased in this regard, you are not in (British) law obliged to fulfill them.

There are evidently still moral imperatives stronger than the tug of literary history or the law of the land. But there's little any author can do about eliminating indiscreet letters written to other people; they are probably already in the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin anyway, nicely filed and catalogued. Only the law of copyright, and a stalwart keeper of the flame, can protect you. On the evidence of this book, writers should choose the keepers of their flame very carefully indeed. As Dryden wrote to his young protege, the playwright Congreve:

          Be kind to my Remains; and oh
          Against Your Judgement Your
departed Friend!

James L. W. West III (review date winter 1995)

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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 Hamilton's narratives.

Some of the authors treated in this book sought to control these matters before they died. Alfred Tennyson and Henry James, for example, burned scores of manuscripts and letters; other authors left directions about what should be destroyed—though the instructions were not always followed. Thomas Hardy went so far as to compose his own official biography and have his second wife publish it under her own name after he died. (This she did, but only after red-pencilling out all favorable mention of Hardy's first wife.) Other writers gave imprecise or contradictory instructions in their wills; still others left the entire business to chance. One's impression throughout is that the deceased authors were the lucky ones. The survivors were left to deal, sometimes for decades, with festering quarrels and rancorous claims. For some of them these legacies ruined their lives.

Keepers of the Flame should be read by anyone who wishes to understand the quick growth and enormous popularity of the New Criticism, especially in its early years. What a relief it must have seemed for critics and instructors to escape from such messy feuding among biographers and heirs! The exercise of one's critical faculties on the verbal icon, pure and isolated, was surely refreshing. Of course biography, history, and language itself continued to do their diversionary work behind the scenes, but at least critics did not have to acknowledge what was going on. They could stand apart, seemingly above the fray.

Hamilton is a biographer himself. He is the author of a good life of Robert Lowell and was the would-be Boswell of the reclusive J. D. Salinger a few years ago. Salinger, though, resisted Hamilton's attentions, took him and his publisher to court, and succeeded in having the biography taken off the market. I have seen reviews of Keepers of the Flame whose authors speculate that Hamilton's problems with Salinger form the subtext of the book and that Hamilton is covertly advocating that biographers be given greater access to the unpublished papers of their subjects. I see no such subtext in this book. In fact Hamilton seems remarkably even-handed in describing the antics of these authors, and of their heirs and assigns. The tone is straight-forward and frank; sometimes Hamilton seems amused by the behavior of his flame-tenders, but he is never judgmental. One could wish for a more visible controlling theme in this book, or at least for more frequent passages of speculation; but even without these features Hamilton's book is lively, readable, and balanced.

John Simon (review date January 1997)

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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 this collection whose mood is pleasantly varied, judgment consistently sound, and style incisive, lapidary, and, whenever possible, urbanely witty.

Hamilton addresses fiction, biography, poetry, various kinds of nonfiction, and the Dictionary of National Biography with equal ease and gusto. Those reviewed include Jean Stafford, Aldous Huxley, Stephen Spender, Sylvia Plath, George Orwell, two Amises, (K. and M.), and two Waughs (A. and E.). Also Frost, Graves, Roy Fuller, Alun Lewis, Wilbur, Merrill, Stevens, Heaney, and Damon Runyon. There are three pieces on Larkin (poems, letters, biography), and more specific examinations of single novels by Updike, Mailer, Roth, Terry Southern, and Julian Barnes. There are also solid pieces on a biographer's misgivings, literary hoaxes, a literary conference in Australia (a bit of a hoax, too), New York literary celebrities and their sycophants, television personalities, the life of a notorious madam, and Cyril Connolly and Tambimuttu as editors, respectively, of Horizon and Poetry London.

There is also, I am less happy to report, a final section on various sports and sports figures, which I find hard to comprehend, not only because the references and even the argot is fiercely British, but also because I can't take sports that seriously. Raised largely on Continental literature, I am used to certain kinds of idiosyncrasies—Colette on cats, Calvino on imaginary cities, Karl Kraus on the inferiority of everyone else—but not sports. Well, yes: Musil, a physical-exercise fanatic, who condignly died while exercising; and Montherlant about bullfighting, which may not be so much a sport as a perversion. And, sure, I know about Pindar, but those were other times.

England, however, is different. There the poet Edmund Blunden will write a book about cricket, and Sir Leslie Stephen will write you one on mountaineering. There are also the fox-hunting novels of Surtees, and a book-length epic poem Cricket, by one James Love. But never mind, I'll grant Hamilton his interest in sports if only he would keep it out of a book of literary criticism. It is quite a shock to encounter a piece entitled “Irving Scholar's Spurs,” and expect to read about how some astute academic earned his spurs by unearthing new data on Washington Irving, only to find out it concerns Irving Scholar, the chairman of the Tottenham Hotspurs football club.

But back to literary matters and, to begin with, the book's title. This, as the author explains in a liminal note, refers to what happens in bankruptcy cases under English law. The bailiffs, before they can foreclose, take walking possession, i.e., only half-own your goods for a fortnight, during which you may come up with the monies owed and regain ownership. Hamilton writes:

“Reviewers are sometimes thought of as the bailiffs of literature: they take walking possession of their subjects; they talk as if they owned them, but they don't.” Moreover, he adds, “many of the reviews reprinted here were written in less than fourteen days and one or two of them were done on a typewriter half-owned by the courts.”

This is splendid but excessive modesty. Hamilton writes with such assurance and persuasiveness that he makes his subjects thoroughly his own. But “own” in the sense of someone who, say, knows every nook and cranny of Central Park, and writes about it with a sense of involvement bordering on possessiveness, but still without denying others their rights to the park. As for the speed with which the pieces were written, what matter, if the writing has nothing shoddy or provisional about it; and who would now contest Hamilton's claim to that productive typewriter?

Let me begin with a longer quotation taken from a review of Andrew Motion's Larkin biography:

We knew too that this poet's personality, his off-color ribaldry and slang, had been shaped in the “come-off-it” postwar years and nurtured in dreary provincial towns, in seedy digs and gas-lit libraries. We had no proof but we rather suspected that Larkin collected hardish porn, had it in for blacks and queers, was careful with his money and, when it came to relationships, too morbidly obsessed with his own failings to be much of a lover or friend. Plenty of this we were able to pick up from the poems but these were usually so well judged, as dramas or confessions, that we could speak also of a Larkinesque “persona”—a self-projection that might in part be a disguise.

When Larkin died in 1985, at sixty-three, the obituaries were full of warmth; there was much talk of our “nation's loss.” He was known to have gone a bit funny in his final years, falling in love with Mrs. Thatcher and giving out with some reactionary comment, but all this was reckoned to be amiably bufferish, a bit of a self-parody, and somehow valuably English in its concern for old-style ways. Only a few people knew that there was nothing at all funny about the way Larkin had gone funny, that his conservatism was tinged with the same vehemence that marked his ever deepening self-hatred and despair. There was also a drink problem, a port-for-breakfast kind of drink problem. Since the death of his mother in 1977, he had stopped writing poetry, or stopped expecting to write poetry, and when he did take up his pen it was either from duty or from rage—and it was not always easy to tell which was which.

Notice, first of all, how much is crammed—effectively—into two paragraphs. You immediately see the critical biographer's interest in biography, especially as it ties in with Larkin's writing, but also, of course, in extracting from the book under review the clues to the poet's quintessential self. This self is then cogently viewed as partly a mask, but partly also the man himself.

Adroitly, Hamilton fills in the reader on the background by rehearsing things already known about Larkin to the cognoscenti—a good way of flattering the reader into thinking himself one of the initiates as one rehashes the basics. And always Hamilton makes Motion come out ahead, by allowing him the role of conclusive corroborator, confirming what was only vaguely known before. For what was known only to experts and intimates is, after all, news to the world. And Hamilton's summary is conveyed with a cleverness that partakes of wit, but transcends it into illumination couched in terse, memorable phraseology: “there was nothing at all funny about the way Larkin had gone funny,” “a port-for-breakfast kind of drink problem,” “self-projection that might in part be a disguise.” There are fine distinctions, which lead Hamilton to emend “stopped writing poetry” to “stopped expecting to write poetry,” something more piteous and self-dramatizing. Also truer. Best of all, there is the suggestive insight left a trifle unexplained: poetry written “either from duty or from rage—and it was not always easy to tell which was which.” Does this mean that Larkin raged at the world to the point where it became his duty to put it in writing, or that the compulsion to write poetry made a man who would have preferred something else—something more—from life rant against his limitations? Or both? Relative uncertainty encourages us, nay compels us, to become actively involved in unriddling Philip Larkin.

To turn now to Hamilton on Seamus Heaney:

Like Dylan Thomas, like Graves, Heaney assumed the noble vestments, but he did so with an engaging awkwardness, a persuasive lack of flourish. One of the fascinations of Heaney's work, read from the beginning until now [i.e., The Haw Lantern, 1987] is in observing how he shifts this way and that to find a genuinely comfortable fit, a non-fake, non-proud way of living in the sacred robes he knows he has the obligation and the right to wear. He can neither fling them off nor swap them for the more workaday gear which, in certain moods, he might feel more “at home in.” But there is always a touch of “Why me?” in his sometimes effortful transcending of the “me,” and this has given him a rare sturdiness of posture—rare, that is, for the “chosen” sort of poet he's become. Indeed, it could be said that one of Heaney's principal achievements is that he has re-dignified the bardic stance.

If my previous quotation showed off Hamilton the biographer-critic, this one displays the critic-poet. For the entire ample paragraph is taken up with one metaphor, the modern poet aware of his Irishness assuming the vestments of an ancient folk bard. The master image is gracefully pursued into various sartorial ramifications, e.g., flinging off one's ceremonial clothes or swapping them for more comfortable workaday gear. And there is the neat, poetic-epigrammatic clincher, “he has re-dignified the bardic stance,” the kind of gnomic last line with which a lyric etches itself into the memory.

Hamilton is well aware of the limitations of the early Heaney, as in “he was a shade too youthfully delighted with the plopping, slopping, thwacking sounds of spade on soil, or milk in pail.” And this allows the reviewer to prick the bubble of donnish critics who “have always loved this onomatopoeic side of Heaney, though: maybe because it gives them the chance to exhibit their own ‘sensibilities’—‘You’ll notice how the “thwa-” of “thwack” is shyly answered by the “plu-” of “plump.”'” This is my first example of Hamilton's superb sense of humor—that “shyly” is priceless—of which there will be much more to come.

That brings us to another of Hamilton's specialties, call it disputational criticism, in which points are more sharply made by introducing critical errors on the subject at hand, then resoundingly setting the record straight. Thus,

Field Work, to my mind, is the book of Heaney's which we ought to keep in mind (how can we not?) when there are grumbles about “anonymity” or “suppression of the self.” His “moi” poems are all the stronger, all the more hard won, it seems to me, not because they go against his notions of a tribal role but because—at their best—they don't: it's just that, in these poems, the “I” lurks behind the “we” and vice-versa. And the elegy is, of course, the perfect form for such lurking, or entwining: an intimacy meant to be made public.

It is most satisfying to follow the specifics of Heaney's poetry to a major statement about poetry itself: the elegy as the perfect form for making an intimacy public. There is also forceful rhetoric here: the not because of such-and-such but because of its opposite, always an effective device. And then such fine points as the significant reiteration from “my mind” to “keep in mind,” from author to reader; the strengthening of “lurking” with “entwining.” Noteworthy, too, is the judicious restraint in that “at their best,” set off with dashes for greater emphasis.

Yet if Hamilton is fine when he is positive, he is no less so when he is negative. True, it may seem easier to score with witty put-downs, but not when these are so delicately calibrated from poker-faced irony to rip-roaring demolition jobs. “In the thirties, as head of the Lyrical Department of Mac Spaundey Inc. [i.e., MacNeice, Spender, Auden, and Day Lewis], Spender won high marks for being sensitively muddle-headed when all around him had made up their icy minds, and a kind of wincing bewilderment has been his trademark ever since. … All the most famous thirties photographs suggest that in a period of purposeful limb-discipline, of rallies and goose-steps and international brigades, Spender alone knew how to trip over his own fire-hose, and be loved for it.”

About Kingsley Amis's Memoirs of 1991 we read: “The faint hope might have been that the old shag would come over as somewhat, shall we say, cuddlier than his public image makes him seem. To any such tender expectations, though, Amis offers here a close-to-gleeful ‘In a pig's arse, friend’—i.e., you bastards will get nothing out of me, or not much, and what you do get you won't like.” Perusing the new Dictionary of National Biography, Hamilton concludes:

Fifty year olds with blood-pressure difficulties might scan the DNB's roll-call of eminents with divided feelings: although it is cheering to note that for most of the dictionary's entrants, the age of fifty marks Stage Two in a nobly envisaged Five-Stage masterplan, it is depressing to be taught how long, how very long you have to live in order to rack up these near-superman C.V.s. In the forty-sixty age group, there is but a handful of entrants and these have mostly earned their place by compiling points in relatively vulgar, early burnout professions like publishing or pop singing. And even the sixty-seventy grouping carries a faintly sleazy air: poets, comedians, psychiatrists and the like. It is only when we pass the age of seventy that the entrants look as if they've really earned their keep.

On James Merrill's Book of Ephraim, we read: “Harold Bloom has said ‘I don't know that [it], at least after some dozen readings, can be over-praised.’ A neat way of disarming reviewers who have only had time to read the work ‘some once’ or at the very best ‘some twice.’” Even worse is meted out to Charles Berger, one of Merrill's “more prostrate fans” whose lucubrations on the dust jacket are quoted. “What can this mean?” wonders Hamilton. “We will never know, but in the meantime it is hard to warm to a text which attracts such bovine homage.”

About the quasi-autobiographical hero of Updike's Couples, Hamilton treats us to a racy passage from the author, then comments: “Piet, we perceive, is not as simple as he thinks he is. A man who can think such beautiful thoughts, and in such silkily alliterative cadences, has more than just ass on his high mind. Like earlier Updike heroes, Piet has the church at his back, and before him, in the distance, dim intimations of sublime apotheosis. Assisting him in his quest, he has the lush music of Prose Style. If he seeks ‘ass’ it is because he doesn't know where else he might seek God.”

As you would expect, Norman Mailer brings out the best in Hamilton. So we learn about Ancient Evenings that “when Mailer locates his first bout of gay fellation in some shadowy corner of the Land of the Dead (a long-gone incumbent is spiritedly welcoming his newly-enrolled grandson) the whole effect is … well, so much more spooky and theological than if he had set it in the men's room at the Barbizon Plaza.” And further: “Several times, during the Nile-long course of Ancient Evenings, one gets the image not of a writer writing a book but of a child contentedly playing with his toys: dressing them up, giving them funny voices, making them perform sudden, improbable acts of violence, and so on. When Mailer wishes his hero to be humiliated by a brutal Pharoah, for example, he makes his Pharoah-toy bugger the hero-toy—just like that.” And still further: “There are fun and games to be had here, of course, and it is entirely in line with almost everything else in the book that Mailer should use the telepathy device mainly to keep us up to date on who is thinking of doing ‘it’ to whom. (Nobody, it should be said, is ever not thinking of doing it to someone.)”

Animadverting on John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses, Hamilton notes ironically, “This polemic against highbrows can the more easily be swallowed, indeed savored, because it is written by a highbrow. It is well known that John Carey reads Milton in the Latin and knows where to find all the dirty bits in Ovid.” Or take the subtler irony in the following: “It could be said that only he who was uninterested in exploring his own personality could have employed that personality as usefully as Orwell did, could have—as it were—sent his whole self out into the public world with such a firm sense of the moral and political reliability of his responses.”

I could go on quoting till the cows come home (which, if they knew Hamilton, they would do rather more precipitously), but will content myself with just two more samples of how well Hamilton can do with subjects not remotely connected to literature. Here he is writing on a biography of the notorious madam Cynthia Payne: “How then does Cynthia maintain this high standard of hospitality, this cheerily (and come to think of it, literally) painstaking determination to ‘fix-up’ her eccentric clientele? Her ‘biographer’ Paul Bailey clearly believes that she has the fabled ‘heart of gold’ … imaginatively caring for the wanking-wounded, the casualties of the sex war.” So formidable is Cynthia that, as Hamilton estimates, “Even those who didn't want a beating would probably not have had the cheek to turn one down.”

Finally, here is Hamilton describing the spectators at a typical cricket match at Lord's: “There was no one who was not under ten or over fifty. There were fathers with sons, the sons often bespectacled and with gigantic scorebooks on their knees; there were benign-looking pensioners, many of them accompanied by wives with thermos flasks and knitting; there were sad-faced scoutmaster types with binoculars, Daily Telegraphs and sandwiches that could only have been packaged by a mum no other woman had ever managed to displace.”

However, lest the rest of us in the trade should die of envy at such perfection, the gods have provided Hamilton with an Achilles heel. As you may have suspected from what I have quoted so far, his grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation can display astounding caducity. To adduce only some of the most painful examples, consider: “His religious impulse sent him searching for a God whom his scientific impulse insisted must be seen face to face.” Again, “One of the few ‘experts’ who really does seem to have some expertise.” Also “centred toward,” “nervously wracked,” “Postwar, it was easier,” “behaviour-wise,” “stories like this,” “like in the books,” etc., italics, of course, mine. And there is also the irritating habit of having in one sentence four dashes, or, worse yet, three.

Still, we are likely to be more indulgent with Ian Hamilton than with a lesser man. Thus we shall not take it amiss that his criticism is limited to Anglophone literature; not every critic need be a generalist, and a job well done is a job well done. What distinguishes Walking Possession is that it is truly gustatory criticism in an age of all kinds of crazy critical doctrines and theories, and of political axes to grind. Here, for a change, is criticism from the brain, the heart, and the gut. So what if, in my view, Hamilton underrates Robert Graves and Richard Wilbur—he does it for reasons he valiantly defends. So what if, to my mind, he overestimates Wallace Stevens—doesn't everybody? Anyone whose criticism makes you think, laugh, and eagerly turn the pages deserves a raised hat, even in this bleak midwinter inimical to our pates.

Peter Firchow (review date summer 1997)

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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 job consists more of illusion than it does of reality. Reviewers, in other words, are nothing more than glorified and mostly unsuccessful bill collectors.

This modest and apparently salutory view of the reviewer's task is perhaps, however, not quite so disinterested as may appear at first sight. Hamilton himself, after all, is a published poet whose solid minority status after publishing several volumes of verse is, when seen from this perspective, possibly attributable to a temporary misappropriation and maltreatment of his creative goods by other reviewers. And, of course, Hamilton is also sending herewith a not-so-veiled message to reviewers (me too) of this very book that their (my) possession of it will be but brief and incomplete. There is something else here as well—namely, that, with a very few exceptions, the so-called essays in this variegated collection originally began their lives as reviews in such places as The Listener, the London or New York Review of Books, and the TLS (of which Hamilton served for a time as review editor). Not that they don't for that reason also deserve to be elevated to the status of essays, for Hamilton's reviews are very much in the British tradition: that is, they usually start off with some general, often amusing and insightful remarks about the subject at hand. Only at the very end of the piece does it suddenly dawn on the reader with something of a shock that Hamilton has been, say, not just discoursing knowledgeably and a little maliciously on the subject of Cyril Connolly's manifold foibles but has actually been reviewing Michael Shelden's study of Connolly and his friends at Horizon. This confusion is also abetted by the publisher's practice of placing the title of the book that Hamilton happens to have been walking about in possession of only at the close of the text, almost as a kind of afterthought. Not surprisingly, one is left with rather mixed feelings upon finishing most of these essays or reviews or essay-reviews. Have the books themselves merely been serving as pretexts for a display of what, in Clive James's words (words also prominently featured on the dust jacket of this book), is the most “supple, pointed, acidly laconic” critical prose of his generation?

To be sure, one should not necessarily fault Hamilton for the pufferies of friends and admirers, for on the whole there is in Walking Possession a healthy disrespect for literary self-inflation, especially in the manic cases of would-be producers of Great American Novels, like Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and John Updike. Naturally, this does not prevent Hamilton from providing an old friend here and there with a helping hand up, as he does for Roy Fuller, Julian Barnes, or Clive James; or, for that matter, giving a bugbear like Kingsley Amis a shove (or even a kick) in the other direction. In this context one does well to recall the prefatory invocation of Grub Street, a place where, as Hamilton points out, not only are review copies exchanged for cash by impecunious reviewers but also old literary scores are settled. Here too, possession, even if only of the walking sort, amounts to nine-tenths of the law.

