Book Of A Lifetime: The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, By John Gross

It would be difficult to imagine the average book group sitting down to ponder The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969) for it is about some highly obscure people. But while FJ Furnivall, Sir John Squire, Churton Collins and Christopher Cauldwell – to take a few of its more representative ornaments – may not be household names, it is a mark of John Gross's achievement that by the end of 300 or so scholarly pages you end up regarding them as figures of overwhelming interest, fit to justify possibly the most eye-catching of the sub-categories in Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship: "The hero as man of letters".

Gross's sub-title is "English literary life since 1800". What follows is essentially a history of home-grown literary criticism until the later 1950s – before, and to some extent during, the time it was successfully colonised by universities: from Francis Jeffrey's Edinburgh Review, founded in 1802, via FR Leavis's Scrutiny and The Great Tradition to some ominous prefigurings of the havoc about to be wreaked on criticism by literary theory and Marshall McLuhan's insistence that the medium was the message.

The Rise and Fall... appeared shortly after Gross, then in his mid-thirties, had given up academic life – he had been a Fellow of King's College Cambridge – for journalism. There is something horribly symbolic, consequently, in his insistence that the people who keep the wheels of literature turning tend to bread-and-butter book reviewers rather than grand campus panjandrums – that Orwell, say, on "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool", will always have the edge over Professor X and his Shakespeare Encyclopaedia.

What distinguishes his approach, together with a sense of humour and an impossibly racy style, is his sympathy with the succession of sometimes faintly ridiculous amateur critics who shuffle under his lens. The Scottish dissenting minister George Gilfillan (1813-78) with his strange, billowing style and his notoriously erratic judgments, is instantly marked down as "the McGonagall of criticism", but then, having noted a few of his absurdities, Gross sees the point of him, commends to his passionate Liberalism and draws comparisons with Macaulay that aren't at all to the great historian's advantage.

In the end, this book's significance is two-fold. On the one hand it performs the difficult task of showing how the literary world at various points in its pre-history worked, the alliances that sustained it and the critical orthodoxies that underwrote its judgments. On the other, for anyone who makes their living out of literature, it is a kind of apologia pro vita sua – a justification of the book reviewer's art and a defence of a tradition in whose absence modern English Literature would more or less cease to exist.

DJ Taylor's new novel is 'At the Chime of a City Clock' (Constable)

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all