Saturday, June 25, 2022

'He Judged Literature by Its Truthfulness'

“It is ridiculous that the poems of Charlotte Mew and Martyn Skinner should still be quite unknown, the novels of William Gerhardie out of print for thirty years, the best works of John Stewart Collis unread, almost unobtainable.” 

You can quibble about the names Michael Holroyd cites. I’ve never heard of Martyn Skinner, which says nothing about the quality of his work. I try to never unquestioningly trust reputation, which is frequently compromised by fashion and whim. Holroyd’s point is that forgotten or critically neglected writers (not to be confused with minor writers) don’t always deserve oblivion – though many do. Penelope Fitzgerald helped resuscitate Mew with her 1984 biography. Years ago, someone suggested I read Gerhardie (author of the first monograph in English devoted to Chekhov), and so I enjoyed his novel The Polyglots (1923). The passage quoted above is from a collection Holroyd edited in 1970, The Best of Hugh Kingsmill: Selections from his Writings. His introduction begins:


“Behind the big names of twentieth-century literature there stands a shadow cabinet of writers waiting to take over once the Wind of Change has blown. My own vote goes to Hugh Kingsmill as leader of the opposition.”


Holroyd blames the “English literature dons” for the philistine provincialism still rampant in academia in our own time. Previously, I knew Kingsmill (1889-1949) as the editor of two useful and entertaining anthologies: An Anthology Of Invective And Abuse (1929) and More Invective (1930). Now I’m reading Holroyd’s selection and The Poisoned Crown, published by Kingsmill in 1944. Holroyd writes that Kingsmill’s literary standards were


“. . . eclipsed by educationist critical systems whose control on taste and fashion has been paramount. Kingsmill himself belonged to no school of critics. He judged literature by its truthfulness, and by its power to reveal individual truths through humour, pathos, tenderness. No one had a sharper eye than he for detecting humbug. The truth he searched for was the truth we live, not speak.”


Holroyd includes an excerpt from the first chapter of The Poisoned Crown, “The Genealogy of Hitler.” It seems to be a fair sample of Kingsmill’s commonsensical independence of thought:


“Most of the avoidable suffering in life springs from our attempts to escape the unavoidable suffering inherent in the fragmentary nature of our present existence. We expect immortal satisfactions from mortal conditions, and lasting and perfect happiness in the midst of universal change. To encourage this expectation, to persuade mankind that the ideal is realizable in this world, after a few preliminary changes in external conditions, is the distinguishing mark of all charlatans, whether in thought or action.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

Kingsmill's little book on the appalling Frank Harris is very entertaining. I've written about it on the blog.