As befits an author whose reputation today is based primarily on his biographies—of Salinger and of Lowell—most of Hamilton's essays and reviews contain a strong biographical component. Indeed, definitely the most fascinating piece in the book is the opening autobiographical essay (a real essay this time) recounting Hamilton's very different and often disturbing experiences while working on these two literary lives. It is an essay that should be required reading for anyone foolhardy enough to attempt a life of a celebrated author still living or only recently dead. It also makes us realize that Hamilton has intended something else and rather more interesting by his title than he had told us earlier—namely, that writing a biography inevitably involves being possessed by one's subject. “Did I really want to spend the next half-dozen or however many years of my life,” Hamilton asks himself before setting out on the Lowell biography, “attempting to inhabit this other, now-dead personality?” The answer is that he did, but not without being aware that it would cost him dearly. For, paradoxically, possession in this other and deeper sense means one has to lose oneself in and for another person, to forfeit, as it were, what one is oneself for the sake of another's survival after death. This is something, as is suggested by the clearly self-sacrificial and even religious terms in which the task is defined, that no permanent resident of Grub Street would ever presume to undertake.

Sanford Pinsker (review date fall 1997)

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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 once defined an older generation of immigrant Jewish intellectuals. As he puts it in the preface to his collection:

I grew up with Yiddish and Hebrew around, aside from Spanish of course; translingualism, then, could be seen as a challenge, not an impediment. I immediately took to earnest the old dictum attributed to Anzia Yezierska, which described Jewish writers as “communicating vessels across cultural and linguistic lines.”

He also took “to earnest” the mileage that Cynthia Ozick gets from titles with ampersands: in her case, Art & Ardor, Metaphor & Memory, Fame & Folly; in his, Art & Anger. Interestingly enough, Stavans avoids giving Ozick inspirational credit for his title, or for much of the moral gravitas that informs his critical vision. But Ozick's haunting presence lurks in the shadows nonetheless, not only when Stavans directly addresses questions of his Jewish identity, but also—and perhaps more important—when he moves from considerations of a writer he much admires (Octavio Paz) to an estimate of that writer's politics, which Stavans often finds repellent.

At this point it is worth mentioning that Stavans is in his midthirties and that his books in English include a collection of stories, three works of nonfiction, two edited anthologies of stories by Latino writers, and a translation of Feline Alfa's Sentimental Songs. He has become, in very short order, one of the principal “explainers” of Hispanic literature and culture for Anglo-Saxon readers, at the same time that he continues to write in his native Spanish about the likes of H. P. Lovecraft and B. Traven. The result is an obsession about personal identity that turns the present volume into what Stavans calls “half an ongoing autobiography, a record of my metamorphosis and acknowledgment of the many masks I wear in English. (The other half is to be found in Spanish.)” A certain amount of internal disruption is bound to come with such territory, and it is this wrestling with doubt that gives Stavans' best essays an edgy restlessness: “Every so often I would have a tête-à-tête with my doppelgänger, which resulted in a moment of intense confusion and despair. … Did I belong north or south of the border? Or was it perhaps in (and on) the border?” Eventually, he comes to realize that “a writer's career is about mutation and that, as an immigrant, I was undergoing a profound process of reeducation, of cultural reexamination.”

One nearly despairs, partly because the discoveries presumably reached are so consciously reached, and partly because Stavans apparently believes that “there is no art without anger.” Fury, then, becomes an important element in taking one's aim at the spot (usually more imagined than real) that Lionel Trilling once called “the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” In Stavans' case, his title essay organizes itself around the work of two quite different writers: Judith Ortíz Cofer, whom Stavans feels is arguably the most important contemporary Hispanic writer in English, and Cherríe Moraga, who puts art in the service of anger and identity politics. As Stavans rightly points out, Moraga believes not only that an authentic identity must be “reclaimed, remastered, rearticulated, repossessed,” but also that the art it produces necessarily comes from “the most silent place in myself.” There, in a realm “without image, word, shape, [or] sound,” she seeks to fashion “a portrait of la Mechicana before the ‘Fall,’ before shame, before betrayal, before Eve, Malinche and Gaudalupe; before the occupation of Aztlán, la llegada de los españoles, the Aztecs' War of Flowers.” For Stavans, what the theatrics come to is a politically charged formula of text-as-j'accuse.

Writers tend to divide themselves, editor/translator Alberto Manguel once pointed out, between those who think of a corner of the world as their universe and those who look at the universe for a place they can call home. Moraga belongs to the former camp. In essence, however, she belongs nowhere, because her quest for redemption is not an individual matter, but a collective—which is to say, a political—concern:

I am a woman nearing forty without children.
I am an artist nearing forty without community.
I am a lesbian nearing forty without partner.
I am a Chicana nearing forty without country.
And if I were safe, I'd spread open my thighs,
and let the whole world in
and birth and birth and birth life.
The dissolution of self, the dissolution of borders.
But it is not safe.
Ni for me.
Ni for El Salvador.

For what it's worth, my marginal note reads as follows: “This poem is ni for me.” It is also ni for Stavans, who makes it clear that literature must be more, much more, than a weapon, however much anger may claim a rightful place at the table of aesthetics. What good writing can't do is glibly insist—as Moraga's work too often does—that characters are only acted upon, and that the world neatly divides between victims and colonial oppressors:

Clearly, the abyss that separates Judith Ortíz Cofer and Cherríe Moraga, one that ultimately and sadly splits American letters today across ethnic lines, is … a far deeper, less bridgeable abyss that points to the value one gives to the act of writing: one sees writing as exploration, the other as explosion. The explosive writers may gain immediate attention, but only the explorers will win a place on the eternal shelf of classics.

Angry writers—be they Hispanic, black, female, or whatever—have so enthralled many academic critics that ideological ardor sets hearts beating faster in ways the nuanced vision of a literary artist never quite can. Judith Ortíz Cofer is a conspicuous example of the latter, and one wishes that Stavans had spent more time discussing why she is good rather than dwelling on why Moraga is bad. He prefers, however, to focus on the dubious cultural reasons that make Moraga all the rage while a consummate artist such as Cofer, intent on planting her flag on both Puerto Rican and American shores, often doesn't seem “multicultural” enough to pass muster, much less to find herself on required reading lists.

Part of Stavans' task as an explainer of Hispanic literature is not only to distinguish between the quick and the dead, those writers who flash and those who will last, but also to remind us that the standards for worthy Hispanic writing are precisely those that apply to writing done anywhere, by anyone. However, one soon discovers that Stavans is yet another case of the phenomenon T. S. Eliot described many years ago—namely, that when writer-critics assess a literary work, they are likely to reveal more about their own obsessions than about those in the volume ostensibly under discussion. In this important sense, Stavans is always writing about himself, as the following passage from “Tongue Snatcher” makes abundantly clear:

Whereas the nation is perceived as a patrimony (Das Vaterland), language is approached as an expression of the matriarchal realm: The womb, the umbilical cord. One's liaison to the original language is instinctive, even primitive; in the adopted tongue, on the other hand, the eternal feeling is that of extraneousness, as if one was condemned to live forever in somebody else's house. Maternal words seem original, authentic, but adopted words never lose the quality of being borrowed. The distance between both tongues might seem small to some but in fact is abysmal. In a way, tongue snatchers [those who switch from one language to another: e.g., Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges] become their own translators, their own interpreters. …

Given the riddling questions raised by the multiple layers of Stavans' various identities—Jew, Mexican, native speaker of Spanish increasingly making his way in English—it is perhaps not surprising that he yearns for the pre-Babel that many (including Kafka, Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Cynthia Ozick, and George Steiner) have identified with the Hebrew language. For Stavans, however, “The Verbal Quest”—a remarkable essay outlining his extensive study in Kabbalah at the Jewish Theological Seminary—leads to heady ruminations about “translation” on a cosmic scale:

Divine language, the Kabbalah suggests, is different from human language (lashon adoni and lashon bnei adam). They are as incompatible as oil and water. Yet in order to make himself understood, the Almighty had to translate Himself, to make His message comprehensive, accessible to earthly creatures, almost mundane. Thus, He communicated with the people of Israel in a human tongue: that is to say, in Hebrew—the sacred language, the universal tongue, the language of the synagogue and holy scriptures and the vehicle that unites heaven and earth—which does not imply that God spoke Hebrew to Himself. The Almighty is most likely beyond words. He chose Hebrew, lashon bnei adam, to find a channel of communication with His chosen people. Consequently, to speak biblical Hebrew is to elevate oneself to the linguistic code of heaven, to sanctify oneself.

Even those with little sympathy for Kabbalah can recognize Stavans' central point: that language is inextricably linked to creation, and that “translation” is an essential part of the process. By contrast, anger and ideology point us in quite other directions. Taken together, this conflict is Stavans' subject, his obsession; and the result raises his thoughtful analyses of Felipe Alfau, Fernando Pessoa, and Gabriel García Márquez to new levels. Here, in short, is an essayist worthy of the name, someone who reinvents himself—as all of us, at lower frequencies, also reinvent ourselves—to ward off the chaos that surrounds us and the anger that all too often serves as the substitute for life-affirming, universalist art.

In marked contrast to Stavans, Ian Hamilton is a cool cucumber. He has a wit as dry as a Bombay martini and a style so laconic that his paragraphs never let you see them strain. He is, in short, every inch the British man of letters, exactly the sort of chap you'd want to have running The Times Literary Supplement—which, in truth, he once did. Hamilton also wrote two much-discussed biographies (of Robert Lowell and of the very uncooperative J. D. Salinger), two books of poetry, and a wide assortment of occasional pieces.

Hamilton takes culture seriously without taking it solemnly, and the distinction reveals much about the place of self-deprecating irony and droll observation in his work. Walking Possession: Essays and Reviews, 1968-93, the title of Hamilton's latest gathering, means to suggest what happens when you are down on your luck and the bailiffs come to call. “For fourteen days,” Hamilton tells us, “you are given a chance to raise the money owed.” Meanwhile, the authorities take what is called “walking possession” of what you used to own—meaning that now your stuff is not yours, yet at the same time it is not quite theirs. The result is an intriguing legalistic limbo, one that Hamilton finds an apt metaphor for what critics do when they take “walking possession” of the writer they are currently reviewing.

To his credit, Hamilton doesn't beat the analogy to death, simply noting that many of these reviews were written in less than fourteen days and—how can he resist the joke?—“on a typewriter half-owned by the courts.” Thus assured that this author is in firm possession of a sense of humor, we are invited to fill our brandy snifters, settle down in a comfy Queen Anne chair, and browse through a quarter-century of Hamilton's best writing.

Walking Possession provides an engaging peek behind the biographer-reviewer's curtain. No doubt every biographer, including Hamilton, hopes—yea, believes—that a thoroughgoing raid on his or her subject's letters, journals, drafts, assorted artifacts, and all the rest of it will deepen scholarly study and enrich subsequent readings; but surely there must also be moments when the would-be biographer also wonders, “Why am I doing this? With what authority and whose ‘by your leave’?” Hamilton's “A Biographer's Misgivings” is a tale of comic lament—at once an admission that mucking about in other people's lives is not always what it is cracked up to be, and that he may well be written down (or off) as the man who foolishly set about trying to write a biography of J. D. Salinger and ended up in court rather than in the reclusive author's living room. “Failure,” as Hamilton defines the term, apparently comes with the biographer's territory; and it is on this cautionary note that his rueful essay ends:

I have written two biographies—one of a dead author whom I knew, one of a live author whom I've never met. In each case, though, I have come away from the project with a sense of having failed, with a sense of having got it wrong and of not having greatly liked myself when I was doing it. I am not complaining, nor am I looking for sympathy. I was well paid for this work, and there is clearly something about the whole business of poking around in other people's lives that I quite like. … It is only when I hear biographers talk high-mindedly about the delicate and humane aspects of their calling, or when they refuse to acknowledge that there is in what they do some necessary element of sleaze—it's only then that I remember my own biographer's misgivings: all those letters I read, those tape-recordings I transcribed, those wounds I re-opened, those emotions I guessed at, those lives I plundered or played with so that I could tell my tale.

As T. S. Eliot once magisterially declared—and Hamilton feels obliged to repeat—“curiosity about the private life of a public man may be of three kinds: the useful, the harmless, and the impertinent.” Hamilton's scorecard makes room for all three.

Unlike most biographers, Hamilton turns his inner doubts into deliciously candid paragraphs. Working on the Lowell biography he was often caught between the rock and a hard place—or more precisely, between Caroline Blackwood, the Anglo-Irish writer who was Lowell's wife when a heart attack felled him in a New York City taxicab, and flinty ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick. As Hamilton readily admits, “The experience of reading other people's private correspondence is always faintly thrilling and delinquent,” and in the case of the Lowell-Hardwick letters the ante must surely have been raised.

The peculiar griefs of being a biographer did not stop when at long last Hamilton could pen those most delicious of all words, The End, for there is always the next project looming in the wings:

After I'd finished it [the Lowell biography], my publishers immediately began asking me who I would be doing next—not what but who. The assumption was that my next book would be a biography. I was now, it seemed, a biographer-elect. Ahead of me lay a possible new career in which I would move from one “case” to another. It was suggested to me that I might write a life of Ezra Pound, then the name of John Berryman was mentioned. … The common factor in these propositions was, it seemed to me, insanity. I was in danger of being set up as an expert on mad poets. As a bit of a mad poet myself, from time to time, I was not at all sure that this would be good for me. So I declined these offers, or semi-offers, and returned to London—where I had another career of sorts waiting for me, as the reviewer of other people's books about mad poets.

Whatever one might think of Hamilton's biographies, they have positioned him rather nicely to comment on the biographies of others, and that is what many of the essays in Walking Possession do. Here, for example, are the attention-grabbing—and biographically fixated—opening sentences of an essay devoted to Jean Stafford, yet another of Robert Lowell's ex-wives: “When Jean Stafford died in 1979, she left everything she owned to her cleaning lady, one Josephine Monsell. Mrs Monsell had never read any of her employer's writings, but she was a merry soul, it seems: she used to laugh at Stafford's jokes.” And here is how Hamilton takes the measure of Andrew Motion, author of a biography of Philip Larkin that provides one with all the hard evidence necessary to dislike this major poet very much:

As a biographer, Motion is painstaking and intelligent and he has some valuable insights but for my taste he is too solemnly intrusive: he likes explaining things and is forever teasing out supposed internal conflicts, in case we can't see them for ourselves. The teacher in him is often at war with the narrator and, in the early sections of the book, where he is guessing, he slips easily into an inert biographese: “It was a tentative step towards the high mountain of art.” “By the summer of 1938 the fountain of creativity was jetting up poems as well as stories.” “Fountain? Mountain?” we can hear his subject growl, “make up your mind.”

Hamilton throws off such judgments with the ease of a wet puppy dousing a living room rug, yet always—or nearly always—with an authority and clarity that makes him a first-class reviewer. True, he seems unduly tough on American poets, among them Wallace Stevens: “He is admired, and often imitated, and the Ph.D. industry in America would not be the same without him, but not even his most ardent fans seem able to get close to the personality behind the poems.” (In short, no fit subject for a biography here.) And, Hamilton is a bit too enamored of their British counterparts. Still, even when he takes Frost's “Birches” to task for sounding “rather like a farm-training manual,” one ends up more delighted than defensive: Hamilton is clearly obsessed by the interconnections between life and art, and he has written about both in ways that inform as well as entertain. The same can be said of few other essayist-reviewers, and of fewer still who have kept at it over a twenty-five year span.

Martin Gardner is an exception to my last sentence, because The Night Is Large: Collected Essays 1938-1995 raises the bar of longevity at the writing desk to extraordinary heights. The forty-seven essays in this daunting collection are arranged in sections that look for all the world like a college catalogue: Physical Science, Social Science, Pseudoscience, Mathematics, The Arts, Philosophy, Religion. Gardner's headnotes provide the publishing history of each piece, but because we do not read them in chronological order, it is difficult to distinguish between an essay written in 1940 and one that first appeared in 1990.

If Gardner can be said to harbor an obsession (even as the term slides easily off his playful, unfailingly humble shoulders), it would be an abiding curiosity, a trait he first demonstrated as a student at the University of Chicago during the 1930's and which has been his guiding star ever since. Perhaps best known for his “Mathematical Games” columns in Scientific American, Gardner tackles a wide variety of seemingly unanswerable questions (e.g., “Can Time Stop? The Past Change?”) and ruminates about them in ways that have set a new standard for the “think piece.”

Gardner takes the title of this book (his fifty-seventh) from a speech in Lord Dunsany's play, The Laughter of the Gods: “Man is a small thing, / and the night is very large / and full of wonders.” The volume's brief introductory remarks promise that the final essay, “Surprise,” will make the implications packed into the title explicit, but it is hard to imagine that anybody sticking around for nearly six hundred pages will have missed the point. Far from hiding in the wings, surprise (or wonderment, or magic, or whatever word you prefer) is a regular on any Gardner agenda. As he puts it, looking back over a very long career of raising large questions and solving small puzzles, “For as long as I can remember I have been impressed, perhaps overwhelmed is more accurate, by the vastness of the universe and the even greater vastness of the darkness that extends beyond the farthest frontiers of scientific knowledge, beyond what Dunsany liked to call ‘the fields we know.’”

And to those, like Stephen Hawking, who hope to reduce physics to a single equation that will explain all of nature's fundamental laws, Gardner can then pose what he calls “the unanswerable question”—namely, “Why this set of equations?” Gardner is clearly a flinty mind to reckon with, and there seem to be no boundaries of human knowledge he will not cross by way of making an astute observation or raising a playful question. Yet Gardner is neither a pinchface nor a person with a nose long enough to permit him to look down upon everyone else. Indeed, his paragraphs strike quite the opposite note—that of a man who would make one helluva dinner guest. No doubt those who ply versions of pseudoscience would disagree, for Gardner has made it his business to put the kibosh on everything from Wilhelm Reich's infamous orgone box to purported UFO sightings. As one of the founders of CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Para-normal), Gardner takes the organization's mission quite seriously:

We are often accused of being debunkers. I am proud of the term. Our role is to debunk, not the in-between claims that are hard to classify, but pseudoscience as preposterous as homeopathy, Scientology, orgonomy, ufology, creationism, astrology, and a hundred other absurd claims that lack adequate evidence and that damage science education and weaken our culture. Debunking bad science should be the constant obligation of the science community, even if it takes time away from serious research or seems to be a losing battle. One takes comfort from the fact that there is no Gresham's law in science. In the long run, good science drives out bad.

What the rest of us non-pseudoscientists can delight in, however, is Gardner's independence of spirit and playfulness of mind. For example, in a largely favorable accounting of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (Gardner was, after all, an earlier product of Robert Hutchins' Great Books curriculum), Gardner takes the erudite Bloom to task for blaming our educational ills on Nietzsche's pernicious influence. Gardner not only disagrees but also goes on to deliver a stump speech that is out to put twentieth-century philosophy straight:

Nietzsche was something of a rage among U.S. intellectuals when H. L. Mencken wrote a book about his philosophy in 1908, but his influence on native relativism even then was minimal. The stronger influence came from sociologists and anthropologists, who may have been impressed by German metaphysics, but whose relativism flowed mainly from their investigations. Books like William Sumner's Folkways were more influential than any book by Nietzsche.

What Bloom badly needs to understand is that “American philosophy has for half a century been tramping to the beat of British skepticism and empiricism,” that “Hume has had far more effect on American philosophy than [did] the German metaphysicians,” and that Hegel “was the source of everything wrong in philosophy for our greatest thinkers: Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey.”

Nor do Gardner's objections end there, for while Bloom has “a knack for writing wisely and eloquently,” he can, so far as Gardner is concerned, also uncork pronouncements that are utterly foolish. Gardner dubs such flights from sound sense “Bloomers,” and here is one example of how Gardner deals with them:

On page 52 he sees Descartes and Pascal as opposites, representing the eternal conflict between reason and revelation. But both men were great creative mathematicians, and is there any exercise of reason purer than mathematics? As for revelation, both were devout Catholics. The main difference: Descartes thought unaided reason could prove such things as God's existence. Pascal, the better thinker, was sure it couldn't.

As a trained philosopher Gardner knows when sweeping generalizations by an Allan Bloom just won't fly, but he also has no hesitation in commenting on the misapprehensions that make Leopold Bloom, the comic protagonist of James Joyce's Ulysses, one of literature's most endearing creations. It is hardly surprising that Gardner, a puzzle maven, would write an article entitled “Puzzles in Ulysses,” even though what he comes up with is, at best, merely a recounting of conventional Joycean lore. What “surprises” (that word again) is that he thoroughly approves of Bloom's riddling, anagrams, and acrostics (“It lets us know that he, like Homer's Ulysses, is a man of many wiles”), but what about the wealth of wordplay that is not Bloom's but Joyce's?

