The recipients of the 1984 Ingersoll Prizes are Anthony Powell and Russell Kirk The T. S. Eliot prize goes to Mr. Powell and the Richard Weaver prize goes to Dr. Kirk.
The serious novel has undergone a radical transformation in the 20th century. The old narrative forms that had given pleasure to a large reading public were gradually replaced by literary experiments whose appeal was restricted, by and large, to a readership of critics, teachers, and the authors themselves. The greatest exception to this trend has been the English novel. English fiction of the past 50 years has been dominated by writers who were able to absorb the new techniques without abandoning the old objectives of narrative literature: instruction and entertainment This quality of serious entertainment is present in the works of such varied novelists as Evelyn Waugh, William Gerhardie, George Orwell, Graham Greene, and above all, Anthony Powell.
In a career that has spanned five decades, Anthony Powell has established himself as one of the most important English novelists of the 20th century. Born December 21, 1905, in London, Powell was educated at Eton and Oxford (B.A. 1926, M.A. 1944). After leaving Oxford, he entered the publishing firm of Gerald Duckworth & Co., where he remained until 1936. In World War II Powell served in Military Intelligence as a liaison officer between the British Army and the Allies under German occupation.
Powell’s first novel, Afternoon Men (1931), was favorably received by the critics, notably Edith Sitwell who praised the author for his depiction of the ‘bright young people” of the 20’s. His reputation grew steadily with the publication off our other pre-war novels: Venusberg (1932), From a View to a Death (1933), Agents and Patients (1936), and What’s Become of Waring? (1939). After the interruption of the war years, Powell resumed his active literary career. John Aubrey and His Friends, a study of the life and times of the 17th century biographer and antiquarian, was issued in 1948. His praise for Aubrey’s “appreciation of the oddness of the individual human being” could just as well be applied to Powell’s own work.
It was not until 1951 that he published A Question of Upbringing, the first volume of his A Dance to the Music of Time. All 12 volumes of this modern masterpiece appeared between 1951 and 1975 to great critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.
The novel chronicles the life of Nicholas Jenkins — his school days, career in publishing, service in World War II, and growing success as a novelist. While the parallels with Powell’s life make it an undoubtedly autobiographical work, it is not, as it is frequently treated, a roman a clef. The author has not shrunk from being identified as a Proustian novelist. On the contrary, he has gone out of his way to invite the comparison. Not only does he acknowledge his affection for Proust in his memoirs, but in a famous passage of The Military Philosophers (volume 9) Major Jenkins unwittingly spends a night in Cabourg-Proust’s Balbec. When he recognizes the location, the narrator is transported into a Proustian reverie and reflects on “the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent; to rise to the greatest heights without allowing at the same time some suggestion, however slight, to take shape in indication that things could have been even better.”
The same elegiac resignation that marks so much of Proust’s novel runs like a repeated musical phrase through all 12 volumes, but unlike his literary predecessor Powell does not find a mystical transfiguration in the act of recollection or even in the life of the artist. Instead, we are left with a contemplation of the not quite infinite variety of human experience — of life itself as it is lived, neither a dream nor a nightmare — and in the end “the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence.”
Among American readers The Music of Time is particularly esteemed as a chronicle of the upper (and educated) classes in Britain. The work begins in the Edwardian afterglow of the Victorian era: a world of social and moral certainties — at least in a child’s eyes. Inexorably, volume by volume, those certainties yield to the pressures of modern times It is a world of bright young men of promise who come to nothing, and of pushing young particles who make their way. Powell, as much as Proust, is the historian of a vanishing civilization and of a social order on the verge of extinction.
The American upper classes have long ago begun their own dance. The past 30 years have witnessed a social transformation in America less devastating, perhaps, but no less pronounced than what has taken place in Britain. The proletarianization of social life — of colleges and clubs — has, it is true, gone into remission in recent years. Even so, it is hard to deny that the American ruling class is exhibiting the same failure of will that marked the end of an empire on which the sun once never set. To the extent that there is a vital American culture and a determination not to be displaced from the world’s stage, it is to be found not in the remnants of an older aristocracy but in the working classes and the new elites of technologists and professionals. But Pareto’s theory of circulating elites will bring small comfort to the decent old American families, whose ancestors once made a revolution and who still manage to maintain something of the original sense of this American experiment. We will survive their passing. Factories will be managed just as well; television programs will be produced; the sick will be healed, the poor comforted. Hard work and honesty may remain. But it is more difficult to imagine what will become of those other, more delicate qualities: delight in a well-made verse, a graceful gesture, a sense of duty (as opposed to social obligation) — all those fragile things of which the sum is a civilization.
