Literature And Western Man

J. B. Priestley, (born Sept. 13, 1894, Bradford, Yorkshire, Eng.—died Aug. 14, 1984, Alveston, near Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire), British novelist, playwright, and essayist, noted for his varied output and his ability for shrewd characterization.” I begin with this extract from which gives details of the author’s life and more than 120 books across these varied genres. I concluded my reading of this today.

For the purposes of this study literature may be defined as written work of influential artistic merit, embracing poetry, drama, and novels.

In his brief introduction to this lengthy, yet remarkably readable book the author states “The term ‘Western’ in my title……is used in the old geographical and cultural senses, to show that Russia is included as well as America, and that all Asia is excluded…….”our story begins in the second half of the fifteenth century”. 1939 is the year he chooses to close.

“This is not a work of scholarship”, he continues, and “strictly speaking, this is not a literary history, although at a pinch it could be used as one.” He is writing for the reasonably intelligent and sensitive  ordinary people “who enjoy most good literature, but, for one reason or another, are rather wary of it.”

Each of the five parts begins with Priestley’s take on the age. Having regard to the cultural, political, religious, and technical developments he then identifies those artists he considers to have exercised the most significance on the writers of that period. William Caxton’s printing press, for example, made books more plentiful during the start of the first section; Machiavelli influenced the Italian political scene; Rabelais and Montaigne, in their different ways, led French writing; Shakespeare, in English, left his dramatic mark on the world.

Priestley speaks of how each influential writer of his choice interrelates with his contemporaries across the Western nations. He describes how the changes wrought by prevailing religious beliefs affect or control literary thought and execution; how political constraints, for example those in post revolutionary Russia, can severely restrict the freedom of writers; the First World War’s cutting off the supply of young talented writers who would never reach their maturity. George Sand of France and England’s George Eliot had to write as men because of prevailing views about women writing; my favourite Mrs (Elizabeth) Gaskell wrote as a married woman, just as Mrs Beaton wrote her Book of Household Management – neither of which does Priestley mention, but we’ll forgive him that, especially as the latter is not a recognised work of art.

We see the movement in fashions from the dominance of poetry and drama to the rise and decline of the novel.

Expressed at publication in 1960, the writer’s concerns about the condition of humanity, could almost be applied – magnified – to our current age.

Priestley has a largely balanced and insightful view on a wide range of writers whom he features at varying lengths according to their impact on their periods and acknowledged statuses. He distinguishes between talent and genius, maintaining that they are best combined. Although not condemning her work, “for even in her least successful novels there are wonderful passages”, he describes Virginia Woolf as “perhaps with more innate genius than solid talent”. For obvious reasons, William Shakespeare gains the most coverage; William Butler Yeats, also blessed with longevity, is a 20th century Irish poet of considerable standing; Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and other Russian giants take their positions; Scott Fitzgerald of America loses his early promise, while Mark Twain fares somewhat better.

The scope of our author’s wide international range of reading and skill of his analyses are breathtakingly impressive. That he presents them in such a fluid and insightful style that certainly reaches this ordinary, non-academic, general reader, is most enjoyable. Naturally I cannot test all his opinions, but on those works or writers that I do know I mostly agree. For example I really find the American Henry James, with whom I felt I might have an affinity because of his focus on the internal lives of his subjects, dull and boring, so I would happily concur with Priestley; on the other hand his opinion of Jane Austen, my dislike of whom is based on my youthful reading, might prompt me to revisit her. He has given such eloquent descriptions of writers, such as the Danish dramatist, Strindberg, whom I have never met, that I feel I know them.

There is a useful and informative appendix of Brief Biographies of selected writers.

Well, that has taken care of another day of constant rain.

This evening we all dined on pork spare ribs in barbecue sauce on a bed of Jackie’s colourful savoury rice, with which she drank Hoegaarden and I finished the shiraz.