The sad truth is that the wordplay in Ulysses is not on the highest level. It takes only a glance at books such as Dmitri Borgmann's Language on Vacation or at the pages of Word Ways (an American quarterly devoted to recreational linguistics) to realize how trivial most of it is. Any clever writer can compose acrostics, toss in old riddles, blend two or more words into one, concoct puns, and hide meanings under thick layers of enigmatic persiflage. No skill is needed to spell a sentence backward or to observe that dog is a reversal of God. Joyce simply was not capable of inventing a palindrome comparable to, say, “Straw? No, too stupid a fad. I put soot on warts.” The wordplay in Ulysses may indeed add to the novel's overall comic atmosphere, but in my opinion it does not add much.

Lest my examples have the unintended effect of turning him into a scold, let me hasten to add that Gardner not only wears his considerable learning lightly but also shows that he can turn his weaponry inward, as he does with a delicious hoax in which he mercilessly pans one of his own books (The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener) under the pseudonym George Groth—and in the pages of The New York Review of Books! As the headnote to “Gardner's Whys” explains, “many potential buyers of the book did not realize I had written the attack and avoided purchasing the book because of the blistering review.” Gardner's “loss” is clearly our gain because we get a double treat: Gardner on Gardner (albeit with his arguments viewed as through a glass sourly), and Gardner on the dubious enterprise of book reviewing. Here is just a snippet of the tongue-in-cheek job he does on himself:

To put it bluntly, Gardner is a simpleminded fideist who sees himself in the tradition of Kant, William James, and Miguel de Unamuno. It is impossible to imagine anyone reading his outrageous confessions (unless the reader is a clone of Gardner) who, however impressed he may be by the author's wide-ranging erudition and rhetorical skill, will not be infuriated by his idiosyncrasies.

Finally, there is George Steiner's No Passion Spent, a collection of essays (mostly published in the pages of Salmagundi) which continues the thoughtful investigation of culture and morality that made In Bluebeard's Castle (1974) such a landmark book. At a moment when theorists of all sorts are busy propagating the view that language has no relationship to meaning, much less to morality, Steiner stubbornly—and brilliantly—argues otherwise. What he brings to overheated discussions of why books cannot by definition matter is all the reasons why, in fact, they do.

His obsession, if you will, is European culture, and he articulates it as an intellectual of the first rank. Steiner not only speaks French, German, Italian, and English fluently, but also brings a full measure of moral gravitas to his wide reading. The twenty-one essays of No Passion Spent suggest a mind equally comfortable with the Hebrew Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, and Kierkegaard. In the collection's final pairing, an insightful comparison of Socrates' last meal with Christ's Last Supper—Steiner moves easily (some would say too easily) from reflections about defining moments of the past to ruminations about the present: the tragic destiny of the Jews and the culpability of Christians for the night and fog of the Holocaust.

These essays are as tough-minded as they are likely to be controversial. For example, here is his pronouncement (from an uncommon essay entitled “The Uncommon Reader”) on what he calls “creative reading”:

The essence of the full act of reading is … one of dynamic reciprocity, of responsiveness to the life of the text. The text, however inspired, cannot have significant being if it is unread (what quick of life is there in an unplayed Stradivarius?). The relation of the true reader to the text is creative. The book has need of him as he has need of it.

What Steiner means to suggest is not so much how a reader goes through Shakespeare but rather how Shakespeare goes through him, and the essays collected in No Passion Spent are among the best demonstrations of this phenomenon one is likely to encounter among contemporary critics. Interconnections of authors and ideas matter to him greatly because these are precisely what speak to us across centuries and disparate cultures. But Steiner's facility as an engaged close reader of individual texts, crucial though it is, would be of little consequence if it were not yoked to an abiding sense of what humanism means in our noisy modern world. After all, it is one thing to engage in the usual business of comparative literary study and quite another to announce, as Steiner does in “What is Comparative Literature?” that “In the life of the mind, as in that of politics, isolationism and nationalist arrogance are the road to brutal ruin.”

Steiner's commitment to creative reading is not for the intellectually lazy. Indeed, much of what strikes him as wrongheaded about American education (and by extension, about American culture) is exemplified by its confusion of buying paperback books with possessing a personal library, and of highlighted passages with extensive marginalia. His Rx is stern, uncompromising, and probably right on the money:

We shall have to begin at the simplest, and therefore most exacting level of material integrity. We must learn to parse sentences and to analyze the grammar of our text … for there is no access to the grammar of poetry, to the nerve and sinew of the poem, if one is blind to the poetry of grammar. We shall have to relearn metrics and those rules of scansion familiar to every literate schoolboy in the Victorian age. We shall have to do so not out of pedantry, but because of the overwhelming fact that in all poetry, and in a fair proportion of prose, metre is the controlling music of thought and feeling.

Steiner is hardly sanguine about the prospects of building the creative readers he so eloquently describes, just as he remains sobered by the cultural conditions in pre-1939 Europe that allowed the savagery of the Holocaust to go unchecked. Indeed, tragic strains continue to be the subtext of Steiner's urbane music, albeit soothed in some measure by all that the Bible—in the art, music, and literature it has inspired—continues to mean. Steiner's obsessions, his passions as it were, are simultaneously his own and utterly ours. In his paragraphs, linked almost seamlessly from one essay to another, resides what is perhaps the fullest, richest account of what European literature can mean to American readers—and of why the world, poised on the very edge of a new century, needs such humanism more than ever.

Beyond this, however, Steiner's title (a reworking of a phrase from Milton's Samson Agonistes) suggests the obsessive struggle in which every serious essayist is, in one way or another, engaged. This is certainly true of the collections under discussion here, though it is something of a wonder that such disparate writers cohere, just as it is a wonder that their wide-ranging essays slip so comfortably between hardcovers. But they indeed can, as what may seem totally discrete at first glance becomes inextricably connected on subsequent readings. Few collections pass this stern test. These do.

D. J. Taylor (review date 13 March 1998)

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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, and even his friend Campbell Shairp wished he would “give up all that old Greek form”. Arnold himself compounded the bad impression of Attic drapery by rebuking Wordsworth for using poetry as a channel for thinking aloud, and setting himself up as what Ian Hamilton rightly calls a “high purposed architect of verse”.

The oppositions of Arnold's poetic temperament—temperament generally, if it comes to that—are convincingly outlined in A Gift Imprisoned. Hamilton contrasts the wistfulness of “The Scholar Gypsy”, and its glimpses of a solitary, imagined life, with the grave-faced classicism of later poems; and points out that the man who spent years wrestling with an aborted Lucretian epic on the grounds that this was the kind of serious endeavour that poets ought to embark on, was also responsible for some of the great public pronouncements of inner Victorian disquiet. “Dover Beach”, in particular, is a pivot on which a great deal of 19th-century thought turns, using the Greek stage to conjure the vision of “a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight …”

It would be surprising if some of these tensions weren't deeply rooted in Arnold's own personality. Hamilton's theme, in effect, is the struggle between the wistful nomad of “The Scholar Gypsy” and the son of Arnold of Rugby, which produced a series of elegiac private musings and a whole row of poems to the ever mysterious “Marguerite”, before marriage and the job as a schools inspector began to chain the poet to the mid-Victorian mainstream (in fact he went on publishing poetry until the late 1860s). Certainly Arnold's poetic pronouncements of the 1850s look like a deliberate step backwards from his early position, notably the essay in which he decides that while “the world tends to become more comfortable for the mass and more uncomfortable for those with any natural gift or distinction”, the world might do worse than “dismiss the high pretensions, and settle down on what it can see and handle and appreciate.”

Yet for all Hamilton's exemplary scholarship, one wonders if the oppositions—classical and romantic, poet and homme d'affairs—are quite so clear-cut. After all, Arnold maintained a low opinion of literature as a profession, and clearly conceived himself as a public operator in the paternal tradition at a relatively early stage. There is something in the idea of the poet lost to schools inspecting, and the need to earn a living; but, as John Gross once put it, even as literature one wouldn't forgo his reports on elementary schools for the sake of another “Thyrsis”.

Close inspection often reveals Victorian writers to be rather less “committed” to the idea of literature than modern orthodoxies like to allow: Thackeray, for example, spent most of his post-Vanity Fair career angling for a public appointment that would absolve him having to work. For all that, though, it is not enough to say that Arnold would have gone on writing romantic poetry had romantic poetry paid, and Hamilton illuminates not only the puzzled and dutiful figure of Arnold himself, but the wider anxieties to which he gave a voice.

William Scammell (review date 21 March 1998)

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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 implications for the poets. Hopkins drudged as a priest in Liverpool and elsewhere; Keats had no option but to bloody his hands as a cut-price sawbones; Eliot undertook po-faced drudgery in Lloyds bank; Frost tried to be a farmer, so did Burns; Clare was a common labourer; Owen and Rosenberg shouldered arms. It didn't seem to stop them getting what had to be done done. Modern poets do their bit in journalism, or universities, or odd-jobbing. Provided it's not back-breaking, work and ‘creativity’ are not antithetical; quite the contrary. And the evidence about how hard Arnold worked doesn't always point to an exhausting workload. According to Nicholas Murray's recent biography he lived mostly like a gent, loved his London club, enjoyed his lecture tours at home and abroad, made a great deal of money out of his polemical prose, and usually found time to read and write whatever he wanted to—though it's true that the inspecting and travelling sometimes found him putting in 12-hour days; true, too, that this describes the more settled and prosperous middle age of his career. Later on he compared himself whimsically with Emma's Mr Woodhouse, which doesn't suggest that he ever thought of himself as a workhorse.

[In A Gift Imprisoned] Hamilton runs through the early life with his usual, slightly sardonic panache, brings Dr Arnold vividly to life (‘He sometimes feared that the Lake District should really be classed as a temptation’), and exercises his nous on Arnold's poems and attitudes to life. How deep was the young man's dandyism? Should he take up or escape from his father's burdensome legacy of doing good? Hamilton suggests that all his early poems are reflexive and self-questioning. ‘What kind of poet should I be? Do real poets ask themselves such questions … What—these days—is poetry for?’

Hence the strenuous classicising, the longing for epic and true seriousness. Yet the poems themselves suggest that his gift was for lyric, and for what Coleridge called the ‘conversation poem’, of which ‘Dover Beach’ might be said to be a fine example. Like Murray before him, Hamilton says almost nothing about this remarkable fusion of Arnold's gifts, beyond remarking that it is a masterpiece; nor does he make any comparisons between Arnold's verse and his friend Clough's, who exemplifies many of the same strains that Arnold was under, and whose poetry is a fascinating—and neglected—solution to their mutual aesthetic and moral problems. Arnold stuck to iambics and the great tradition, as he conceived it; Clough went off into outlandish hexameters and married them to a breezy, subversive colloquialism which sneaked up on Victorian values from behind and left them speechless.

It was, famously, an age of anxiety, with its own particular descant on woe. Arnold oscillated between a whimsical valetudinarianism (‘I am past 30 and three parts iced over’), dandyism, and what you might call the Cyril Connolly syndrome:

It is a sad thing to see a man who has been frittered away piecemeal by petty distractions, and who has never done his best. But it is still sadder to see a man who has done his best, who has reached his utmost limits—and finds his work a failure, and himself far less than he had imagined himself.

This is from a prose fragment on Lucretius, but it has personal resonance too.

For Arnold, in 1856-7 [adds Hamilton], this was not a line of thinking that he dared pursue. It was, he feared, no longer safe for him to dwell for long on ‘pangs which place the mind in hell’: pangs, finally, of second-rateness, or the fear of second-rateness.

In his final period he came to think that the ‘aesthetic mood’ and the ‘religious mood’ were not opposed to each other at all: they belonged ‘eternally … to the deepest being of man, the ground of all joy and greatness for him’.

Few people write better about poetry than Hamilton, without pomposity or jargon, animated by a practitioner's eye for what does and doesn't cut it. Yet this is a mixed performance, one which begins well but ravels out into dutifulness, sounding as though it would rather have been a substantial essay than a book. Hamilton is pretty well silent about the pervasive influence of Wordsworth, and the lesser influence of Keats and of Milton, though good on the Dorothy-like closeness of his elder sister Jane. What poetry is for is poetry. What criticism is for is to show us things we hadn't seen or properly understood before. In cleaving largely to biography, and by extension a sort of symbolic autobiography, Hamilton has only half answered the questions he buttonholes us with so engagingly in his preface.

Hugo Williams (essay date 24 April 1998)

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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 Stoppard to ask him to be our theatre critic for what amounted to babysitting money. I left messages with Miriam Stoppard, who was kind, but Tom never did get back to me. I was happier when Ian gave me £100 towards a motorbike and I became the magazine's motorcycle messenger. There was less competition on the roads then, and I could get up to A. Alvarez's house in Hampstead in less than ten minutes.

It goes to show how badly I wanted to get my poems into the magazine that I should have shown him one called “Bar Italia”, set in one of the few Soho venues that have survived. It was about a girl called Lucretia Stewart, now an established writer, who also worked in the office. “This is how we met”, it began, “sheltering from work in this crowded coffee bar. …” Ian published the poem, which pleased me, but the magazine was struggling at the time, and he sacked us both a few weeks later.

Ian's outside “office” was always the Pillars of Hercules, which guards the true spiritual entrance to Soho, via Manette Street. This pub gave its name to a book about the period by Clive James. “There was a solid handful of good literary editors in London at the time”, he told me recently, “but none of them could beat Ian Hamilton at casting a cold eye on your prose, drawing a line in the margin beside the bits he thought didn't work and waiting with barely concealed disdain while you fixed it on the spot, usually at the bar of the Pillars.” I remember Ian entertaining a young poet there who didn't drink. Why not, for God's sake? “It tastes awful and make you feel bad”, explained the young man. “Well none of us likes it”, said Ian.

Hamilton had just done a reading tour of America following the publication of his book of poems, The Visit, and thanks to his carefully assembled list of susceptible English departments, I was able to follow in some of his footsteps a few years later. When I returned from my travels, notebook bulging with Americana, Ian was the one who encouraged me to write it up. He gave me some of his own best jokes on the subject and printed my first efforts in the magazine under the title “Bard on the Road”. It was by keeping his caustic eye firmly in mind that I managed to make a book out of it, No Particular Place to Go, which started getting me the sort of work that keeps me going to this day.

Lucretia used to nag me about the book, too. The Bar Italia poem to her goes on, “Then you would hold out your hand and say, / “Well, where are your three pages?”, and ends, “I haven't written them, one day I will. / Anywhere but here it might seem possible.” Which seems a mite ungrateful now, considering how easygoing the atmosphere was at the New Review. The fact is that things did get written in and around that boozy, strippy Soho. People like Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Craig Raine and Jonathan Raban wrote the work which would set them up for life.

The magazine finally ran out of Arts Council indulgence at the end of 1978. Its presiding genius, Robert Lowell, had died the year before, and Ian, who had known him well towards the end of his life in England, was commissioned to write his biography. From now on, he would lead a more private life, quitting Soho, getting married again, moving to Wimbledon, earning his living as a writer. He has been highly productive since then, with books on subjects ranging from J. D. Salinger to Paul Gascoigne, but the poems, his original raison d'être, have been few and far between, causing him to drop out of a field he once led by natural sovereignty. I remember him telling me long ago that poems had to come to you, you couldn't go out looking for them. He hasn't changed his ideas. “If a poem isn't there”, he said in a recent interview, “you'll never find it, no matter how hard you look. If it's not there, you can't invent it, however inventive you're feeling. This is a youthful notion, of being seized by poems, of being involved in a kind of miracle. …” I used to believe him and worried about my own grubbing instincts that put quantity first. Now I'm not so sure that his “youthful notion” isn't a grown-up idea of a youthful notion.

It is a question he addresses in his new book, A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold, about the Victorian sage's abandonment of poetry by the age of forty in favour of decades of drudgery as an inspector of elementary schools. As Auden said, “he thrust his gift in prison till it died.” According to Hamilton, if Alfred Tennyson, the “born” poet, was great, then he, Arnold, who had always been accused of forcing his talent, must be fabricated. Add to this the belief that enough poetry had been written to satisfy “religious wants”, and you had a good case for shutting up shop completely. “The book is about how far down you can adjust your idea of yourself without giving up altogether”, Hamilton told me, clearly referring to his own case. A misprint in the book's publicity handout lays it on the line: “A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Ian Hamilton”. “I have always thought I should like to be aut Caesar aut nullus”, wrote Arnold soon after getting married, “and as it is pretty well settled that I shall not be Caesar, I am quite content to live in peace as nullus”. There was a time when this might have been Hamilton's own view of himself, whose Tennyson was undoubtedly Robert Lowell. In “The Forties”, the last poem in his 1988 collection, Fifty Poems, he wrote, “At forty-five / I'm father of the house and at dusk / You'll see me take my ‘evening stroll’ / Down to the dozing lily pond. …” It ends with an image of “The trellis that needs fixing, that I'll fix.” On closer inspection, the poem turns out to be as much about Arnold as Ian himself, who has recently published a pamphlet of poems as good as any he has written.

I learnt a lot about poetry from Ian. In fact, a whole generation of poets were steered by him towards a particular kind of emotional symbolism which he more or less invented. This was unfairly known as “minimalism”, as if shortness was its main purpose, or as if, which in my case was nearer the truth, we were trying to skive in some way. Hamilton has satirized the style himself: “If we were going to write about Vietnam, it would have to do with going into some field and picking a flower that would somehow faintly remind us of a look or gesture that distantly might hint of a war in South-east Asia. But the poem would be about walking in the field.” Most of the favour I found with him in the early days depended on a poem of mine about a butcher, which turned out to be a poem about marriage. I remember thinking, Ah, this is easy, now I'll go and do all the other shops. Somehow it didn't work out like that.

Lavinia Greenlaw (review date 26 April 1999)

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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 elaborates an image, it adds undue weight.

The early poems focus on two events—a breakdown and a death—that are sufficiently abstracted to merge as a single picture of inexorable loss: “Your cry / Has interrupted nothing.” These poems are not elegies because the losing is, agonisingly, not over yet. There are persistent gestures of containment, countered by uncontainable atmospherics: “You want me to get between you and the brute thunder”; the lights of a truck sweep through a room; breath and steam flare. Oppositions emphasise short-circuited lives in which the end abruptly follows the beginning: “our new friends, the old incurables”, “the brand new / Chronic block” and “Young men who have come to nothing”.

If things grow in these poems, it is usually out of neglect and where there is colour, it is fading: “A red coat / Disappearing into snow; the green branch / You were carrying abandoned.” White roses are “flaking in the heat”, as all flowers in these poems are unbearably fragile. As with a black-and-white photograph, the effect of this is to concentrate the eye on tonal (and so emotional) gradations, from the shadows that “blossom” to the white-out of snow, “the terrible changes”, a bland page that is not so much a fresh start as an unmappable future.

These poems are wonderfully tensile. They have something of the “loose formality” that Lowell admired in the work of Elizabeth Bishop. Hamilton has written well about Bishop, but the influence of Lowell is more evident here, in poems like “The Forties”, perforated with other voices, caught in a tension between the actual and the expected: “The trellis that needs fixing, that I'll fix.” The new poems are more open, more agitated, punctuated with unanswerable questions that culminate in the call and echo of “Biography”: “Who turned the page? When I went out / Last night, his life was left wide open, / Half-way through, in lamplight on my desk: / The Middle Years. / Now look at him. Who turned the page?”

In celebration of Ian Hamilton's 60th birthday, David Harsent has edited Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems and Reflections on Ian Hamilton (Cargo Press), a festschrift with contributions from, among others, Julian Barnes, Michael Hofmann, Ian McEwan, Karl Miller, Al Alvarez and Harold Pinter. This beautifully made book adds up to, as the blurb says, “an unrivalled portrait of literary London for the last 30 years”.

Helen Vendler (review date 21 June 1999)

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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 girl, I knew nothing of Matthew Arnold but his verse. Later I was surprised to find, when reading, the breadth and the wit of his prose—the submerged nine-tenths of the Arnoldian iceberg. I was already aware of the iceberg's famous remark when he was thirty-one: “I am past thirty and three parts iced over, and my pen, it seems to me, is even stiffer and more cramped than my feeling.” Arnold meant seriously this heartbreaking disclosure; and yet the energetic, even racy prose of the rest of his life was not that of a gelid soul.

How, then, are we to read Arnold's life? Is it—as Hamilton would suggest—a tragic one, in which an early poetic gift is “imprisoned” and stifled by a later married life of repressed romance and daily drudgery? Or is it—as one might counter—an imaginatively successful life, in which a great critic, having trained his taste by the study of poetry and the practice of it “from the inside,” decided to embark on a vigorous analysis of the state of his country? Arnold's ambition—which was nothing less than to reform English culture—is not the ambition of an “imprisoned” sensibility. Perhaps we should pay less attention to Arnold's own foreboding that he might not continue to write poetry, and pay more attention to the ardors released in his prose. After all, many writers (Joyce and Faulkner come to mind) began by thinking that they would be poets only to discover that they were cut out for something else.

