Writer Joseph Epstein in the latest issue of Commentary magazine reviews Richard Bradford’s book Literary Rivals. The article entitled, “‘You Stink’, He Explained”, opens with a quote from Evelyn Waugh:
“Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist. It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice—all the odious qualities—which drive a man to compete [sic]…until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed.” (Empahsis added.)
The quote is taken from Waugh’s review of Gary Wills’ book Chesterton: Man and Mask. This appeared in William F. Buckley, Jr.’s journal National Review in 1961 and is reprinted in Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (pp. 558-60). Waugh is explaining his comment at the end of the article that Chesterton, despite his faults, was “a lovable and much loved man abounding in charity and humility.” The quote in Commentary is a bit out of context and also incorrect. What Waugh wrote was:
“Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist. It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice—all the odious qualities—which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew, his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed. And in doing so he enriches the world more than the generous and good, though he may lose his own soul in the process. That is the paradox of artistic achievement.”
The substitution of “compete” for “complete” makes it appear that Waugh is talking about literary rivalry, the subject of the book under review in Commentary, whereas he is actually explaining the paradoxical process of writing as exemplified in Chesterton’s work.