Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In the summer of 1937, having found his father’s religious-secular synthesis personally untenable, David Daiches, son of Salis Daiches, a leading rabbi in Edinburgh, departed from a tradition that had produced an unbroken line of Daiches rabbis from the time of the Middle Ages. He resigned his fellowship at Balliol College, University of Oxford, where he had been writing his doctoral dissertation on English translations of the Hebrew Bible; he accepted an academic position at the University of Chicago so that back in Edinburgh his father “would not feel embarrassed,” and he was married to his beloved Isobel Mackay.

By the late 1980’s, Daiches had written and edited more than twenty-five books and taught as a tenured and visiting professor at more than fifteen major universities, including Cornell University and the University of Cambridge. His books include The Novel and the Modern World (1939), Poetry and the Modern World: A Study of Poetry in England Between 1900 and 1939 (1940), Virginia Woolf (1942), Robert Louis Stevenson (1947), A Study of Literature for Readers and Critics (1948), Robert Burns (1950), Milton (1957), The Present Age After 1920 (1958), A Critical History of English Literature (1960), Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction (1971), Sir Walter Scott and His World (1971), and God and the Poets (1984).

Two Worlds: An Edinburgh Jewish Childhood, one of three autobiographical works, is best described as a memoir, since it deals exclusively with a life segment so influenced by Daiches’ father. Daiches first reveals himself as a lonely six-year-old and ends as a mature adult twenty-six years later, at the time of his father’s death. In the second work, A Third World (1971), Daiches describes his life in the United States: at the University of Chicago, at Cornell, and at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. The third work, Was: A Pastime from Time Past (1975), is more experimental in style than the two previous books and may be an attempt to reconcile differences for a mature synthesis.

Two Worlds is relatively short, 152 pages, and carefully focused. In eight chapters Daiches describes his life as a child about to enter Watson’s Boys’ College; his experiences at school and at home with his family—brother, sisters, mother, father, and paternal grandparents; his family vacations; his father’s great legal battle and triumph against a rabbinical impostor; and the resolution Daiches achieved of conflicts generated by his life in two worlds.