We consider it disappointing, perhaps, when a young poet finds his eventual life-work in criticism (rather than in fiction or in drama). The gap between imaginative writing and critical writing is a real one, and Arnold mourned the departure of the wistful passion that had awakened his verse. Yet intellectual analysis and reforming zeal—the passion that awakened his prose—are also primary drives, and in Arnold they demanded fulfillment as much as his reverie and his grief had once done. No one can choose his own impulses, and it was Arnold's misfortune to have several—a fact that originally made him think he had none.

Arnold's famous and overpowering father, Thomas Arnold of Rugby, had one drive and one alone: to make his students into Christian leaders. In that ambition, he succeeded: his students went out from Rugby to govern England and the Empire. But Matt was a puzzle. His father wrote, as his son was ending his Rugby schooldays, that

Matt does not know what it is to work because he so little knows what it is to think. … I think that he is not so idle as he was, and that there is a better prospect of his beginning to read in earnest. Alas! that we should have to talk of prospect only, and of no performance as yet which deserves the name of “earnest reading.”

And yet Matt won a scholarship to Balliol (as he had won prizes at Rugby for Latin verse and English verse). He was one of only two out of thirty to win the Oxford scholarship, but his father's response was: “I had not the least expectation of his being successful. The news actually filled me with astonishment.” (I quote this remark from Park Honan's fine biography Matthew Arnold, which appeared in 1981. It is still the book to read for a balanced and original account of Arnold's life.)

By the end of Arnold's first year at Oxford, his forty-six-year-old father had died prematurely of a heart attack, and the son was left to bear, as an internalized self-criticism, his dead father's expectation that his sons would engage in public service. It is no wonder that Arnold adopted, almost immediately, a different father, who preached a better lesson—the lesson of self-chosen vocation. This second father was Shakespeare. The sonnet to Shakespeare was written within two years of Thomas Arnold's death, when his son was twenty-two. It characterizes Shakespeare as a man “Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honoured, self-secure.”

Another sonnet (“To a Friend”) of the same period, after praising Homer and Epictetus, gives “special thanks” for Sophocles, “Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.” These early moral aims—to discover, through Shakespeare's example, his own selfhood, and to see all of life disinterestedly, as Sophocles taught him—remained before Arnold's eyes forever. When he was still a student, both aims seemed compatible with poetry; but it is significant that the poets whom he honors in these sonnets were writers of plays, whose eyes were on the panorama of society rather than on the inner, hidden life proper to lyric. Arnold's own destiny was eventually to make him, too, look toward that wider social panorama, forsaking the intimate landscape of his best private poems.

At Oxford and after, Arnold became the poet of what he himself diagnosed, in the Preface to his Poems of 1853, as “the dialogue of the mind with itself … in which the suffering finds no vent in action; … in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done.” As his father's son, he wanted action, wanted to do; but he found that he could not change his inner self. With respect to that, there was nothing to be done. And yet no single career presented itself to the young Matthew Arnold as satisfactory. (No one says to a student, “Your destiny is to be a wide-ranging writer in poetry and prose, thinking about religion, social welfare, the claims of the imagination, the differences between French and English culture, the ways literary taste is formed, the vexations of translation, the role of the state in a democracy, the evolution of Christianity, and a hundred other things.”)

And so, insensibly, the familial expectation—that one should be a forceful headmaster, a scholar, a lawyer, or a civil servant—made Arnold think of himself as a failure, because he was only writing poetry. He did take up, at twenty-five, a sinecure as Private Secretary to Lord Lansdowne, a post that he left at twenty-nine for a better-paying Inspectorship of Schools that enabled him to marry Frances Wightman. But the Secretaryship was obtained through family influence, and the Inspectorship through Lord Lansdowne's influence; in neither case had Arnold felt any vocation for the work. During his first trip as school Inspector in Manchester, he wrote bravely to his new wife that “I think I shall get interested in the schools after a little time.”

Shortly before taking up the post of Inspector, perhaps during his honeymoon, Arnold composed “Dover Beach,” the poem by which he is still best known. In it, his mind turned to the chief predicament of his society: its loss of the cultural idealism and personal hope once provided by Christianity.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round
          earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd;
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges
And naked shingles of the world.

In such a passage we see Arnold's technical strength as a poet—the expression that ebbs and flows with the movement of thought; the managing of vowels (as “full,” “round,” “shore,” and “folds” peak into radiance at “bright girdle”); the way in which “withdrawing roar, / Retreating” amplifies itself phonetically at “roar” and ebbs in “retreating.” Arnold is never less than deft as a stylist, and this deftness makes his lyrics (though not his narrative poems) transparently readable and often piercing.

Yet something central to Arnold's sensibility is revealed in “Dover Beach.” The poem shows Arnold's tendency to keep the private life separate from social life. “Ah, love,” says the young husband, “let us be true to one another” (the italics are mine)—because surely, given the nature of the world, we can count on no one else for either love or fidelity. I italicize Arnold's contradictory statements:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world,
          which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle
          and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

It is not clear how the lovers can love and be constant in a world which in fact has neither love nor certitude. The fissure that is visible here between the private and the social suggests that the Arnoldian lyric, unable to bridge those two worlds, is doomed to sequester itself within the first. Yet the real interest in the poem gathers toward the last terrible image of the social world, in which one cannot tell friend from foe.

Another fissure comes into view: the “seeming” world is described in terms solely aesthetic (“various, beautiful, new”), while the “real” world is described in terms solely emotional, intellectual, and moral (as it lacks “joy, love, light, certitude, peace, help for pain”). The aesthetic is sequestered in the deceptive, while the other, negative, qualities are said to be “real.” No poetry that regards the aesthetic as deceptive can long endure. Yet for a moment, on his honeymoon, Arnold stands balanced between love and a disbelief in love, fidelity and a disbelief in certitude; and in that moment he writes a poem that compels, by its own vacillation, our assent.

Hamilton, a poet himself, gives less credit than he might to Arnold's inner honesty and seriousness. Of course Arnold mistook the nature of his own poetic talent by attempting to treat “noble,” “epic,” “heartening” stories from ancient literature (in such works as Sohrab and Rustum, Merope, and Balder Dead). Yet Hamilton's way of writing about Arnold's poetic failure is a contemptuous one. He remarks, on the narrative poem Balder Dead (1855):

The good student Arnold, we suspect, is resolved first of all to cover what he knows to be the set requirements, as if for an end-of-term prize poem: the high-flown rhetorical address, the magnificent-ceremony episode, the heroic-action sequence, the hair-raising Hades evocation, and so on.

Surely no one so genuine as Arnold sat down to write poetry thinking, even unconsciously, “Now I'll do the magnificent-ceremony episode,” much less “Now I'll do the hair-raising Hades evocation.” Hamilton continues, in the same dismissive vein, deploring Arnold's lack of narrative momentum:

Arnold's heroic posture is at best a grim-jawed, pumped-up thing. Sky-high apostrophes, big brazen adjectives, mechanically strummed pentameters, gratuitous inversions—all the epic-style-aids are deployed, but with no real storytelling drive.

When he comes to Merope, the failed Sophoclean drama that Arnold composed in 1856-57, Hamilton adopts once again this strained jauntiness:

[The chorus] stands around listening to long speeches … with not much more to offer in response than the occasional: “And I too say, Ah me!” The Greek gods are a problem, also. Like the chorus, they have to be there even though Arnold does not quite know what to do with them. But then he is generally uncertain when it comes to fathoming Greek moral values.

From what peak of Hellenic certainty, I want to ask, does Hamilton declare that Arnold, with respect to fathoming Greek moral values, “is generally uncertain”? And how faithful an account of the chorus's speeches in Merope is it to say that the chorus has “not much more to offer in response than the occasional ‘And I too say, Ah me!” It is true that once (and only once) the chorus says “Ah me” as its entire response, but Arnold also gives it responses and counsels running to eighty lines or more.

The chorus in Merope often has some moving Arnoldian things to say:

But, more than all unplumb'd,
Unscal'd, untrodden, is the heart of
          Man. …
Yea, and not only have we not explor'd
That wide and various world, the heart
          of others,
But even our own heart, that narrow
Bounded in our own breast, we hardly
Of our own actions dimly trace the
Whether a natural obscureness, hiding
That region in perpetual cloud,
Or our own want of effort, be the bar.

It is easy to forget how stirring it was to read, in pre-Freudian days, assertions of the existence of the unconscious and of the denial of unconscious motives.

Elsewhere in Merope, Arnold attempts—by adopting dimeters—a more “Greek” swiftness, as the chorus recounts, in explaining the origin of a constellation, how Arcas unwittingly slew his mother Callisto after she had been transformed into a bear. Callisto, unable to speak, grieves and is recognized by her son:

Low moans half utter'd
What speech refus'd her;
Tears cours'd, tears human,
Down those disfigur'd
Once human cheeks.
With unutterable foreboding
Her son, heart-stricken, ey'd her.
The Gods had pity, made them Stars.
Stars now they sparkle
In the northern Heaven;
The guard Arcturus,
The guard-watch'd Bear.

Hamilton might have made something of these efforts by Arnold to naturalize Greek literary effects into English. Yet he exhibits no interest at all in Arnold's Greek tragedy, concluding only that “there is a sadness in contemplating the whole enterprise: so diligent, so well intentioned and so wrong!” (Hamilton here unconsciously echoes Arnold's “So various, so beautiful, so new,” proving how the power of “Dover Beach” lingers in the mind.)

Hamilton seems to agree with the diagnosis that Arnold made of his own case: that the congealing of his poetic talent sprang from the difficulty of writing poetry in the modern age. A more vigorous Arnold, according to Hamilton, might have made a stronger effort. Hamilton calls a letter that Arnold wrote at thirty-six about this predicament “his letter of resignation, one might say” from poetry. It is true that Arnold—with his parents' critical remarks always alive in him—blamed himself for his absence of poetic production. But might it not be truer to say that his ultimate adult vocation—the vocation of criticism—began to assert itself powerfully in him, rather than that he “resigned” voluntarily from poetry?

It is easy to be taken in by Arnold's own version of his life, so plangently phrased in the poetry, and nowhere more plangently than in “Growing Old”—the poem from which Hamilton takes the prison of his subtitle. (The poem is undated, but it was probably written in Arnold's mid-forties.) To grow old, says the barely middle-aged Arnold in his most self-lacerating tone, is like this:

It is to spend long days
And not once feel that we were
          ever young;
It is to add, immured
In the hot prison of the present, month
To month with weary pain.
It is to suffer this,
And feel but half, and feebly,
          what we feel.
Deep in our hidden heart
Festers the dull remembrance of
          a change,
But no emotion—none.
It is—last stage of all—
When we are frozen up within, and quite
The phantom of ourselves,
To hear the world applaud the hollow
Which blamed the living man.

Hamilton thinks that here is the profound truth of Arnold's life. One answers, Yes, but. …

For where, in Arnold's account of himself in “Growing Old,” are the past and future swinging energies of the prose works? Or any sense of the brilliant mockery to be found in one of the earliest of these, Arnold's Oxford inaugural lecture “On Translating Homer” (which was contemporary with the failed Merope)? In 1857, Arnold had been elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a post wherein one has to give three lectures a year. Full-time school inspector though he was, Arnold held on to the Oxford post for two five-year terms, and became—through his lectures published as Essays in Criticism (1865) and On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867)—the most important literary critic in England. And what, in “Growing Old,” augurs the man of savage and denunciatory verve who will write Culture and Anarchy (1869)? Where in the poem is the man who will compose the bold, even blasphemous, revisionary writings on Biblical interpretation (St. Paul and Protestantism in 1870, Literature and Dogma in 1873, God and the Bible in 1875)? At the time of his death, Arnold was collecting the essays for Essays in Criticism, Second Series (which appeared posthumously).

In sum: busy though he was writing lengthy school reports, burdened though he was emotionally (not least by the tragic deaths of three of his four sons), occupied though he was with family affairs (he was one of eight children), Arnold went on writing, writing, writing. (Which meant that he went on thinking and feeling.) It is to limit the word “feeling” unduly to restrict it to the emotions that are congenial to the production of lyric poetry. If Arnold himself so limited the word (at least in “Growing Old”), we should not merely for that reason follow his example.

If we look back from the prosewriter to the writer of poetry, we can see that Arnold's lyrics, though they strike an unforgettable Victorian elegiac note, embody only one part of the man. We cannot find in them satisfactory representations of his raillery, his social and historical breadth of concern, his intellectual and political convictions, his strong impulse to teach. The poems are those of a limited, if intense, talent. (The truly great poet puts all of himself and his age, somehow, into his poetry, even if he is a lyric poet. Think of Yeats.) We would have a smaller idea of Arnold the man if we did not know the prose. By looking back at the poetry through the prose, we can see how little we would have known of Arnold's mind and heart if the lyrics had been his only written communication of himself. That he went on writing—unlike, say, Rimbaud—suggests that his personality had other crucial aspects of itself to express.

Hamilton's funereal judgment (borrowed in part from Auden's remark that Arnold “thrust his gift in prison till it died”) is not the only judgment to make, even if one considers solely Arnold's life as a poet. It is not a tragedy when an original minor poet succeeds in working his characteristic vein to the fullest. Arnold, I believe, did exactly that. He was the finest modern articulator of what he called “The Buried Life,” the authentic life within ourselves of which we have only occasional glimpses:

But often, in the world's most crowded
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life. …
And many a man in his own breast
          then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand
And we have shown, on each,
          spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been

Only rarely, when “Our eyes can in another's eyes read clear,” is something revealed:

A bolt is shot back somewhere in
          our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart
          lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what
          we would, we know.

One can see in such excerpts a mastery of plainness and a naturalness of idiomatic intonation. Arnold's invention of a plain modern verse-style ultimately served Eliot (his chief disciple) well, especially in the Four Quartets. In the never-ending dispute about what poetry should sound like—plain, like Homer? difficult and exalted, like Pindar? exquisite, like Sappho?—Arnold came down on the side of the plain. In this way he differed from his contemporaries Browning, Tennyson, and Hopkins; and in this way he generated a stream of modern British verse going from Hardy through Eliot's late style to Larkin.

Many of Arnold's poems define for us a whole episode in modern feeling, as he speaks of himself as a man “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born” (“Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”). Writing to his mother in 1869, Arnold said of his poetry:

My poems represent, on the whole, the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century, and thus they will probably have their day as people become conscious to themselves of what that movement of mind is, and interested in the literary productions which reflect it. It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson and less intellectual vigour and abundance than Browning; yet … I am likely enough to have my turn as they have had theirs.

Looking at the Victorian public intellectuals—Carlyle, Newman, Mill, Arnold, Ruskin—we see men of great literary gifts insisting that there were fundamental economic and spiritual needs not being satisfied under the conditions of nineteenth-century social and intellectual life. It seems astonishing, in retrospect, that a single small island should have for some years conducted its public controversies at such a high level, whatever the intellectual or political failings of its individual writers. (Those failings are much insisted upon by those critics availing themselves of twentieth-century hindsight.) It is scarcely remembered now, by those characterizing Arnold as an “elitist,” that he insisted, in Culture and Anarchy, that culture “seeks to do away with classes.” He told his fellow-citizens the ugly truth about their materialist aristocracy, their vulgar middle class, and their brutalized lower class, and his near-despair shows through his plain and sardonic prose:

In the immense spiritual movement of our day, the English aristocracy … always reminds me of Pilate confronting the phenomenon of Christianity. [As for the middle class], they are deficient in openness and flexibility of mind, in free play of ideas, in faith and ardour. … They are thrown back upon themselves—upon a defective type of religion, a narrow range of intellect and knowledge, a stunted sense of beauty, a low standard of manners. And the lower class see before them the aristocratic class, and its civilisation, such as it is, infinitely more out of their reach than out of that of the middle class; while the life of the middle class, with its unlovely types of religion, thought, beauty, and manners, has naturally, in general, no great attractions for them either. And so they too are thrown back upon themselves; upon their beer, their gin, and their fun. Now, then, you will understand what I meant by saying that our inequality materialises our upper class, vulgarises our middle class, brutalises our lower.

No one writing such a passage, with such appalled adjectives—“deficient, defective, narrow, stunted, low, unlovely”—is lacking in feeling. Yet the feelings visible here are not the ones that Arnold considered suitable to poetry; they are the strong, even savage, feelings of one who sees his fellow-citizens living humanly stunted lives. And none were offered less to widen their sensibilities than “the masses.” Arnold is unsparing on what is being given to them by their so-called sympathizers among popular novelists and ideological propagandists. (His words will strike home to anyone in America contemplating what our schools offer to children as food for their hearts and minds.) “Plenty of people,” Arnold writes,

will try to give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual condition of the masses. The ordinary popular literature is an example of this way of working on the masses. Plenty of people will try to indoctrinate the masses with the set of ideas and judgments constituting the creed of their own profession or party. Our religious and political organizations give an example of this way of working on the masses. I condemn neither way; but culture works differently. It does not try to teach down to the level of inferior classes; it does not try to win them for this or that sect of its own, with ready-made judgments and watchwords. It seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.

“The great men of culture,” he adds, “are the true apostles of equality.”

It is no tragedy, then, that Arnold's adult feelings—even if they were conditioned, as no doubt they were, by paternal influence—went out to the English multitude instead of remaining bound to the sentiments of elegy and romance expressed in the lyrics of his twenties and thirties. We honor in writers, after all, their lives as writers. If they can develop and extend their writing while staying within one genre, well and good; but if one vein dries up, a courageous writer—and Arnold was such a writer—explores another seam. By underplaying Arnold's upward trajectory to greatness as a literary critic and a social theorist, by uncritically endorsing Arnold's pained remarks about himself, Hamilton's book leaves us with a limited idea of what it was to be Matthew Arnold.

Dorothy Mermin (review date June 1999)

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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, without Honan's sharp eye for rough edges, human frailty, and psychological entanglements and tensions, Murray's very readable study is smoother and more urbane than Honan's (and to that degree, perhaps, more Arnoldian) but not more interesting. Its dense texture and richness of detail will please the enthusiast who wants to get the feel of a complex, many-sided Victorian life. Murray keeps us aware of the densely domestic atmosphere in which Arnold resided, from the illnesses and deaths of his children to piglets in the garden, and also of the wider world in which he moved. His comments on Arnold's writings are generally just, if rarely very new or surprising.

Clinton Machann seems more interested in the works than the life, and his Matthew Arnold: A Literary Life is much shorter than Murray's biography and less engaged with its subject, with whom the author appears to have no very strong sympathy. Machann has coedited a useful volume of Arnold's selected letters, and his particular interest is in the contemporary context. The book is sensible, judicious, and well informed, but both the narrative and the analysis often seem somewhat perfunctory.

Ian Hamilton's truncated biography A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold is lively, acute, and often amusing. Like Murray, Hamilton is very sympathetic toward Arnold, but he cares about Arnold only as a poet; like Murray he pities Arnold (as indeed Arnold sometimes pitied himself) for the slow death of his poetic powers. He has no patience with Arnold the critic and no interest in his work in the schools except as a drain on his creative energies. His emphasis therefore is on Arnold's earlier years, focusing on particular topics—his father, Clough, Oxford, George Sand, Tennyson—rather than providing a full or seamless narrative. Hamilton gives welcome attention to the juvenilia and also to Jane and Tom, Arnold's two closest siblings. He points out, for instance, the irony of the fact that it was William Forster, the awkward Quaker businessman from the north of England whom Jane married (to Matthew's great distress), who got Matthew elected to that quintessential home-away-from-home of urbane culture, the Athenaeum.

Hamilton's discussion of poems is often very suggestive, as when he defines the themes of Merope as “the fated, unrefusable inheritance, the thin line that separates leadership from tyranny, the mother-son entrancement” (p. 194). But he rarely opens new ways of looking at them. He tells a familiar, one-sided story of the stifling of poetic powers, valorizing the lyrical and Romantic element of poetry (“the distressed and unaffected eloquence, the heartfelt directness of address” [p. 212]), about which Arnold himself wrote so brilliantly and had so many doubts. The supremely poetical Celts, Arnold likes to remind us, went forth to the wars, but they always fell, and he feared that the most magical kind of poetry was inadequate to the needs of the modern world and destructive to poets themselves. Hamilton acutely notes that Arnold's “poems seemed to speak against themselves, to question their own right to have been written” (p. 151), but he has little sympathy with Arnold's own analyses of his situation, and nothing but contempt for his critical affirmations of poetry's high function: “The more Arnold neglected his own gifts as a poet the more extravagantly nebulous became his protestations on behalf of poetry's transformatively civilising powers” (p. 212). True enough in a way; but this opinion hardly does justice to the complexity of Arnold's criticism or his own sense of his predicament as a poet.

