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Gentleman of Letters

John Gross, 1935-2011.

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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My friend John Gross died on Monday, January 10. His son Tom, who sent out an email announcing John’s death to a large number of his friends, noted that his father’s death was caused by complications relating to his heart and kidneys. His health had been failing in various ways for quite a long spell. Tom Gross also mentioned that his sister Susanna, John’s daughter, was reading to him from Shakespeare’s Sonnets when he died. That is a proper touch, for John knew English literature, knew it with greater breadth and more deeply than anyone I have ever met.

Gentleman of Letters

courtesy of OUPblog

If a decently educated person knows Shakespeare, and someone with a specialized interest in the theater also knows the plays of Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Kyd, John knew Elizabethan playwrights at the next level down. The same was true of every other age or genre of English literature: obscure Romantic poets, unknown Victorian novelists, barely published critics of every age—John knew them all. As a young man, John wrote a brilliant survey of English criticism and reviewing called The Rise and Fall of the Man of
Letters, English Literary Life Since 1800
(1969). He also wrote Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend (1992), a splendid account of the differing ways the character of Shylock has been presented on the stage, from utter fiend to sympathetic victim. These were subjects that a standard English or American academic could nicely kill, but John wrote about them with easy sophistication, brio, charm, wit, and his always present
commonsensical intelligence.

Such fame as John enjoyed was, I suspect, chiefly English, though for a period he worked for the New York Times as one of its daily reviewers. He also wrote with some regularity for American journals, among them the New Criterion, Commentary, and the New York Review of Books. Unlike many English intellectuals, he was a man without the least touch of anti-Americanism, and in his memoir of the first 17 years of his life, A
Double Thread
(2001), he recounts how important American movies, popular songs, and comic books were to him when growing up.

Not everyone approved. Objections floated down from the adult world—political criticisms from the left, disdain for American vulgarity from the right. But among children, if I am in any way representative, the image was overwhelmingly favorable. America stood for streamlining and the open road, for excitement and optimism.

John had a good run as an editor, both of intellectual journals and of anthologies. He was an assistant editor at Encounter. He was the literary editor of the New Statesman at a time when the so-called back of the book, where reviews of books and arts appeared, was easily the best thing about it. He later worked at the same job for the Spectator.

But John’s great editorial contribution was as the principal editor of the Times Literary Supplement, from 1974 to 1981. As editor of the TLS he put an end to the paper’s long tradition of anonymous reviewing, which too frequently resulted in the corrupt practice of puffing the books of friends and sneering at those of enemies. Quite as important, he widened the range of the TLS, making it less scholarly-parochial by opening it up to subjects of broader intellectual interest without in any way diminishing its seriousness.

His editorship at the TLS came at a difficult time. For one thing, the then very belligerent British printing union was menacing the paper, frequently threatening not to print the current week’s edition or refusing to do the lithography that made possible the photographs and drawings accompanying an issue. (This belligerence was finally put down by the new owner of the Times, Rupert Murdoch, who built a new printing plant in the London district of Wapping, which kicked into force, with the help of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications, and Plumbing Union (EETPU), when the printing unions announced a full-scale strike in 1986.)

The TLS had the standing of a national paper, which meant it couldn’t, like most American intellectual journals, comfortably hew to a political line. The time of John’s editorship also saw the rise, in universities, of critical theory, academic feminism, and other university waste products, whose measure one may be sure John had taken but which he could not altogether ignore in the pages of the TLS. Although John had his own politics and his own strong views on all things literary, as editor of the TLS he had to walk a high and slippery tightrope. That he did so without ever undermining his own beliefs or surrendering his standards is a tribute to his tact, subtlety, and extraordinary intellectual balance.

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.”

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.

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