Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cynically Up To Date: A Second Glance at Penguin Author Biographies

Older Penguin Books provide biographical information about the authors that tends towards erudition and concision with the occasional touch of panache. Some of them read like short entries to a Who's Who reference work. Even modern Penguins have very good biographical information. The inclusion of the author's interests and recreations as can be found in biographical reference works is interesting to read.

Raleigh Trevelyan's first book, The Fortress (Collins, 1956) was republished by Penguin Books in 1958 (No. 1263) and on the back cover beneath the author photograph and decent biographical content, it ends with the author's interests: "writing, Bristol glass, Etruscan pottery, indoor plants and photography, and he enjoys walking, travel, and underwater swimming." Such details provide enough to give the reader a sense of his home life, something to identify with as well such as the common pursuit of underwater swimming. (Well, maybe more the indoor plants.)

Edith Sitwell's Alexander Pope published by Penguin Books in 1948 (No. 636) provides a rather brief biography beneath her somewhat unusual appearance: "Edith Sitwell was born at Scarborough and is the sister of Sir Osbert Sitwell, Bart., and Sacheverell Sitwell. She was educated privately and her principal recreations are reading and thinking about poetry, listening to music and silence." (A true introvert I would think.)

The historian William C. Atkinson, the author of A History of Spain and Portugal, (Pelican, 1960) is provided with a rather odd biographical treatment: "William C. Atkinson is an Irishman--1902 vintage--who
graduated through the universities of Belfast, Madrid and Durham to his present chair of Hispanic Studies at Glasgow. Having come, over the years, to know Spain and Portugal better than his homeland, he added Latin America to his parish and has thrice--1946, 1957, and 1960--made the grand tour of that Brave New World visiting every one of its twenty countries and lecturing in almost every university of note there." It ends with requisite list of the author's recreations: "his wife and four children, travel, tramping; on busman's holidays, book reviewing." (His life seemed one of great accomplishment and activity. Tramping, I think it is coming back into fashion.)

The irreverence at the beginning of a rather long biography of Aldous Huxley for his Crome Yellow, Penguin Books, 1961 (No.41) [orig. pub. 1921, Penguin Books 1936] is apt for the content and nature of the author's work: "The name of Aldous Huxley, which became known in the twenties, rapidly developed into a password for his generation. At cocktail parties, which were becoming fashionable in the same period, it was bandied about as if the mere mention of it were enough to show that one was brilliant, witty, and cynically up to date."

Just what people wanted, escape from the memories of the war that took so many lives. It wouldn'
t be till the late 1920s that people could begin to read about the war to any great extent. Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End which came out in the mid 1920s, was just a bit to early for the reading public. I imagine people were still "cynically up do date" as they looked back at the abyss of the recent past and lifted a glass to the void they felt around them. It makes me wonder where the popular television series Downton Abbey will go with their story lines as they face the 1920s. Will they venture into Huxley or Waugh territory? Will young people be quoting The Wasteland out of University dormitory windows and drinking to excess? Champagne, flappers and jazz? Hmm. Downton Abbey meets Brideshead Revisited?

Huxley missed out on the great war to end all wars due to very poor eyesight. The Penguin biography doesn't mention his early poetry collections which perhaps ironically have much to do with sight:

The Burning Wheel (1916), Jonah (1917), The Defeat of Youth and other Poems (1918) and Leda (1920).

From his first collection: Mole.

Like T. S. Eliot, Huxley was influenced by the French Symbolist poets; if Huxley had kept to poetry instead of prose, I wonder if he would have rivaled the American upstart? Would he have found his 'waste land' through his cynicism, satire, misanthropy and mysticism? Perhaps he did, eventually. Brave New World.

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