Ihadn’t been expecting to bump into Frank in one of the remoter stacks of the Cambridge University Library. This is where they keep the back numbers of old scholarly periodicals, a morgue only likely to be violated by those, like me, who now spend their days picking over the cairns left by academic labourers seventy years ago. And Frank Kermode had been dead for almost ten years – he died on 17 August 2010. I’d seen him in my mind quite frequently in the intervening decade: one of my running routes takes me past his old flat, and the sight of the building is enough to stir memories of evenings spent drinking and talking. But this was different. One might expect to meet any number of those who navvied at Eng. Lit. in the first half of the 20th century here, names now largely unknown even to their successors. But, quite suddenly, as I was looking for something else in the back pages of the impeccably learned (read: dry as dust) Review of English Studies for July 1949, there he was: ‘Frank Kermode’. Not, I was interested to note, ‘J.F. Kermode’ or any other variant that signalled the first name he never used. (It was one of the lesser indignities of his time in hospital during his final illness that well-meaning nurses and auxiliaries, scanning his patient details, would cheerily address him as ‘John’.) He was already using the name that was to become so familiar, the byline that launched a thousand pieces. Was he already that ‘Frank Kermode’, that effortlessly elegant, perceptive, slyly amusing, wide-ranging critic? Not really, not to judge by this piece of scholarly flotsam. It was a review of a book called Music and Poetry of the English Renaissance by Bruce Pattison: a learned, exact, even exacting, piece, full of abstruse detail, acknowledging the book’s achievement but, in the manner of young scholars everywhere, ticking it off for not drawing on the latest scholarship.
Reflecting on this unexpected encounter, I reasoned that I should have expected to meet Frank in that place or another very like it. After a barren, dispiriting year of postgraduate study, he had got his first teaching post in 1947, as an assistant lecturer in English at King’s College, Newcastle, shortly to become the University of Newcastle but then an outstation of the University of Durham. I knew that his ‘field’ had been 16th and 17th-century literature, and that his most important early mentor had been the eccentric D.J. Gordon, who specialised in the relations between literature and spectacle in the Stuart period. So the venue and the occasion for this early exercise in learned reviewing made sense. I also knew that at this stage in his life Frank had been particularly impressed by the polyglot learning on display at the Warburg Institute in London, that transplanted centre of European, and especially German, erudition concerning the persistence of the classical tradition in literature and culture. Indeed his review was far from parochial in its range of reference: there was nothing in the least provincial about this short piece by a Liverpool-educated Manxman who taught at Newcastle. And I knew that music had played second fiddle only to literature in Frank’s life, being a subject about which he was genuinely learned as well as an experience to which he was reticently responsive. Even so, coming across him suddenly in the slightly musty pages of that distant year’s periodical had been a jolt, rather like stumbling on an old photo of someone you knew well and realising how different they had looked when young.
A quick check soon revealed several other appearances in the Review of English Studies during this period. The first, in April 1949, was a four-page note on ‘The Date of Cowley’s Davideis’. This is an unfinished epic by the 17th-century poet Abraham Cowley, to which Cowley attached richly if eccentrically learned notes. Frank had started to annotate Cowley’s annotations as his apprentice-work for a career he later liked to make out he had only muddled into for want of anything else to do after the war. The piece didn’t flinch: it gave no sign of worry that someone might think its inquiry a tad antiquarian. Academic Eng. Lit. still doesn’t come more academic or more Eng Litty than this.
So when and how, I wondered, not for the first time, did the ‘Frank Kermode’ we admired come into being, il capo di tutti capi in the world of reviewing and criticism for more than half a century? During another of my trudges along the forgotten caravan routes of criticism (now undertaken electronically, thanks to lockdown), I chanced upon, in the online archive of the Listener, a review by John Gross of Frank’s Puzzles and Epiphanies: Essays and Reviews 1958-61, published in 1962. The very existence of such a collection of reviews – and the brazen proclamation of its origin in such a brief period – itself suggested the dramatic transformation which must have overtaken Frank’s career by this point. Gross, then a 27-year-old up-and-coming reviewer-academic who was later to write The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters and to become editor of the Times Literary Supplement, had evidently been attending to Frank’s presence on the literary scene for some time. He noted that the contents of the book were all products of a three-year period, and then went on: ‘Reading them as they appeared, one became aware of Professor Kermode as the most interesting reviewer to emerge for a long time.’ The reviews had been published in a variety of periodicals, including the Listener, Partisan Review and the London Magazine, but the majority were from either the Spectator or Encounter. So when had all that started to happen, when did the smart London weeklies and monthlies begin to commission reviews from the little-known young lecturer who, recruited by Gordon, had moved to the University of Reading in 1949?