Neither Murray, Hamilton, nor Machann seems interested in the new modes of thought, angles of vision, or objects of contemplation that enliven the contemporary critical scene and make Arnold ripe for rereading. One would hardly guess, from these books, at Arnold's centrality for the cultural wars not just of his time but also of our own: mistrusted by his contemporaries as elitist and effeminate, idealized as the embodiment of humanistic culture, derided for intellectual flaccidity, and more recently fallen into disrepute as the exemplar of a repressive, monolithic resistance to multiculturalism, Arnold has lost ground, probably irreparably, in anthologies, curricula, and critical esteem. If he is to hold his place as anything more than a minor poet and outmoded ideologue, then we need to address his work in the context of our own intellectual and political concerns: issues of gender and race, colonialism and empire, and the assumptions and exclusions of multiculturalism and high culture.

For Donald Stone the fault is not in Arnold but in ourselves—those of us, that is, who are addicted to ideology, self-promotion, de-construction, canon-bashing, and the other ills that Stone finds rampant in the academy. In Communications with the Future: Matthew Arnold in Dialogue he sets out to show that Arnold anticipates the best of our values—democracy, dialogism—while serving as a corrective to the multifarious errors of our ways. Drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Stone brings out the aspects of Arnold's thought that are most attractive today: describing an undogmatic, multiculturalist proponent of “actively dialogical” (p. 9) ideals of democracy and culture who believes in human solidarity and a widening canon and whose writings demonstrate the “openness and flexibility” that he admired in others. The participants in Arnold's dialogue with past and future include Henry James, William James, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Ernest Renan, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Dewey, Michel Foucault, Gadamer, and Richard Rorty. Some of these men consciously heard and addressed Arnold, but others did not; Gadamer, whom Stone celebrates as Arnold's true successor in propounding an ideal of culture based on German romanticism, “seems unaware of Arnold” (p. 113). The most immediately useful aspect of Stone's book, for those who do not share its ideological presuppositions, is the information it provides about what Dewey, for instance, had to say about Arnold in what Stone describes as “a dialogue with Arnold that extended over six decades” (p. 141). The comparison with Foucault is vaguer and more labored, if ingenious. “Foucault's arrival at such key Arnoldian concepts as ‘transformation’ and ‘solidarity’ proceeds from his discovery of the positive workings of ‘criticism’” (p. 79).

Stone is usefully attentive to some relatively unfamiliar Arnoldian works, such as “A French Eton.” He might be more persuasive, however, if he engaged more fully with what he recognizes as some of the more problematic aspects of Arnold's writings and politics. He dismisses a little too quickly, for instance, Arnold's “questionable” (p. 168) views on Ireland (he opposed Home Rule) or the apparently heartless aestheticism of his comments on poor Wragg. Attacks on Arnold for what we now call “elitism” were current in his own time and cannot be dismissed as the product of inattentive reading or critical perversity. Yet Arnold's ideas about the saving value of criticism, culture, and the canon are more tentative and more responsive to complex social needs—his conceptions of gender more fluid, his ideas about social class more troubled—than his sympathetic biographers or supporters like Stone recognize. He at least partly understood the problem of elitism, if he did not know what to do about it. Stone's book is most likely to please those who share the author's hostility to current critical trends; still, it does attempt to engage with some of the real issues that make Arnold an essential and controversial figure in the cultural conversations in the academy today, a hovering ghost neither exorcised nor appeased.

Bevis Hillier (review date 25 September 1999)

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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.

When the book turned up, I found that Ian Hamilton tries to define ‘essay’ in his foreword. He does so in a ruminative way, bringing in other people's opinions (the essay as ‘the freest form of literature’, the essayist as ‘second-class citizen’). And in the end he gives himself the most latitudinarian of definitions, the widest range of choices. His publishers have considerately boiled down his argument into this mantra on the book jacket.

An essay can be personal, it can be public, it can philosophise, it can polemicise.

But it can also fail to look beyond its author's own back yard.

It can be an extended book review, a piece of reportage, a travelogue, a revamped lecture, an amplified diary-jotting, a refurbished sermon.

In other words, an essay can be just about anything it wants to be, anything its author chooses to ‘essay’.

In effect, then, Hamilton is saying to us, Humpty Dumpty-like, ‘If I say it's an essay, it's an essay.’ He should have set himself tighter limits. Though I would hate to have missed reading them—they are flawlessly written—I cannot recognise Eudora Welty's ‘The Little Store’ or Jonathan Raban's ‘Living on Capital’ as essays. They are fragments of autobiography. So are Mary McCarthy's ‘My Confession’, Paul Fussell's ‘My War’, Dan Jacobson's ‘Time of Arrival’ and James Baldwin's ‘Notes of a Native Son’. All these would merit places in any anthology of prose—but essays? No. Again, Tom Wolfe's ‘These Radical Chic Evenings’ is not an essay but a smart piece of New Journalism reportage, marred a bit by Wolfe's naked wish to ingratiate himself with some of the people he is meant to be satirising. (Of Leonard Bernstein: ‘He is not only one of the world's outstanding conductors, but a more than competent composer and pianist as well.’)

An essay should take a finite subject and address it. A good rule of thumb might be that it should be the answer to a single question. Admittedly, by that criterion Jonathan Raban's piece might just scrape under the limbo bar on the grounds that it answers the question, ‘What was it like to spend your earliest years with your mother in the second world war, then have your father suddenly irrupt into your life as a total stranger and rival at the war's end?’—exactly my own experience also and the theme of Melvyn Bragg's new novel, The Soldier's Return.

The next puzzle for the anthologist, once he has worked out what an essay is, is to decide which writers to include. In 1991 John Gross edited The Oxford Book of Essays. You might think his mission was more difficult than Hamilton's—to squash into a single volume a selection from every time and clime rather than just from this century. But in fact it was easier. For how could one possibly anthologise essays of all time without Bacon, Addison, Steele, Johnson, Lamb, Hazlitt, Macaulay, Pater, Stevenson, Wilde? These writers took their appointed places like the colours on a snooker table. Gross's book covered the 20th century too, and there his choices were predictably less predictable. It was, for example, something of a shock, for those familiar with Clive James's glib telly patter, to find him bringing up the rear in the company of Dryden and Matthew Arnold, though it must have been gratifying for him to dole out copies as Christmas presents.

We are spared Clive James in Hamilton's selection, though the two are old buddies. James portrayed Hamilton in the pedigree doggerel of his Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage through the London Literary World (1976) and dedicated to him a 1979 collection of reviews. And earlier this year he contributed to a festschrift published by the Cargo Press to mark Hamilton's 60th birthday. Others who took part included the poets Douglas Dunn, John Fuller, Andrew Motion and Craig Raine, the novelists Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Dan Jacobson, the playwrights Harold Pinter and Simon Gray and the critics A. Alvarez and Karl Miller—quite a constellation. (Surprise, surprise, Alvarez, Barnes, Jacobson and Miller all pop up in the anthology too.)

The festschrift was called Another Round at the Pillars—a reference to the Pillars of Hercules pub in Soho where Hamilton held court in the 1970s as editor of the New Review. Though for 12 years I lived next door to the Pillars, above Foyle's bookshop, I did not know Hamilton and his circle. Reading the festschrift made me wish I had done, though I doubt I could have met Hamilton's exacting standards of drinking and smoking. (‘What's Benylin?’ he incredulously replied to a question from Raine. ‘Benylin's the first drink of the day.’)

Allowing for the hyperbole natural in festschrifte, the contributors clearly think Hamilton the cat's whiskers. ‘Not even the most inflated ego,’ writes Alvarez, ‘would seriously claim to have more literary taste and intelligence.’ Blake Morrison recalls how at 30 Hamilton ‘was acclaimed and even revered as the poet, editor and critic of his generation’. And Dunn describes him as ‘the finest prose stylist of our time’. My own admiration for Hamilton shot up when, not long ago, he chose The Waste Land in a Sunday Telegraph series on the most overrated book of the last millennium. He admitted that he made this choice hesitantly and against the indoctrination of a lifetime: that took courage as well as judgment. ‘Stringent’ is the word most often applied to him. Motion writes: ‘Now, as ever, if he says it's OK, it is OK.’

Maybe; but a good critic does not necessarily make a good anthologist. The analogy might be the newspaper racing tipsters. These men know all there is to know about sires and dams, about which horse likes hard ground and which soggy, and about old injuries and jockeys' strengths and foibles. But when it comes to the big day, the horse they have helped to make the favourite is often an also-ran.

In particular, I am doubtful whether Hamilton is the best arbiter of essays. It is no accident that he includes one of Leavis's more swingeing diatribes. Hamilton is in his own way a Keeper of the Flame—not as dogmatic as Leavis, nor as eager to dish out fearful anathemas and excommunications, but all the same a stern categoriser and upholder of Standards. The crisp blurbs with which he introduces each extract show him as over-fond of the word ‘important’. He may be disenchanted with The Waste Land, but ‘T. S. Eliot is nowadays, by general consent, seen as the most important poet of the century’. Christopher Isherwood's Berlin stories ‘provide important source-material for literary historians’. And Philip Larkin is ‘recognised as Britain's most important post-war poet’. We need a rigorous overseer like Hamilton to help rank our writers, but the problem with the essay is that it is the opposite of ‘important’. It is a first draft, a sketch, off the cuff, a casual alternative to full fig, a Prelude or an Excursion, a sonatina not a symphony, sometimes a mere jeu d'esprit. To set Hamilton truffling after essays is like dispatching a battleship to hunt down a flotilla of skiffs.

As with John Gross's book, some writers simply had to be included: and Hamilton does give us Chesterton, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Max Beerbohm, Aldous Huxley, Lytton Strachey, Thurber, Orwell, Auden, Edmund Wilson, Connolly, Gore Vidal, Kingsley Amis, Larkin and Martin Amis. To leave any of these out would have seemed perverse. He also rightly includes John Carey, the best living reviewer, and Julian Barnes, the most dextrous modern master of the essay form—even Barnes's novels are dazzling essays in disguise. Two big guns are surprisingly missing: Belloc and E. M. Forster. The snubbing of Belloc could perhaps be excused by claiming that he was a clone of Chesterton; but Forster is surely the essayists' essayist—tolerant, humorous, discursive, Socratically conversational. Something from Abinger Harvest (1936) or Two Cheers for Democracy (1951) should have gone in. Bernard Levin, Peter Conrad and Jilly Cooper are also regrettable absentees.

Hamilton, with his emphasis on the ‘important’, neglects the lesser writers who were primarily essayists—George Saintsbury (born in 1845 but still going strong until 1933), C. E. Montague, Dean Inge, Robert Lynd, Harold Nicolson, Geoffrey Grigson, John Sparrow. I have not forgotten Saintsbury's literary histories, Nicolson's diaries, Grigson's autobiography or the edition of Donne's Devotions which Sparrow accomplished while still a schoolboy at Winchester; but it was as essayists that all these men were best known in their lifetimes—as writers, I mean. Two of them get snarling mentions in the Leavis essay—Saintsbury as ‘a regular Albert Memorial of learning’, Montague in a list of books recommended by Gilbert Russell in Advertisement Writing for ‘a copy-writer's bookshelf’. But I would argue: if you want a tooth filled, you go to somebody whose profession is dentistry; if you want an essay, go to an essayist, someone who has made that genre his speciality. I could be wrong, but I suspect that very foreign to the mind of Hamilton is the concept of causerie, lucidly outlined by Anthony Curtis in his 1998 autobiography, Lit Ed:

Terry [Kilmartin], Jack [Lambert] and I were the last literary editors to use the star-system of reviewing where a regular chief reviewer takes on an important book each week and makes a general article or causerie out of reviewing it. The French word inevitably crops up when this topic is discussed because it is difficult to think of a precise English equivalent—chat, talk, chatty talk? A causerie is a cross between a formal appraisal and a personal reaction. It is written in such a way that the writer appears to be merely chatting to the reader, engaging his attention on a conversational level, but before the reader knows where he is the chat has developed into a challenging omniscient judgment based on a reading of the author's entire work.

Two of the principal ingredients of the causerie are humour (often irony) and an injection of the personal element. C. E. Montague was adept at both. This Edwardian literary gent does not get a mention in John Gross's Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969). That was a case of Homer nodding, as Montague's A Writer's Notes on His Trade (1930) was ‘man of letters’ to the nth degree, and influential. One of the essays in it almost certainly inspired the celebrated passage about ‘mandarin’ English in Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise, published eight years later—that in which Montague comments that such excellent English phrases as ‘to get away with it’ and ‘to put it across’ had not yet been registered ‘in the stud-book kept by the pundits and the mandarins’. As a sample of his wit, take this squib on the free-verse poems that were pocking the little magazines:

A stanza of one of them, not an extreme specimen of its kind, haunts the mind:

His limbs
Like marionettes

An idea, you perceive, unblemished by any application of mere workmanship. It is much as if Shakespeare had not fobbed us off with the laborious and overdone

Hark, hark, the lark at Heaven's gate sings,
And Phoebus 'gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs
On chaliced flowers that lies,

but had fairly made comrades of us, taken us into his confidence, given us the first intimate germ of the thing—perhaps

Observe the

If only Montague had been heeded (he wasn't that influential), what torrents of tosh we might have been spared by the poetasters, these 70 years.

When, at school, we were set an essay on Cats, the master said:

It's no use writing, ‘There are many types of cat; all have tails, except Manx cats.’ Everyone knows that. But if you wrote, ‘My Aunt Edith's cat sits on an outside window ledge and when anybody with a hat walks below, he leaps on it and digs in his claws,’ you might interest the reader.

There, you see, I'm injecting the personal, just as the master prescribed. For that art, the essay-anthologist might turn to Harold Nicolson's piece, in Small Talk (1937), on the almost Baconian subject ‘On Telling the Truth’.

I knew a diplomatist once who never told a lie. He was an eccentric little man dressed in grey flannels, who smoked endless pipes. He wore large round spectacles behind which he concealed his eyes, and he had a habit of digging people in the ribs. On the whole, I think, he was the most untruthful man that I ever met. ‘Is it true,’ someone would ask him, ‘that Montenegro has protested against the renewal of our treaty with Liberia?’ He would chuckle at this question, and then would dig his interlocutor in the ribs and chuckle again. As a matter of fact, he had no idea that we had a treaty with Liberia or that even if we had the matter could be of the slightest interest to Montenegro …

Of course I realise that, unlike me, Hamilton does not have unlimited space; but an anthologist must be judged by what he leaves out as well as by what he puts in. Living and thriving in a literary environment, Hamilton seems to forget that essays can be on art and architecture as well as on writers. John Gross gave us Addison and Betjeman on Westminster Abbey, Pater on Botticelli; but not one of Hamilton's selections is about art. He could have chosen something from Clive Bell's Art (1914) or his Since Cézanne (1922)—perhaps the early assessment of Duncan Grant. Or he might have raided Roger Fry's Vision and Design (1925)—I would have gone for the essay on Aubrey Beardsley's drawings in which he calls Beardsley ‘the Fra Angelico of Satanism’. Then there is Herbert Read, the grand panjandrum of the British art scene from the Thirties to the Fifties. I think his influence was malign, but the man could write. His essay ‘The Triumph of Picasso’ in A Coat of Many Colours (1945) opens:

We can imagine an actual triumph: the streets adorned with garlands, everyone in carnival dress, shouts of Io triumphe! At the head of the procession, instead of a senate, we might place the dealers—Messieurs Vollard and Kahnweiler, the brothers Rosenberg, Pierre Colle and Pierre Loeb, Mr Zwemmer and Mr Mayor. Instead of the trumpeters would come the critics, led by Monsieur Zervos, the authors of the 20 books on Picasso, the writers of the hundred essays on Picasso. For trophies there would be paintings, statues and models by the thousands of imitators of Picasso. Prominent among the victims destined for sacrifice would be a living representation of Venus, and the prisoners would, of course, include all the members of the Royal Academy and the Académie Française.

I believe Read intended that to be approving; today it reads like wry satire of the monstrous hype of Picasso. Like Read, Kenneth Clark could write about art or literature with equal erudition and flair. So something from his Moments of Vision (1981) could have been considered; so could Edward Lucie-Smith's Thinking about Art (1968), a distillation of his ‘Things Seen’ column in the Times, and anything by Betjeman on architecture or topography. But these are not topics which fit into Hamilton's scheme of things. ‘What scheme?’ you may ask. ‘Surely his task is just to give us the best essays by the best essayists?’ Regrettably, that is not how he sees it.

If a television director is let loose on a music festival, he is rarely content to let us enjoy a concert or recital: if he did that, his superiors would think him lacking in imagination. So what we usually get is some ragged rehearsals; the lead flautist griping about the conductor; stormy discussions about budgeting; snide or glowing opinions from musical pundits and gaucher ones from the audience; and, if we're lucky, just a few short bursts of actual music. Similarly, Hamilton has not been content just to go out and corral for us the best representative selection of 20th-century essays to enjoy; there has to be an angle, a binding leitmotiv.

I have tried to organise the essays in this book [he writes] so that, decade by decade, a portrayal of the century shows through: a portrayal with gaps, and of course a portrayal done from an Anglo-American perspective, but a passably compelling likeness, nonetheless.

Oh, so that's why we've got these chunks of autobiography (wholesale autobiography, not merely a spice of the ‘personal’) about the world wars, and Hannah Arendt on the concentration camps and James Baldwin on black civil rights and Mary McCarthy on flirting with communism. ‘As everyone seems to agree, it has been the worst century so far,’ Hamilton notes. Elsewhere in his foreword, having a go at Charles Lamb, he sneers, Leavis-like, ‘Do we really need more happy, stylish musings on “Old China”?’ As my last Spectator article was on that very subject, I did not chortle at this quite as heartily as other readers may do; but, sure, if somebody tried to trace the course of civilisation from the scenes enamelled on tea-cups, one might say to that person, ‘Why not look at oil paintings and sculpture?’ And to Hamilton, trying to conjure up and body forth the 20th century from 49 essays—not all of which are even essays—one wants to say, ‘Dear boy, why not read the history books?’

Luckily, Hamilton is far too gifted and generous a critic to be bound very strictly by his (or was it his publishers’?) self-denying ordinance. He hopes that the historical-documentary line has not been strained too far.

Now and then I've put in something because it touches me or makes me laugh, or because I remember the impact it had on me when I first read it in a magazine.

With all my reservations about it, I must make it clear that no one who buys this book will regret the £20 spent on it. When Hamilton lets himself off the leash, he gives us these special pleasures: Cyril Connolly on what an American writer would find in London in 1949; Auden on the detective novel, with that icy metaphysical logic of his (‘Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures’; ‘Murder is negative creation, and every murderer is therefore the rebel who claims the right to be omnipotent’); Thurber sending up to the skies The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (‘On two occasions I have swung my crutch at a little neighbor girl on my way to the post office’); and Randall Jarrell on ‘The Obscurity of the Poet’, like the very best kind of witty lecture by an Oxford don. Funniest of all is Lytton Strachey on ‘The Sad Story of Dr Colbatch’, about internecine warfare between dons of the 18th century. I defy anyone to read his ‘intro’ and not want to know what comes next.

The Rev. Dr Colbatch could not put up with it any more. Animated by the highest motives, he felt that he must intervene. The task was arduous, odious, dangerous; his antagonist most redoubtable; but Dr Colbatch was a Doctor of Divinity, Professor of Casuistry in the University of Cambridge, a Senior Fellow of Trinity College, and his duty was plain; the conduct of the Master could be tolerated no longer; Dr Bentley must go.

Hallman Bryant (review date fall 2000)

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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 indicates, he sees his book as a “Poetic Life” rather than the full-scale biography which he had initially intended to write. The ambition to do so, he writes, sprang from “a number of intriguing puzzles” such as who was the mysterious Marguerite in the group of love poems entitled “Switzerland”? Was she a dream-girl born form too much reading of romantic French novels, or was she a real person whom Arnold met in 1848 and then dropped? There has been much conjecture about this vexing question but Hamilton is firm in his opinion that Marguerite was a real girl, but is less sure about Arnold's reasons for hesitation about the affair—was it his “pusillanimity, his weakness of will, his inability to make a commitment to Marguerite?” Hamilton offers no solution as to the identity of the girl who inspired Arnold's impassioned sequence of poems, grouped under the collective title of “Switzerland.” All we know of her is what Arnold tells us in these poems and in letters to his friend A. E. Clough to whom he admits he was in love with a blue-eyed girl he had met at a hotel in Thun, Switzerland. The best argument for the reality of Marguerite lies in the confused passions revealed in the lyrics he wrote to her which seem to ring true with authentic emotions. Unfortunately, the only piece of real evidence, the register of the Hotel Bellevue where Arnold met Marguerite while she was staying there, was destroyed years ago.

