Professor David Daiches
Leading authority on Scottish literature and first Professor of English at Sussex University
Monday 18 July 2005
David Daiches was a leading and long-standing authority on Scottish literature, the author and editor and introducer of books on Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns, James Boswell, Walter Scott (whom he is credited with reviving), Robert Louis Stevenson and Hugh MacDiarmid, as well as writing such influential books as The Paradox of Scottish Culture (1964). Brought up in Edinburgh, where too he died, he was however a native Englishman, the son of an immigrant Lithuanian rabbi, and most of his academic career was spent out of Scotland - in Oxford, Cambridge and the United States and then, from 1961 until his formal retirement in 1977, at Sussex University, where he was the first Professor of English. His output of published work, not only on Scottish literature, but across the board of English literature, was monumental.
Born in Sunderland in 1912, Daiches was the younger son of Rabbi Dr Salis Daiches, a distinguished rabbinical scholar who had settled in England five years earlier. Daiches père was born in Vilna, Lithuania, and obtained his PhD in Leipzig with a dissertation on the relationship of David Hume's philosophy to history (an interest very close to that of his son's subsequent preoccupations). Although his mother tongue was Yiddish he abandoned this for Hebrew. His elder brother, Rabbi Samuel Daiches, became a professor at Jews College, the orthodox seminary training rabbis. David Daiches and his own elder brother, Lionel, a future QC, were the first generation to break with the rabbinical family tradition - they were descended from a long line of rabbis going back at least 500 years.
In March 1919 the family - there were two daughters as well, Sylvia, who would marry the philosopher David Daiches Raphael, and Beryl - moved to Edinburgh, where Salis Daiches became minister at the Graham Street Synagogue and subsequently the unofficial Jewish spiritual leader in Scotland. In his powerful autobiography Two Worlds: an Edinburgh Jewish childhood (1957), David Daiches writes that the move to Edinburgh
was the true beginning of my life as I remember it for I remember my childhood as a developing relation between family tradition and my sense of Edinburgh.
This sense of duality, of living in two worlds, was to pervade Daiches's life and work. Educated at George Watson's College, where he was unable to participate in school games or sports or the literary society which met on Friday nights, Daiches
was equally at home with both [the two cultures of my childhood]. That was my good fortune, and I have never ceased to be grateful for it.
He writes most movingly in his autobiography of his father, his mother, schooldays and Edinburgh upbringing:
the city had no barriers against me; the sights and sounds and smells of Edinburgh crowded in upon my senses day after day and year after year.
Already at school he wrote poems. His first publication was a poem printed in the school magazine, The Watsonian, when he was 11. In his final year at school, 1930, he walked off with various prizes, winning a scholarship to Edinburgh University, whence he graduated in 1934 with first class honours in English Literature.
Daiches read English because of his passion for poetry. At Edinburgh special influences were H.J.C. Grierson, the great John Donne and Walter Scott scholar, and the Shakespearian scholar John Dover Wilson. Daiches wrote articles, reviews, poems and letters for The Student during the years 1932-34, under the pseudonym "Quidam", and ran the university English Literature Society. The first publication he ever edited belongs to this period - Private Business (1933), a collection of poems by him and his contemporary student poets in the society Sorley MacLean and Robert Garioch.
In 1934 Daiches won an Elton Exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford. In a memorial address to the English Department at Aberdeen University 60 years later, with characteristic frankness he recalled that "because I wasn't used to handling money I spent my three years' money in my first year and I had nothing left to complete my Oxford doctorate". He
wrote to Grierson . . . and I asked him if he could give me an assistant lectureship at the University for a year so that I could recoup my finances and go back to Oxford to finish my doctorate. By return of post . . . I got a letter of appointment.
He went back to Balliol as Andrew Bradley Fellow for 1936 to 1937, the year in which he married Isobel ("Billie") Mackay, a fellow student at Edinburgh. He also "for my father's sake" accepted an academic position in America at the University of Chicago. His son's marriage to a gentile placed his father, an orthodox rabbi, in an embarrassing situation.
