The Blog

Meet Mr. Bagehot, cont.

9:03 AM, Oct 7, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

George Selgin reviews The Memoirs of Walter Bagehot for the Wall Street Journal:

'Occasionally,' Woodrow Wilson wrote, "a man is born whose mission . . . is to clarify the thought of his generation . . . give it speed where it is slow, vision where it is blind, balance when it is out of poise, saving humor where it is dry,—and such a man was Walter Bagehot."

Bagehot (1826-77) is mostly remembered today for having edited the Economist, which still features a column named after him. But he was also a literary critic, political theorist, banker and would-be member of Parliament, who, despite the tenuous health that ended his life at 51, produced 15 volumes of writings. To G.M. Young, the eminent historian, Bagehot (pronounced "bajut") was simply "The Greatest Victorian," and before settling on "The Age of Equipoise," W.L. Burn considered calling his acclaimed 1964 study of the mid-Victorian era "The Age of Bagehot."

The "balance" that made Bagehot the supreme representative of his times stemmed from his belief in a more noble, invisible world—a "stratum of the passions, of the intense, simple impulses which constitute the heart of man"—lurking beneath the surface of the savage one. Thanks to such mysticism, Bagehot's otherwise sober temperament was tinged with benevolence. He was incapable of aloof indifference, yet free of excessive sentiment.

Born to a banking family and educated at University College, London, Bagehot was an upbeat Whig (that is, a champion of reform within the framework of a constitutional monarchy dominated by Parliament). He believed in mankind's perfectibility yet feared Tory mulishness less than liberal schemes for the "instant reform" of land, church or Parliament. "Go home . . . and take a dose of salts" was a typical response to some overly enthusiastic liberals.

On the same book, but for this magazine, Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote:

Walter Bagehot (1826-1877)—“the greatest Victorian,” as an eminent historian of that period memorialized him, editor of the Economist, author of The English Constitution, and a prolific essayist—is almost unknown today. (Even the pronunciation of his name is unfamiliar; it rhymes with gadget.) The publication of his Memoirs, dated October 1, 1876 (six months before his death), and signed by the author with the request that it not be released until after he died, is surely a great coup, an invaluable addition to the 11 volumes of his Collected Works

Well, not quite. The title page contains a less familiar name, Frank Prochaska, and the foreword (do all readers read forewords?) elicits the fact that the Memoirs are not by Bagehot, not even edited by Prochaska, but by Prochaska himself. 

Fictionalized memoirs—a red flag to a pedant like myself. Prochaska explains that he chose to write about Bagehot in the first person in the hope of portraying his life and mind more vividly than he could have done in a conventional biography. The pseudo-Bagehot is indeed vivacious. Yet the pedant in me regrets the absence of quotation marks and footnotes attesting to the real Bagehot. I supplied some of them by tracking down the sources and was pleased to find that the Memoirs consist, in large part, of long, almost verbatim extracts from Bagehot’s writings. 

If the Memoirs cannot be appended to the Collected Works, they can serve as a brief and eminently readable introduction to a stimulating writer and thinker, a man for whom the term “public intellectual” may have been coined.

The rest of Himmelfarb's review is here.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers