Saturday, February 24, 2024

'One of the Finest of Human Creatures'

Turnstile One (1948) is a slender anthology of poems, stories, essays and reviews edited by V.S Pritchett and drawn from The New Statesman and Nation. Founded in 1913 by the Webbs and others associated with the Fabian Society, the magazine’s politics were  left-wing and many of its early contributors were fellow travelers. Despite such naïveté, the magazine published excellent work by Pritchett, Auden and MacNeice, Elizabeth Bowen, Walter de la Mare and translations of stories by Chekhov and Mikhail Zoshchenko. Henry Reed’s well-known “Naming of Parts” was first published in the magazine in 1942. 

I know the English economist Harold Laski (1893-1950) largely from his correspondence with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935), who served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932. The men exchanged letters from 1916 and 1935. In 1953, Harvard University Press published the 1,600 pages of their correspondence in two volumes. Laski is often a rather silly fellow, a Marxist, though often a good complement to the bookish Holmes, who clearly is the star of the show. Joseph Epstein once wrote that he relies on three writers to “lift one out of gloom, and away from the valley of small and large woes” – Montaigne, Justice Holmes (in his letters) and H.L. Mencken. An essay by Laski, “In Praise of Booksellers,” published in 1943, is collected in Turnstile. It begins:


“It is time that someone paid a tribute to a noble body of men and women whose service to the nation in wartime has been badly overlooked—I mean the men and women who run the bookshops of this country. A good bookshop, after all, is one of the supreme temples of the human spirit; and a good bookseller is one of the finest of human creatures.”


The sentiments are overripe, the prose often purple, but I understand its purpose is morale-building. Call it propaganda but it remains stirring even eighty years later, though I suspect bookshops could no longer rouse such patriotic passions in the U.S. and, perhaps, England. Laski concludes his essay like this: “In Germany they burn the books; in Britain, we sell them. So long as we can continue to say that, we can be confident of the outcome of this struggle.”


In 1936, another English writer, George Orwell, published his essay “Bookshop Memories.” Unlike Laski, Orwell had worked in a bookshop and learned to be cynical about its owners and patrons:


“Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can’t borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.”


Jack said...

About Holmes, the best selection I am aware of is Richard Posner's brilliant "The Essential Holmes." Collects correspondence with Laski, as well as Holmes's legal opinions and speeches all arranged topically -- starting with aging and death. Worth reading for Posner's terrific introduction alone.

Thomas Parker said...

One of my treasures is the 1941 Harvard two-volume edition of the Holmes-Pollock letters. OWH was one of the supreme letter writers, and there's not one dull page out of the 700.