Conservative journalist Matthew Walther in the news magazine The Week has written an essay in which he defines what he considers to be a relatively new phenomenon: the Evelyn Waugh fanatic. (See previous posts.) It is worth noting that he considers himself to be one:
The Waughian wears tweed jackets, often if not always ill fitting. He smokes a pipe or one of the expensive additive-free brands of cigarette. He drinks gin and, partly out of spite for craft-beer nerds, Miller Lite. He is a Catholic but has vaguely romantic feelings about English church architecture and says “Holy Ghost” instead of “Holy Spirit.” He insists that the Church has been in a crisis since the Second Vatican Council and the introduction of the new liturgy….
And so forth for reasons that become increasingly amusing as he moves along.
The inspiration for this fanaticism stems from the recognition of Waugh’s position in the canon of English Literature:
When Waugh died on Easter Sunday in 1966, he was praised by contemporaries such as Graham Greene, who called him “the greatest author of my generation.” In death he has been rewarded with one of the most devoted, if not among the most sizable, followings in modern literature. Not one of his novels has ever gone out of print, and even his biographies and travel writings continue to sell tolerably well.
One might take issue with every novel remaining in print (particularly during WWII or in the 1950s before Penguin got all of them into its paperback editions) but the point is well taken. If any were ever out of print, it wasn’t for very long and it wasn’t due to lack of demand.
Walther also mentions the Oxford University Press project to issue annotated uniform editions of all of Waugh’s writings as another recognition of his greatness. While he has enjoyed reading the volumes issued so far, he nevertheless has reservations about the project:
As scholarship the new editions cannot be faulted. … Somehow, though, it all seems a bit soon. There is something to be said for the pleasure of reading books with no sense of obligation rather than as set texts. … The idea that instead of being harmlessly enjoyed by dorks in three-piece suits Scoop might be the sort of thing high-school sophomores get the SparkNotes for fills me with low-level dread. The best way to ruin a writer is to make him important or, even worse, essential.
…Like the Janeites before us, Waughians might well be able to carry on uneasily in the same world as the bored college students and the disinterested scholar-critics. But somehow I fear it will not be possible for us to appreciate our man in quite the same way ever again. Thus does that vague enemy, the modern world, claim another casualty.
The article is well worth reading in full. It manages to be consistently funny and entertaining while at the same time getting some serious points across–not entirely unlike the subject of the fanaticism.
UPDATE (2 August 2018): The Weekly Standard has selected Walther’s article to be featured in its “Prufrock” column. This week’s column is headed with a copy of the 1925 photo of Waugh and his chums on their trip to Lundy Island. The group (along with Waugh) includes the Plunket-Greenes (Richard, Olivia, Gwen and David), Terrence Greenidge and Elizabeth Russell (to whom one of the P-G’s was later married). Martin Stannard (v. 1). None of these people could ever have been described as “Waugh fanatics” (although Waugh was somewhat of an “Olivia fanatic” at that time) so the choice of this photo is a bit odd.