While looking for something about Lord Acton I discovered a writer new to me, Martin Burrell (1858-1938), an English-born Canadian who became an apple grower in British Columbia, served in the Canadian House of Commons and eventually was named Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Secretary of State. As best I can tell he published only one book, Betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross (1928), which collects articles written for the Ottawa Journal starting in 1923. The book’s title is taken from “The Kingdom of God” by the poet and opium addict Francis Thompson:
“But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry;—and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.”
Burrell is a better-read variation on some of the newspaper columnists I worked with over the years. Less provincial and folksy than most, he aimed higher in his subject matter, which ranges from Milton and Montaigne to Abraham Lincoln and the Canadian poet Duncan Campbell Smith. His manner is conversational and he isn’t forever glad-handing. Of Lord Acton he writes: “He probably wrote too fast and too much to attain perfection in form.” And of Lord Beaverbrook: “Certainly there is much flogging of dead horses.”
Burrell seemed to possess a latent gift for enthusiasm, as in “The Great Dictionary,” which begins with the old desert-island parlor game – which books would you pack if, for some peculiar reason, you expected to be marooned? He quickly dispatches novels as unlikely to be read a second time (not my experience). Of his six choices Burrell says: “If the victim was stranded for two years on his island, and, during that time, were to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these six, he would find himself a more highly educated man than any of the people on the ship which came to rescue him.” His selection: The Bible, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Boswell’s Johnson, Emerson and The New Oxford Dictionary.
About Emerson, Joseph Epstein has the definitive judgment: “a great gasbag.” ’Nuff said, almost. Epstein also says of Emerson in "Ticked to the Min" (Narcissus Leaves the Pool, 1999): “With his abiding humorlessness, his oracular prose, his galloping garrulity, he has given the essay a bad name, making it seem no more than a sermon with drool added.” Q.E.D. The rest of Burrell’s list is inarguable.
We know The New Oxford Dictionary as the Oxford English Dictionary. It was new in 1928, when its twelve volumes (and 414,825 words defined, and 1,827,306 citations mustered) were finally published. Burrell says of it: I am inclined to call it the greatest, the best, and cheapest book in the English language, though the price thereof is fifty guineas.” The OED is a reliable reference work, of course, but also endlessly browsable. For instance, that last word, browsable. Does it call for another “e”? My spell-check software is worthless, so I move on to the online version of the OED, which handily settles the matter -- no second “e” – and gives six citations for the word dating from 1886 to 2010. My favorite is drawn from a 1923 issue of Outlook, a magazine published in New York from 1893 to 1928: “A child that grows up in a house with a browsable library has an infinitely better chance of forming a sound literary taste . . . than the same child dwelling in a house where books are only birds of passage.”