TLS: totally legendary substance

November 30, 2001

A mix of philistinism and high-brow makes for a peculiarly English journal, says Terry Eagleton.

A conservative intellectual journal has a number of endemic problems. For one thing, conservatism is rather suspicious of the intellect, cherishing as it does certain traditional institutions, commonsensical notions and moral intuitions that can give no purely rational account of themselves. Reason is all very well, but it is less important than history, belief and allegiance. It does not do to be too clever, even if you are the editor of The Times Literary Supplement . For another thing, conservatives tend to pooh-pooh the ambitious theories and outlandish ideas to which the life of the intellect occasionally leads. Conservatives prefer the eccentric to the avant garde, the spontaneous to the speculative. Nor does it help that a lot of good ideas, like a lot of good wines, hail from that rather louche territory known as Abroad.

Ever since its founding (like income tax, as a temporary measure) in 1902, The TLS has lived this tension between instinct and analysis. Only an English journal could have been at once so philistine and so high-brow. At its worst, it has reflected the port-tinged view from the senior common room window; at its best, it has offered house room to some of the towering intellectual figures of 20th-century Britain. Henry James, T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, Percy Lubbock, John Middleton Murray, "Miss A. V. Stephen" (later Virginia Woolf), Anthony Powell, E. H. Carr, A. J. P. Taylor, Lewis Namier, Nikolaus Pevsner: the names represent a mere handful of TLS luminaries. From Noel Annan to George Steiner, John Willett to Hugh Trevor-Roper, there are few eminent contemporary thinkers who have not graced its pages. The "literary" of its title is an enlightened 18th-century usage, meaning all writing of a certain substance and quality, not just "imaginative" work. More than any other single organ of its time, and despite its sometimes dismally unenlightened opinions, The TLS has exemplified the honourable Enlightenment notion of a republic of letters; and it is not surprising that one of its editors, John Gross, should have published a work lamenting the decline of the man of letters.

The TLS was launched in the heyday of imperialism, the age of Conrad and Kipling, and has survived into the post-colonial world of Naipaul and Rushdie. For all its shifts of tone and fashion, it has preserved a remarkable continuity, being conservative in this sense as well. It has always, for example, represented a certain discreet interlocking between the world of high literature and the social top drawer. Under the editorship of Alan Pryce-Jones in the 1950s, there was about its columns an intangible air of old boyery, country-house parties, lengthy lunches, gentlemen's clubs and cantankerous eccentrics. It also sported a touch of patrician frivolity, reviewing such path-breaking volumes as Sir Ralph F. Pryce-Galloway's High Pheasants in Theory and Practice .

The present TLS is naturally a much more professional affair, and the lunches are no doubt briefer; but its current editor, Ferdinand Mount, is an aristocrat who used to run Margaret Thatcher's policy unit. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, a fairly typical TLS background. The journal may no longer tout books on how to shoot pheasants, but in 1990 Trevor-Roper was set loose on Debrett's Peerage . There is a fairly unbroken lineage from the belletrist precocity of early contributors such as Arthur Quiller-Couch to John Gross, John Bayley and the anti-theoretical polemic of later years.

The philistine suspicion of clever-dick foreigners has gone hand-in-hand over the years with a resolute anti-leftism. Too often, leftwing studies have been reviewed in the periodical's pages with shameful prejudice and incompetence, cynically handed to some reliably travestying hack. Yet the Communist E. H. Carr was for a time given for review all the books that came in on the Soviet Union, and the maverick leftist A. J. P. Taylor was an habitué of the paper. The TLS also opened its doors to the Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher, which is more than can be said for the English universities of the day. Under Jeremy Treglown, the swingeingly iconoclastic Christopher Hitchens wrote a regular piece for the journal, while my own relations with the organ - hired, fired, hired again, restricted to the odd contribution - reflect by and large the degrees of largesse of its successive editors.

Over the years, The TLS has evolved a good line in suave English bitchery, from the feline malice of a John Sparrow to the boorish pomposity of an A. L. Rowse. Its letter columns excel in civilised scurrility. One Cambridge historian's career, while still embryonic, was utterly ruined by a bad review in the paper, though he did not seem subsequently to mind the indolence to which this consigned him. The periodical's career is studded with a series of remarkable spats: Ted Hughes locked in combat with Al Alvarez and later with Jacqueline Rose over the question of Sylvia Plath; Edgar Wind's carve-up of E. H. Gombrich's biography of Aby Warburg; Leo Labedz's savage swiping at E. H. Carr; Ernest Gellner's virulent onslaught on Edward Said; J. H. Hexter at war with Christopher Hill. The history of the journal is also punctuated with some classically memorable encounters: J. L. Austin on Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind , E. H. Carr on Isaiah Berlin, John Sparrow on Lady Chatterley's Lover .

For all its fundamental aversion to fancy European theories, The TLS revealed an impressive cosmopolitan awareness from the outset. The Brechtian scholar John Willett was to do much to nurture this literary internationalism, while George Steiner was roped in to translate such esoteric foreigners as Adorno and Lévi-Strauss into an almost equally arcane English prose. John Sturrock, a member of the paper's staff in the 1970s, was bravely pro-theory and pro-Roland Barthes. The TLS recognised the achievement of Proust and Thomas Mann commendably early, while Pryce-Jones astutely spotted the genius of Robert Musil. W.B. Yeats got shorter shrift - he had to die to get his best review in the journal - while Joyce's work was unevenly acknowledged. Along with the hits, there were a number of ignominious misses: James's The Ambassadors , Lawrence's The Rainbow and Women in Love , Eliot's Prufrock volume, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier , Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé . Evelyn Waugh was mistaken for a woman, and I. Compton-Burnett for a man.

Derwent May has produced an admirably readable history of the journal, laced with an insider's shrewd acquaintance and a rather bland wit. The book, which ably summarises some of the major pieces carried by the periodical over the decades, is rather too reluctant to step back from this blow-by-blow record to pose more general questions about trends and policies. It pauses to trace the journal's changing economic profile, but not on the whole its intellectual or editorial one. Like the cautiously empiricist TLS itself, the book is nervous of generalisations. Yet the journal, taken as a whole, represents one of the towering intellectual achievements of 20th-century Britain. I wonder if it would find that generality repugnant?

Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory, University of Manchester. His memoir, The Gatekeeper , will be published in January.

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