It’s the little things that count

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals.

When I was a student at university in the 1980s there were no courses on middlebrow literature, the term given to popular novels published in English between 1900 and 1950. I studied history so I can’t say for certain how the English literature courses were structured but I shared digs with a student who was studying Beowulf and Old English. I imagine the degree would then have taken him through Chaucer, Milton, Austen, Hardy and ending at Woolf. Times have changed. The Middlebrow Network website lists 36 academics as either core members or as sitting on the advisory board. Kate Macdonald, writing in a post called Why studying middlebrow matters commented on the reasons for this change in literary studies:

The study of English literature has been enlarging its boundaries radically in the past thirty years. My private theory is that the increase in the numbers of people studying at university level in Britain since the 1990s means that we need more and new research subjects for the ever-rolling stream of PhD students. The academy’s capacity for writing dissertations on Shakespeare, Woolf and Hughes was becoming exhausted under traditional terms of scrutiny. Something happened to allow literary criticism to widen its borders. Now, we study not just what people read, but how people read, why they read, what they thought about what they read, and the marginalia printed all around the important things that people read, which they also read, and were changed by, without noticing. The traditional authors and works are still studied, but the overflow is accommodated most creatively through middlebrow studies.

Middlebrow studies is now a Thing. A Good Thing, in my opinion. From reading Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, Borges and Calvino in my twenties, I have returned to the reading tastes of my childhood when I read Biggles novels, the novels of Roman Britain written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, children’s classics such as Stig of the Dump and more modern children’s novels such as A Dog So Small: that is to say, popular fiction. One Thing has replaced another Thing, because this Thing is quite clearly not that Thing.

But not quite. I began reading Arnold Bennett’s Evening Standard reviews with the belief that I would quickly find myself reading the popular novels of the 1920s: those “shockers” that Buchan claimed he wrote. What have I read so far? A tragedy set in an upper class rural family emotionally-at-sea; a tragedy set in eighteenth century Germany that exposed the brutal consequences of anti-semitism and a Russian folktale. And now, I am reading Sacheverell Sitwell’s The Cyder Feast, a collection of self-published poems that link us with the rural world described lovingly in the Georgics of Virgil.

Osbert and Edith Sitwell

From left to right  Sir Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969), Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988). — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Of the poet, Bennett wrote in his review of the 16th of June, 1927:

I have for years maintained that Sacheverell Sitwell is one of the most original poets of his generation…His mind is not only original but lovely. He never writes anything of which you could positively assert that it was not distinguished. He experiences sensations, and he gets effects, which, so far as my knowledge goes, nobody ever experienced or got before. I derive a most exciting pleasure from his work.

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Frontspiece of The Cyder Feast

Compare Bennett’s review with the comments made by Emanuel Eisenberg in The Bookman in the November of that year. Speaking of the three Sitwells – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – he wrote:

They are all insufferable poets — insufferable minor poets, I mean, and minor poetry rarely becomes unbearable to me, since I can usually find a transient pleasure in efficiency of manufacture.

Or this from Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review in the June of 1928.

Apart from a dissonance or two, an inverted image, a strained and dislocated adjective, these horticultural verses might have been written in the eighteenth century as well as (and possibly better than) the twentieth.

And that from someone who quite liked the book.

Bennett’s talent, as far as I can make it out from these reviews, is that he looked at Everything, rather than that Thing or this Thing. Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Sitwell (Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell), Kafka were given the same once-over he would give to Forster, Chesterton, Warner or Bates. If he did not understand what he had had read he did not hold it against the author. Eisenberg and Untermeyer’s beef was that The Cyder Feast was not modern enough. Bennett would not have dwelt on the issue. His concern was promoting the best in literature to as wide an audience as possible, be it traditional or modernist.

What did I make of The Cyder Feast. In answer I will quote this from Bennett’s review:

…when somebody comes along and says that he cannot understand Sacheverell Sitwell, I sympathise with that somebody. There is a certain amount of Sacheverell Sitwell that I do not understand, or only half understand.

I did well with the first twenty five poems, being the most Virgilian in nature, linking nature with architecture and history. After these poems, the words drifted delightfully into my mind and then delightfully out again.

