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What Was Lost

Jim Smyth

The Nostalgic Imagination: History in English Criticism, by Stefan Collini, Oxford University Press, 246 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0198800170

Stefan Collini is a public intellectual who writes about English public intellectuals, mostly of the middle decades of the twentieth century; that is, loosely, the period stretching from the 1920s into the 1960s and characterised by Noel Annan as Our Age. It was an age of “mandarins” (like Annan himself), literary magazines, and a bullish aversion to theoretical abstraction, in the English empiricist tradition. In the 1950s that received hostility towards grand theory melded smoothly into the so-called “end of ideology” proclaimed by cultural cold warriors, not least in the pages of their house journal, Encounter, a literary magazine covertly subsidised by the CIA. Historical studies was perhaps the most implacably empirical among the academic disciplines at the time, although a small but brilliant cohort of Marxists persistently ignored that party line. The predominant professional historical mode was narrowly specialised, archive-bound, and, as Hugh Trevor-Roper put it, “desiccated”. Kingsley Amis parodied current academic obscurity in his novel Lucky Jim, whose eponymous anti-hero is writing an article on “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485”. Little wonder then that the number of history titles published during the 1950s flatlined. Instead, the reading public were catered to by the likes of the hugely popular “last Whig”, GM Trevelyan, the best-selling Tory blimp Arthur Bryant and the first “tele-don”, the irrepressible AJP Taylor. Collini argues, however, that yet another type stepped into the space opened up by the professionals’ “retreat” from “general History” ‑ the literary critic.

If in retrospect that proposition sounds improbable, that may be because back then certain literary critics achieved such a high public profile, and the practice of literary criticism possessed such range and analytic ambition, and enjoyed such intellectual authority, that it is now hard at first to credit. Historians, in full flight from the supposedly discredited grand narratives of “The Whig Interpretation of History”, contented themselves, in GN Clark’s crisp formulation, with the pursuit of “truth about this or that, not about things in general”; literary scholars meanwhile loftily delineated whole epochs in single sentences. And if that seemed cavalier (in more than one sense of the word) to this or that “fact-grubber”, that is because the “evidence” on which the critics drew was not the official record, but literature itself. “The claim that I am making,” states LC Knights in Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (1937), “is that the essential life of a period is best understood through its literature.”

Knights was an acolyte of FR Leavis, the most famous English critic of his day, and contributed to the unsparing Leavisite journal Scrutiny. And the master himself never shied at asserting vast confident historical generalisations, such as that in the later seventeenth century “the notion of society as an organism gave way to that of society as a joint-stock company”. Leavisites performed close readings of texts, as the title Scrutiny suggests, which they combined with appraisals of literary value and – their signature accolade – moral “seriousness”. Literary criticism functioned also as social analysis of past society – the development of a reading public for example – which in turn furnished standards of reference for contemporary cultural critique. The capaciousness and self-assurance of the project is underscored by the fact that a number of Leavis’s students, trained in parsing “the words on the page”, went on to become social anthropologists.

TS Eliot supplied the leitmotif for that sort of historical and cultural criticism in a 1921 review essay which identified a “dissociation of sensibility” in seventeenth century society. Eliot argued that once upon a time the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans nourished a unified sensibility, and shared a common culture and language, but that “something had happened to the mind of England”, some fundamental change had occurred (the Civil War? the scientific revolution? ‑ the vagueness is wholly characteristic), which ripped the fabric of social cohesion, and fragmented the integrated relationship between writer and reading public. The rot set in and it has been a story of cultural decline ever since.

The declinists never calibrated the chronology of cultural descent precisely however, nor were their particular accounts always consistent with each other, but the outlines are nonetheless clear enough: a once “organic” community succumbed to the imperatives of commerce, the soullessness of scientific rationalism and, most corrosively of all, to the ravages of industrialisation. A vital common culture gave way to a cheapened mass society. “Serious” literature, by the likes of Bunyan, George Eliot, or DH Lawrence, revealed lived experience, and acted as an antidote to the teaming vulgarity of modernity. The assumption of that historical framework explains how Knights, writing in the 1930s about drama in the early decades of the 1600s, could interject on “the emotional and intellectual muddlement of the readers of the Daily Mail”.

The politics of cultural pessimism are complex. Disdain for popular newspapers and entertainments by a High Church Tory like Eliot is only to be expected, but the Leavisite advocacy of cultivated taste among a (beleaguered) minority comprised an elitist attitude difficult to reconcile with any democratic ethos. And so the work of two left-wing, semi-detached, heirs to Leavis in the late 1950s, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, had to wrestle with that contradiction. Both Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, and Williams’s Culture and Society, resist neat classification; the first is a hybrid of sociology, memoir, cultural analysis and jeremiad, the second is part literary criticism, part intellectual history, part polemic. Both are appalled by the debasement of contemporary consumer society. The glare of advertisements in the London underground gave Williams “violent headaches”; Hoggart complained of paperbacks “which make ragged and gaudy the windows of the stationer, the new magazine shops and the station bookstalls”.

In our age of online pornography and “reality” television, all that sounds rather quaint. From Eliot to Williams, were not these mid-twentieth-century cultural pessimists merely indulging the perennial human urge to idealise or romanticise the past? Imagined golden ages, the concept of decadence, the decline of the West, moral panic, the return of the king, make America great again, Victorian values, the good old days, the ancients and the moderns, are all, in some form or other, familiar tropes throughout recorded history. To Eliot’s mind Europe took a wrong turn at the time of the Renaissance. And while Hoggart, the most literally nostalgic of the critics under consideration, repeatedly welcomed the improved material conditions of the 1950s, he even more strongly lamented how consumerism had dissolved the solidarities of pre-war working class communities. In the words of his near contemporary, Max Bygraves, “Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be”. But, as William Empson, the virtuoso odd man out in the Leavis-era cohort, understood, things never were like they used to be. “I don’t believe and have never believed,” he confessed, “that a social and literary ‘dissociation of sensibility’ ever occurred. I don’t even believe that everything is getting worse and worse.”

If Empson was right ‑ and Collini does refer to Eliot’s “gnomic” and “throw away remarks” – what value if any does the declinist genre retain? Well first, several of these critics demonstrate the analytic rewards of close reading, a technique which the intellectual historian Collini himself deploys to good effect. Second, close scrutiny of the literature of a period can yield fine historical insights. Consider the operation of the free market, as economic wrecking-ball of community, custom, heritage, tradition. Jacobean dramatists, observed Knights, did not regard “aggressively acquisitive behaviour as normal”. The great English Marxist historian EP Thompson greatly admired Knights’s book, and it is not hard to see why. “The dramatic treatment of economic problems showed them as moral and individual problems which in the last analysis they are,” argued the Leavisite critic. Thompson ‑ who in the late fifties test-ran the term “socialist humanism” ‑ concurred: “economic relationships are at the same time moral relationships; relations of production are at the same time relations between people, of oppression or of co-operation: and there is a moral logic as well as an economic logic, which derives from these relationships. The history of class struggle is at the same time the history of human morality.” Consider the housing market today. Cassandra, remember, gets it right in the end.


Jim Smyth is emeritus professor of history in the University of Notre Dame and editor of Remembering the Troubles, Contesting the Recent Past in Northern Ireland.



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