If The Music of Time series invites comparison with A la Rechercbe du Temps Perdu, Anthony Powell is even more frequently compared with his friend and contemporary, Evelyn Waugh. As a satirist, Waugh was a master of the grotesque and of an exaggerated overstatement which gives much of his work as light air of the fantastic. Powell’s novels, on the other hand, are marked by painstaking observation and understated irony and constitute a valuable chronicle of life in the mid-20th century. Of his own work, Powell has observed: “It is always difficult to know how human beings really live. If you describe it, you often appear to be a humorous writer, even if it is no more than mere reporting of exactly what has happened.”
Powell’s literary career did not end with the publication of Hearing Secret Harmonies, the last volume of the series. Between 1978 and 1982 he published the four volumes of memoirs, Keep the Ball Rolling. Written without rancor or sentimentality, these memoirs include brilliant portrayals of. Powell’s close friends and acquaintances — Waugh, Orwell, Graham Greene, Maurice Bowra — as well as memorable vignettes: Anthony Blunt (then in Military Intelligence) introducing him to Guy Burgess, “a BBC fairy of the fat go getting sort”; lunch at a Hollywood studio with a surprisingly decent and well-mannered Scott Fitzgerald. Powell’s most recent novel, O How the Wheel Becomes It (1983), is a gentle satire on the literary life.
As social commentaries, Powell’s novels and memoirs must be ranked very high. In The Music of Time he takes the old theme of the artist’s life and sets it in the practical and politicized world of the 20th century. Robert K Morris, in a study of Powell, has referred to “the struggle between the man of will and the man of the imagination.” Nick Jenkins, the novelist, and his friends — painters and musicians — are counterpointed against the maneuverings of political journalists and literary manipulators, above all against the career of the infamous Widmerpool, the self-created modern man. In Widmerpool, Powell has created one of the few archetypal characters of modern fiction: an unimaginative dullard without a trace of irony, who plods his way — step by step — to the top. When the social-climbing Widmerpool turns left and becomes a Labour MP, it is the most severe judgment which could be passed on the fate of that unfortunate party. Powell has been called a member of “the uncommitted right.” Without espousing either party or platform, The Music of Time exposes the pretensions and posturings of the British Left to a gentle irony that is, in the long run, more withering than either Waugh’s black humor or Muggeridge’s blistering sarcasm. cc
To anyone who believes that conservatism consists of standing pat, the career of Russell Amos Kirk stands as a contradiction. For in championing Burkean, organic conservatism, Dr. Kirk has, ironically, vigorously challenged the status quo in ways few could have foreseen 35 years ago. By the early 1950’s the dominant modes of thought were stagnant. “Liberal prejudices,” Kirk observes, ” — either old style Manchesterian liberalism or new-style collectivistic liberalism —h[ad]dominated our climate of opinion fora great while.” In 1950 Lionel Trilling concluded in The Liberal Imagination that such liberal thought was effete, yet he doubted that any other mode of thinking could soon challenge its hegemony. Kirk’s 1953 publication of The Conservative Mind, therefore, came as a daring and unforeseen assault upon the received patterns of American intellectual opinion. As Gordon Keith Chalmers conceded in his review of the book in the New York Times, Kirk offered a totally “unfamiliar” perspective on “controversies which usually, in our lifetime, have been illuminated by a searchlight from the left.”
Unlike many who call themselves “conservative,” Kirk has understood from the first that vital conservatism must be far more than an unreflective effort to preserve all existing institutions and practices. The modern world, after all, was “a world smudged by industrialism, standardized by the masses, consolidated by government; a world crippled by war, trembling between the colossi of East and West, and peering over a smashed barricade into the gulf of dissolution.” Unquestionably, mere preservation was not enough; the times demanded change. But change is usually destructive and only beneficial when guided by what Kirk calls “the lamp of experience.” Fuel for such a lamp was perilously scarce in mid- 20th-century America. Conservatism, inasmuch as it survived at all, was largely a movement of chamber-of-commerce boosterism and political sloganeering. By drawing upon the neglected “men of ideas,” Kirk set about restoring substance and influence to conservatism. But, in revivifying the intellectual tradition of English-speaking conservatism, he surprised many Americans who thought they were already conversant with that tradition. It was a novel proposition for Kirk to suggest that serious American conservatives must come to terms not only with John Adams, John Randolph. John Calhoun, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Edmund Burke, but also with Catholic and Anglo-Catholic theologians like Coleridge and Newman, with cultural critics such as George Santayana and Irving Babbitt, and with creative writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Frost, and T. S. Eliot. Indeed, his ”program” for American conservatism tended to bewilder a good many people,” especially those who wanted a “neat system of positive law” rather than philosophic inquiry. Kirk recognized, however, that only such inquiry could budge conservatism out of its deadening fixation upon strictly political programs. In works such as The American Cause (1957), Political Principles of Robert A. Taft (1967), and Roots of American Order (1974), and in numerous popular and scholarly essays, he has himself offered political observations, but always within a framework of thought not reducible to political terms. “Society’s regeneration,” he has long maintained, “cannot be an undertaking wholly political.” Such regeneration requires as well the “vision of the poets.” Understanding and sharing that vision is the task to which Dr. Kirk has dedicated his life.
