John Gross, the literary lion of his generation, died on Monday. The Spectator will publish a piece commemorating his life and work tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a selection of extracts
from the deluge of adoring obituaries.
The Telegraph: ‘Once described as “the best-read
man in Britain”, Gross was probably best known among his literary peers for his first book, The "http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rise-Fall-Man-Letters-Literary/dp/1566630002/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1294836670&sr=8-3">Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since
1800 (1969), a racily entertaining romp through the history of literary criticism and its practitioners which won the Duff Cooper Prize and established its author’s reputation as a
man whose huge erudition was matched by a well-developed sense of humour.
In this, as in other works, what distinguished Gross’s approach was his sympathy for the more obscure and often faintly ridiculous toilers at the literary coal face — men such as the
Scottish dissenting minister George Gilfillan (1813-78), a “McGonagall of criticism” known for his eccentric flowery style and erratic judgments. AN Wilson declared that the book, which
he first read as a teenager, had “undoubtedly determined for me the direction I wanted my life to take… It became my Bible.”’
Ion Trewin in The Guardian: After the success of The Rise and Fall
of the Man of Letters, Gross was in demand. In 1971, he chaired the third Booker prize. It was not the happiest of experiences. One of the judges, Malcolm Muggeridge, resigned halfway through
because he felt most of the entries were ill-written and pornographic. He was replaced by the critic Philip Toynbee. When time came for the judges – Antonia Fraser, Saul Bellow and John
Fowles, in addition to Toynbee and Gross – to decide on a shortlist, a split emerged over whether VS Naipaul’s In a Free State was a full-length novel and therefore eligible. Gross, like
Fraser and Toynbee, insisted it was, whereas Bellow and Fowles saw it as stories, albeit linked ones. Gross endeavoured to bring the dissenters on side by circulating a questionnaire. Although both
remained vocal in their disagreement – Fowles said afterwards that Gross viewed him as a rogue elephant in the matter – the view of the majority held.
Soon afterwards Gross had a brief but unhappy spell as literary editor of the New Statesman, where he and many of the staff of long standing did not see eye to eye over his choice of books to be
reviewed, before being approached in 1973 about succeeding Arthur Crook as editor of the Times Literary Supplement. The weekly was, like its parent, owned by Lord Thomson of Fleet and was ripe for
modernisation. Gross stayed for seven years.’
The Times (£): ‘His editorship (of the TLS) will always be remembered for his decision
to break with the tradition of anonymous reviewing. He considered that that tradition had been a cloak for assassins. In signed reviews the hand that held the dagger was to be known. Anonymity
could also be a cloak for editorial sloth: there was a danger that the same reviewers would be employed year in year out, their reactions all too predictable. Gross brought in new blood. Richard
Ellman was now to be found reviewing Henri Michaux, and many other American contributors started writing for the paper. Gross also tapped a new generation of young reviewers who were making their
name in the new universities. He brought in intellectuals from the Right such as Elie Kedourie, Kenneth Minogue and John Vincent, and to cover the arts he appointed Jeremy Treglown, who was to
succeed him as editor.
He was not always easy to work with. He was a perfectionist who might spend over an hour discussing with his staff who might review a book on numismatics. “Just a couple of points,” he
would say, but one learnt not to be surprised when they mounted to four or five. He protected his contributors. If one of them sent in a bitter review he would never know the hours of work that
John would spend in preventing an outbreak of bad blood.’