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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.

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