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

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk