Gentleman of Letters
John Gross, 1935-2011.
Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
In the end I am not sure that it is as a writer that John will be best remembered. He wrote four books—along with those I have already mentioned, he did the James Joyce volume (1970) in Frank Kermode’s Modern Masters series—all excellent of their kind. He edited a number of anthologies for Oxford University Press, among them The Oxford Book of Essays, The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, The Oxford Book of Comic Verse, The New Oxford Book of English Prose, The Oxford Book of Parodies, and After Shakespeare: Writing Inspired by the World’s Greatest Author—quality goods, all these volumes, exhibiting John’s immense range of reading in English literature, and books that will live on for many years. But he never thought to put together a volume of his criticism and reviews. A Double Thread, an autobiographical account of his early life, is, for an autobiography, written with an unusual tact and modesty. The truth may be that John hadn’t the egotism and vanity, the pushiness and self-absorption, required of the true writer. (Please not to ask how I know about these requisite qualities.)
John may also have enjoyed life too much. He had a natural bonhomie combined with a winning detachment. Once, in Chicago, he told me that he was the next day to visit a woman (he did not vouchsafe her name), who now lived in the city, with whom he had been close during his years as a student at Oxford. “Pity we never married,” he said, with his amused irony. “We could have caused each other much heartache.” (John’s one marriage, to the editor and writer Miriam Gross, ended in divorce, but the two remained good friends, and I never heard him utter a critical word about her.) He once took my wife and me round London, to the (in that day) with-it clubs and to the historical places only a born Londoner knew. His love of the city was palpable.
So John Gross is dead at 75. For me, he has left too early. But then I always felt John had left too early, which is another way of saying that I never got enough of him. During his last phone call to me, six or so weeks ago, we talked about a T. S. Eliot essay I had written; he told me about his own meetings with Eliot, and left me with one of his characteristic golden nuggets of gossip.
The last time I saw John in person was in Manhattan. We had breakfast together, and after breakfast we walked around the block, it must have been 10 times, trading stories, telling jokes, gossiping, laughing. At the end, I remember saying to him, “You know, John, if I were the sort of Jewish gent who went in for show-biz-like hugging, I should bestow upon you my best bear hug. But you don’t seem to me a man in desperate need of a hug.”
“Quite so,” he said, and we shook hands and parted.
John Gross was my contemporary, the smartest literary man of my generation, a sweet character, and his death marks a genuine subtraction, not merely in my life, but in the life of the culture.
Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff And Other Stories.