Writing in the New Criterion, David Platzer reconsiders a 1976 book by Martin Green (1927-2010), late Professor at Tufts University. This is called Children of the Sun and is described by Platzer as a book about:
the remarkable literary generation, described by Green as dandies, that appeared in England after the First World War and included Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Peter Quennell, Nancy Mitford, and others. To Green, such heroes of 1914 as Raymond Asquith and the Grenfell brothers, Julian and Billy, many of whom perished in the trenches, were “England’s last true Sonnenkinder . . . of which the post-war dandies were only the sharp-edged fragments.”
Green selected Old Etonian aesthetes Harold Acton and Brian Howard as the leaders of the dandies, also referred to as “decadents”. Acton who was still alive when the book was published was not particularly amused. Platzer continues:
To Green’s mind, the post-1918 dandies sought to be eternally young men living in a commedia dell’arte world of Pierrots, Harlequins, and Columbines, rather than responsible, mature fathers as their own fathers had been. He notes that his mentor at Cambridge, the stern critic F. R. Leavis, condemned P. G. Wodehouse, beloved of many a dandy and just about everyone else, for popularizing the avoidance of maturity. […]
According to Platzer, the book received a lot of attention when it was first published. Hilton Kramer in the New York Times:
[…] judged the book as “very important,” its author “a very fine critic indeed, exemplary in his intelligence as well as in his industry.” The book attracted more controversy in Britain, marked by a scorching review by Auberon Waugh in the September 1976 Books and Bookmen when the book was only available in America. Christopher Sykes, Evelyn Waugh’s biographer and described by Green as “mediatory between the dandies and the gentlemen of the Establishment,” told me that Green had mixed up various Englishmen who had nothing to do with one another.[…] I, a young disciple of Acton and others of Green’s dandies, was inclined to agree with my spiritual uncles. While I saw Sykes’s point and relished Auberon Waugh’s review, I secretly lapped up the book. Time has proved the book “something of a classic,” as Bevis Hillier, the author of a monumental three-volume biography of Betjeman, observed in The Spectator in 2007, though it is clear to me that the book does suffer from an overreliance on Jungian mythologizing.[…]
After a detailed summary of many of Green’s references to the writings of the dandies (including several howlers for which Platzer is prepared to foregive him), the article concludes:
For Green, the real revelation was that a part of himself was a dandy and had been all along. At sixteen, he wrote a story that betrayed “a close kinship between my taste . . . and the comic nonsense that Harold Acton contributed to the Eton Candle . . .” Moreover, he saw, in the end, that most of the Englishmen he knew combined decency with a strong sense of humor that could be considered “dandy.” Though the tieless Green looks somewhat earnest in the American edition of his book, in the British version he is unashamedly dandyish wearing a coat, a smart tie, and the look of a cat who has swallowed a succulent canary. Through his exploration of Harold Acton’s world he had found that the Pierrot for whom he was searching was “a part, an important part, of my treasure, my England” that he had too long suppressed. He was now free to laugh. Even if Green’s suggestions sometimes need to be met with reservations, the book remains a rich treasure trove about the most interesting and talented literary circle of recent times.
Not mentioned by Platzer, about a decade later another book was published, seeming to cover much the same ground. This was Humphrey Carpenter’s The Brideshead Generation (1989) in which Carpenter dismisses Green’s book in a footnote:
Martin Green treats Waugh and his circle exclusively as dandies, scarcely considering other aspects of their character and work. Though the book contains some sensible observations, it is overall a reductio ad absurdum of Connolly’s definition of the literary dandy, pressing home its thesis so ruthlessly as to distort the real character of many people whom Green discusses.
Platzer’s essay is recommended and is available in full from the New Criterion’s website. Green’s book is out of print in the UK but is widely available from second-hand dealers on Amazon.co.uk. A US paperback edition published in 2008 by Axios Press is available from Amazon.com.
UPDATE (27 March 2019): Amazon.com is selling directly a US paperback edition of Green’s book published in 2008 by Axios Press.
One Response to Martin Green Reconsidered