C.P. Snow: An Appreciation

By Coleman, Brian | Queen's Quarterly, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

C.P. Snow: An Appreciation


Coleman, Brian, Queen's Quarterly


C. P. Snow bridges the worlds of science, literature, law, public administration, and academic life. He looks at the social condition so that he can see better the human condition.

C.P. Snow (1905-1980), novelist, scientist, social observer, was born a little more than a hundred years ago in Leicester. In the mid-twentieth century he was a very familiar figure in the journals of the day, on radio and television, in universities and in the councils of nations.

Snow's lecture "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," on the divide between the sciences and the humanities, was the Rede Lecture at Cambridge in 1959. (1) It brought him the most attention, and controversy, too. He might have called it "The One Culture," because he emphasized how a knowledge of the one complements the other. Others had been discussing this cultural divide. In the mid-nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold and Thomas Huxley spoke along similar lines. Snow says that his lecture touched what was already in the thoughts of many, and it served as an impetus for further, much further, discussion, and change as well. The prime minister of Sweden told him that his thinking influenced education in Sweden.

What he sought to emphasize in the lecture and subsequent statements was the divide between the rich and the poor as a practical consequence of the cultural divide. It deflected investment away from training in technology that could contribute to better living standards, in particular, for people in developing countries. In his writings, he makes the distinction between the social condition, where it is possible to improve standards of living, and so to give hope, and the individual condition, where each of us dies alone.

IN 1935, Snow first had a clear idea of the Strangers and Brothers sequence of novels that would be a major part of his life's work. (2) They tell their story from the beginning of the twentieth century to 1970. (3) The central character, Lewis Eliot, is the narrator, and through his judgment of his own character and others, through his own moral sense, through his sharing a common humanity, the reader shares in the dilemma of living a public and professional life and living as a human being in our era.

As a bright boy from a family that teeters on bankruptcy, Eliot begins a career in law in a provincial English town. Through his mother, he is acutely aware of social class and advancement. The changing nuance of class, sexual freedom, moral choice is the social history of Britain, in particular, and of all industrialized societies of the twentieth century. As a gifted student, Eliot wins a scholarship to Cambridge and later is elected to a Cambridge fellowship. He moves between the worlds of the university, business, and government, coming to live his public life as a committee man. How men exercise power, how decisions are made, how men accommodate loyalty to political creed, to professional life, to careers, make up the public lives of the characters in Strangers and Brothers.

How men and women give of themselves in love, or how they are unable to give of themselves, how they live with their temperaments, how they live for their children, make up the personal lives of the characters.

Snow says that it is a mistake for a writer to produce an autobiography, that a reader can best know a writer, most writers, through his other writings. In his own case, the voice of Lewis Eliot is close to the voice of C.P. Snow. As Eliot views the affairs of man and the nature of man, Snow also views them: each has a realistic, unsentimental appraisal that is, at the same time, accepting. The romance Eliot has with power, moving effortlessly between the worlds of Cambridge, industry, and Whitehall, is close to Snow's own story. Eliot at the centre of decision-making, his judgment sought after by all, is close to Snow's role in the world of affairs. Eliot's family relations, his father's failure to succeed, his own early career years, the heartbreak of his first love, these too have echoes in Snow's life. …

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