The mystery of Marguerite, however, is not the only ambiguous chapter in Arnold's life that Hamilton investigates. Much of his focus is on the early years of Arnold's life, especially his puzzling behavior in those decades of his young adulthood when he was writing some of the most melancholy and original poems of the Victorian period and posing as a Byronic dandy.

As he sees it, the most complex biographical fact is that Matthew Arnold was the oldest son of the most famous headmaster in England, Doctor Thomas Arnold of Rugby College. Arnold's father was convinced that his mission was to make his boys into Christian soldiers, and the school during his tenure as headmaster turned out graduates who were marked by piety, a strong sense of duty, and that quality which was the quintessence of the high Victorian age: earnestness. Rugby College produced many high-ranking clergymen and bishops, a cadre of colonial officials, numerous judges, and many Rugby Old Boys went on to become headmasters of dozen of England's best public schools where they continued the pedagogical practices of Dr. Arnold. In fact, the mission and curricula of English public schools during the Victorian period were dictated by the model of Arnold's Rugby School. Furthermore, the legend of Arnold's rule at Rugby was perpetuated by worshipful former students like Thomas Hughes whose novel Tom Brown's Schooldays portrayed the headmaster as a noble man who inspired his boys to strive to do good and be righteous.

The atmosphere at Rugby was a combination of sports, learning, and religious zealotry, and it was an atmosphere from which Arnold had no escape because when school vacations came, he got no break from the ever-present totalitarian influence of his headmaster father. As Hamilton says, the “place crackled with moral fervor” as he endeavored to bring the children in his family as well as the boys in the school “to see a duty in every act of their lives.” The presence of Dr. Arnold has been described as magnetic, awesome, irresistible, and yet, as Hamilton states, there was more to it than simple intimidation. He somehow made his students want not to let him down. In his Sunday sermons to the schoolboys, he urged them not to waste their time in folly and to see that life was no fool's paradise but a struggle where one must take sides. According to Tom Brown's testimony, he had the capacity to make his sermons sound as if they were meant especially for you. In our idiom, he could “lay a heavy guilt trip” on his audience.

Young Matthew Arnold did not become a student at his father's school until he was fourteen years old, but he had been under his father's tutoring almost from infancy. Dr. Arnold decided his children's learning schedules as soon as they could walk. By the time he reached five, Matthew's program of studies included Latin, French, arithmetic problems, history, geography and scripture passages to memorize every day. At six he was set to the study of Greek, German, and Italian upon which he was examined closely by his father who supervised his program.

Early on, however, the Arnolds were troubled by their oldest son's attitude. He was loving and loyal but not entirely serious, a fact which disturbed Dr. Arnold, who frowned on Matthew's taste for fine clothes, jokes, and “smart” people. His mother also lamented his vanity and love of ease. She was especially distressed by his fascination with firearms. Matthew's poor eyesight made him an inept marksman, however, and he eventually gave up shooting for fishing which would remain a passion for the rest of his life. Another disturbing habit he developed about this same time was his disappearing trick; he would be unaccounted for hours on end, causing the family much concern about his whereabouts. No one seems to have understood his motive for going missing, but his behavior points to an increasing tendency to go against the grain with his parents. Apparently on some of these solitary excursions he engaged in “poetising,” as his mother called it.

Arnold's earliest poetry dates from 1836 when he was fourteen years old. His first poem, “Lines Written on the Seashore of Eaglehurst,” was in the manner of Thomas Gray and shows that Arnold's preoccupation with water imagery started early on. Another influence was Lord Byron whose example of rebellious behavior had as great an impact on Arnold as his themes of ill-fated lovers and the ruins of empire. Arnold's juvenile poem, “Constantinople” (1839), features dying lovers and laments the invasion of the doomed city by the Turks, revealing that Arnold's tendency to write on the theme of loss and to lament the “vanished days of old” was established from the onset. His first published poem, “Alaric in Rome,” was composed about 1840, and although the language is stiff and trite, Arnold's subject, which was taken from the classical past, shows Arnold's early penchant for taking classical antiquity as the proper topic for poetry.

As Arnold's early poems hinted at the path he would take in his later more mature writing, he also began to show the “dandy” side of his personality that especially distressed his parents, who lamented his decided “lack of a sense of duty.” The impression he made on one of his Rugby classmates, Henry Crabb Robinson, was that Matthew was a young man with “the tinge of a fop that does him no harm. …” His father's reservations about his eldest son's attitude were revealed in his surprise at Matthew's winning an Oxford scholarship; he wondered if this did not signify a lowering of the university's standards rather than a success on his son's part.

Oxford was a welcome respite from the censoring eye of his father, and Arnold enjoyed a release from the intensely moralistic atmosphere of Rugby. But even at the university he could not entirely escape the presence of Dr. Arnold who was appointed to the post of Professor of Modern History in 1842, which meant that his father would be in residence at Oxford for periods of time each year while delivering the eight lectures expected from him.

Nevertheless, Matthew Arnold continued to exhibit the mode of behavior that he had displayed at Rugby. He seemed to be striving even more to try to set up a distinction between himself and his stern parent by being facetious in manner and desultory in his habits. In appearance he was verging toward the extreme of foppishness with kid gloves, monocle, French style sideburns and fancy waistcoats. The report issued by his Balliol college head for his freshman year indicates that Arnold was “indolent,” “not uniformly regular” and “not sufficiently attentive to the rules of the college” (49). The only commendation he received on his report card was for his skill in writing English essays. Over all he was ranked as average, what would have once been a “C” student in an American university prior to grade inflation and the assumption that all undergraduates, like the children of Lake Wobegon, are “above average.”

Arnold seemed totally indifferent to great intellectual and theological debates stirred up by the Tractarians at Oxford. Newman's teachings made no impression on him at all, though he did admit later that he was charmed by Newman's spiritual charisma and his “perfect handling of words,” which appealed to him more than the moral content of his sermons. The one scholastic activity that appealed to Arnold was extra-curricular—the debates that took place among an undergraduate debating society called “The Decade,” so named because there were initially only ten members. In this group were several ex-Rugby boys—Stanley, Clough, and Arnold's younger brother Tom, as well as Benjamin Jowett who would later become the most famous master of Balliol in the Victorian period. In the opinion of one former member of The Decade, John Duke Coleridge, “the society did a good deal for the mental education of those who belonged to it, especially those of us who had been taught at public schools to learn grammar by heart, to write verses in Greek and Latin by rote but where our minds were allowed to lie fallow, unclouded by thought …” (p. 50).

Although Arnold seemed to project an air of intellectual laziness and affected a kind of languor, his mind was stimulated by an introduction to the writings of Carlyle, Emerson, Goethe, and George Sand. None of these authors was on the syllabus at Oxford, however, and Arnold was doing little reading that would prepare him for his final examinations.

When he should have been studying for “schools,” as the exit exams were called, Arnold instead roamed the Oxford countryside with his friends, went skiffing on the river, or swam in the streams around the university. Once while skinny-dipping in the “Strippling Thames,” he was rebuked by a clergyman for his lack of modesty, to whom he replied, taking a line from William Blake, “Sir, is it possible that you see anything in the human form divine that is indelicate?” Among Arnold's other undergraduate foibles was his practice of leaping the high railed college walls while wearing his academic robes risking being impaled on the spikes. One wonders what Arnold's motives were for playing the fool. Was he merely rebelling, as so many preachers' kids do, or was it a more profound filial reaction of the sort described in Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh or Edmund Gosse's Father and Son? Arnold, however, never openly broke with his father, and his behavior was in part a strategy to give himself a little space. The son's levity and light-heartedness were his way of mocking his father's high-seriousness, but underneath his façade of foppishness and persiflage there was, as his closest friends suspected, an aspect of role-playing, as though Arnold were living in a disguise, a suspicion that would be validated with the publication of Arnold's first poems. As Hamilton astutely surmises, Matthew's affectations “served as a means of keeping Dr. Arnold's extreme earnestness at bay, but they also protected him from his own earnestness” (p. 57).

Influenced by Carlyle's notion that poets were heroic types and that poetry was “the highest form of the Godlike in man's being” and also convinced that modern times were spiritually bankrupt, Arnold attempted in some of his earliest poems to deal in a serious way with issues that he had heretofore seemed to be indifferent to. He began to believe that there might be “another way for him to go,” having eliminated the chance for a teaching career after taking a disappointing second-class degree. So in 1844 Arnold began to consider seriously the idea that he might have a vocation as a poet, and that poetry might have value and as much application to general life as teaching or preaching.

Arnold's career as a poet really starts then at the end of the 1840's and carries through the next decade. It was in this short span of time that Arnold wrote some of his most interesting and important poems. Hamilton discusses the poetry in the context of the political turmoil and social fragmentation that were occurring all over Europe at this time. Citing Arnold's correspondence to Clough, he points out that Arnold described writing poetry as a “tearing apart of oneself” and quotes his famous confession concerning his poetry: “My poems are fragments because I am fragments.” By extension society was also fragmented due to these “damned times when everything is against one … the absences of great natures, the unavoidable contact with millions of small ones, newspapers, cities, light profligate friends, moral desperadoes like Carlyle, our own selves, and the sickening consciousness of our difficulties” (p. 118).

Hamilton's point is that Arnold's poems are not so much private complaints but a reflection of the Zeitgeist, which is exactly why his poems continue to engage us. For all of Arnold's stiffness and academic tone (that so annoyed T. S. Eliot, of all people), his greatest poems—“Dover Beach,” “The Buried Life,” “The Scholar Gipsy,” “Stanzas From the Grand Chartreuse” and “Thyrsis”—speak about the central problems of modern life: how do we achieve a sense of connection with others or find a faith in a world that tends to alienate us from everything, even our own sense of who we really are? It was this candid anguish and bafflement that most commended Arnold's poetry to Eliot, who says, “With all his fastidiousness and superciliousness and officiality, Arnold is more intimate with us than Browning, more intimate than Tennyson ever is, except at moments in In Memoriam … His poetry [Arnold's] is too honest to employ any but his genuine feelings of unrest, loneliness, and dissatisfaction” (The Uses of Poetry and the Uses of Criticism, 1933).

It was Arnold's difficulty in finding any solution to the question that he raised concerning the underlying alienation that caused him to “thrust his gift in prison till it died,” as W. H. Auden put it, leaving him with a “jailer's voice and face.” Arnold knew all too well that the age was out of joint, but it was not enough merely to say so. The world needed the “missionary efforts of a mighty helper” (p. 110) and, as his sister saw it, “Matt's poetry holds out no help for the deep questions which are stirring in every heart … poetry which does not do this will not help the human race.”

Hamilton thinks that the incarceration of his muse began in 1851 around the time of Arnold's renunciation of Marguerite and his marriage to Frances Lucy Wrightman, a Tory judge's daughter, which obliged him to find a better paying job to support his new wife. The position Arnold found was that of government inspector of schools, a career that would condemn him to grinding and mundane duties for the next thirty-five years. At about this point, Arnold was writing Empedocles on Etna, a long, dramatic poem about a heroic, stoic philosopher who commits suicide by jumping into a volcano rather than compromise with a world too crass for his finer nature to abide. Having written what was his magnum opus to that date, Arnold seemed to have reservations. He had only 500 copies printed with just his initial “A” on the title page. His own evaluation of this poem was that its “strain of thought generally was much too doleful and monotonous.” In fact, he was so unhappy with Empedocles that he withdrew the volume from circulation only a few months after it was published. Then in 1853 he wrote his famous Preface to his collected poems, explaining why he was renouncing his major poem and substituting for it a new long poem, Sohrab and Rustum.

As Arnold makes clear in the Preface, he omitted Empedocles because it depicted “a continuous state of mental distress which was unrelieved by incident or hope … where everything is to be endured, nothing to be done.” The poem simply did not measure up to his new conception that poetry should be cheerful, calm, and instructive. It was as if Arnold had decided “to demote his own talent”; as Hamilton puts it, the “pessimistic poet gave way to the prescriptive sage” (p. 157). It was increasingly dawning on Arnold that poetry might actually supply the “religious wants” of the world; in fact, it had already been supplied by the Greek poets, and what was needed now was not new poetry but an understanding of what was already available. The requirement now was for “a sagacious guiding hand, a helpful voice, a teacher who could keep alive some vital commerce with the ancients” (158).

Arnold thought that with Sohrab and Rustum he might have supplied the classical objectivity his earlier poetry lacked and avoided the great sin of the romantics who wrote allegories of their private states of mind. Ironically, Sohrab and Rustum, a poem about a father and son who meet in a battle that results in the son's death, creates an allegory that Arnold was not aware of, for it was at this point in his career that Arnold the poet was annihilated by the spirit of his father the teacher. Arnold's valediction to his poetic life would be made in one of his last great poems, “The Scholar Gipsy,” where, in urging the fugitive scholar to avoid contact with us, he is in fact forsaking his own poetic life.

From Hamilton's perspective there is no mystery as to why Arnold dried up as a poet. He did not use up his creative powers like Wordsworth; he simply turned them off as it was increasingly borne in on him by his family and his own sense of compunction that Dr. Arnold would not have approved of his versification of the Weltschmerz. Thus, he surrendered to the call to duty and took up a different line of writing that allowed him to address the social causes his father would have championed. If it required that he give up his role as a poet to be worthy of his father's legacy, so be it; it was his duty as a loyal son. Thus, he put behind him his vocation as a poet and turned to writing the prose that would make him a Victorian prophet, a trade-off that Hamilton sees as an act of creative renunciation. Having described how Arnold buried himself as a poet by 1869, which was the year the music died, his book ends here although Arnold would live on until 1888 and write some more verse and many volumes of prose.

Although Arnold's poetic output was only a fraction of his total work, his poetry, more than that of any of his contemporaries, exposes the restlessness, the lost faith, the weariness with life and the nostalgia for lost times when things were supposedly better. Arnold himself realized that his poetry combines the melancholy of Tennyson with the intellectual and cultural displacement of Browning and, as he wrote his mother in 1869, “My poems represent on the whole the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century, and thus they will probably have their day. …” He was right; it is precisely because Arnold's poems mirror the spiritual and intellectual crises of his age that they have fared so well with modern readers who can relate to the misapprehensiveness about life that his poetry anticipates.

As Arnold became more and more convinced that the models of classicism should be taken by contemporary poets as an antidote for “the strange disease of modern life” which he so morbidly diagnoses in “The Scholar Gipsy,” he also came to believe that art, especially poetry, was the only possible replacement for religion as a form of wisdom and moral direction. Since his own poetry was so deficient in what he called the “high seriousness” and “grand style” of the classics, Arnold converted himself into an apostle of the higher culture of antiquity and forsook his own poetic gifts.

Most would agree that Arnold allowed his poetic talent to diminish and finally die by 1869. Hamilton makes no claim his thesis is original nor does his biographical information add anything new to what we already know about Arnold from earlier full-scale biographies by Nicholas Murray (1997) and Park Honan (1981). Yet, A Poetic Life is a very good book in terms of what Hamilton sets out to do, which is to show how Arnold's gift for writing lyric poetry was driven underground by the ambivalent love-hate relationship he had with his father. The parental influence from beyond the grave finally had a crippling effect on Arnold's creativity as a poet; Dr. Arnold's spirit, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, would not let his son rest until he had carried out his commission.

Finally, we must commend Hamilton for his brief but clearly argued commentaries on Arnold's poems, which more than compensate for the book's routine rehearsal of biographical facts. His critical views are expressed in a lucid prose that is a welcome respite from the language so many literary critics and theorists speak today. Happily, Hamilton avoids the sort of deliberate obfuscation and obligatory political correctness that presently pass for literary criticism.

Edward Butscher (review date spring 2001)

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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.

—Francis Bacon

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 share with candor whatever treasures or curious debris he stumbled across at the bottom of ego and world.

After Montaigne, the essay's further evolution mostly took place on English soil, where an Elizabethan greed for knowledge eagerly stretched its elastic boundaries, as seen in Francis Bacon's more aloof didactic exercises and in Addison's and Steele's subsequent cultivation of the lit-crit essay so familiar to our era. Today, of course, if the essay as a formal discipline languishes somewhat, the mode itself thrives in both mainstream and academic or specialized publications. Indeed, over the last century, so many gifted English-language writers have added glittering examples of the genre to the canon that it would seem nearly impossible to compile an anthology of their efforts that did not run to several volumes.

How difficult the task is reflected in the mixed successes of The Book of Twentieth-Century Essays and The Best American Essays of the Century, their arrogant titles notwithstanding. Obviously aiming at a holiday market and school library shelves, their respective editors, Ian Hamilton and Joyce Carol Oates, had to operate inside the small tent of a reasonable price and size. In the case of Hamilton, English poetry critic and something of a literary hustler, the struggle to be selective and representative was lost early on when he decided to begin with the misogynistic, no longer cute “Woman” by G. K. Chesterton.

To be fair, the Chesterton choice conforms with the editor's stated desire to have his forty-nine essays present (decade by decade) a “portrayal of the century,” however antithetical to a parallel claim for “excellence” as a measuring rod. And there are a substantial number of politically anchored essays here that deserve rereading, among them Norman Mailer's “The White Negro,” Elizabeth Hardwick's “The Oswald Family,” and James Baldwin's still bitter, still biting “Notes of a Native Son.” Hannah Arendt's “The Concentration Camps” not only confirms its classic status but has gained considerable power over the past decades, earlier objections to its author's intellectual distance from her horrific material rendered silly by the durable accuracy of her insights into totalitarianism's gut nihilism, which steamrolls all human meaning under the implacable evil of a projected death instinct—malice sans reason.

Hamilton's introduction admits to regretfully excluding a handful of fine writers because of a schema need to limit the presence of “strictly literary essays,” writers writing about other writers, for fear of unbalancing the collection—but he felt compelled to reprint two “seminal” examplars of the type, T. S. Eliot's “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and F. R. Leavis' “Mass Civilization and Minority Culture.” Both have aged well, though Leavis comes off as shallower than Eliot in his glib dependence upon Matthew Arnold and a journalistic slam of the “machine” and then-modern existence that scrambles too readily into a Chicken Little alarmism.

In contrast, Eliot's psychological perceptions remain acute as ever as he separates the real emotions of the poet from the “significant” emotions reified by his “impersonal” art, noting with typical guile that “the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious.” Two related essays that retain their impact are also by poets: Randall Jarrell's witty, incisive variation on a major Leavis-Eliot theme, “The Obscurity of the Poet,” and Philip Larkin's “The Pleasure Principle,” a trauma-blunt chunk of Thatcherite complaint, half necessary axiom, half philistine whine.

Perhaps the strongest of the literature-oriented essays is Edmund Wilson's “Philoctetes: The Wound and the Bow,” which, like the Eliot and Larkin entries, shines a Freudian laser beam on the creative process, if only by assumption of a common psychological ground, as does F. Scott Fitzgerald's pioneering excavation of a damaged psyche in “The Crack-Up.” Much of what is good in The Book of Twentieth-Century Essays resides here in these watershed works of literary sensibilities refracting the inner truths of changing cultural values and vantages, especially when these works are read in the context of the Arendt, Baldwin, and other history-oriented essays.

Where Hamilton comes a cropper, underscoring the modest reach of his consensus-inhibited taste, is in too often opting for inferior essays when sifting for gold nuggets in an established writer's oeuvre. John Updike, for example, is represented by “The Bankrupt Man,” a clever enough riff on a socially correct motif—but Updike's piece is slight, as is Joan Didion's “Goodbye to All That,” which analyzes her reasons for leaving Manhattan (“a city for only the very young” and people from elsewhere) without penetrating to more meaningful layers of self beneath the metropolis. “Risk” by A. Alvarez is a similar performance, contemplating the lure of danger and gambling for himself and others, yet a bit blind to subtler motivational issues.

Probably the most egregious instance of misrepresenting a major writer is Hamilton's choice of “How It Strikes a Contemporary” for Virginia Woolf's contribution. This dashed-off slice of topicality has the requisite stab at a grand profundity—“It is a barren and exhausted age”—but little else to recommend it; not only does it lack body, it also exposes the writer at her self-protective worst when she archly condemns Joyce's Ulysses as “a memorable catastrophe—immense in daring, terrific in disaster.”

Other essays, however, atone for such lapses by landing a surprising jolt—to wit, the simple rocket arc of Paul Fussell's “MyWar,” which unearths in a young man's initial encounter with mayhem and corpses one of the century's coming-of-age verities: “I suddenly knew I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just.”

