A Little Order
As American literature came of age in the twentieth century, the United States produced a great number of major artists who captured the attention of most American readers of fiction. As a result, many English writers who might in an earlier age have interested the American reading public passed most of their careers unnoticed except for the occasional work which achieved some attention on this side of the Atlantic. One such writer is Evelyn Waugh, whose sixteen novels, assorted biographies and travel works, and collections of short stories passed in and out of print attracting little notice among Americans except for those few specially attuned to the state of the English literary scene. In fact, Waugh is best known in America primarily as the author of the novel The Loved One because it was used as the basis for the satiric movie of the same name, a movie remembered for its viciously black-humored attack on what Jessica Mitford called the American way of death.
Lately, however, Waugh has been undergoing a revival of interest in America not so much because of his fictional output but because of his distinctive personality. The recent publication of his Diaries (1976) and his Letters (1980) makes clear that what is now interesting about Waugh is not the work of a literary career but the occasional and private writings which, one hopes, will reveal the man behind the works. The present volume, A Little Order, is much in this vein. It brings together a selection of Waugh’s journalistic output from the full range of his adult career, grouped conveniently under topical headings—pieces devoted to discussions of himself, pieces of art criticism and commentary on culture, discussions of books and writers, pieces on contemporary political circumstances, and, finally, essays and reviews related to religion, especially Catholicism.
Several things must be said at the outset. In the first place, the editor of this volume, Donat Gallagher, has exercised great selectivity. Many pieces are only excerpts of longer works. Many of Waugh’s more famous pieces, the more acid ones, are not included. Even so, the overall quality of the work is uneven. Many of these essays and reviews reflect the haste that is part of the world of daily journalism. Others require an understanding of issues and controversies long-dead if readers are to grasp the significance of what Waugh is getting at in them. For these pieces, their appearance here will be chiefly of interest to fans of Waugh who want to read everything he wrote or to scholars of the English literary and cultural scene since World War I. Occasionally, however, the pieces gathered here reveal that mastery of language and style which sets Waugh apart from many of his contemporaries, or that penetrating insight into the foibles and failures of modern life which makes his novels of continuing interest. To have these works conveniently arranged and printed in this volume makes this book of more than passing significance.
Perhaps the current interest in Waugh the man is a reflection of the current conservative mood in American life. Certainly, his personal combination of conservatism in political matters, his defense of the English class system, and his devotion to Catholicism make him more at home with a relatively small segment of American society. For example, his persistence in...
(The entire section is 1384 words.)