The Critics' Critic: A Tribute to John Gross

There have been many obituaries of John Gross, who died on 10 January. He was the critics' critic, witty, erudite, and polymathic, a graceful writer and a lightning-quick thinker. His series of Oxford anthologies, his books on Shylock, Joyce and Kipling and his 2001 memoir about growing up in the Jewish East End of London, A Double Thread, will all last; and one of his books, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since 1800 (1969), is a classic.


  He made a permanent mark on English literature as editor of the Times Literary Supplement when he took over from Arthur Crook in 1974, simply by ending the practice of anonymity. At a stroke he banished "Mr Puff and Mr Sneer" from his pages, and made the paper lively, which it has been ever since, but never was before. Though he knew his own mind, John's manner was diffident, and he would never have claimed or appealed to the higher morality for his policy; but, in fact, he brought fairness to an institution that had provided a cordial, even sometimes welcoming home to the vendetta and the literary assassin.

         By the summer of 1978 I had completed writing and (with a genius called Venetia Pollock) the long, painful process of editing my book on G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles, which had long been contracted to Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a publishing house with which John had a long-time, mostly informal association. I can't remember where John and I met (though most probably it was via his then-wife, the stunningly beautiful, wonderfully clever, Miriam, Terry Kilmartin's deputy literary editor on The Observer, for whom I'd been reviewing since 1974). Our social circles overlapped even more after he and Miriam separated, and even now I smile at remembering the bevy of well-born, nicely brought-up young beauties who seemed to surround John at parties. He beamed with pleasure at their company.

I knew a secret. John was an Apostle. He'd been elected during his time as a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, from 1962-65. This is further testimony to his intellectual splendour, for it was unusual for the Apostles to elect men who were fellows, or as old as John (who was born in 1935).  The Apostles of his day met, I believe, in Morgan Forster's set of rooms at King's. (Somewhere I have a membership list of the Apostles that stretches well into John's time at King's, but in the chaos of my office I can find the list only up to 1914.)

         The reason I mentioned the summer of 1978 above is that it was the occasion when John commissioned my first piece for the TLS. This commission showed the breadth both of his imagination and of his reading. It was to review a volume called The Poems of John Dewey, edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Though I had read some Dewey when I was reading philosophy as an undergraduate, I had no special qualification for reviewing this book - or so I thought, until I began to do some research.

         Though I wrote that: "The book itself, except for the seventy-odd pages that contain the text of the verse, has been subjected to [the] academic kiss of death and is virtually unreadable," I continued:

         "Yet Dr Boydston's work is redeemed by her discovery (related largely in her footnotes and in the blurb on the dust-jacket) that Dewey had 'a brief emotional the 1917-18 period' with the Jewish Polish-American writer, Anzia Yezierska, who is the subject of much of his love poetry. Nothing could do more to rehabilitate John Dewey than this revelation that he was, after all, human; that in spite of the volumes of lifeless, unlovely prose published in his lifetime and after, the bloodless philosophical writing that is intelligible now only to his few remaining disciples, Dewey was capable of great passion."

         The first point is how remarkable it was that John knew of Yezierska; he even directed me to a photograph of her in Irving Howe's World of our Fathers. The second that he sent me to the London Library, where he knew the then-Librarian could help me find out more about her. Third: if only any editor would allow me to write a paragraph as complicated as that, or the TLS would allow me now to write at the length of my first-ever piece for that paper. For all his diffidence, John knew exactly what he was doing. He'd matched this crazy volume of verse by a dusty philosopher with an ex-philosopher whose real qualification was that, once he'd discovered it, he would understand the immigrant background of Dewey's unexpected mistress and its significance for both of them. And (despite, or maybe because of, my own PhD in English) I think he probably expected me to be repulsed by the pseudo-scholarship of the book.

      When John was on the TLS he showed, too, the catholicity of his interests.  I once got a call from him asking if I knew the owner of a gallery well enough for him to ask to reproduce an image from a current show. I told John (accurately, it turned out) that both the gallery and the artist would be thrilled to be asked. He came to stay with us in the country once or twice. I wasn't terribly surprised to learn that he knew our nearest neighbours very well - he knew everybody.

In the 90s we met frequently, sometimes more than once a week, as he was the theatre critic for The Sunday Telegraph and I was made to add the theatre to my critical portfolio on The Wall Street Journal. John was as brilliant a theatre critic as he was a book reviewer, with a huge memory bank of performances - and texts - to draw on.

I only wish we'd seen more of one another since he retired. John enriched the lives of a lot of people. We were lucky to have known him, and I'll miss him.


January 13, 2011 5:24 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on January 13, 2011 5:24 PM.

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