Puritans' zeal fertilises the mind

Articles of Faith
March 21, 2003

There has never been a great magazine without a great editor, and Neil Berry's study of "the higher journalism" is also a series of vivid portraits of intellectual impresarios. He begins with Francis Jeffrey's Edinburgh Review , that noisy and combative offspring of the Scottish Enlightenment, and ends almost two centuries later with Karl Miller's London Review of Books , having paused en route to celebrate John Morley's Fortnightly Review , James Knowles' The Nineteenth Century , Kingsley Martin's New Statesman and other British journals of small circulation but wide significance.

Many of these men were cradle Puritans, and Berry describes the proselytising energy they poured into their reviews as "secularised religiosity", a quasi-biblical belief in the primacy of the word and the inescapability of judgement. (Berry's own discovery of The Listener and the New Statesman , as a Liverpool grammar-school boy in the 1960s, is presented as a spiritual revelation and personal salvation.) The editors' evangelical zeal also derived from their confidence in national destiny, their certainty that Britain's periodical press would act as a beacon of enlightened civilisation to the world. "British reviewers seldom seem to have doubted the global import of all things British," Berry writes, "or their right to set themselves up as mentors of mankind."

But why should they pause to doubt it while their extraordinary succès d'estime seemed to confirm the assumption? Jeffrey's quarterly, which propelled the careers of Thomas Babington Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle, was read by Napoleon and Stendhal; Madame de Staël's son, Auguste, said that if creatures arrived from another planet wanting to inspect the human race's noblest cultural achievements, they should be shown a copy of the Edinburgh Review . Contributors to the Fortnightly Review - founded in 1865 to "further the cause of Progress by the illumination of many minds" - included George Eliot, Walter Pater, T. H. Huxley, Anthony Trollope and George Meredith. Although its reviews and polemics may have been read by no more than 3,000 people, the frequency with which they were quoted in the House of Commons and The Times suggests that Morley probably had more practical political effect than, say, the editor of The Sun today. The inaugural issue of The Nineteenth Century , which took up the baton from the Fortnightly in 1877, had articles by Matthew Arnold, Alfred Tennyson, William Ewart Gladstone and Cardinal Manning; its editor claimed, with some justice, that he had as much influence as 25 members of parliament.

Size isn't everything, as most of Berry's heroes proved. The striking exception is William Thomas Stead, that insatiable communicator whose monthly Review of Reviews , launched in 1890 at sixpence a copy, made the higher journalism available to the new mass-reading public and claimed an international circulation of 200,000 by the end of the century. This was also the decade in which Alfred Harmsworth (the first Lord Northcliffe) started The Daily Mail , whose irresistible rise convinced many admirers of the old reviews that the gap between serious and popular journalism was now unbridgeable; but Stead, who was to perish in suitably headline-grabbing style aboard the Titanic , dared to defy the conventional wisdom. He took particular pride in the discovery that his subscribers included a Chilean sheep farmer.

Intellectual journalism is not only a British invention, but one in which (unlike cricket or football) we have continued to hold our own. When I joined the New Statesman in the 1970s, one of the relics displayed in the office was the manuscript of a letter received in 1957 from Nikita Khrushchev, replying to an article by Bertrand Russell on the arms race; this unsolicited contribution from the Soviet leader had in turn provoked a riposte from John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state. Even now, as Berry notes, periodicals such as The Times Literary Supplement and London Review of Books "are probably more widely and attentively read outside Britain than any of the country's mass circulation newspapers".

Articles of Faith is written for the inquisitive lay reader rather than the specialist, like the periodicals it commemorates. Some severe academics may scorn the book for its journalistic style and method, its lack of footnotes, its preference for anecdote over theory. However, in an age when dons galore moonlight as newspaper pundits, and even the Boy's Own Paper and Titbits are fit subjects for postgraduate theses, lofty jibes about "mere journalism" have lost much of their pejorative force.

As Berry points out, British higher education owes much to public-spirited journalists. The original proposal to establish London University came from the poet Thomas Campbell, a contributor to the Edinburgh Review , and was endorsed in review articles by Macaulay and Henry Brougham. The creators of the New Statesman , Beatrice and Sidney Webb, also founded the London School of Economics. Karl Miller, having served as literary editor of The Spectator and New Statesman and then editor of The Listener , was a professor of English at University College London - the Northcliffe professor, by happy irony - when he launched the London Review of Books and thus revived a tradition that many thought to be dead, that of the "university-in-print" for intelligent general readers.

Nevertheless, Berry concludes rather gloomily that such readers may indeed be extinct soon, killed by our atomised, market-driven media: "More than in earlier times, a common intellectual culture is nowadays liable to seem like nothing other than one specialised taste among many." The threat is real enough, but the evidence in Articles of Faith suggests that there will always be an audience for energetic editors who know how to stimulate the intellectual appetite. The instant global reach of the internet ought to make their task easier. Anthony Barnett's lively, argumentative Opendemocracy website is surely the modern equivalent of Martin's New Statesman ; and what is the invaluable Arts and Letters Daily but an online version of The Review of Reviews ?

Francis Wheen's most recent books are Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies: Collected Journalism 1991-2001 and Who Was Dr Charlotte Bach?

Articles of Faith: The Story of British Intellectual Journalism

Author - Neil Berry
ISBN - 1 904130 08 9
Publisher - The Waywiser Press (www.waywiser-press. com)
Price - £13.95
Pages - 2

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