The rippling effects of two world wars and the Holocaust, amid other massive calamities, are generally covered by Hamilton's blanket of generational pertinence, and an essay such as V. S. Naipaul's splenetic reaction to the India of his ancestors, “In the Middle of the Journey,” conveys something of the awesome, frightening immenseness of the Third World's lurking presence. Likewise, E. B. White's “The Ring of Time” manages to fuse the realities of a small-town circus and 1956 Florida's segregationist mores with the remorseless circle of existence we all have to tread (and defy), and in doing so it provides an almost perfect demonstration of the genre's tectonic and metaphoric possibilities.

A number of the essays in this gathering were new to me, and so held the additional promise of a happy discovery, but few of them achieved memorable heights. A case in point might be John Carey's bilious assault upon his fellow profs at Oxford, “Down with the Dons,” thrashing them as smug, insolent, bumptious, and narcissistically nasty—which tolls true, if excessive, but which cannot escape the charge of provinciality. Gore Vidal's dismantling of the Kennedy clan in “The Holy Family” has a broader domain to ravage, yet it also loiters at the fringe of genuine history, frequently convincing without escaping personal animus, offering an enraged gossip's narrow keyhole slant.

In the end, as a supposed repository of the most effective responses to one hundred years of enormous changes in the tide and nature of human events and human consciousness, The Book of Twentieth-Century Essays disappoints. Besides the limitations already mentioned, the absence of even a single scientific paper paints a clumsily lopsided portrait of a century in which our fundamental notions of human and phenomenal realities have been permanently altered. Much of what is here is worth perusing, but there are too many gaps, missed notes, and minor chords to add up to the symphony promised by the title.

Joyce Carol Oates, on the other hand, brings a more sweeping, and a more aesthetically keen, lens to bear in her approach to The Best American Essays of the Century. This is patent in her thorough and thoughtful introduction, “The Art of the (American) Essay,” and in her more varied selection, which encompasses several valuable, entertaining pieces from the science fields, notably Loren Eiseley's “The Brown Wasps,” Lewis Thomas' “The Lives of the Cell,” and Stephen Jay Gould's “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown.” The last of these scans a clutch of hoaxes before alighting on baseball's upstate shrine as a prime exhibit of our pervasive favoring of “origin myths” (heroes and sacred moments) over a more mundane evolutionary-continuum explanation.

Oates had the unspecified assistance of Robert Atwan, the longtime series editor for The Best American Essays annual to which this larger anthology is a complement. He is listed as coeditor, so he certainly may have had some significant hand in creating the collection's broader perspective.

As in the Hamilton collection, the arrangement of specimens in The Best American Essays of the Century is strictly chronological, running from Mark Twain's 1901 “Corn-pone Opinions,” a sour assessment of conventional American wisdom (aka public opinion), to Saul Bellow's 1997 “Graven Images,” which mixes private history and a concern for the intrusion of photography upon privacy with a carefully cultivated self-image. There are inevitable crossovers between the anthologies—“Notes of a Native Son,” “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and “The Crack-Up” appearing in both—though Oates rejected Mailer's “The White Negro” as being “badly dated,” and for E. B. White, John Updike, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Joan Didion selected different works than Hamilton, largely to the authors' benefit.

What is especially refreshing about Oates's compilation, apart from the presence of the science writers and her incorporation of naturalist observers on the high order of John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Annie Dillard, is the generous but discriminating enlistment of talented black and other minority writers. As a result, the reader is treated to Zora Neale Hurston's “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”—composed in 1928 when she was knee-deep in the Harlem Renaissance—which both fits with and rasps against Baldwin's harsher stance and has a moving climax in “Looking for Zora,” Alice Walker's record of her 1973 search for the novelist's weed-obscured Florida gravesite.

Among the other minority voices given their places in the national chorus assembled by Oates and Atwan are N. Scott Momaday, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Richard Rodriguez, a journalist and would-be academic whose “Aria: A Memoir of Bilingual Education” slams the idea of separate-language classrooms by recounting his own childhood difficulties as the son of Mexican immigrants. Momaday's “The Way to Rainy Mountain” returns him to his Oklahoma roots after the death of a beloved Kiowa grandmother, recapping the history of her tribe along the nostalgic trail and written with a lapidary attention to wilderness detail that, alas, ultimately courts romantic legend. Not so for Kingston's myth-minded but shocking “No Name Woman” as it retells the family tale of an aunt in China who defied tradition and lost her life and her identity in the misogyny-afflicted process.

Like the Kingston narrative, which sets the stage for The Woman Warrior (1976), a batch of other essays here also evolved into book-length autobiographies, including Maya Angelou's “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Vladimir Nabokov's “Perfect Past,” which surfaced as the first chapter of Speak, Memory (1970). Nabokov is ever the master stylist, well aware of the essay form's encouragement of artful designs, and he lavishes a jeweler's care on the elegant characters and furniture of an aristocratic Russian milieu, venting precocious boyhood recollections of a highly stratified society a decade away from revolution: “Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them by giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known.”

Memoir has a definite edge in the essay arena, wearing an armor of story to ward off preacherly impulses, flights of abstract rhetoric, and retreats into precious tropes. Combat reminiscences in particular possess the double-barreled allure of a life-and-death scenario. The two war pieces in The Best American Essays of the Century, which resonate acidly when consumed after we down William James's “The Moral Equivalent of War,” are nothing less than superb. William Manchester's “Okinawa: The Bloodiest Battle of All” force marches the reader into the “wet, green hell” of the Marines' hand-to-hand struggle to dislodge a fanatical, deeply entrenched enemy during eighty-two days of fighting at quarters so close that only the stench of shit and rotting flesh remained in memory years later—that and an adamant hatred of a foe too cruel to forgive.

Michael Herr's Vietnam experience, “Illumination Rounds,” is almost as vivid, cinematic in its treatment of a shifting battleground that peaks with the Tet offensive and the key image of a fatigued, semiconscious surgeon tending a Vietnamese girl who had lost her leg to a bomb. Unlike Manchester and his fellow Marines, who had been weaned on old-fashioned patriotism and envisioned themselves as engaged in a heroic crusade, Herr's soldiers had to grapple with Death in a Conradian jungle of ethical and political ambiguities, unsupported by a cultural consensus.

Absent the drama of story, the essay must depend upon intellect, reason and revelation, new mental vantages. Structure then tends towards a hypothesis-proof sequence, buttressed by relevant illustrations, though another approach simulates philosophical musings through a linked series of associational leaps, as in Adrienne Rich's “Women and Lying: Some Notes on Lying” and Susan Sontag's far more effective “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Sontag's 1964 defining mosaic of an attitude and sensibility extending modernism's playfulness to cynical extremes—“the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”—retains some of the same punch of the new it had when first published. But for Rich, a fine poet before feminism narrowed her perspective, an admittedly solid rosary of psychological prisms—“The liar fears the void”—crumbles into shards of platitudes at the brink of autodidacticism and self-parody: “Truthfulness, honor, is not something which springs ablaze of itself; it has to be created between people.”

Political correctness probably dictated the inclusion of “Women and Lying,” as it did several other less than “best” choices, most noticeably Langston Hughes's “Bop” and Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” and it would be easy to argue against a variety of Oates's decisions. (The absence of Hannah Arendt and Woody Allen alone invites dispute, as does the reprinting of Robert Frost's “The Figure a Poem Makes” instead of anything by Randall Jarrell.) But her own “They All Just Went Away,” a lethal combination of memoir and meditation on houses, homes, female masochism, human mortality, and bestial impulses, is quite good as it animates the madness and horror, the unbearable loneliness, pulsating just below the revered landscapes of rural and pastoral America.

In fact, the surest signal of distinction emanating from the pages of The Best American Essays of the Century flames brightest in the essays compelling us to monitor that covert pulse of a decaying American Dream which has always energized our literature's truest fictions. Besides Oates, poet Donald Hall and novelist-critic William H. Gass ease us to the lip of the abyss where dream and cadaver have their lair. Hall's “A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails” ransacks memory and New Hampshire farm ways to fashion a bleak account of the wasted, loveless, obsessively virtuous hermit existence of a cousin who dies alone in a nursing home, his legacy to young Hall a seeing ahead “into the residue … of Washington Woodward's life: the shack has caved in and his straightened nails have rusted into the dirt of Ragged Mountain.”

When dream and belief depart, we are left with an arctic zeitgeist, which Nabokov phrases near the beginning of “Past Perfect” as common sense telling us “that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” In “The Doomed in Their Sinking,” originally an essay-review of A. Alvarez's The Savage God and Jacques Choron's Suicide, William Gass deftly fuses the deaths of his own parents—and their wilful, self-destructive habits—with the literal suicides of poets Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman to alliteratively speculate that “suicide is a disease of singularity and selfhood.” Gass's philosophic training helps him recognize how Platonic pursuits of knowledge and mystical wooings of ecstatic states are themselves also suicidal.

Escape is the instinctive muscle and brain reaction, albeit tragic and demeaning, to our foreseen erasure, which can whip us into embracing what we most fear. The better essays in these uneven collections reaffirm the saving secular grace of cognition and art, of Bacon's exact man.

William H. Pritchard (essay date winter 2002)

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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 of camp. The admonitory jargon, the grumpily pious tone, the irritated syntax … ; they are comic when they aren't skipped.” So much for Holbrook. And in the same issue a writer I'd never heard of, one Edward Pygge, had this to say about The Night of the Hammer, a book of poems by Ned O'Gorman: “O'Gorman is a flame-throated, neo-Apocalyptic with a quasi-mystical streak. … Toweringly pretentious, intricately boring, and painstakingly derivative, he unleashes his clichés with an effrontery that can only be termed ‘rare.’” I soon found out that Edward Pygge (the surname surely has two syllables) was Ian Hamilton in another guise, and that a further contributor to the Review, Peter Marsh, was also a Hamilton invention. It was “Marsh” who quoted some words from a poem by John Heath-Stubbs—“A poem is like an iceberg: / Seven-tenths under water”—and observed: “But his own are merely like ice; thin, creaking, and without depth.” Such genial devilry was hard for a nascent poetry reviewer such as myself not to admire.

Along with its serious contributions—pieces on Winters, Empson, Lowell, Jarrell, Larkin, and many others; a conversation between A. Alvarez and Donald Davie; an account and small anthology of the Black Mountain poets—the Review featured a series of splendid parodies. There was a poem by “Robert Blight” titled “Bored with All the Talk of Elections I Slouch off into the Field Again, and a Poem Grows from Me like an Ear, or a Hand.” Conflating the English children's bear book with William Carlos William's Paterson, there were pages from Paddington (book one) written in the most vapid application of Williams's variable foot: “History is valuable, not / merely for the facts / which it / records, / but in a much higher / degree for the / lessons it teaches.” And there appeared an “authentic work” of Geoffrey Hill's, “discarded from King Log because of its too craven clarity.” These parodies were to be found in the “Edward Pygge Reports” pages that often concluded a particular issue of the magazine. But Pygge occasionally surfaced in other magazines such as the New Statesman in which he gave us three “edited and revised” sonnets by “Robert Lowly”:

                                                                                                    My mind's not right.
With groined, sinning eyeballs, I write sonnets until dawn
Is published over London like a row of books by Faber—
Then shave myself with Uncle's full-length sabre.

While with one hand Hamilton produced such instances of what Pope called “the art of sinking in poetry,” he gave to such poets as Berryman, Empson, Davie, Lowell, and Larkin some of the most incisive criticism they would receive (later published in his first book, A Poetry Chronicle). His own poems—short, astringent, rather on the toneless side and tending toward the depressive—did not keep him from appreciating more dramatic styles of performance. But he was and remained unreceptive to anyone (like Ned O'Gorman) who showed too much afflatus. As an editor and critic, if he had any mentor it was Geoffrey Grigson, whose magazine New Verse from the 1930s was, in its trenchance and severity, the attractive model for Hamilton's enterprise. (One issue of the Review contains an interview with Grigson, and Hamilton's second book, The Little Magazines, has a chapter on New Verse, in which he says: “If there had been no more to New Verse than scandalous hostility to the pomposities and mediocrities of the age, Grigson would deserve our applause. … The magazine was never boringly malicious and the majority of its targets in fact did get what they deserved.”) With Hamilton, as with Grigson, we feel that poetry has been made to matter through the efforts of an editor full of strong preference and prejudice. After forty years the whole transaction still feels invigorating.

The Review, then, remains for me the essential Ian Hamilton. This is not to disparage the thirty years of steady work that followed it: first the New Review, a bigger, glossier publication with illustrations, photographs, and a wider net for things cultural—but without the bite of its predecessor. Then came Hamilton the biographer, who together with his Lowell and Salinger books wrote one about writers in Hollywood and another—Keepers of the Flame (1992), maybe his best—on writers and their literary estates, from Donne and Marvell to Lowell and Plath. The cream of his essays and reviews may be found in the volumes Walking Possession (1994) and The Trouble with Money (1998). (They also include some of his writings on sports—he was a devoted watcher of English football.) Notable about all these books—indeed about every piece, however small, Hamilton wrote—is their absolute and unvarying readability. No contemporary more strikingly possessed the gift of talking to his readers without condescension or superiority, with unfailing intelligence and wit. In person he was one of the funniest men I've ever met, even at moments that must have felt to him like sheer awfulness, such as a time when he came to Amherst to give a talk about biography. Lunch was to be taken at the local inn, which had recently gone non-smoking in its dining room. Hamilton took one look at this forbidding prospect as if to ask “What can be done about this?” I found a more lax venue where he smoked through the meal.

Perhaps the way he would least mind being remembered was suggested by James Campbell's brief note in the Times Literary Supplement that ends: “The knowledge that there was a piece by Hamilton in the works was guaranteed to spread a sense of pleasure around the place.”

Peter Porter (essay date 18 January 2002)

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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 Review, the TLS, the New Review, his biographies, and his late and more expansive articles in a variety of literary journals. Nobody this century, not even Cyril Connolly, brought such distinction to what is carelessly dismissed as hack reviewing. If Hamilton's name was on the contents page, then the paper was worth opening.

His service to our own time, always at a level he would have expected from his last big subject, Matthew Arnold, was unmatched. So many of the more rigorous critics have been preoccupied chiefly by the established classics taught at the universities. There are splendid pages in Hamilton dealing with the tradition, Great or otherwise (for instance in his least appreciated and most original book, Keepers of the Flame); but the overwhelming majority of his critical assessments deal with contemporary writers. Just taking down some of his books and looking through their pages, you can remind yourself of brilliant and unflinching accounts of Frost, Eliot, Auden, Lowell, Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Salman Rushdie, Elizabeth Bishop, Ford Madox Ford and Evelyn and Auberon Waugh. And these are the bigger fish; the Hamilton eye rested just as carefully on writers not yet sorted into any order of fame. For Ian, criticism had an unswervable urgency. What was right in the past had to be just as right today. Many who came under his lash, he marked out as inadequate keepers of the flame. That such rigour should co-exist with a witty, romantic and generous personality was a paradox and an endearing one. The knowledge that friendship or jocular encounters would not prevent a savage review made knowing him truly valuable, even if sometimes chastening.

My meeting him coincided with the beginning of his tenure as Poetry and Fiction Editor of the TLS in 1965. Though I read the Review, which Ian had founded three years earlier, I couldn't claim familiarity, let alone comradeship with the Praetorians of that journal. Apologists, including Ian himself, wrote of the magazine as having in mind a particular kind of poem it wished to promote. To readers not within the charmed circle, it seemed rather more a bunch of Drakean fireships creating havoc among the over-heavy galleons of contemporary verse. Out of the mêlée good slim ships of poems would emerge, and indeed Ian's and Michael Fried's did. There were also lengthy tributes to serious poets, notably Lowell and Empson. Not all the pieces in the Review which made you think of Saint-Just haranguing the Revolutionary Tribunal were by Ian, but you didn't doubt that his was the informing spirit of the inquisition.

In many respects, Ian's work at the TLS was a broadening of his severe standards, and a recognition that a major literary journal could not be run as austerely as the Review was. But he was determined that his place on the paper would be used to bring into its ambience the best new writers and reviewers in the country. He gave many such their start—Russell Davies's debut was of Ian's commissioning, and among the brilliant contributors whose pronouncements remained anonymous, were Clive James, Rosemary Dinnage and John Fuller. My own debt to Ian at this time was great. I even attempted, with Ian's encouragement, the writing of egotistical think-pieces. The TLS regarded them as “middles”. Ian was on the staff but not always in the office, but the Editor, Arthur Crook, certainly knew his value.

I succeeded Ian early in 1973 as Poetry and Fiction Editor. This proved a brief episode, but it afforded me the opportunity to recognize what a marvellous editorial presence Ian Hamilton's was. Later, also in 1973, I took over Ian's old post as poetry critic of the Observer. The intellectual toughness which he and his predecessor, A. Alvarez, had maintained through so many Sundays changed to milder and less assertive sorts of literary means-testing under my jurisdiction. I often felt ashamed that I didn't have Ian's conviction that a mediocre poem was an offence in the nostrils of God. But Ian simply believed that poetry was the most serious thing you could do, and if you didn't believe that, you shouldn't do it.

After the TLS came Ian's founding of the New Review, probably his perihelion as a convener of talented people. However it was not popular with the superior archons of the Arts Council (with the honourable exception of Charles Osborne). Highbrow pictorial journalism, the kind of wider seriousness which gave F. R. Leavis nightmares, was in many ways the invention of the New Review and of Mark Boxer's Sunday Times colour supplement. Ian edited an anthology of the best of the New Review after it closed down, and various compilations of articles by major contributors appeared, among them collections of essays by Clive James and Jonathan Raban. James's Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage through the London Literary World is the comic epitome of those days. The title may have been a piece of presumption, but for the regulars at the New Review office or in The Pillars of Hercules, the pub next door, it seemed no more than the picaresque truth. And “Ian Hammerhead”, named after a ferocious-looking but gentle shark, was boss and onlie begetter.

With the New Review defunct, Hamilton turned to biography and eventually to books of all sorts, maintaining the while an incredibly high standard of journalism. To have become a jack of all trades in literature editing excellent selections of neglected poets such as Charlotte Mew, and compiling The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry—might have seemed a fate the young Editor of the Review would have dreaded. But it wasn't like that; Ian's spartan intellect had nothing priggish about it, and his love of good writing always proved a true guide, even when severe financial and emotional stringency beset him. His biography of Robert Lowell, a contemporary, is masterly; so is his analysis of the thwarted career of Matthew Arnold, A Gift Imprisoned.

Hamilton's poetry can be baffling to someone of my temperament, a member of the ranks of the “chapter-and-versifiers”. But the pick-up speed of a Hamilton poem is terrific. You are plunged from the start into a short span capped by an intense lyrical crisis. Generally, fewer than twelve lines are needed. Perhaps he took something from such masterpieces of acceleration as Empson's “Camping Out”. Certainly his poem “Ghosts” cannot be unaware of Hardy's tribute to William Barnes at Barnes's funeral:

The scrubbed, magnificently decked coffin
Skates, like a new ship, into the fiery deep.
On dry land,
The congregation rustles to its knees.
From my corner pew
I command an unobstructed view
Of your departure.
If you had been lying on your side
I might have caught your unsuspecting eye.
Out on the patio, at dusk,
The floral tributes. I could almost swear
That it was you I saw
Sniffing the wreath-scented air
And counting the bowed heads of the

The tributes paid to Ian Hamilton at his funeral in Wimbledon were among the most heartfelt and grief-stricken I have heard at the obsequies of a literary man. We mourn him, and go on mourning him, as Literature itself will also do.

Robert Potts (review date 1 April 2002)

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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 posthumously is an unfortunate coincidence that will be seen, journalistically, as an irony. It is his version of Samuel Johnson's Lives of the English Poets, an attempt to pick out the 50 dead English-language poets of the 20th century whose work is most likely to “survive”—whatever survival means. Looking back at Johnson's own sweep, Hamilton notes that only a handful—such as Pope, Swift, Milton and Dryden—have enjoyed the posterity foreseen for them at the time; many have faded from view totally, and several others are now known only by virtue of having been in Johnson's book. Given 100 or 200 more years, who can say how many, if any, of Hamilton's list might also have vanished?

Johnson's book was a commission; the list, for the most part, came from booksellers pushing their more successful poets. Hamilton's book was also a commission of sorts; the idea, he says, was “suggested to him” and “seemed a nice idea, if somewhat gimmicky, and I agreed to have a go”. The result is a piece of light entertainment, close to hack work: risk-free speculation in the poetic futures market. And if you find that metaphor a little coarse, you are right—though this is exactly the sort of language that Hamilton and many others adopt when viewing poetic activity. Against Oblivion is written in the language of market economics and military action. There are camps and there are careerists; success comes through bogus meritocracy or Darwinian struggle; movements “come to power”, “take control”, “recruit”; poets greedily eye the empty gallery and the crowded plinth.

