By Tony Roberts

Shoestring Press. 299 pages. £12. ISBN 978-1-912524-26-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Some people perhaps prefer the critics they read to be acerbic, tearing into what they claim not to like and taking it apart. Young critics on the make often find it’s a sure-fire way to success as they destroy a few careers on their way into the limelight. Nastiness becomes their stock-in-trade. Personally, I prefer the mature critic who looks for the best in what he is reviewing and generally writes about what interests him. It’s much more satisfying to read measured commentary, and experience enthusiasm, than encounter the quick and glib that is designed only to draw attention to the reviewer rather than the work supposedly being reviewed.

Tony Roberts certainly never gives the impression that he is determined to make the reader notice him instead of what he is writing about. He is genuinely interested in the writers and the books he focuses on. The first essay in his book, “With the Topnotch Tates at ‘Benfolly’, 1937”, is an entertaining account of a gathering of writers, including Allen Tate, his wife, the novelist Caroline Gordon, Ford Madox Ford and his companion, Janice Biala (sister of the abstract expressionist artist, Jack Tworkov), and Ford’s secretary, ‘Wally’ Tworkov. A young Robert Lowell arrived out of the blue and camped on the lawn. Getting a bunch of writers together can often lead to a certain amount of friction, and there was a degree of it here, though Roberts handles it lightly. What does come through in his account of events is his fondness for the people concerned. He can evaluate their work as writers and look sympathetically at any human failings they may have. But on the whole it does seem that nothing very disturbing happened, though Tate thought that Lowell might become a nuisance.

The interest in Tate, Ford, and Lowell runs throughout the book, and several essays touch on  aspects of their lives and work. Tate spent some time in Paris, though he’s not often noticed when people write about the famed expatriates of the 1920s. Hemingway, Robert McAlmon, Malcolm Cowley, Hart Crane, Kay Boyle, and others like them normally attract attention, probably because they wrote novels and stories about their contemporaries, and in some cases got into trouble of one sort or another. Books about the Paris of the expatriates often like to have a few fallings-out and even fist-fights to push the narrative along. Tate, a quieter and more-conservative person, didn’t stand aside from visiting the Dome and the Rotonde, noted expatriate watering holes, and meeting Hemingway, and Scott Fitzgerald. But he worked on his writing, though later wondering whether he needed to be in Paris to produce the material that he did. It’s to Roberts’ credit that he gives substance to Tate’s sojourn in Paris.

As a good essayist should, Roberts draws attention to the overlooked, and his informative piece about Archibald MacLeish notes that “Few C20th American poets could boast of being as popular or successful as Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) and few have had their readership collapse so quickly”. He’s likewise generous when dealing with James Dickey, once popular because of the film Deliverance, based on one of his novels, though probably less well-known as a poet, at least in this country. Dickey from all accounts wasn’t an admirable person, being arrogant and aggressive. Roberts acknowledges these characteristics, but provides a close analysis of the poetry that recognises its shortcomings (“when not impressive it can at times be offensive”) and also points to its better qualities. 

Bad behaviour isn’t a hallmark of every poet, but enough of them have shown signs of tantrums, breakdowns, mischief-making, and more, to provide material for several books. It might be that some people have expectations of poets in terms of misbehaviour and almost encourage them to go to extremes. And the poets, knowing that, like spoiled children, they will be indulged, take advantage of the situation. Dylan Thomas is a case in point, and “Dylan Thomas roars across America” recounts the Welsh poet’s adventures as he drank, gave readings which could be spellbinding, drank more, insulted academics and propositioned their wives, drank even more, and left behind a legend of artistic outrageousness and a fund of anecdotes about his capacity for alcohol and boorishness. “There was a certain amount of poison in our goodwill”, said the noted New York critic and novelist, Elizabeth Hardwick, and it neatly summed up how people hovered around Thomas waiting for him to be outrageous. It’s the legend of the errant poet that has survived, while his poetry is mostly forgotten and his literary reputation, such as it is, largely rests on Under Milk Wood. Roberts is not unsympathetic towards Thomas, but notes his problems and limitations.

