Gentleman of Letters
John Gross, 1935-2011.
Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
I wrote for John before I had met him. At the TLS he gave me, then a youngish writer, plummy assignments. I wrote about Maxwell Perkins, Edmund Wilson, and Walter Lippmann for him. He was an editor whose tolerance for the slightly outré and distaste for received opinions one could count on, so that, when asked to review a book on the Pulitzer Prizes, I knew that in his London office John would be amused at my writing that the Pulitzer Prizes tend to go to two kinds of people only: those who don’t need them, and those who don’t deserve them.
After his seven-year stint at the TLS, John worked briefly for the publisher George Weidenfeld and then took a job as a reviewer at the New York Times. How one wishes that he had instead been asked to edit the New York Times Book Review, for he would have made it, for the first time in its long history, serious and substantial. With his easy charm, he was a great social success in Manhattan. He never mentioned it to me, but I had heard that he led a book discussion club for Brooke Astor and her friends.
Working at the New York Times, which he did between 1983 and 1989, was something else. What it mostly produced was a fund of amusing stories about the ineptitude and fecklessness of the paper’s editors, at all levels. I recall John telling me a story about his mentioning in one of his reviews the name Plekhanov, whom he described as “the father of Russian Marxism.” One of the paper’s copy editors wanted to know his authority for calling Plekhanov that. “It’s almost a bloody cliché,” John told me recounting the story, “like George Washington was the father of his country.” But the copy editor wouldn’t back down until John, exasperated, said, “Look. Why don’t we compromise and refer to Plekhanov as the uncle of Russian Marxism.”
John had a keen taste for the absurd behavior of intellectuals and the vanity of writers. He got a kick out of my calling the contributors of the New York Review of Books “mad dogs and Englishmen,” and told me that the visits to London of that journal’s editor, Robert Silvers, given the obeisance that English intellectuals paid him, resembled nothing so much as the return home of the Viceroy of India.
I didn’t see the Sunday Telegraph, for which John became drama critic, but always thought it an amusing mating for a man with a taste for the absurd having to review so many plays that must themselves have been well beyond absurd. He was once seated in a London theater, watching a production of King Lear being done in mud, when he was attacked by severe angina. “Oh, Lord, I said to myself,” he told me, “dear Lord, please don’t let this be the last thing I ever see.” Fortunately, it wasn’t, though he went home afterwards and had a heart attack and, subsequently, bypass surgery.
John’s sense of the absurdity of intellectuals was nicely conveyed in his letters, subsequently his emails, and his occasional phone calls to me. He was a wonderfully entertaining gossip with a large supply of artful indiscretions at his disposal. One day he would tell me about Harold Pinter sending out, in John’s phrase, “one of his pukey little poems” to scores of friends and acquaintances, and sitting back to await their unfailing praise.
I don’t know when, precisely, John’s health began to break down, but when it did the steps down the precipice were all serious. He had a heart attack, as I mentioned, and at one point he suffered a stroke that, he reported to me, left one of his arms temporarily dangling out of commission. After some hesitation, I took a chance and wrote to him to say that I hoped he would not take advantage of his bad arm to do imitations of Isaiah Berlin or George Steiner, who each had a withered arm. He thought it very amusing, or so he said.
Part of John’s genius was for tact. He reviewed two of my books, praising them both, but in each case quietly getting in real criticisms, both of acts of commission and omission on the author’s part. So suave a prose stylist was he that it might seem that John had, to use Sam Lipman’s phrase, “no fist.” In fact, when sufficiently aroused John had a knockout punch. See his quietly devastating review of Stefan Collini’s Common Reading in the (London) Sunday Times of May 21, 2008. John also had little use for dogmatic critics. Readers of The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters will recall his attack on the still alive and then-highly influential Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis. In defense of the vigor of his attack, John wrote in an afterword to a republication of the book in 1992: “I still believe I was right to react as I did. Leavis attempted, as no one before him, to pronounce a death sentence on the entire man-of-letters tradition. He also set a precedent for trying to police literary studies and impose one man’s will on them.”