The Vanishing Man of Letters

By Whittington-Egan, Richard | Contemporary Review, August 2003 | Go to article overview

The Vanishing Man of Letters


Whittington-Egan, Richard, Contemporary Review


Part One

ALL the twenty-first century instruments agree that in this cybernetic age that quaint Victorian artefact, that wily old literary bird, the Man of Letters, has virtually joined the inept dodo and misfortunate great auk, along with the woolly mammoth and the muffin-man, in the categories of extinction. No cyberfigure he.

Indeed, it is as long as forty years ago that Evelyn Waugh bore premature witness to the Man of Letters' dignified exodus. Writing, in his unfinished autobiographical fragment, A Little Learning (1964), of his father, Arthur Waugh, he described him as a Man of Letters, belonging to 'a category like the Maiden aunt's, that is now almost extinct'.

But what, it may after so long a lapse of time be reasonably inquired, precisely was a 'Man of Letters'? Originally, the term simply denoted a scholar; then, gradually, it came to be applied to authors in general. In its ultimate, and more restrictive sense, the Man of Letters is to be defined as one who lives and dies by literature-the bearded figure comfortably ensconced at his desk in the bow-window looking out over the lawn and the rhododendrons. The antidote, of course, to the solipsistic gloom of the bookman as prisoner, seated alone at the desk's dead wood is, apart from publication and acclaim, a break away to the company of his like-minded cohort, to secure which there arose such institutions as the informal Rhymers' Club, at Fleet Street's ale and sawdust Cheshire Cheese, and the more formal wining-and-dining calibre clubs, such as the Sette of Odd Volumes, meeting monthly at, usually, Limner's Restaurant.

It was the accepted duty of the Man of Letters to contribute to the cultural atmosphere of his time, to carry a flag. Tragically, he did not nurture a single-stranded interest, but was required to exhibit commitment in more than one area-essays, criticism, reviews, novels, poetry, biographies. And there should be an output, a product, not just self-absorbing and self-absorbent meditation.

Robustness was not an essential ingredient, although the Man of Letters frequently lived to rustication and ripe old age. But there were traps along the way. Solitariness was one; others were angst and alcohol. As he faces his own personal decline, the Man of Letters' worst sorrow is to leave his treasured books; he paces his shelves and says goodbye to his old friends.

The Man of Letters survives today only in pale imitation-in parts of Academia, where, however, specialization has taken away the breadth and depth of the old-time archetype.

A typical example of the classic species was Richard Le Gallienne (1866-1947), who hailed from my home-town, Liverpool. Originally destined for the world of commerce, he started off apprenticed to accountancy in a dreary 'penitentiary of the mathematics'. Kicking over the clerk's high stool, he nested briefly in a 'Literary Loft', a book and flower filled room which he and his Mildred, the pretty young waitress who had served him at the city cafe where he lunched and whom he was to marry, rented on the top storey of a dingy office pile in the city. Soon he was to move on to London and celebrity, becoming John Lane of the Bodley Head's reader, 'Logroller', book columnist of the Star newspaper, and a literary lion of the metropolis of the Nineties. He became especially famed for the length and luxuriance of his hair, and when he wrote a pamphlet entitled If I Were God by Richard Le Gallienne, a wag riposted, 'If I were Richard Le Gallienne, by God, I'd get my hair cut!'

Mildred died. Richard had not during their two and a half years of married life proved either a faithful or a flawless husband. Widowed, and with a little child, he felt violent pangs of transient remorse, and hymned his dead wife in vintage Nineties poet's minor melody:

   She's somewhere in the sunlight strong,
   Her tears are in the failing rain,
   She calls me in the wind's soft song,
   And with the flowers she comes again. … 

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