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Anthony West’s literary essays

Awhile ago I picked up a collection of essays by Anthony West, a book called Principles and Persuasions that came out in 1957, was briefly reprinted in 1970, and I expect has been out of print ever since. It’s a wonderful book, one of my favorite collections of literary essays, period. West was a book reviewer for the New Yorker for a long time so there must’ve been material for many more volumes but given the unenthusiastic response to this one collection, I guess it makes sense that no others were printed.

West is thoughtful and reasonable and a fluid writer, with lots of insights. The book includes interesting and original takes on well-trodden authors such as George Orwell, Charles Dickens, T. E. Lawrence, and Graham Greene, along with demolitions of Edwin O’Connor (author of The Last Hurrah) and the now-forgotten Reinhold Niebuhr, and lots more. West employs historical exposition, wit, and political passion where appropriate. I really enjoyed this book and am sad that there’s no more of this stuff by West that’s easily accessible. Reading it also gave me nostalgia for an era in which writers took their time to craft beautiful book reviews—not like now, here I am writing 400 posts per year along with articles, books, teaching, fundraising, etc., we’re just so busy and there’s this sense that few people will read anything we write from beginning to end again, so why bother? Here I am typing this on the computer but for the purpose of literature I wish we could blow up all the computers and return to a time when we had more free hours to read. There’s something particularly appealing about West’s book in that he’s not a famous author or even a famous critic; he’s completely forgotten and I guess wasn’t considered so important even back then.

And, yes, I know this post would be more meaningful if I could pull out some quotes to show you what West had to say. But when I was reading it I didn’t happen to have any sticky notes and it’s hard to flip through and find striking bits. And, don’t get me wrong, West was great but there were some things he couldn’t do. For example I doubt he ever wrote anything comparable to those unforgettable last three paragraphs of Homage to Catalonia. But that’s fine, not everyone can do that. I loved West’s book and it made me want to live in 1957.

P.S. Anthony West is the son of H. G. Wells and Rebecca West. Those two famous parents were never married to each other so that explains why Anthony’s last name isn’t Wells, but it seems odd that he didn’t just go with Fairfield. I guess I’ll have to read Anthony’s autobiographical novel to get more insight into the question of his name.

13 Comments

  1. Wow. I would like to read it. Today at a symposium. So can’t comment as much. Such int group here.

  2. Henrique says:

    These kinds of essays are what I love the most about the New Yorker. Gonna look up Anthony West! Speaking of Niebuhr – he’s getting remembered more often lately due to James Comey’s book, which has many nods and citations to Niebuhr.

  3. PseudoNikephoros says:

    This seems as good an opportunity as any to shill this piece by piece review of Orson Wells’ entire literary oeuvre. Anthony West starts appearing in towards the tail end so this is not a totally graceless namedrop: http://wellsattheworldsend.blogspot.com/2018/02/wells-at-worlds-index.html

  4. Corey says:

    Reinhold Niebuhr is less forgotten than he used to be on account of being the display name on James Comey’s once-anonymous twitter account (and also the subject of James Comey’s senior thesis in college).

  5. According to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, the “now-forgotten” Reinhold Niebuhr was recently (as of 2008) at half of his late-1950s peak level of fame, and almost half as remembered (in print) as George Orwell.

    • Andrew says:

      David:

      That surprises me to hear that the Niebuhr/Orwell mention ratio is as high as 0.5. There must be some academic disciplines that talk about Niebuhr a lot.

      • Yes b/c Niebuhr was trying to salvage Christian doctrine in an increasingly secularist trends & yet having to reconcile the doctrine with the goals & objectives of US government in The aftermath of WW2. Those were the themes I recall in his talks & his theological interpretations.

  6. In an increasingly secularist age

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