Uncommon Fine

Stefan Collini, Common Writing: Essays on Literary Culture and Public Debate

Oxford University Press, 368pp, £30.00, ISBN 9780198758969

reviewed by Rafe McGregor

Stefan Collini is Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge and although he claims that the two fields joined by the conjunction are not readily distinguishable, Common Writing fits firmly in the former category. In his review of The Letters of T.S. Eliot Vol.2: 1923-1925 (Faber, 2009) in the second chapter, Collini notes that the letters constitute a guide to Eliot’s editing (of the Criterion) rather than to his critical or literary practice. In a similar vein, the reviews in Common Writing constitute a collection of cultural rather than literary criticism, focusing on public intellectuals of varying degrees of standing. On the basis that British intellectual history is likely to interest fewer readers than English literature, I make the following disclaimer, lifted directly from Collini’s caveat about Eliot’s letters: ‘I must warn you that it interests me a lot’.

Following its companion piece, Common Reading: Critics. Historians, Publics (Oxford University Press, 2008), Common Writing is the third instalment of a piecemeal intellectual history of Britain that began with English Pasts: Essays in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 1999). In Common Reading, Collini included essays on Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Stephen Spender, William Empson, and Roger Scruton; Common Writing features essays on CS Lewis, Eliot, Graham Greene, FR Leavis, Isaiah Berlin, and many less-familiar public intellectuals. In both cases, the format used is the review essay and this volume consists of thirteen, all previously published in the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian Review, Prospect, and the Nation from 2007 to 2015.

Collini’s reviews are contributions to intellectual history in at least two senses: first, they describe various writings on the public intellectuals of the 20th century (often biographies); second, they evaluate the significance of those intellectuals with the benefit of both hindsight and insight. This second sense is particularly evident in the fifth chapter, ‘Critics (II),’ on Lionel Trilling and Raymond Williams. Collini predicts that Williams will be remembered for The Country and the City (Chatto and Windus, 1973) and Culture and Society (Chatto and Windus, 1958) rather than his currently more popular Marxist works and the historical perspective that he brings to his criticism is one of many reasons it is so compelling. This particular chapter also provides an example of my sole complaint. ‘Critics (II)’ is divided into three parts: the first introduces Trilling, highlighting his significance as a public intellectual in the United States and as a literary critic internationally; the second reviews three books, one by Trilling, two about him; and the third reviews a biography of Williams. Setting aside the brief introduction to Trilling, the single chapter is really two separate essays, with nothing to link them except the period in which the two critics were active (Trilling’s first book was published in 1939, Williams’ in 1950). My complaint is of course redundant, because Common Writing is explicitly and self-consciously a volume of review essays, but its structure can nonetheless be disconcerting. The first chapter, ‘Notables,’ is another case in point, with three fascinating but largely unrelated essays on JB Priestley, Lewis, and Maurice Bowra respectively. On the other hand, the second chapter (‘Modernists’) coheres very nicely and the addition of an extra, previously unpublished, section in each of chapters eight (‘Moralists’), nine (‘Migrants’), and ten (‘Historian-Intellectuals?’) achieves a similar effect.

The blurb on the back cover hails Collini as ‘one of the most brilliant essayists of our time’ and I do not disagree. As such, he writes his ongoing history of British intellectual life, which began with Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait (Oxford University Press, 1988), as a public intellectual himself. With this in mind, it is worth asking whether he meets his own criteria for the role – explained in detail in Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2006) and sketched briefly in chapter ten of Common Writing. Here, Collini takes as his subject three historians who did not quite manage the transition from the academic to the public arenas. By examining how Eileen Power, Herbert Butterfield, and Hugh Trevor-Roper failed to make their respective marks as intellectuals, Collini fine-tunes the concept without disparaging the quality of their scholarship. One of the most astute features of his analysis is the inherent tension he reveals between the roles of academic and intellectual. Most public intellectuals begin their careers as academics, but are required – as the appellation suggests – to find an audience beyond the university if they are to be elevated to the public eye (Trilling is a paradigmatic case in point as his 1950 collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, sold well over a hundred and 50,000 copies). But the wider the audience with which academics wish to engage, the more they must dilute their ideas for an increasingly non-specialist (and perhaps even uninformed) audience. In so doing, they run the risk of losing the very reputation for complexity and precision that prompted public interest in the first place. Collini’s most important criterion, which is of particular relevance to Power, Butterfield, and Trevor-Roper as historians, is that the public intellectual is a commentator on contemporary issues. His comparison of Power with social historians Lawrence and Barbara Hammond offers an enlightening example, ‘because their history was widely seen to engage with contemporary debates’ in a way that hers was not.

This criterion marks Collini as a public intellectual by his own standards and serves to introduce the last chapter, ‘Social Analysis,’ which reviews three government reports linked by the theme of aspiration. One of the strengths of Common Writing is the success with which Collini is able to show why his discipline matters. Many of the causes with which the public intellectuals of the early and mid-20th century that he takes as his subject were engaged are just as relevant (if not more so) today, as his essays on Priestley (in ‘Notables’) and Richard Hoggart (in ‘Moralists’) demonstrate with great conviction. Collini’s considerable expertise in British intellectual history is one of the reasons he is able to move so effortlessly from Eliot at his most recondite to Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions (Cabinet Office, 2009). Collini brings not only a wealth of accumulated cultural, social, and political knowledge to all his criticism, but also perspicacity, common sense, humanity, and humility. These virtues are evident throughout Common Writing and most recently in his latest contribution to the London Review of Books, a damning indictment of Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2015), the Green Paper on higher education. Collini signals his use of ‘common’ in the titles of his second and third collections of essays to ‘emphasize an activity “that is both shared and everyday.”’ While his writing has reached a wide enough audience to be shared, it is – like common sense itself – too rare for everyday.
Rafe McGregor is the author of eight books and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. He lectures at the University of York and can be found online at @rafemcgregor.