BOOK REVIEW / What the grocer saw: 'The Intellectuals and the Masses' - John Carey: Faber, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
ON THE strength of this book I predict a brilliant future for John Carey as a tabloid columnist. You may feel that as Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, the author of the finest studies of Dickens and Thackeray to have appeared in the last 20 years and doyen of English literary reviewers, he does not exactly need a new career opening, but here, nevertheless, lies one for him to follow.

For if ever there was a work which flaunted the modish cultural iconoclasm of the hour, it is this elaboration of his T S Eliot Memorial Lectures, subtitled 'Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880-1939'. Eliot himself, it should be said, does not emerge with much credit from Carey's sustained assault on the degenerate elitism of British intellectuals, but then nor does anybody else except G K Chesterton, Alfred Harmsworth and the editors of Tit-Bits. Can it be long until he is out there, beside Paul Johnson and Norman Stone in the Spectator or the Evening Standard, brandishing his vorpal sword against the jabberwocky of literary pretentiousness?

In fairness to Carey, his aims are probably not quite so vulgar, and it would be wrong to see The Intellectuals and The Masses as merely another approved text on the syllabus of right-wing political correctness. Its targets are more blurred, its origins more intriguingly ambiguous. Submitting a problem for our appraisal but offering no solutions to it, he discloses, in the process, several of his own fears and obsessions. The book is, as a result, more interesting on Carey himself than on the topics it professes to examine.

His thesis is a simple one: that much of Modernist literature and art can be interpreted as a hostile reaction to the mass culture that was created, at the close of the 19th century, by the spread of literacy and the boom in urban populations. Swiftly intellectuals retreated into a kind of private garden, walled with their venomous disgust. They hated crowds, which were stupid, anarchic, smelly and grotesque; they hated suburbs, violating their reveries of pastoral childhood and the ancient graces and decencies of rural feudalism; they abhorred the power of cheap newsprint, with its human-interest stories and wheezes for self-betterment; and they feared the rise of the clerk, the lowbrow incarnate, with his bicycle and his cheeky-chap slang, living in Peckham and shopping at Selfridge's.

Carey unearths some glorious evidence of these creeping terrors. He has fun with Graham Greene (whom he clearly detests), who wrinkled a distasteful nostril in the streets of Nottingham and finally declared: 'One sees absolutely no one here of one's own class. It destroys democratic feelings at birth.' Carey then invites us to share in his scorn at Clive Bell's archetypal Bloomsbury distinction between 'what the grocer thinks he sees' and the secret messages relayed by works of art to 'educated persons of extraordinary sensibility'.

After four chapters of audaciously sweeping generalisations, the book shifts its focus to individual case-studies, giving Carey a chance to do what he most enjoys, putting on the surgical gloves and poking a critical lancet into some choice literary entrails. The hapless George Gissing is reduced by this process, to 'a black amalgam of disgust, despair and loathing that vented itself in denunciation of the masses and their degradation', while H G Wells, for all his temperamental horror of compulsion, comes to grief in crazy dreams of human improvement through an enforced eugenic holocaust.

The publishers of this book claim that its author 'presents a case that will send shock-waves through the literary and academic establishments'. Alas, it won't, for various reasons. One is the central weakness of Carey's argument, another the sheer tendentious dogmatism with which he presents it.

Why, for one thing, take 1880 as the terminus post quem? Artistic creativity, by its very nature, has always involved an otherness, a sense of alienation from the herd. Hasn't Carey listened to Horace's 'Odi profanum vulgus', Chaucer's fling at the 'fickle peple unstable and ever untrewe' or Shakespeare's pathological blasting, in play after play, of the 'mutable, rank-scented many'? It is all very well to absolve Stevie Smith because she liked living in Palmer's Green, or to pat Arnold Bennett on the head for waxing lyrical on central-heating systems and vacuum cleaners, but it seems wilfully eccentric to omit any mention of either Ruskin or Matthew Arnold - both of whom are central, we might have thought, to the discourse.

Maybe he left them out on purpose. Heaven knows, there is enough wrenching the true cause the false way to suit the author's intentions: see, for instance, his exultant misinterpretation of Forster's treatment of Leonard Bast, the clerk as martyr, in Howard's End. Add to this a tendency to sub-Wildean glibness - 'Intellectuals believe in giving the public what intellectuals want; that, generally speaking, is what they mean by education' - and a deliberate silliness (seeking to belittle Scrutiny, say, by comparing its circulation with that of a newspaper), and the book's credentials seem distinctly dubious.

What in the end does all this rubbishing amount to, beyond a standard 'art's-just-for-toffs' line which most people are currently too craven to shout down? Carey cannot seriously want us to applaud the arrogance of the tabloid press , or the moralizing aesthetic which recoils in horror from Greek sculpture and Don Quixote because Hitler happened to appreciate them both; yet, buttoned tightly into his cultural commissar's uniform, he offers us little choice in such matters.

The practice of fouling the nest is well enough known among writers and academics for us not to be surprised at Carey's achievement. He can retire safely to his professorship, another intellectual establishing street cred by trashing his kind. Oh for the Leavises] I never admired them both so profoundly until I read this book.