With this question in my head, and now driven by curiosity rather than at the mercy of serendipity, I reread a short reminiscence of Frank by Karl Miller. He recalled Frank’s immediate success when, on Miller’s becoming literary editor of the Spectator in 1958, he first commissioned reviews from him, adding: ‘I may have given the impression that Frank Kermode was new to the reading public when he started writing for the paper. That was not the case. He’d already made his name with his fine book, Romantic Image.’ Well, yes, he had in a sense made his name with that book, published in 1957, certainly as far as his university career was concerned (he took up the first of a series of distinguished chairs, the John Edward Taylor Professorship of English at Manchester, the following year), and a book of that sort was more widely reviewed in those days than it would be now. But was the publication of that short book, largely about the Romantic roots of modernist poetry and poetics, enough to justify asking him to write about, say, a novel by C.P. Snow (his first commission by Miller) in a venue like the Spectator?
It seems that it was. The appearance of Romantic Image changed Frank’s life, and with surprising speed. Just as Miller commissioned his first review from him in its wake, so did Encounter, Frank’s other main perch for the next few years, his first piece appearing in the issue of December 1957. Commissions from other periodicals followed. After moving to Manchester in 1958, he began reviewing regularly for the Manchester Guardian. By the end of the 1950s, ‘Frank Kermode’, reviewer extraordinaire, the go-to man for readable, informed thoughtfulness on any literary subject, was well and truly launched.
But still there were gaps in the story. In a short piece of intellectual autobiography written in 1981, not all of which was reused in his memoir, Not Entitled, 14 years later, Frank paid tribute to the somewhat surprising role of John Butt, professor of English at Newcastle during his time there:
He launched [his colleague Peter] Ure and myself on our career as reviewers – which causes me to reflect that in thirty-odd years I have written several hundred reviews, an example I would strongly urge the young not to follow. It is, once one begins, all too easy. Somebody mentioned me to J.R. Ackerley at the Listener, and so was born the journalist who has wasted so much of my time.
This strikes that note of mock sorrow Frank cultivated when setting aside various episodes in his life, while at the same time not altogether disguising the pride he evidently felt in his journalistic facility and accomplishment. The passage seems to suggest that there were two stages in his temptation and fall: Butt gives him the first nudge down the slope, and then his descent picks up speed when he falls into the clutches of a notorious journalistic roué. It has in miniature the shapeliness of so much of Frank’s autobiographical writing, but on closer examination it does seem slightly odd. For one thing, the reviewing opportunities that Butt was able to put in the way of his two junior colleagues amounted to nothing more satanic than an occasional short notice for the scholarly journal he edited, the same Review of English Studies where Frank wrote that early review – obviously, I now saw, commissioned by Butt. Still, most young academics would see this as an entirely normal and respectable professional activity, hardly the beginning of a debauch. It’s harder to know what to make of the reference to ‘Joe’ Ackerley, the legendary literary editor of the Listener from 1935 to 1959. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the Listener carried very few freestanding book reviews: it had a ‘Books Chronicle’ which consisted of short mostly unsigned paragraphs. Frank may have contributed some of these, but their anonymity means that they could hardly have been a route to a public profile as a reviewer. A little rummaging in the online archive revealed that no signed full-length review by him appeared there before 1967.
This started another hare running in my mind. I knew that John Wain had been Frank’s colleague in the English Department at Reading until the success of his novel Hurry On Down enabled him to go freelance in 1955. But Wain had already started to become a figure in the literary world in 1953 as a result of editing the BBC Third Programme magazine, New Readings, where he commissioned talks and readings from a variety of his old buddies, notably members of the group shortly to be christened ‘the Movement’, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis among them. Frank had once told me Wain helped give him an entrée into broadcasting, perhaps introducing him to the long-serving Third Programme producer, Donald Carne-Ross, and although such casual reminiscences are prone to elide important details, it only took a little more digging to reveal mentions in the Listener of several broadcasts by Frank from 1955 onwards.