Other British writers visited America and left a better impression, at least in a few minds. Louis MacNeice was there and had an ill-fated affair with the novelist Eleanor Clark. She’s probably little known here, though I recall reading her politically satirical, The Bitter Box, some years ago. Ted Hughes spent time in the United States, though he seems not to have liked the country, and its main attraction was Sylvia Plath. And Charles Tomlinson, a quiet but impressive poet, was frequently in America and was influenced by American poets. The account by Roberts refers to Tomlinson’s achievements, but I wonder how well-known he is in his home country? He’s certainly never been what is described as a “popular poet”, and it may be that his readership is largely limited to a few fellow-poets and some academics. Roberts is therefore providing a valuable service by devoting space to his work.

It’s not all poets, and Roberts look at the life of the exiled Russian political dissident, Alexander Herzen, at least insofar as his time in London was concerned. There is an essay on Richard Holmes, biographer of Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson and Coleridge. It’s easy to see why Holmes appeals to Roberts, his work as a biographer setting the style for successful biography. Roberts says that “all Holmes’s biographical works are pursuits”, and I very much have the feeling that it is what Roberts is doing when he delves into the lives and writings of his subjects. An essay on the novelist, William Styron, records the events of his career as a writer by looking closely at his novels, and relating them to his life experiences. Both the work and the life were flawed, as is probably the case with most writers, but Roberts paints a positive-enough picture to incline me to want to have another look at Set This House on Fire, which I read when it was published in the early-1960s but haven’t looked at since. It’s surely a sign of a good critic when what he writes makes the reader want to turn to the work under discussion, not turn away from it.   

I was intrigued when I read the essay on Arthur Krystal, a man who from this account is a stickler for high standards and an opponent of what he sees as the dumbing-down of universities, literary criticism, and just about everything else. Roberts gives a balanced picture of someone who likes to employ a tone “described as provocative but not offensive”. According to Krystal, “art has always been the product of talent, skill, inspiration, and labour, and so, to a degree, has been the appreciation of art”. But, if Krystal is right, both creators and audience have failed in their duties, with the result that “the know-nothings, the politically suspect and the mercenary have taken over”. It’s difficult not to agree with Krystal, while at the same time feeling a bit embarrassed because one’s own tastes are not always of the highest. Krystal says we live in “an age of diminished expectations” where, in Roberts’ words, “taste has been reduced to a matter of personal preferences”. The subversive thought occurs to me that it possibly always has been, though that might not make me feel any less guilty when I choose to watch an old episode of Murder, She Wrote instead of listening to Two Gentlemen of Verona on the radio. I do know which is best when it comes to artistic qualities, but don’t always feel the need to be demonstrating it.

There is so much more in The Taste of My Mornings that is worth reading besides what few examples I’ve referred to. An essay on Malcolm Cowley’s poetry is useful, bearing in mind that his reputation rests on his work as a critic. Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling are discussed alongside each other, with Wilson as an example of a non-academic writer ranging over a variety of topics, and Trilling as a somewhat perhaps more-limited surveyor of life and literature. He, unlike Wilson, had the security of an academic career, so perhaps didn’t need to take on some of the tasks that Wilson faced up to. But they are not set up as opposites, but rather as two sides of the same coin. And, as Roberts points out, both fell out of favour as fashions changed and “theory” crept into the universities.

I can’t overlook Roberts’s love of Robert Lowell. Leaving aside his appearance in the essay on the Tates at “Benfolly”, he has three pieces devoted to him. They all deal adequately with his troubled life as well as his poetry, with one essay, “The Lives of Robert Lowell”, inspecting several biographies of the poet and showing how different interpretations of the same facts are arrived at. It’s an effective piece in terms of persuading readers to not always be convinced by a single account of a life.

Before closing let me declare an interest. One of the essays includes a review of a book of mine, so I could be accused of a less than detached view of Roberts’ book. Perhaps so, but I feel that I can honestly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading good literary criticism and commentary. His writing is always clear, concise, and with a care for the facts of a writer’s life. And Roberts is enthusiastic. He gives the impression that he cares for the people he writes about, even when they are less than perfect.