Literary Masterpieces

james-joyceLiterary Masterpieces

In the miscellany Medley from October 1936 appears this intriguing pronouncement:

‘ It has been found that literary masterpieces of the first rank have been produced most frequently by authors who were from the ages of 40 to 44 inclusive’

Dr Harvey Lehman

We thought we’d test out the good doctor’s theory using, among other sources, the excellent Annals of Literature (1961), which finishes at 1950.

We started with Charles Dickens (1812 – 70). In this five year period he published three memorable novels: Bleak House, Hard Times, and Little Dorrit. However, most critics regard Great Expectations (1860) as his ‘literary masterpiece. ‘

We then turned to George Eliot (1819 – 80). She was 40 when Adam Bede was published, 41 when The Mill on the Floss appeared, 42 when Silas Marner came out, and 43 when Romola hit the shelves. All wonderful novels, but most critics would class Middlemarch( 1871-72) as her ‘ masterpiece of the first rank’.

Next we looked at James Joyce( 1882 – 1941). Here we hit the mark. His Ulysses, undoubtably a ‘ masterpiece of the first rank ‘, appeared in 1922 ( though it was years in the making ). Joyce was 40 at the time. Continue reading

Odyssey of a Barbarian

Found in a Penguin Odyssey translated by the classical scholar Dr E. V. Rieu a typed signed letter from the novelist, playwright and the biographer of Aleister Crowley John Symonds to Dr Rieu. EVR’s reply is witty and good-natured…

IMG_1375Methuen and Co., Ltd.

36 Essex Street, London W.C.2

22nd September 1961

Dear Sir,

Some years ago I bought your version of THE ODYSSEY and THE ILIAD, and put them on a shelf beside my bed, intending one night to begin reading them, and thus fill a literary gap. And there they remained until the month when I took down THE ODYSSEY removed the paper wrapper, felt the fine blue cloth binding, gazed at the clear print and began reading.

Splendid and immortal yarn! But what a barbarian Odysseus is! He is like a comic-strip superman of the Daily Mirror. And then I came to Book XXII which you describe in your introduction as “the magnificent climax”. What is magnificent about it? The cruelty of Odysseus appalled me. Merciless butcher, without charity! He won’t even spare the tearful women. The horrors described on page 324 made me feel sick and I flung the book into the fireplace.

Continue reading


60 years of ‘Dumbing Down’?

Found in the bookseller's magazine Desiderata from September 1955 this piece reprinted  from Atticus in the Sunday Times.

Teenagers may care to try to name the authors of the following 12 books:

An American Tragedy, 
The Canterbury Tales,
Gulliver's Travels,
Leaves of Grass,
The Old Wives' Tale
Vanity Fair, 
The Origin of Species,
The Wealth of Nations 
The Rubaiyat
Tom Jones 

...then compare their standard of education with that of the average American college graduate, aged 21.  According to a recent Gallup poll, 9% of graduates could not give the author of a single one, 39% could not name more than three, and 52% could name only four.

At least three titles may have dated too much since 1955 - An American Tragedy, Babbitt and The Old Wive's Tale - they could be replaced, say, by The Hobbit, To Kill a Mockingbird and Ulysses. It was a slightly odd list to start with (no Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Poe) but you have to start somewhere. Surely there must have been the occasional bright spark who could name the lot? 60 years on people constantly lament 'dumbing down' but it would be interesting to see if figures have greatly changed  for the worse…