David Daiches was a leading and long-standing authority on Scottish literature, the author and editor and introducer of books on Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns, James Boswell, Walter Scott (whom he is credited with reviving), Robert Louis Stevenson and Hugh MacDiarmid, as well as writing such influential books as The Paradox of Scottish Culture (1964). Brought up in Edinburgh, where too he died, he was however a native Englishman, the son of an immigrant Lithuanian rabbi, and most of his academic career was spent out of Scotland " in Oxford, Cambridge and the United States and then, from 1961 until his formal retirement in 1977, at Sussex University, where he was the first Professor of English. His output of published work, not only on Scottish literature, but across the board of English literature, was monumental.
Born in Sunderland in 1912, Daiches was the younger son of Rabbi Dr Salis Daiches, a distinguished rabbinical scholar who had settled in England five years earlier. Daiches pre was born in Vilna, Lithuania, and obtained his PhD in Leipzig with a dissertation on the relationship of David Hume's philosophy to history (an interest very close to that of his son's subsequent preoccupations). Although his mother tongue was Yiddish he abandoned this for Hebrew. His elder brother, Rabbi Samuel Daiches, became a professor at Jews College, the orthodox seminary training rabbis. David Daiches and his own elder brother, Lionel, a future QC, were the first generation to break with the rabbinical family tradition " they were descended from a long line of rabbis going back at least 500 years.
In March 1919 the family " there were two daughters as well, Sylvia, who would marry the philosopher David Daiches Raphael, and Beryl " moved to Edinburgh, where Salis Daiches became minister at the Graham Street Synagogue and subsequently the unofficial Jewish spiritual leader in Scotland. In his powerful autobiography Two Worlds: an Edinburgh Jewish childhood (1957), David Daiches writes that the move to Edinburgh
was the true beginning of my life as I remember it for I remember my childhood as a developing relation between family tradition and my sense of Edinburgh.
This sense of duality, of living in two worlds, was to pervade Daiches's life and work. Educated at George Watson's College, where he was unable to participate in school games or sports or the literary society which met on Friday nights, Daiches
was equally at home with both [the two cultures of my childhood]. That was my good fortune, and I have never ceased to be grateful for it.
He writes most movingly in his autobiography of his father, his mother, schooldays and Edinburgh upbringing:
the city had no barriers against me; the sights and sounds and smells of Edinburgh crowded in upon my senses day after day and year after year.
Already at school he wrote poems. His first publication was a poem printed in the school magazine, The Watsonian, when he was 11. In his final year at school, 1930, he walked off with various prizes, winning a scholarship to Edinburgh University, whence he graduated in 1934 with first class honours in English Literature.
Daiches read English because of his passion for poetry. At Edinburgh special influences were H.J.C. Grierson, the great John Donne and Walter Scott scholar, and the Shakespearian scholar John Dover Wilson. Daiches wrote articles, reviews, poems and letters for The Student during the years 1932-34, under the pseudonym 'Quidam', and ran the university English Literature Society. The first publication he ever edited belongs to this period " Private Business (1933), a collection of poems by him and his contemporary student poets in the society Sorley MacLean and Robert Garioch.
In 1934 Daiches won an Elton Exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford. In a memorial address to the English Department at Aberdeen University 60 years later, with characteristic frankness he recalled that 'because I wasn't used to handling money I spent my three years' money in my first year and I had nothing left to complete my Oxford doctorate'. …