Tuesday, January 20, 2015

John Gross (ed.) "The Oxford Book of Essays": Review

The range of these 140 inclusions by 120 authors is considerable, but the quality varies. Many precede the 19th century, so as a representation of the duration of this form, this is a useful compilation. John Gross confesses in his brief preface how he tried to keep this to complete selections, but the length of this format, especially for earlier writers, demanded some cutting. This editorial constraint also appears to have taken its toll on more recent essays, for many here are short, and one feels the potential of a particular essayist is not shown best by the essay chosen here.

That being said, a few hours browsing these contents reveals entertainment and instruction. William James' accurate fear of "The Ph.D. Octopus" in 1903 taking over higher education, Mark Twain's caustic challenge to divine providence in "Thoughts of God," Robert Graves' uneven and curiously assembled "The Case for Xanthippe," George Orwell's measured judgement as "Reflections on Gandhi," and H.L. Mencken's takedown of a Pennsylvania steel town in "The Libido for the Ugly" all kept my attention. There is a tilt against the mercies of the Almighty which can be discerned, but this appears within the context of modern critiques of God, if in the background. As some compensation, G.K. Chesterton gets two essays and Hilaire Belloc one, although none of these are on religion. Jeremy Taylor weighs in on God's charity, James Froude on Christianity, and Charles Dickens on the sad state of churches in the City of London, too, so any claims that these contents are biased against Christianity can be balanced accordingly.

Entries such as "Bad Poets" by Randall Jarrell, Jacques Barzun on English vs. German and French, and Maurice Richardson on pen nibs, indicative of the variety in this anthology, seem too brief to matter much. A musty air permeates much of this volume,  and more context on each author and the time the essay was written could have enlightened readers likely to be unfamiliar with many of the earlier writers. This is all rather Anglocentric, and as Gross is a literary historian specializing on the early modern period of British literature, this may be a natural bias. More Americans pop up later on, but one wonders if more international authors might have survived translation and merited inclusion. But ending this 1991 compilation with the Australian poet Clive James' review of Judith Krantz' "Princess Daisy" is a sly and surprising delight, easily one of the best in this collection. (Amazon US 12-18-14)

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