V.S. Pritchett, a Riveting History of Dun & Bradstreet (Really), the Eastern Front

By Benjamin Schwarz

January 2005 ATLANTIC

V. S. Pritchett:  A Working Life, by Jeremy Treglown (Random House) Can it be that this book’s subject, who died merely eight years ago, has fallen as far from favor as Jeremy Treglown suggests? Sadly, he probably has, because although Victor Sawdon Pritchett (born the year before Victoria’s death, he was named for the reigning monarch) wrote novels, travel books, biographies, and memoirs, by far his greatest accomplishments were as a short-story writer and a critic. As Treglown, the former editor of the TLS and the biographer of Henry Green and Roald Dahl, correctly avers, Pritchett was “the greatest writer-critic since Virginia Woolf,” but this hardly assures him a fashionable reputation. Story writers don’t have the cachet of novelists, and Pritchett’s elegant, impressionistic literary essays, which eschew jargon and theorizing, were and remain shunned by academe.

Indeed, for much of his nearly century-spanning career (he came of age when Arnold Bennett, G. K. Chesterton, and H. G. Wells were the literary lions; he lived to hail Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan) Pritchett seemed a throwback. As he famously declared in 1985: “If, as they say, I am a Man of Letters, I come, like my fellows, at the tail-end of a long and once esteemed tradition in English and American writing. We have no captive audience … We are rarely academics, though we owe a great debt to scholars. We earn our bread and butter by writing for the periodicals that have survived … We write to be readable and to engage the interest of what Virginia Woolf called ‘the common reader.'”

pritchettBut if the term “man of letters” suggests a quaintly genteel, carpet-slippered ruminator, VSP (as he signed his pieces, and as his friends called him) didn’t fit the image. Treglown rightly emphasizes his cosmopolitanism (a characteristic Pritchett shared with his friend George Orwell, that internationalist who, as Pritchett wrote, had “gone native in his own country”). Pritchett left England at twenty-one and spent the next six years as a journalist in Paris, Ireland, and Spain. (His profound understanding of the latter country—he probably knew it more deeply than any other British writer of his time—allowed him to avoid what he later called the “naive, Soviet poster-fed lyricism” about the Spanish Civil War that infected the literati of the 1930s, and his 1954 classic The Spanish Temper remains one of the most astute portraits of national character ever written.) He also brilliantly championed Continental writers, helping to introduce Italo Svevo, Giovanni Verga, and a host of others to Anglophone readers.

Still less befitting the image of a man of letters was his lower-middle-class upbringing. Although he became perhaps the most established figure in the British literary establishment, Pritchett was forever haunted by his background, which provided the setting for much of his fiction. At best most fiction writers ignore the petite bourgeoisie; otherwise they denigrate it or turn its members into buffoons. Pritchett, however, did his class of origin the highest honor: he neither patronized nor made comic the salesmen, shopkeepers, small businessmen, and clerks who people his stories. This writer who relished human oddity endowed “ordinary” people with complex—in fact, extravagant—inner lives. Treglown concentrates on Pritchett’s working life (his refreshingly brisk book, which manages to compress Pritchett’s story into fewer than 260 pages of text, is among the most intelligent and perceptive depictions of a writer’s habits and routine, and of the economics of a literary profession, that I’ve read). But he’s especially acute in his assessment of the impact of Pritchett’s early personal history on his career. As readers of Pritchett’s memoir A Cab at the Door know (and as readers of his last and best novel, Mr. Beluncle, will recognize from its eponymous protagonist), his father was a Micawberish charlatan and a serial bankrupt (the cab at the door was the family’s means of escaping the debt collectors; “He is so vulgar, so boring, so destructive,” Pritchett wrote of his father, “I must write about him quickly, turn him into cash”).

Forced to leave school at sixteen (he spent his next four years as a clerk in the docklands leather trade), Pritchett felt a lifelong need to catch up intellectually and a compulsion to achieve and maintain financial security in his chosen profession—a profession that was (and is) financially precarious at best. So he became one of the great autodidacts of modern literary history; as an old man even he was “appalled” by how much he’d read. (Ironically, his weekly “Books in General” essays in the New Statesman during thepritchett_v_s-19641008012R.2 Second World War—which with style, easy erudition, and an utter lack of didacticism assessed the French, Russian, and English classics—are widely credited with educating a generation of ambitious and intellectually voracious British servicemen.) And he became a literary Stakhanovite. What he wrote of Gibbon applies equally to himself: “Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.” With routine and unrelenting toil Pritchett fashioned his exquisite short stories, his polished biographies and travel books, and his essays—conspicuous, as Treglown aptly puts it, for their “formal artistry.” No single story or collection made his name; rather, he steadily accumulated a mountain of graceful and precise works.

But of course there was a price to pay for this—and much of it was paid by Pritchett’s second wife, Dorothy, for whom he left his first wife and to whom he remained married for sixty-one years, until his death. Treglown’s unobtrusive and understated portrait of that relationship is one of the few biographical studies to capture the complexities of a difficult married life, without assigning blame to either the subject or the subject’s spouse. Although theirs was a passionate and sexually fulfilling marriage, it was hardly an equal one. Dorothy’s role was not only that of a traditional wife of a famous writer but also that of a wife of an obsessively slogging one. It fell to her to type his endless series of drafts, to run the household and raise their children, to see that he worked unmolested when he was at home, and to wait for him in the country when he went to London on business (he was the literary editor of the New Statesman for some years, and was always an active participant in the London literary scene) or when he spent a semester at an American university to make money, as he did often after the war. Clearly, her happiness and ambitions were in essential ways subordinate to his. (It’s impossible not to wince at her letter to him after he confessed to a wartime affair, in which she declared that “writers are extraordinary & special people … & therefore have special license, because it is important for them to develop every aspect of themselves & they cant do this on one poor ordinary female.”)

