The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (Faber)
I knew I had to get hold of this book after reading John Garth’s review. It is as Garth says, a readable and often funny book that, while it claims to be “a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on” (xi), it’s actually a personal memoir about a usual run of subjects. It’s just got a lot of book talk injected in it.
Carey was a student at Oxford (undergraduate and then Ph.D.) in the 1950s, then became a tutor and don there, winding up as the Merton Professor of English Literature (not the post Tolkien held, this is the other Merton English professorship) for the last quarter of the 20C.
He knew Tolkien in his student and early don years, then, and some of the other Inklings, and could be expected to say interesting things about them. Carey is known to be anti-Tolkien. He used the opportunity of a review of Carpenter’s biography in 1977 to slag Tolkien for a number of ridiculous sins, including stylistic feebleness, disliking the industrial rape of the landscape, and failing to keep au courant with modernist literary crap – charges adequately dismissed by Brian Rosebury, who called Carey a “cursory disparager.” Carey was so appalled when The Lord of the Rings won a number of end-of-the-century readers’ polls that he became one of the foolish academics who claimed that the sinister and all-powerful Tolkien Society had manipulated the voting.
The Carey of this book, though equipped with a certain pose of wounded innocence of the “Why don’t people like me when I trash their books in my reviews?” sort, is a much more likeable chap than this portrait would suggest, though he’s still not fond of Tolkien. As an undergraduate, he writes, “I went to university lectures which were, on the whole, a waste of time.” (This doesn’t prevent him from promoting them urgently when he becomes a don.) “J.R.R. Tolkien, lecturing on Beowulf, was mostly inaudible and, when audible, incomprehensible. He seemed immemorially aged, and green mildew grew on his gown, as if he had recently emerged from a wood.” (121-2)
Though that puts Carey in the long list of students who detested Tolkien’s lecturing – there’s another list, not quite as long, of those who adored it – this is at least a great image. I wonder, though, if it’s influenced by Carey’s perception of Tolkien’s work. J.I.M. Stewart, present in this book as a teaching colleague of Carey’s, turned the avatar of Tolkien in his “Staircase in Surrey” novels, J.B. Timbermill, into a lost soul out of touch with the world, wandering the streets of Oxford at night. Was Tolkien’s academic gown really mildewed? Most other descriptions have him a rather snappy dresser.
Some other well-known characters make appearances. Diana Wynne Jones is the wife of a teaching colleague (147). Tom Shippey is another teaching colleague: “a science fiction fanatic [not a scholar, or even a fan, but a fanatic!] who … became the world authority on the mythical universe of Tolkien.” (239) A few Inklings appear too. When Carey is teaching at Keble, C.S. Lewis’s friend Austin Farrer is Master there. Farrer invites Carey to lunch to meet Lewis, who is impressively humble when Carey gauchely (by his own account) one-ups him on a literary reference (178-9). That sounds characteristically Lewisian. Nevill Coghill, “a tall, twitchy, gentle man with a face full of care,” appears as a nervous professor making his inaugural lecture (143-4). John Wain comes along to a guest talk by Philip Larkin, and puts down everyone else in the room for being “critics” instead of “writers” – “they can’t and we can.” (271) That sounds unlike Wain, who prided himself on being the compleat man of letters, critic and teacher as well as poet, novelist, and dramatist – that’s why he admired Dr. Johnson, whose biography by Wain Carey mentions, so much, since Johnson did the same. Men of letters don’t put down criticism; they’re too guilty of it themselves.
Most interesting to me is a full description of the colorful Hugo Dyson, Carey’s impossibly difficult grad-work supervisor (135-6) – and George Steiner’s too (142-3). I wish I’d had this to quote when I was writing my biographical article on Dyson twenty years ago. “I always found him alarming. He was like a hyperactive gnome, and stumped around on a walking stick which, when he was seized by one of his paroxysms of laughter, he would beat up and down as if trying to drive it through the floor. It brought to mind Rumpelstiltskin driving his leg into the ground in the fairy tale. … On a good day he was the funniest man I ever met … He was an old-style don who did not really believe in literary ‘research’. Literature was for enjoyment and it was misguided to turn it into something arcane and scholarly. That was a common view in Oxford at the time.”
Carey goes immediately on to say that “it was well known that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was not to [Dyson’s] taste,” in the same context making it sound as if Carey knows this just as personally as the rest, but his only evidence of it is to retell (without any source reference) the well-worn but dubious story of Dyson cursing out an Inklings reading of it – which I’ve always taken as showing Dyson’s distaste not for this particular work, but for readings at Inklings meetings, which kept him from dominating the conversation.
With its (mis)quotation of Dyson’s words straight from A.N. Wilson’s C.S. Lewis biography, the only known source for this story, I wouldn’t take Carey’s account of it as independent confirmation, and the unreliability of his second-hand info comes up in another Tolkienian context, when he’s grumbling at having had to study Beowulf and offers as a topper that “those who found it repugnant … pointed out that W.H. Auden had famously got a third-class degree because he couldn’t stomach Beowulf.” (103)
Someone was feeding Carey nonsense. Auden did get a third-class degree, but by his own testimony – see The Dyer’s Hand – he adored the Anglo-Saxon poetry, which Tolkien’s Beowulf lectures had introduced him to. Auden’s own alliterative verse – he was one of the few modern English poets besides Tolkien to essay this form – shows his dedication. It was Auden’s fellow aesthetic students who were aghast at this taste of his. Carpenter in his biography of Auden attributes the poor marks to Auden’s having a poet’s mind rather than a scholar’s, and having coasted through too-lax tutoring (Nevill Coghill again) on the strength of his general brilliance left him unprepared for the rigors of final exams.
Still, this is a fascinating book with a lot of entertaining stories. I had to read B. the one about Carey’s cat: “When I was working late at night he used to climb up and lie across the back of my neck, his forelegs and head hanging down over my left shoulder, his back legs and tail over my right, and go to sleep, occasionally snoring. I found it a comfort, like wearing a live scarf.” (187) This has nothing to do with the ostensible theme of discovering English literature, but I was glad to read it. Carey’s book talk is actually the most skippable part, and leaves me unmoved to make another stab at trying to read Milton or Donne, but I will have to search out his critical work The Intellectuals and the Masses, a controversial book (he proudly cites its many bad reviews) postulating that modernist literature, and modernist art in general, was invented around 1900 by elitist intellectuals trying to keep on top of the newly educated masses by creating something those masses still couldn’t understand.
Strangely, having created this hostile thesis, Carey doesn’t seem to think that this nasty project was a bad idea. He admires these awful writers who fostered that elitism, like D.H. Lawrence, and even tries to make excuses for Lawrence’s totalitarian philosophy on the grounds that somehow he didn’t really mean it, and besides, he was such a good writer (251-3). Meanwhile, a writer like Tolkien, deeply morally upright and the counterblast to that elitism, who was trying to “hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them,” only earns Carey’s contempt, and even his disbelief that Tolkien succeeded at his aim (see ref. to sinister and all-powerful Tolkien Society above). It’s a strange world, and such people in it!
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.