The military element takes us back to Hamilton's own “career”. He was England's fiercest and most feared mainstream poetry critic in the 1960s and early 1970s, as well as a tireless (and generous, and much loved) shoestring editor, a passionate partisan. As the interview with Dan Jacobson printed in the London Review of Books after Hamilton's death shows clearly, Hamilton felt he was fighting a battle for the poetry he cared about, and for quality and rigour: “You clear the ground in which the poet comes up and might be allowed to flourish, and you wipe out the enemy. In order for the true thing to be heard, you suppressed the untrue thing, destroyed it. It was warfare. Any literary-political weapons I could summon to my cause, I summoned.” Even in that interview, there were signs that Hamilton almost recognised the problems of this Apocalypse Now attitude: that your own fanaticism might be indistinguishable from that of the “enemy”; and that you really needed a clear idea of the alternative you were proposing (other than a reverence for some of the already canonised dead).

As a critic, Hamilton was intelligent, witty and uncompromising—admirable, necessary qualities—and it is laudable that he stopped writing reviews of contemporary poetry when he realised that his rigour was being compromised by his friendships. But another question remains: when do principled discriminations tilt into prejudiced discrimination? In Against Oblivion, Hamilton sneers at anyone with a manifesto or “a programme”. Frequently, he notes that the poetry produced seldom lives up to the programme proposed. And yet, in the Jacobson interview, when discussing his role among his own generation, he admitted: “It could be said that we didn't find one voice that went on to assume a commanding position … I don't think we did. But I don't know whether that really matters.”

What one is left with is a large number of enemies, and an incoherent idea of what would constitute a good poem. One fears that, at times, Hamilton really did believe that the perfect poem—the only poem—was the sort of miniature, crystallised domestic insight that he pulled off so well a few times; and that England's finest postwar poet would be someone like Hugo Williams (this view, however bizarre, evidently does have some supporters). It could be said (in terms kinder than his own) that, after a lifetime of 60 small poems, the stylish youthful criticism and some decent biographical writing, Hamilton has left us with a final sneer of cold command in which we discover that almost no English-language poetry of the 20th century, in Britain, America and the Commonwealth, was any good. (Hardy, Eliot, Yeats and Auden do not have entries; they are the automatic qualifiers in Hamilton's poetry world cup.)

Of Robert Lowell, whom he knew and liked, and whose biography he wrote, Hamilton “ended up loving passionately about six poems in Life Studies”. As for his view of the rest of the poets in Against Oblivion, two things are striking. One is that, although Hamilton loathes modernism, he is forced to include a considerable number of its proponents, whom he then dismisses in the weary, philistine tones of movement orthodoxy. Another is the style: bitter, belittling, blokeish, boorish, with a tabloid relish for details of sexual activity and mental illness. Of Marianne Moore, “we can deduce the fact that she was probably of lesbian disposition”; Siegfried Sassoon was “rich, posh and well connected, and he was at pains to introduce the boy Owen to his circle of smart gays”; “to judge from photographs. [Weldon Kees] was by no means short of vanity”. The poets are thumbnail grotesques, promiscuous, homosexual, alcoholic, unfaithful, mad, suicidal, vain, careerist, sponging, neurotic, dull, cowardly. Their work fares almost as badly. If this book was indeed modelled on Johnson's Lives, it resembles most often his life of Swift. Even the choices of poems to accompany the biographies can be subtly undermining.

As to the parlour game (for what it is worth), some inclusions are arguably odd (Norman Cameron? Roy Fuller?), and some exclusions likewise (Basil Bunting? Frank O'Hara?), but the point is conceded early by Hamilton in any case: not only can we not predict posterity's verdict, but the present situation is endlessly contestable, too. Which is perhaps the point. Poetic activity is still too extensive for any one critic wholly to keep up with, despite fashionable fears about the closing of lists. No critic can act as a perfect gatekeeper or adjudicator, although myths of absolute authority are attractive; and the fiction that the visible canon is the result of pure meritocracy is a comfortable and convenient one for its members and their fans, as well as making journalism easier. To ask the question of what “posterity” means (inclusion in a university module? Presence in an anthology? Being read by one person, or by a hundred?) and why it is craved—well, that would take more serious thought than an ephemeral book such as Against Oblivion can offer.

Mick Imlah (review date 19 April 2002)

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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 competing, more or less aggressively, to join them, against odds (using Johnson as a yardstick) of about three to one. It is something, of course, to have carried the first hurdle.

Yet Against Oblivion might equally be compared to another Augustan classic, Pope's Dunciad. While Johnson's choice of subjects—from John Milton to Thomas Tickell—was largely imposed on him by the booksellers, Hamilton's is his own; but his own exacting judgment has not been applied in the selection process, which makes for a longer book and a much livelier one. Boswell was dismayed by Johnson's submissive attitude to his commission: would he write a Preface and a Life for any dunce's works? “Yes, Sir,” was the reply, “and say he was a dunce.”

Hamilton was not one of those editors—at the Review, the New Review or on the TLS—whom one could have accused of championing individual poets; his count of the number of his contemporaries he thought “any good” varied between “about two” and “maybe three”. Of the eighty poems he reprints here, it is safe to assume his whole-hearted admiration for no more than a couple: Robert Lowell's “Home After Three Months Away” and Philip Larkin's “Mr Bleaney”. Sometimes the samples seem chosen with ambivalent intent (is that windy extract from Preludes to Memnon—Two really the best of Conrad Aiken?). A handful of poets—Charlotte Mew, Dylan Thomas, Norman Cameron—escape with their reputations slimly enhanced. More often, Hamilton uses the forms of praise humorously, or over-precisely, in order to lay open larger failings. Roy Fuller, for example, exhibits “a curiously formal manner of despair which, in its stiff, bleak, rather stilted way, can be quite powerful”. And, of Robinson Jeffers, if “it has to be conceded that his tireless eye for oceanic detail and expanse is one of his most lasting strengths”, then the concession itself seems to go on for ever, and the critical commonplace of “lasting” is refreshed with mimetic and sarcastic overtones.

Outright abuse is not Hamilton's style, though he comes close in appraising the work, early and late, of “Hugh MacDiarmid” and in the last two sentences of his unillusioned dispatch of John Betjeman:

In 1976 came his autobiography—in verse and on TV—a work both tedious and twee called Summoned By Bells. Betjeman died in 1984.

He prefers in general to delegate execution to others; and in this he is well served by his subjects, especially by some of his Americans, who in their lust for “rankings” seem routinely to have rubbished one another. (See Stevens on Frost: “His work is full—or said to be full—of humanity”; Allen Tate on Randall Jarrell: “a self-adulating little twerp”; Jarrell on Tate, Theodore Roethke on everybody, etc.) One sentence, in the essay on Norman Cameron—“It was Cameron who described Stephen Spender as ‘the Rupert Brooke of the Depression’—a jest that [Geoffrey] Grigson treasured, and repeated as often as he could”—can thus convey something unfavourable about as many as four authors. It is remarkable that, through so much eager deployment of his own scalpel and the vitriol of others, Hamilton hardly ever seems mean-spirited or off-puttingly negative; rather, his insistence that no poet should be honoured as of right is felt as a gift to the reader. (He dares to call Pound's Cantos “a ‘major work’, which the whole world found incomprehensible but somehow got bullied into taking seriously.” Hurrah!) It is also, he convinces us, a just reaction to the effects of excessive self-promotion.

If a position emerges from the biographical portions of Against Oblivion, it is a stand against megalomania. Hamilton pounces on the most literal instances of poets cultivating a name: stating baldly that “John Berryman's real name was John Smith”; making mincemeat of the pose that was “e. e. cummings”; and gleefully appending, to R. S. Thomas's denunciation of his mother's failure to teach him Welsh, the parenthesis “(R. S. stands for Ronald Stewart)”. The uncomfortable truth of the matter, however—as embodied in Pound, in Frost, in the drunken ravings of Hart Crane (“I am Baudelaire! I am Whitman! I am Christopher Marlowe! I am Christ!”), and particularly in Robert Lowell—is that the urge to make poetry often goes with an unstable conviction of the superiority of the gifted self (or genius) to others. In the case of Lowell, whose Life Studies (1959) had been Hamilton's exemplary book, the genius bit was so destructive to those around him that it led Hamilton, in a disenchanted biography (1982), to join Elizabeth Bishop in wondering whether even these poems were worth it. In other cases, the swollen ego may forget the poetry that inflated it. If Theodore Roethke, in whom “inspiration was supplanted by ambition”, is therefore “a typical mid-century case study”, it follows that it is not with the poems, but with the business of poetry, the clamour for status and the competitive shenanigans, that Hamilton's survey seems centrally engaged.

In an interview with his friend Dan Jacobson given shortly before his death, of cancer, in December 2001, Hamilton declared that “every book I've written has some strong autobiographical element in it”. If this book is no exception, it is the stealthiest of autobiographies. There is, for a start, no hint of valediction, beyond the rugged joke of the title. And beside its cast of gushers, drunks and maniacs, his own poetic “career” seems almost absurdly reticent. His oeuvre—“gratifyingly compact”, according to his publishers—consisted of the same collection of poems reissued at intervals with additions; Sixty Poems, in the last revision, and short ones at that. If this reflects Hamilton's demandingly narrow idea of what, in our time, a poem should be—(to paraphrase) the as-if-spoken record of an intense personal experience with general interest or application—it also suggests he was too interested in others to be a poet of realized reputation: others, that is, who confirmed to him something about himself. One of his poems, “The Poet”, catches him, as if cribbing, “listening for other lives / Like his”; and so it was that biography of his own kind absorbed him. One of his late poems, “Biography”, is certainly about both self and another subject:

Who turned the page? When I went out
Last night, his Life was left wide-open,
Half-way through, in lamplight on my desk:
The Middle Years.
Now look at him. Who turned the page?

Against Oblivion lets us see both enterprises—the creative and the biographical—as putting to use such a fear, of being not neglected, or dried-up, but dead.

Karl Miller (review date 20 April 2002)

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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 the Poets for the Anglo-American poets of the modern world. A concern with the question of survival, with the verdicts of posterity, led to an omission from the list of the most assured reputations, for whom oblivion is unlikely to be a threat. The idea was to write the lives of some 50 poets who were no longer alive. Johnson's 50 were drawn from the work of two centuries, as against Hamilton's one; but there was still an embarrassment of choice. There must also have been a healthy sense that it would be worth placing together, in a plain-spoken summary account, the life and works of each of the poets, at a time when the impersonal fallacy, the delusion of a necessary disjunction of the two, has remained an article of faith in colleges of learning: an article of faith more honoured in the seminar, of course, than in the head.

For some people, it will no doubt seem impious to try to do what Johnson did, but I don't see why they shouldn't be asked to accept that Johnson is a lot more Hamiltonian than they may have suspected. Johnson spoke in his Lives of a highly praised first novel by the playwright Congreve, Incognita, or Love and Duty Reconciled, and freely confessed, ‘I would rather praise it than read it.’ Hamilton's enriching humour can strike the same note.

The joining-up dictum is Johnsonian, and so is: ‘The never unimpressive quantity of Aiken's output was assisted by the mellifluous vagueness of his content.’ So, too, is the statement that ‘literary success does not always depend on literature’. This refers to the presence in the history books of HD (Hilda Doolittle) and to her invention by Pound as an Imagist rising star. What else did she do, apart from being an Imagist? ‘Not much, seems to be the uninfatuated answer.’

With another American woman poet, the argument proceeds in the opposite direction. Poems are given in each case (except, for estate reasons, those of Sylvia Plath), and Edna St Vincent Millay's two poems indicate that she deserves better than her posthumous reputation as a more flamboyant HD. Being forgotten (or omitted) tends to be a chancy business, and some are sure to feel that there are less interesting poets on parade here—partly for illustrative reasons—than such absent friends as Walter De la Mare, Donald Davie and Norman MacCaig, and that Ian undervalues the early verse, in Lallans, of Hugh MacDiarmid.

It may be that Allen Tate, occasionally seen as the American T. S. Eliot, is present for illustrative or historical reasons. ‘Lynching,’ promised Tate, ‘will disappear when the white race is satisfied that its supremacy will not be questioned in social crises,’ and it isn't as if his poems make up for his opinions. Most of these poets, though, are here for supplying the ‘real thing’ that Ian Hamilton said he was after. Frost's skill and supremacy are properly respected, and their relation to the other facts of his life rewardingly explored, while in Weldon Kees he presents a poet with whom many in this country are unfamiliar and whom they might like.

He is right to lay stress on the by now traditional fear among poets that the world no longer has much use for what they do. ‘Even as the Romantic poet sanctified his calling, so he was made to feel that what he had to offer was not greatly in demand.’ When John Gibson Lockhart complained that his magazine, Blackwood's, carried a damned sight too much of the sort of verse that anybody could write and nobody would ever read, he did so at a time when publishers too were complaining that poetry was a drug on the market. A century later poetry became nervous, self-conscious, standoffish, ‘difficult’, ‘intelligent’, impersonal. Not everyone could write it any more. It became ‘smart to be obscure’, as Hamilton points out. Auden took care to be. And William Empson wrote notable poems which no one has been able to crack. Ian tells the tallish tale that Leavis asked Wittgenstein to explain them. The poets of living memory have had trouble actually saying the word—‘poetry’ became ‘paytry’ for more than one of them, in an age of dwindling emoluments. And what Hugh MacDiarmid made of its pronunciation baffles description.

Obscurantism and alienation are a downside of the efforts poets have made in order to secure the survival of their art, and they are an aspect of the problems poets face in addressing an audience. Hamilton deals with this very well. In finding the poetry of Marianne Moore worth praising, and indeed reading, he admits that ‘neither in the poems nor in the letters do we get much sense of an addressee’. Audience mattered to him, as it strikingly does not to other practitioners I have talked to.

There's a fine, funny chapter on the angry Welsh vicar, R. S. Thomas, in whom the problem of address was especially acute. He hated the English, hated having to write in their oppressor's language, couldn't write in Welsh and didn't like the Welsh either, least of all his flock. ‘We often get the feeling that for him the only good church was an empty one.’ His poems are good, however, in their ‘bare simplicity’, and are shrewdly sifted here.

John Berryman began ‘almost to revel in his own inaccessibility’, while suggesting to Hamilton that this despairing man plumbed a deeper despair in the knowledge that poets aren't able to help because they aren't listened to. But he was able to show that there are occasions when inaccessibility can communicate, can evoke or resonate:

I wish the barker would come.
          There seems to be to eat
Nothing. I am unusually tired.
I'm alone too.
If only the strange one with so
          few legs would come.

Berryman threw himself from a bridge—by no means the only poet in the book to commit suicide; and more than one of them lost their mothers at about the age of five to death or to institutions. Sickness and sadness and song have gone together, even more, perhaps, than in previous times.

Ian Hamilton's own poetry evolved from a conversance with distress and a conception of service, of a need to help, and is a mixture of compassion and self-possession. Good poems, he thought, should unite suffering and control. His desire as editor of the Review was for a poetry which would be like that of the then forgotten Imagists but would have more in the way of human content, and which also took in what Larkin and the distinctly human Movement were doing. His own poems have plenty of human content, for all the comparative narrowness of their repertoire of moods and themes.

He was very much a journalist, as Johnson was, and he possessed what academic critics have often lacked—a taste for poetry, as opposed to ingenuity, and an indifference to conventional or fashionable valuations. He had no wish to be a fathomer of the presiding complexities and difficulties. Hope for the real thing can lead critics into rancour, into a refusal to allow that there could be such a thing as a diversity of real things, or that literary play can be just as serious as literature's deadly earnest. Ian Hamilton was not in that sense Leavisian. He refers here to Randall Jarrell's ‘sizzling assassinations’, those of a poet-critic with the bite that artists are accustomed to apply to their fellow artists, and he too could be very severe when he was young. But his early vehemence let up, and I doubt if there's a page of gratuitous violence in the whole of these brief lives.

He can write with sympathy about writers who he thinks have gone wrong, comically wrong at times: his appreciative piece of 1997 about Cyril Connolly's is among the best and most brilliant of his performances. This last book is quite free of criticism's oblivion-conferring jealousy and self-interest. His service to literature was that of a pure spirit, which must sometimes have made his severities harder to bear. He was a man of letters who belonged to a different literary world from that of the editor who rang up a critic the other day to say that he'd heard that he was eager to attack the work of W. G. Sebald—who has just died, and is the author of that real thing, The Emigrants—and could the editor please publish the attack? The editor was turned down. But another editor managed to publish an attack soon afterwards. Editors now have little interest in poetry or in the prose that resembles it, as tends to be apparent in the put-downs they like to publish.

Hugo Williams (essay date 11 October 2003)

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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 crushed underfoot in an instant if he hadn't had a point worth making. Anything new in poetry is half a cleansing operation, and there were skiploads of quietly rotting material to be cleared away after the Movement had left town, some of it Davie's. The Review, the little magazine which Hamilton founded in 1962, presided over a transitional period, not some awful minimalist utopia. It was a hinge, and, despite allegations to the contrary, the door was always open. Come to think of it, it was lucky for him that something else was being called “pop poetry” at the time, otherwise the term might have been used to describe him. There was certainly a preference for Grub Street over academe, for open stuff which risked failure over strategies for never being found out, but that was a pretty elementary lesson in good taste then, and remains so. What Hamilton wanted was that poets should find themselves out. If the poetry was in the pictures, the politics was in the truth to experience.

Schmidt goes on to mount an attack of his own. How is it, he asks in wonder, “that Hamilton should be treated almost universally with nervous respect and considered a man of judgment and integrity when his literary-political manoeuvrings were so patently clear”? My point is that he wasn't treated with “nervous respect”, not in the beginning, when A Poetry Chronicle came out. Anyone who thought poetry was important enough to get emotional about and used his feelings to sharpen his wits was never going to get off lightly. It seems that Hamilton continues to infuriate, but I take exception to “a sour intelligence, a sour and souring imagination” (Schmidt). Three “sours” make one sour grape, I think. As someone who benefited greatly from Hamilton's mad desire to help people, I may not be the best person in the world to defend his universal sweetness, but I am not the only one to be left in his debt since his death.

Schmidt continues:

How could an emperor whose wardrobe was empty of history and prosody, whose empire excluded women, the voices of distinct classes and ethnicities, whose severity was grammar-school-high-table, not based on demanding generosity and expectation, occupy the throne for decades, affecting publishing, reviewing, teaching and broadcasting? The triumph of self-interest could hardly be more complete.

Schmidt misses the point that self-interest was the great, tragically missing ingredient in Ian's make-up. He operated from day to day, hand to mouth, cigarette to cigarette. He was a naturally dominant figure and, God knows, he tried to compensate for that. He could have slunk off to the academic life and done all right for himself, wowing captive audiences, but he chose to stick it out in Grub Street, even though there was little money in it, and smoked himself to death in the process. His last book, Against Oblivion, was completed against the clock, on courage, cigarettes and steroids. No self-interest there. The irony of the title is unbearable. The book could do nothing in the face of his own oblivion, but it might do something to stave off that of others.

The book was supposed to be a sort of twentieth-century version of Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets. It is made up of “mini-biographies, plus mini-critiques, of about fifty modern or near modern poets”. Hamilton's book might have been called Lives of the Poets itself, but Michael Schmidt got there before him with an altogether different sort of book, telling the story of English-speaking poetry “from Piers Plowman to post-modernists, from fifteenth-century Scotland to the Caribbean today”. A worthy slog, no doubt. But check this. In 1,097 closely packed pages (how the binding holds this pile together is a miracle), and notwithstanding his own declaration in PN Review that this poet, biographer and critic “occupied the throne for decades, affecting publishing, reviewing, teaching and broadcasting”, Schmidt cannot bring himself to make a single reference to Ian Hamilton, in a book mentioning about a thousand names. (Donald Davie is mentioned thirty times.)

Despite trying to write Hamilton out of history, Schmidt is clearly in awe of someone he perceives to be a masterful figure, a winged avenger, picking off the weak. Is it a case of transference? He offers us a glimpse of his true feelings: “Hamilton came to epitomise, for a non-native Englishman like myself, the enigma of English literary culture.” The frisson is palpable, but I have to tell him that you didn't have to be born in Mexico to fall under the spell. I was looking at the respective dates of the founding of Schmidt's PN Review (1972) and Hamilton's New Review (1974). Could it be that some of Schmidt's thunder went missing at that time?


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