My American tragedy

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. The answer was a resounding yes. However, I became tired of reading old books and felt the need to bring myself up-to-date. 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. This week, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreisler. 

The temperatures have finally dropped below 40ºC, and I can now sit down and write a new post without dripping sweat on the keyboard. Not that I have a great deal to write. It’s not often that I give up on a book but that’s what I did with Theodore Dreisler An American Tragedy. The warning signs were all there, if I had just bothered to read them in Bennett’s review:

I am not going to recommend An American Tragedy to all and sundry dilettante and plain people. It is of tremendous length. It is written abominably, by a man who evidently despises style, elegance, clarity, even grammar. Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know. Dreiser would sneer at Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer of some of the loveliest English ever printed.

For this and other reasons he is difficult to read. He makes no compromise with the reader. Indeed, to read Dreisler with profit you must take your coat off to it, you must go down on your knees to it, you must up hands and say “I surrender.” And Dreiser will spit on you for a start.

As an indication of just how reluctant I was to be spat on, I should point out that I read instead Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour.

Taylor wins on judges' ruling. Dreisler disqualified for spitting.

Taylor wins on judges’ ruling. Dreisler disqualified for spitting.

The review appeared in the Evening Standard of the 30th of December, 1926. It was the end of a year in which Bennett had set himself the target of 365,000 words and which, as he pointed out in a journal entry on the 20th of December, it was a target he had reached and would surpass. It was also the first Christmas organised by his partner Dorothy Cheston. Bennett had separated from his wife in 1921. Although separated his wife never agreed to a divorce but Dorothy changed her surname by deed-poll to Bennett. Their time together was relatively short  (he died in 1931) but happy. They had one daughter, Virginia.





And did death proudly take them?

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. This week, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. 

Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Photograph taken by Herbert Ponting on the Terra Nova Expedition.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Photograph taken by Herbert Ponting on the Terra Nova Expedition.

On the 8th of February 1913 readers of the Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette would have read on the back page:

The Central News says the Terra Nova [the ship that took Captain Scott and his Antarctic Expedition to the southern ice] has arrived more than a month earlier… in consequence of a serious calamity having overtaken the expedition. The exact nature and extent of the calamity is not yet known, but the Central News regrets to learn that it is of a grave character. Further details are awaited with the utmost anxiety.

By the 10th of February the Evening Telegraph, reminding its readers that:

The perils of such a journey as Scott’s are manifold. A slip down a crevasse…blizzard…cloudy weather.

put its report under the headline of All Perished. 

It was not until the 14th of February that the Luton Times and Advertiser was able to report in more detail that:

Captain Robert F. Scott, commander of the British Antarctic Expedition, has perished in the wastes of the Ross Barrier, together with four of his comrades, while struggling back from the South Pole…They were weakened by lack of food, and when they pitched their tent for the last time…Fuel for one hot meal and food for two days remained.

Thus in these six days the British public learned of the fate of Captain Scott’s Antarctic Expedition.

The hagiography was there from the beginning. The Luton Times and Advertiser noted that:

…when death seemed very near Captain Scott committed to his diary a last message to the British public. The message rings with the courage and fortitude of the man.

The personal cost too was highlighted. The Yorkshire Evening Post of the 10th of February, under the headlines “Mrs. Scott’s Sorrow – World-Wide Sympathy in Her Loss – Not Yet Heard the News,” reminded its readers that:

The sympathy of the nation will go out to Mrs. Scott, who left England last month for New Zealand, in the expectation of meeting her husband.


She has not reached New Zealand, so she has not heard the news.

Perhaps with one eye on posterity, it included:

Geographers in this country have emphasised from the first that Captain Scott’s expedition was not intended merely as a dash to the Pole… The expedition comprised scientists who were expected to throw light upon different phenomena of the Antarctic…

How did the nation express its mourning for its national hero? On the 20th of February the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser informed its readers that the total of Captain Scott Fund was now £20,000, including donations from the King and Queen. Expressed in terms of comparative income value this would today be worth £9,378,000.

Captain Scott’s fame continued to grow, with notable peaks in the 1930s and 1950s (The Worst Journey in the World was republished by Penguin in 1937). Cue a Google Ngram:




Somewhere in this splendid array of data is the talk given by the Rev. H. G. Johnson, and reported by the Portsmouth Evening News on the 24th of October 1938, to the Cosham Brotherhood on The Worst Journey in the World. He was quoted as saying, proudly I am sure:

We are members of the race that produced a Scott, a Wilson, a Bowers and an Evans.

Since then, Scott has bounced through a succession of cynical ages.

Growing up in an Edwardian age that distinguished between love and being in love, Apsley Cherry-Garrard as a man loved Scott, as a man, despite of and for all his faults. Compared to them, and their companions in the various base camps on that southern ice, we are indeed a sorry and sordid lot, obsessed with side-boobs, cellulite and sexting. What group of men could today could spend two years in uncomfortable isolation without swearing, talking about sex or slipping into such levels of irony that any enriching conversation becomes impossible? Damnit, where are the heroes? I plot a strong but lonely (1,0).

Arnold Bennett!

Next time, Hilaire Belloc’s The Path To Rome and G. K. Chesterton’s Autobiography. 




Hello to all this

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. This week, Arnold Bennett, the Ministry of Information and Robert Graves.

Lord Beaverbrook, 1918 Source:

Lord Beaverbrook, 1918

In 1917 Arnold Bennett was invited to work in the Ministry of Information by Lord Beaverbrook. It is not clear what he did there as no records survived and Bennett was very discreet when writing about his job in his journals. We know that he worked hard and what he was working very hard at doing was making sure that everyone knew what utter bastards the Germans were.

First edition copy of Goodbye to All That. 1929.  Source: Wikipedia

First edition copy of Goodbye to All That. 1929.
Source: Wikipedia

Robert Graves, on the other hand, was trying not get killed by some of those Germans while serving in France as a young officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In 1929 his book Goodbye to All That was published which detailed many of his experiences while serving in the trenches. It was reviewed by Bennett in his column in The Evening Standard:

Goodbye to All That is a very good book, both picturesque and honest, and excellently written. Robert Graves is a fine poet – none better today, in my view. All poets write good prose, and he does.

Part of Bennett’s job in the Ministry of Information would have been to ensure that the core message of Britain Good, Germany Bad was reinforced in the world’s capitals. Not too difficult a job given the Germans’ propensity for sinking unprotected ships. In 1914 he had read the accounts of the rapid German advance through Belgium, a country that he admired and liked. He would have read too of the atrocities carried out by the German army against Belgian civilians, atrocities which Graves denied having ever taken place.

Where do we begin to unpick the ironies from this little encounter of two literary greats? On the one hand, Bennett, who only visited the front as an officially approved journalist and who ensured the official line was maintained, even in the dark days of Passchendaele in 1917 and the German spring offensive of 1918. And on the other, Graves, reviewed positively by Bennett, who had experienced at first hand life in the trenches but who laughed at the authenticity of the atrocity stories intended to bolster British resolve to see this terrible war through to the end. All the more ironic given that the atrocity stories were, in many, many cases, only too true.

Next time, we are off to the South Pole with Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World.

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