- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2001

Edited and with an Introduction by Arthur Krystal
Foreword by Jacques Barzun
Free, Press, $26, 289 pages, illustrated frontispiece

Opening "A Company of Readers," one may feel he has "met a traveler from an antique land" with a tale of time and dissolution. This aura of a far-receded past is not as dire as "the colossal wreck" of the great monument in the desert — for substance endures in the essays in this book. Percy Bysshe Shelley's image isn't altogether whimsical.
Half a century ago, intellectual authority was generally respected; it was accepted that, in literature as in other disciplines, there were voices that deserved to be heeded by virtue of their learning, guides who knew the paths through the forest. It was also generally accepted that there was a definable thing called "culture" that represented what Matthew Arnold called "the best that is known and thought in the world."
For nearly a dozen years, three such guides — W.H. Auden, Lionel Trilling, both now dead, and Jacques Barzun (in his 90s still toting the bale, his magisterial "From Dawn to Decadence" published last year) — conversed with readers about books and authors in "The Griffin," the monthly bulletin of the Readers' Subscription (the name changed to the Mid-Century Book Club in its last few years before the venture collapsed in 1963).
These essays, 173 of them, each averaging 2,500 words, are small literary gems, and 46 are published in this collection. In our ambiguous present, when criticism routinely asserts itself above narrative and genuflects at the altar of theory, these articles are as welcome as letters long delayed in the mail.
In pre-World War II years, many homes with affection for books or with intellectual aspiration or pretension were members of the Literary Guild and the Book of the Month Club. The monthly books flowed in and almost surely introduced readers to writers they had previously not known, as a byproduct of moving the goods. These selections were usually of the "safely popular" genre.
Readers' Subscription, to the contrary, was more hopeful in origin and purpose from other book clubs, which existed for the undiluted purpose of selling books. (Well, fine, this is a commercial society.) A former student of Trilling's, Gilman Kraft, in September, 1951, founded the club with the idea of providing readers with books of "solid intellectual merit."
Mr. Barzun was then teaching a seminar with Trilling at Columbia and agreed to be a co-editor. The former suggested Auden as a third member. Each of them was of "strongly marked" character, as Mr. Barzun puts it, and of distinct literary preferences and backgrounds to appeal to "educated" readers — a term not defined, and half a century ago not requiring definition, though today it would be characterized as untenably "elitist."
"We behaved like friends talking over what to recommend to other friends," writes Mr. Barzun in the foreword, as he recalls the decade-plus of meetings between the poet, the historian and the literary critic as they discussed what book the club would offer as a main selection in the coming month and who would write the essay. "As critics we had one trait in common: none of us applied a theory or system." The three shared Arnold's faith, and his dictum that "The men of culture are the true apostles of equality."
"It is clear in retrospect that not we alone but the mid-century as a whole, particularly in the United States, made a many-sided effort to carry out the Arnoldian mandate. The hope of a collective enjoyment of the best in thought and art was still strong …," Mr. Barzun writes.
Arthur Krystal, who edited "A Company of Readers," notes in his Introduction that shortly after the club was shuttered in 1963, "the deconstructionist gale blew in from across the Atlantic, upsetting the historic balance between readers and texts, between literature and criticism — thereby casting the book-club essays by Auden, Mr. Barzun, and Trilling as some of the last examples aimed at a general audience by professional critics. Indeed, the fact that two professors in the humanities and a poet famous for his learning once deigned to head such a club speaks volumes, as it were, about the difference in the literary culture then and now."
That's dismally accurate, of course. But there is a counterpoise in our time. Internet sales and links with used-book dealers, readily make available, remarkably so, titles of "solid intellectual merit" that one would have searched long and with difficulty for in the 1950s. There are, however, few "public" tutors of the distinction of Auden, Trilling and Mr. Barzun. In a sense, then, readers of any seriousness are autodidacts often as not.
In the current spasm of fractionalizing — politically, socially, intellectually — it is inspiriting to return to criticism that believed literature could be a unifying vision which can transcend particularities. "The Griffin" essays ranged across the spectrum — biography, history and social thought, novels and novelists, music, theater and poetry. "First and last, we recommended works by authors as far apart in opinion as Gunter Grass, James Baldwin, Lawrence Durrell, Eleanor Clark, William Golding, Norman O. Brown, Harold Rosenberg, James Agee, William Burroughs, Caesare Pavese, Claude Levi-Stauss, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, and J.R.R. Tolkien," writes Mr. Barzun. Many of these were at the start of their renown.
The selections in "A Company of Readers" include Auden's elegant review of William Faulkner's "The Mansion," the final volume of the Snopes trilogy. "Faulkner is no thinker — his occasional reflections on politics or the race question do not illuminate their subjects; he is no poet — his purple passages are embarrassingly bad; he is not even, in my opinion, a profound psychologist, but he is a very great magician who can make twenty years in Yoknapatawpha seem to the reader like twenty minutes and make him want to stay there forever … [H]is charms have a moral purpose: he would teach and, I believe, succeeds in teaching us both to love the Good and to realize the price which must be paid for that love."
Trilling on Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March," is memorable. He writes of the author's "spontaneous talents, his old-fashioned novelistic gifts, which create a human reality at once massive and brilliant." It is a novel of "specific moral, intellectual intention." After reading Trilling and realizing that, somehow, I had not read "Augie March," it was impossible not to scurry for a copy.
Readers of this collection are likely to have a similar experience with one or another of the selections.
Invariably, a number of the books and writers "The Griffin" found worth comment have faded in the near half-century that's lapsed. Mr. Barzun, for instance, writes on Marchette Chute's book of the 17th-century poet, George Herbert. In the course of this essay on the work of Chute, whose name is probably unfamiliar to most readers today, Mr. Barzun comments thoughtfully on the nature of biography and biographers. Chute's previous books were on Chaucer, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and, "She composes a lifelike narrative without ever straying from the strictest truthfulness, but her aim is to reproduce the sensations of contemporaneity."
There is an irresistible flavor, tone and breadth in the essays in "A Company of Readers." The collection is like a quietly erudite commonplace book that puts one in touch with a less frantic, less politicized, period in literature.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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