Introduced by his mother to “Lewis Carroll and Stevenson and Scott and Grimm and the adventures of the noble company of the Table Round,” Dr. Kirk early came to value literature as “a mighty prop to health of mind.” His childhood years spent in Plymouth, Michigan (where he was born on Oct. 19, 1918), were filled with books — Dickens, Twain, Hugo, and Hawthorne — often discussed with his maternal grandfather in his study or during long walks. He pursued his literary studies at Michigan State (B.A. 1940). There, as he relates in Confessions of a Bohemian Tory (1963), he “wrapped [his] poverty about [him] like a cloak, ate peanut butter and crackers with relish in [his] rooms, delighted in every privation … and was the Gissing of East Lansing.” He continued his study first at Duke University, then, after military service during World War II, at St. Andrews University, where in 1952 he became the first American ever to earn Scotland’s highest degree of letters. During his postwar years in Britain, Kirk further deepened his understanding of creative literature through friendship with T. S. Eliot, about whom he published a landmark critical study, Eliot and His Age (1972).
The brilliance of Kirk’s work has compelled the national media and the academic community to give him some grudging recognition. But Kirk has attacked too many regnant principles not to have suffered the effects of what Leopold Tyrmand has called “the two-culture syndrome in America” Too often professedly broad-minded commentators and award committees have quietly passed over Dr. Kirk in favor of avant-garde conformists of less probity and intelligence. Certainly, it is not a fashionable thinker who sums up his Weltanschauung by invoking “the mind of Hawthorne”:
It is suspicious of change, skeptical of Progress, convinced of the terrible power of sin, in favor of human nature (flawed though it is) in its present state rather than some radical revision of human character upon a Utopian design; it is reverent toward the past, mindful of the universe as a realm of mystery, and cognizant that proliferating variety is the mark of a healthy society, while uniformity is decadence.
Beyond literature, though, Kirk’s world view is rooted in Scripture and religious faith. “A society in which the religious impulse is forgotten or frustrated is sure to be, soon or late, a miserable domination.” His own religious commitment came slowly, however. As a teenager, he was “a perfect mechanist and atheist.” In college he became a Stoic. Finally, while training with the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service during World War II in the desolate but awe-inspiring Great Salt Lake Desert, he finally “began to perceive that pure reason has its frontiers” and to admit that religion might point the way beyond. “Once disbelief in a supernatural order [was] suspended,” he relates, “evidences of every sort began to pour in … demonstrating that we are part of some grand and mysterious scheme, which works upon us through Providence.”
Dr. Kirk has shared his rare literary gifts, his scholarly talents, and his religious convictions in many ways. He has lectured as a visiting professor at numerous universities and has personally tutored many students at his home in Mecosta, Michigan. A regular contributor to academic and popular journals throughout the United States and Europe, he has also founded two intellectual quarterlies, The University Bookman and Modem Age. Besides his classic The Conservative Mind, he has written more than 25 other books, including such important works as john Randolph of Roanoke ( 1951) and Edmund Burke (1967), major studies of seminal thinkers; Enemies of the Permanent Things ( 1969), a trenchant examination of destructive elements in modern literature; and Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (1979), an enlightening diagnosis of the problems besetting contemporary education. A creative writer as well as a scholar, Dr. Kirk has been called “the greatest living practitioner of the supernatural tale.” He elevates the “creepy story” to metaphysical and theological proportions in a way that makes him worthy of comparison with Charles Williams and Walter De la Mare. His most recent collections are The Princess of All Lands (1979) and Watchers at the Strait Gate (1984).
Despite all of his literary and scholarly attainments, Dr. Kirk remains an unassuming man who is “best content when planting … trees at Mecosta.” “To plant a tree,” he explains, “in our age, when the expectation of change commonly seems greater than the expectation of continuity, is an act of faith.” Deep-rooted and growing, the results of Dr. Kirk’s acts of faith may be found far beyond Michigan. cc