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 arguing that the English monarchy was the source of all political authority in England, and his refusal to vote for members of parliament because that might suggest that sovereignty was vested in the people, are attitudes with which few Americans would feel comfortable. What is intriguing about Waugh is the shock of discovering a man who is so totally opposed to most of what happened in culture, art, and politics in the past fifty years. Waugh adopted that attitude early in his adult life, this collection reveals, and he cultivated that image with meticulous care and diligence until the end of his life.
For, clearly, Waugh found in his public persona a marketable pose, one that attracted attention precisely because of its outrageousness. As Samuel Johnson once said about women preaching in the eighteenth century, the thing that attracts attention is not how well it is done, but that it is done at all. In Waugh’s comments on contemporary culture, there is precisely that combination of pointing out over-blown claims and human foibles and advocating alternatives blatantly impossible and unworkable that at once delights and infuriates. People know that there is a good measure of human fallibility and pretension in all that is done; it is delightful to find that pointed out, for it makes people more honest with themselves and others. The extent to which Waugh delights the reader is a measure of the degree to which people enjoy seeing the other man’s ox gored; the extent to which he enrages readers is a good measure of their own pretentiousness. These are the qualities that make Waugh’s novels entertaining; when they appear in these occasional pieces, they lend a more universal appeal to controversies long-forgotten.
There remain aspects of Waugh’s public mask, however, that continue to annoy. For many writers of any political or cultural stripe, their career in writing is a high and noble calling, demanding the profoundest learning and wisdom. For Waugh to claim that he backed into his writing career because “it was the only way a lazy and ill-educated man could make a decent living” may appear as genteel self-effacement; it also demeans the character of those who take writing more seriously. Waugh’s own career also gives the lie to his comment; a “lazy and ill-educated man” could not have produced either the volume or the erudition of his oeuvre.
In the same mode, Waugh’s depth of Christian faith is not open to question. The snideness of his attitude toward others of equal faith who do not happen to share his devotion to the more arcane aspects of some theological explanations of Christian belief is distressing, however, precisely because it goes against the profound biblical injunctions to charity and acceptance and reconciliation. Even as Waugh was aristocratic in temperament, so he was an aristocrat of the faith. He was unable to reach out in love to those who did not share the particular collection of doctrines he found attractive. He actively sought the role of Christian apologist, yet in a profound sense he failed because of the narrowness of the tradition to which he responded, and his haughty treatment of those who did not respond in just that way to the same narrow tradition.
The leaven in all this, however, is the generosity with which he did respond to those people, including a good number of writers, who met with his approval. This volume is filled with essays of appreciation which are lyrical and deeply moving. They reveal depths of the man unaccounted for in his conventional presentation of his persona. As Paul Fussell has pointed out in his recent study of English travel literature between the wars (Abroad, 1980), when Waugh was working outside the narrow confines of the English social setting in which he set up his public mask, he was capable of a responsiveness and openness that he denied to himself in his more conventional setting. Some of the pieces collected here reveal this, more human, side of the man.
In short, this volume has all the strengths and weaknesses of such anthologies of occasional work, in that it reveals both the richness of an attitude toward life and the limitations of the man who held it. Fans of Waugh will like it, for they will find in it more of what to look for in his longer, major work. Students of his age will appreciate it because it offers work that gives the flavor of that age, work echoing the immediate social situation in ways that longer, more considered pieces cannot provide. The rest of us will respond as we might to the man himself, alternately delighted and enraged, as perhaps he would want us to respond. As we become more aware of and interested in the middle years of the twentieth century as a period now open to historical study, we will find Waugh a convenient guide to some of its complexities, and this volume a helpful guidebook.
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