The Criterion: Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Inter-War Britain
by Jason Harding.
Oxford University Press (New York, New York)
250 pp., $55.00 cloth, 2002.
In the final issueof the Criterion, which appeared in January 1939, T. S. Eliot wrote that “continuity of culture” was the primary responsibility of “the small and obscure papers and reviews.” It was they that would “keep critical thought alive” amidst troubled times. And so it has been, for a century and more. The vitality of the “little magazines” is one of the strongest indicators of a culture’s intellectual level. These journals, typically of small circulation and little revenue, serve a crucial function as the medium for the transmission of ideas among scholars, elites, and the larger population. it is perhaps a sign of our times that so many of our Masters of the Universe choose to endow business schools or fund independent films rather than to support the written word. Many of the journals themselves, unfortunately, have become so obscure and inward-minded that they may no longer be worth the trouble.
The British aptitude for starting small associations of like-minded folk was well expressed by the profusion of little magazines, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This proclivity was to bear further fruit across the Atlantic, where Americans followed the British model. Up until the Second World War, America had a thriving culture of little magazines that tradition survives, in a somewhat anemic form, in the independent so-called “zines” that clutter the bookshops of progressive enclaves like Manhattan or Berkeley. There have been two recent examples of the differing fates of such journals here in the United States. Lingua Franca was an energetic journal devoted to academic life, which it chronicled in a sharp, intelligent style. After less than four years of publication it went bankrupt and ceased publication, only to be partially revived in an Internet incarnation after being acquired by the Chronicle of Higher Education. On the other end of the scale is Poetry, which recently received a gift of $100 million from a philanthropist whose own poems it had rejected. The gift instantly made the small journal one of the best-endowed cultural institutions in the country.
The Criterion was perhaps the most important of the journals of the last century. The first issue, which appeared in October 1922 and contained (without epigraph or notes) Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, changed Western intellectual life, and it continues to define what an intellectual journal should be. However, study of the Criterion has been subsumed by the focus on Eliot’s development as a poet and thinker. The larger cultural importance of the journal has received insufficient attention. That has now changed. From such an improbable place as the department of foreign languages and literature in Feng Chia University in Taiwan, where Jason Harding is assistant director, comes The Criterion: Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Inter-War Britain. It is a work of polished scholarship on the role of the Criterion in British intellectual life.
Harding divides his analysis into three parts. Part I, “Cultural Networks,” deals with the Criterion as one of a number of small intellectual periodicals, such as the Adelphi and New Verse, which appeared in this period. The second section, titled “The Politics of Book Reviewing,” focuses on a number of regular Criterion contributors, and their relationship with, and treatment by, Eliot as their editor. The chapters include studies of almost forgotten figures like Bonamy Dobrée and Montgomery Belgion as well as more well-known figures such as John Maynard Keynes and the difficult but brilliant Ezra Pound. Harding shows that, while Eliot directed and organized every aspect of the journal, each of the contributors played their own part in establishing the Criterion’s preeminent position.
The final section, “Cultural Politics,” focuses on the purpose of the Criterion as Eliot came to see it in the dark days of the 1930s. As the influence of the journal increased, it became known not only as a showcase of modernism but also as a conduit for what Eliot called “the mind of all Europe” and a defense of the West. The author discusses Eliot’s attempts to persuade major Continental intellectual figures such as Ernst Robert Curtius to contribute to the journal, and his efforts consistently to review foreign periodicals for his British readership.
Harding presents a complex cultural picture in service of his goal of establishing the Criterion as part of “an ongoing cultural conversation, most immediately a dialogue with a shifting set of interlocking periodical structures and networks.” Eliot, as an editor, had to deal not only with his rival journals, but also with his sensitive patron, Lady Rothermere. There were also those occasionally truculent contributors, such as Wyndham Lewis or D. H. Lawrence, who sometimes abandoned the Criterion for other, better-paying reviews.
Among a number of fascinating episodes, Harding recounts here the controversy over classicism and romanticism between Eliot and John Middleton Murry, founder of the Adelphi. Murry launched the first salvo in 1923, claiming that there was no tradition of classicism in England. Although not the subject of the attack, Eliot felt obliged to respond and published in the Criterion the following month his famous defense of classicism, “The Function of Criticism.” Murry and Eliot were to have a limited rematch at the end of the decade over the humanism of Irving Babbitt. Other scholars have examined the substantive merits of their respective positions. Harding’s purpose is rather to show that the literary rivalries among serious journals spurred Eliot, as a writer and editor, to set out his critical and literary vision. They necessarily shaped the kind of journal Eliot was creating.
In his final sections, Harding examines the evidence for Eliot’s supposed anti-Semitic or fascist sympathies and finds them wanting. Under Eliot’s editorship, several writers documented the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the final issue contained a condemnation of Nazi racial theories. Harding concludes that: “Given the Criterion’s record on these matters, it is remarkable that recent critics have stigmatized the journal by suggesting that Eliot was sympathetic to the aims and methods of Nazism.” Harding realizes that Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism and his efforts to “stitch together into some kind of unity the Latin-Christian elements of the otherwise diverse cultures of Western Europe” meant his rejection of the Nazi regime. And even though Eliot was somewhat sympathetic to fascism, that sympathy, as Harding demonstrates, was attenuated and did not cause him to suppress other viewpoints in the Criterion.
Drawing on a wealth of previously unexamined materials and private collections, Harding expands upon our knowledge of Eliot as a major twentieth-century figure. His careful research adds a new dimension not only to Eliot as a thinker and editor, but also to the entire period of British literary journalism.
Gerald J. Russello is a lawyer living in New York City.