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Caricature of Arnold Bennett by Oliver Herford, found on The Project Gutenberg, clearly alluding to his prodigious output.

On the 15th of June, we get a glimpse in his journal of the working day of a bestselling British novelist of the 1920s: gets up early; breakfasts on fruit; observes his street from the balcony; writes 800 words by 12.15; lunches at the Reform Club; returns by bus; continues writing; theatre in the evening.

 

 

 

Middlebrow goes West

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. Graphs abound in this post, plus a chart and a 1949 advert for a television. 

The Lowbrow/Middlebrow/Highbrow debate is not a uniquely British one. Arguments in favour of one or the other have also been voiced by American commentators. In 1950, as part of its centennial celebrations Harper’s Magazine included a survey of the changes in taste that had taken place over the lifetime of the magazine. Written by Russell Lynes, The Age of Taste went on to form the basis for his famous book The Tastemakers, published in 1955. One chapter Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow had not appeared in the original article. It had already been published in the previous year, 1949, and had caused, as they say in Glasgow, a bit of a stooshie. His thesis that in the post-war world traditional social norms were redundant and that position in American society would now be determined by taste caught the attention of  Life Magazine. In April of 1949 it published High-Brow, Low-Brow, Middle-Brow. The strapline left the reader in no doubt as to the form this new America would take:

These are the three basic categories of a new U.S. social structure, and the highbrows have the whip hand.

To help you find out where you fitted into this new world, a chart was provided:

Martini or bourbon? When it came to reading, the different tastes went from “Little Magazines” and solid non-fiction at the top to book club selections in the middle, and pulp books and comics at the bottom.

America was to change but in a way that Russell Lynes hadn’t anticipated. Under Entertainment he had listed ballet (highbrow), theatre, musical extravaganza films and western movies (lowbrow). He didn’t include what was lurking on one of the pages in the same issue of the magazine:

At last!

The US, like Britain, had suspended television broadcasts for the duration of the war. With the war won General Electric switched from making engines for American war planes to making televisions. The $399 price tag, which would buy close on to $4,000 today, barely delayed its millionth sale. The impact on American society was as rapid as it was dramatic

My oh my. Would the whip hand end up in the hands of the middle and lowbrows after all? 70,000,000 television sets and 83% of all households owning more than one set are impressive statistics. Add to them the top ten US television shows from 1955-56 and the highbrows’ days seemed numbered:

The Phil Silvers' Show didn't even get in the top twenty!But, and as much as this pains me, that would be too quick and easy a conclusion to draw. If we look at book sales in that same period, and particularly what the American Census Department called “General Literature and Criticism,” a different picture emerges:

Here comes the cavalry!In a period of rising book sales (religious books helping drive the surge) and despite the recently achieved dominant position of television in American society, books from the category General Literature and Criticism managed to maintain a yearly average of 5% of the total of new titles published in the US. Not, perhaps, evidence of a flourishing democratic intellect but neither a society feeling the lash of the middle and lowbrow whips. If there was a loser in all this, it was probably radio. By 1950, 95% of American families owned a radio. However, when you look at revenues (in millions of dollars) it’s clear that having a radio set in nearly every American home was not a guarantee of year-on-year rising profits:

So it was video after all.

As profound a change as it was (and those figures quoted above, taken from data in the American Censuses for the 1950s, are in millions) it would seem that its nature can still escape us. Television undoubtedly did affect the balance of power between the ‘brows. But just as it is capable of plumbing the depths, American television can equally be innovative, intelligent and funny. Radio, on the other hand, could be argued to be inherently conservative, given its limitations and that this too can be a strength. Our man Bennett was witness to a period of cultural change when, as he said, the large villas of English novelists made rich from American royalties, would be replaced by semi-detached cottages in the London suburbs; while in America “literary palazzos” would spring up beside the Hudson, homes for the new generation of American novelists, who unlike Henry James, would live and work in America and be read around the world. Writing in The North American Review in January, 1912 he commented: 

…the great argument in favor of the future of the American novel…lies in the strenuousness, the variety, and the essential romance of American life.

A return to the norm is due. So, I am reading H.G.Wells’ novel Tono-Bungay as recommended by Arnold Bennett. In the next post, has it added to my literary taste?

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