To be in the company of John Gross, who died on January 10 at 75, was to experience a unique kind of pleasure, as well as a relief from the woes of the world. No man ever shared his erudition more delightfully, with less thought of imposing himself on others or of discomfiting the ignorant—as almost everyone was by comparison with him.
Like a surprising number of literary figures—one thinks of Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Proust, and Auden—Gross was the son of a doctor, in his case a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe to the East End of London. He described his Anglo-Jewish upbringing in a delightful memoir, A Double Thread, published in 2001. He won a scholarship to Oxford and thereafter entered literary circles that he never left. He became without doubt the best anthologist of his time and also among the foremost literary scholars and critics. He was successively editor of the Times Literary Supplement, chief book reviewer for the New York Times, and theater critic of the Sunday Telegraph, all positions that he filled with distinction.
Without any display of pedantry, he gave the impression of having read, and remembered, everything. His New Oxford Book of English Prose, published in 1998, was evidence enough of his prodigious knowledge, his broad sympathies, and his excellent judgment. Who but he would quote with equal facility and felicity from Richard Knolles’s The General History of the Turks of 1603 and Dwight Macdonald’s “The Bible in Modern Undress” of 1953? Letters, diaries, sermons, speeches political and forensic, short stories, novels, critical essays, works of philosophy, science, and travel: all are included in his anthology, and all aptly.
But he was not made priggish by his learning. Once, when I relayed to him a remark by a second-hand bookseller of my acquaintance—that the authors of the popular novels of the 1920s and 1930s wrote very well—he brought up Edgar Wallace, about whom he was surprisingly knowledgeable (though I should not have been surprised). He even quoted from Margaret Lane’s biography of Wallace. Further, though few people could have read more books than he had, he was not bookish. He was genuinely interested in the human race, of and upon which literature was a reflection; he had the power of inspiring immediate confidence in his interlocutor. He loved gossip (one of his anthologies was of literary anecdotes), and though he was clear-sighted, he was without malice, which he could safely leave to others to supply.
The excellence of his critical judgment derived from the free play of an intelligence and sensibility that refused to be constrained by fashionable theories. Literary excellence could not, for him, be reduced to any one aspect of a work. Two works could have equal but opposite virtues, and it would be our loss if we refused to acknowledge both. Writing of our current aversion to purple prose in the preface to his anthology, he wrote:
We should be . . . on guard, however, against a provincialism which estranges us from some of the great achievements of the past. If we don’t distinguish between true eloquence and fake eloquence, if we allow our fear of pretentious or precious “fine writing” to frighten us off the real thing, the loss will be ours; and it will be a large one.
There is a provincialism of time as well as of place, perhaps the more dangerous to civilization because it is less obvious. John Gross—incomparably learned, modest, tolerant, and humorous—was a civilized man. Though he wrote a book called The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, he proved by his life that the man of letters had not yet quite fallen.
First published in City Journal.