That he had done such talks was not in itself news to me, but I started to feel that I had previously underestimated the importance of these Third Programme gigs in helping to establish Frank’s name and in developing his confidence about addressing non-specialist audiences. Two pieces in particular caught my eye as I scrolled through the files of the Listener. They made up a two-part article called ‘The Myth of Catastrophe’, which appeared in consecutive weeks in November 1956. Here, Frank summarised the case against the Symbolist consecration of ‘the image’ and the associated historical story of ‘the dissociation of sensibility’ that he was to develop so tellingly in Romantic Image, published the following year. That story was identified with T.S. Eliot, who had first coined the phrase ‘dissociation of sensibility’ in a review-essay about the Metaphysical poets in 1921 – to challenge it in such forthright terms smacked of lèse-majesté even in the dog years of Eliot’s reign.
The talks, it was clear, were a condensation of part of the book, which must by then have been completed and in press, and so I was returned by another route to the significance of Romantic Image. In the 1981 reminiscence mentioned earlier, Frank recalled that in the summer of 1955 he wrote a lecture on Yeats’s poem ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’, which, as he liked to put it 26 years later, ‘turned almost spontaneously into a book’, namely, Romantic Image. The book does have the assured, focused quality of an argument that writes itself, which may obscure what a bold move it represented. Not only was it a leap into quite new territory for Frank, ranging as it does from the Romantics through the 1890s to Yeats and Eliot, but it is a notably stylish performance, free of references or footnotes – it is, as it describes itself, ‘an essay’. In 1981 Frank kept some distance from it – ‘I have not much time for that book now’ – but even so he recognised that it was the moment when, by contrast to his earlier scholarly formation, ‘I was … my own man.’ It was certainly a far cry from the four-page note on ‘The Date of Cowley’s Davideis’.
When one thinks historically about the larger pattern of which Romantic Image formed a part, it’s hard not to feel that there was something in the water supply in 1955, the year when the book began to write itself. It was in that year that Richard Hoggart completed The Uses of Literacy, though thanks to the tribulations of libel law it wasn’t published until 1957; that Ian Watt was giving final form to the book that became The Rise of the Novel, again published in 1957; and that Raymond Williams was drafting the bulk of what became Culture and Society, submitted to the publisher in 1956, eventually published in 1958. These were Frank’s contemporaries and peers: all had served during the war; all had non-Oxbridge teaching posts (Hoggart and Williams as extra-mural tutors, Watt in the US); all had published in the early numbers of Essays in Criticism, the journal founded in 1951 to encourage a blending of critical and historical approaches along with an address to a contemporary and not exclusively academic audience; all had great success at almost exactly the same time with books that were the making of both their professional careers and their wider reputations (though Watt did not go on to cultivate what Frank called ‘a deuxième carrière’ as a reviewer to the same extent as the other three).
These four books were, by any measure, serious intellectual achievements though of very different kinds. It could be said that Hoggart’s was the most autobiographical, Watt’s the most scholarly, Williams’s the most political, and Frank’s – well, not exactly any of these things. It was more of a distillation (it was much shorter than the other three), as well as more of a provocation (it attempted to dislodge the literary orthodoxy of the past thirty or forty years), yet like these contemporary works it was a hybrid piece of writing that had its roots in literary criticism even as it did things that more conventional literary critics mostly steered well clear of. Rereading it now, I can see that any literary editor might have thought there were talents here that could be made use of in the differently demanding discipline of literary journalism. Frank never ceased to be the expert in Renaissance literature already present in embryo in that note on the dating of Cowley’s unfinished epic, but he went on to have a career that, in the character and range of its achievements as well as in its distinction, would have been scarcely imaginable to the young assistant lecturer struggling to establish his scholarly credentials in the war-numbed Britain of the late 1940s.
Still, I was glad to have bumped into his earlier self, up among the zombies. It made me feel less lonely as I ploughed my eccentric furrow, the purpose of which is sometimes unfathomable to me as well as to others. And, in an unexpected twist, it made me admire Frank even more, as I caught a glimpse of the young man who, out of the dross of unpromising circumstance and sheer contingency, had fashioned a role and a voice that came to seem so distinctively his own.