Malcolm Bradbury: A History Man for Our Times

By Doering, Jonathan W. | Contemporary Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Malcolm Bradbury: A History Man for Our Times


Doering, Jonathan W., Contemporary Review


THE death last November of the academic and author Malcolm Bradbury from a rare form of pneumonia has robbed British Literature of a generous and expansive voice which had much to say over the last forty years. Bradbury rose to the top of an establishment often hidebound by snobbish values, building a reputation for being unafraid to experiment in his work, and to encourage freedom of experimentation in others.

The son of a Nottingham railway worker, he took a First in English Literature at the then University College of Leicester. He then embarked upon postgraduate study at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, and Manchester University, where he completed a doctoral thesis on the work of expatriate Beat Writers in Paris. It was around this time whilst shuttling between Manchester and a teaching post at Sheffield, that he fell ill with a heart condition that caused an early brush with death. This was only averted with pioneering surgery. Whilst recovering in hospital he completed his novel Eating People is Wrong (1959), which nods to the work of Trilling and Bellow as well as to Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim.

He then studied Creative Writing on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Indiana, an experience which imbued his second novel, Stepping Westwards (1965), with an outsider's fascination with American culture. From Indiana, he returned to Britain, to his first full-time post at Hull University. In 1961 he joined the English Department at Birmingham University, where he formed a lifelong friendship with a fellow lecturer, and writer, David Lodge.

In 1965 he moved to the new University of East Anglia (U.E.A.) in Norwich, the city he lived in for the rest of his life. It is now a centre famous for the study of English, American, and Comparative Literature, Creative Writing and for the exchange programmes that it runs in conjunction with American and European Universities, all of this due in no small part to Bradbury's efforts. In 1970 he was made Professor of American Studies, a post he held until the 1990s. It was characteristic that, despite the growing demands of his many commitments, he maintained his close links with U.E.A. right up to his death in 2000.

As an academic, he produced a dazzling array of literary criticism, including groundbreaking work on American Literature from a British perspective, The Modern American Novel in 1983 and From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature (with Richard Rutland) in 1991. He also wrote on more specifically British movements No, Not Bloomsbury (1987), and also sought to offer critical work which could demonstrate the cross-fertilization occurring between national literatures, e.g. The Modern Novel (1977) and The Atlas of Literature (1996), this latter work perhaps best exemplifying his eclectic, inclusive tastes.

He was also a keen book reviewer for the popular press, turning out a thousand reviews over the years. More than one obituary noted the constructive attitude he brought to his reviewing. When his Booker-nominated Rates of Exchange was mauled by Martin Amis in The New Statesman in the early 1980s Bradbury was saddened, but when Amis' own The Information belly-flopped in the 1990s, Bradbury's was one of the few voices raised in its defence.

Academic culture was Bradbury's favoured element, and his third novel, The History Man (1975) brilliantly evoked the radical atmosphere on Britain's 'new' university campuses: the University of Watermouth provides the perfect camouflage for the Machiavellian sociologist Howard Kirk, as he destroys marriages and careers in his drive towards greatness. This novel is darker and more pessimistic than its predecessors; it earnt him the Heinemann Award, and a T.V. commission: he went on to adapt it into a hugely popular serial.

This afforded him the delight of a parallel career as a T.V. scriptwriter, which he pursued with equal vigour both when adapting others' work and producing his own original material. …

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