David and Isobel had one son and two daughters, one of whom, Jenni Calder, is herself a distinguished poet and literary critic; she writes movingly about both her parents in Not Nebuchadnezzar: in search of identities (2005). Daiches received his DPhil in 1939 for a thesis on the development and sources of the King James Version of the 1611 English Bible with special reference to the Hebrew tradition (published as The King James Version of the English Bible, 1941). Following four years at Chicago, and war service in the British Embassy in Washington, Daiches was a very popular and influential professor at Cornell. He writes of this American period in A Third World (1971). His students included Harold Bloom and his friendship with a colleague, the critic of Romanticism Meyer Abrams, led to the influential textbook The Norton Anthology of English Literature (first published in 1962 and now in its seventh edition). Daiches was responsible for the 20th-century section.
During these years, in addition to producing 11 books, innumerable academic articles and reviews, Daiches wrote a lot of poetry published in The New Yorker. He and his family later spent Christmases with the Abrams family cruising in the Caribbean. But in 1951, making what he subsequently described as an unfortunate career move, he and his family returned to Britain.
He spent the next decade teaching at Cambridge, and writing prolifically. His Critical Approaches to Literature (1956) and his scholarly and analytical multi-volume A Critical History of English Literature (1960) both, as so much of his work, anticipated future literary fashions and concerns, recognising the crucial role played by literary criticism and theory in literary study. His earlier books Virginia Woolf (1942) and Willa Cather: a critical introduction (1951) anticipated by nearly half a century feminist concerns and interests. The Novel and the Modern World (1939) and Poetry and the Modern World: a study of poetry in England between 1900 and 1939 (1940) prefigured many of the concerns of the later historians of modernism, while his earlier Literature and Society (1938), exploring the complex relationship between the production of literature and the social conditions in which the writer lives, anticipates cultural-studies concerns at the end of the 20th century. It also gave Daiches rather a "left-wing" reputation.
At Cambridge, Daiches continued his reviewing activities in The Manchester Guardian, the TLS, New Republic, New Statesman, New York Times Book Review, Commentary and similar newspapers and journals on both sides of the Atlantic. He also began broadcasting frequently on the radio: his appearances on The Brains Trust made him a national celebrity and radio voice.
From 1961 Daiches was involved with Sussex University, initially as one of its founding fathers. The Idea of a New University: an experiment in Sussex (1964), edited by Daiches, explains the ideas behind the university and its foundations. In his essay "The Place of English Studies in the Sussex Scheme", he describes his differing experiences of the academic study of English and his conception of a new School of English and American Studies. Following his retirement in 1977, Daiches moved back to Edinburgh, where he lived until his death, actively involved in the cultural and intellectual life of Scotland.
The first of Daiches's 50 odd books, The Place of Meaning in Poetry, was published in 1935. A Weekly Scotsman and Other Poems containing 75 of his poems spanning six decades appeared in 1994. Aside from the mass of journalism and academic articles, he was also editor of general series including "Studies in English Literature" published by Arnold from 1961 to 1985, to which he contributed what may be regarded as the best short critical analysis of George Eliot's Middlemarch (1963).
Daiches published extensively on Walter Scott's achievement as a novelist and advocated Scott's cause as a consummate artist in the years in which Scott was out of critical fashion. In 1984 he became the vice-chairman of the advisory board of the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels; indeed he has been described as the godfather of this great ongoing edition. Hugh MacDiarmid, whose At the Sign of the Thistle Daiches favourably reviewed in Life and Letters in 1934, referred to Daiches as the "foremost living authority on [Scottish] literature". He was also the chair of the advisory board for the ongoing edition of The Collected Works of James Hogg.
In addition to his frequent broadcasts on the radio and television appearances, Daiches's sound recordings include a memorable discussion with Barbara Hardy on George Eliot and Jane Austen and readings with L.C. Knights from Hamlet and The Tempest. A pioneer of American studies in Britain, Daiches made significant contributions to many areas of literary studies including the modern novel, English biblical and 18th- and 19th-century studies. But poetry was his first love. As well as writing poetry, he produced powerful new critical explications of passages from writers as diverse as Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats and Dylan Thomas.
In historical perspective Daiches's contributions to Scottish literature and culture may perhaps be regarded as his most significant. All his writing is pervaded with a sense of the duality that he experienced in growing up in Edinburgh. He sees dualities in the work of many Scottish writers - Stevenson, Allan Ramsay, MacDiarmid, James Thomson. The range and depth of his knowledge of Scottish literature is extensive: from Henryson and Dunbar to Fergusson and Burns, through to the late 20th century. In the words of his daughter Jenni, "There is no one who has done more than he has to regenerate engagement with Scottish literature and the wider Scottish cultural context."
Daiches's non-literary works extend from his evocations of the history and topography of Scotland's two first cities, in Glasgow (1977) and Edinburgh (1978), to Literary Landscapes of the British Isles: a narrative atlas (written with John Flower, 1979) to Charles Edward Stuart: the life and times of Bonnie Prince Charlie (1973) to Scotland and the Union (1977). Where his father the rabbi was a connoisseur of Havana cigars, David Daiches became known for his expertise in the national drink: his Scotch Whisky: its past and present (1969) was something of a best-seller, especially in Japan, and is still in print. Daiches indicates that the US is the world's largest consumer of Scotch and that most of the Scotch whisky consumed there is blended. Joel Sayre remembers that at Cornell Daiches mentioned that Mortlach, single malt was sold in New York at Macy's:
On his next trip to Manhattan he dropped in at Macy's to stock up his Mortlach supply. "Sorry, but some damn fool prof up at Ithaca recommended it to his students, and we're all out."
I remember, on my taking up my first academic position (an overseas one), a visit from Daiches. A colleague put Daiches's whisky expertise to the test by pouring a cheap brand into a bottle with an expensive label. As soon as the bottle was open, Daiches's small nostrils sniffed out by instinct that something was wrong. Not a drop passed his lips.
My first experience of Daiches was during his very early years at Sussex. In 1962, in makeshift quarters in Preston Road, Brighton, he interviewed me, a very inadequately qualified candidate, for undergraduate admission at the university (it then had as many applications, perhaps more, than Oxbridge for places). I still possess the small piece of Cambridge University Faculty of English paper upon which Daiches wrote down the first five lines of Measure for Measure. After discussing intensely every word for what must have been at least 15 minutes, he looked at me with his intense bright eyes, small moustache, slightly arched eyebrows, and told me that I would either get a First or a Third, nothing in between (how right he was). He offered me an unconditional place.
My last glimpse of him was at Edinburgh in the early 1990s. His study in his Belgrave Crescent flat was lined with books towering upwards to the high ceiling threatening to collapse upon the frail bald dome beneath. As he opened the door for me to leave, he pointedly touched his father's Old Testament. The silence was uncharacteristic and spoke volumes. As a first-year undergraduate finding Milton very difficult to understand, with temerity I went to Daiches for an explication of lines about "free will". Daiches stopped, looked at me, and said that he had asked his father the very same question and his reply concerned the necessity to have faith in spite of everything.
Daiches's lectures were replete with brilliant insights. Almost half a century later I recall his explication of Shakespeare's sonnets, of the relationships in them between personal affection and money contained in a word such as "dear". Comments on Yeats's "Byzantium" poems contained an overwhelming sense of mutability: the line "Of what is past, or passing, or to come" having all the tenses subsumed. The illusion of all time conquered in Keats' "Ode to Autumn" and the brilliant observation in Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning" that in a secular world the pigeon replaces the dove.
One of the last polymaths, a self-confessed eclectic, Daiches spent his last years in his beloved Edinburgh. The publication at 81 of his poems gave him great pleasure, as did the increasing recognition of his crucial role in the rediscovery of Scottish literature. He didn't lack his share of personal and professional disappointments. These included the rejection by Scottish universities where he applied for positions in the post-war years, his failure to get the Chair at Edinburgh he was so evidently qualified for, or a knighthood, and the death of his first wife Billie within days of their return to Edinburgh.
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