And just as clearly, she became an alcoholic fairly early in their marriage (though, it seems, after his wartime affair), which in many ways made his life a misery (after a long struggle she recovered in the late 1950s). A friend of Pritchett’s observed that he was “addicted to writing like some people are to the bottle,” and there was certainly a symbiotic relationship between those two addictions in the Pritchett marriage—though this seems never to have occurred to Victor. Until Treglown’s revelations (which include VSP’s long affair with an American divorcee) were published in Britain, late last year, the marriage was always described as an unusually happy and serene one—as it mostly was, in its own way. But of course any reader of Pritchett’s fiction would know that there’s always so much more to the lives of seemingly ordinary, quiet people.

credit5a4Born Losersby Scott A. Sandage (Harvard). In this book about the cultural ramifications of economic failure in nineteenth-century America, Sandage has taken on an important and underexamined subject and scrutinized it in inventive ways, using unexpected and largely unmined sources. He’s looked at this era of robust, full-throated capitalism from the perspective of the economic losers, who made up the great majority of Americans in business. Drawing on the scholarship that examines the multifaceted “market revolution” (and on a growing historical literature on bankruptcy and debtors), Sandage demonstrates how an emerging capitalist economy came to dominate nearly every aspect of daily life, thereby transforming cultural values. In short order, for example, ambition evolved from a discreditable to an admirable quality. And over the century the meaning of the word “failure” broadened significantly, from an incident in commercial life (a “breaking in business,” as an early-nineteenth-century dictionary defined the word) to an identity (a wasted or ruined existence)—a change that shows the extent to which people came to be defined in terms of their market function. Sandage examines diaries and letters, business records, suicide notes (during the panic of 1837 Emerson wrote that “the land stinks with suicide”), bankruptcy cases, and charity requests (the heartbreaking so-called “begging letters” often written by the wives of broken men to the economic titans of the Gilded Age). But he draws most heavily on an astonishingly fertile set of documents: millions of nineteenth-century credit reports, compiled by the Mercantile Agency (the progenitor of Dun & Bradstreet), which have hitherto more or less languished in the archives of the Harvard Business School.

As the geographical scale of commerce dramatically expanded, businessmen had to judge the trustworthiness of those with whom they had no face-to-face dealings. Enter Lewis Tappan—busybody, moral reformer, fervent abolitionist, and one of history’s great snoops. Starting in 1841, on the foundations of an existing network of antislavery men, he built a vast national surveillance system to assess “the three Cs” (capital, character, and capacity) of men about whom subscribers to his agency paid for information. Within a decade the agency had recruited 2,000 informants throughout the country. (One of them was Abraham Lincoln. Sandage, by the way, tantalizingly reveals that the agency’s report on Lincoln was mysteriously expunged after his assassination.) In a single year, 1871, the agency Tappan had founded (he sold it in 1858 to his manager, Robert Graham Dun) added 70,000 names to its records. The men it spied on might move, launch new careers, and even assume new identities; no matter. The agency claimed it could find and assess anyone in the United States—a crowd of 29 million—in seven days. But what makes these reports so extraordinary a historical source is their subjectivity and scope. With their complex, melodramatic narratives, flashbacks, and foreshadowings, they read as though the agency’s spies and clerks were a band of frustrated novelists. Aside from their frequent errors and perhaps unavoidable sleaziness, they little resemble the dry and detached credit reports of today’s TRW and its ilk. Rather, they scrutinized a subject’s reputation, morals, abilities, finances, character, and potential. They might include gossip on his love life, and they usually contained such verdicts as “too fond of a spree,” “fast liver,” “doubtful character,” and “worthless and always will be”—a conclusion that, by conflating economic and moral judgment, nicely shows how capitalism converted cultural norms to its own terms (a point also bolstered by the way credit slang rapidly entered American speech—such terms as “bad egg” and “good for nothing,” initially used in these reports to describe the creditworthiness of individuals, soon devolved into general terms of moral opprobrium).

But although he’s found a rich seam of material (one partially tapped, but exploited for very narrow purposes, by James D. Norris in1899_Minnesota_1895_pf067621 his 1978 history of the early years of R. G. Dun & Co.), Sandage fails to elucidate fully the cultural significance of the sources he’s exhaustively examined, and the various and often seemingly unrelated elements of his analysis frequently don’t cohere. Moreover, this book exemplifies an annoying new trend. He’s written a broad and original work, but Sandage or his publisher couldn’t leave well enough alone. It used to be that professors proudly wrote about topics so minuscule that not even their fellow scholars could work up an appetite for the unnourishing results. Now, though, hip and on-the-make academics and university presses are fond of tarting up their books. They’ll take a first-rate monograph that would be of interest to discerning general readers (in this case Sandage’s Rutgers doctoral dissertation on the important but hardly sweeping subject “a cultural history of failure in the United States, 1819—1893”); append the thinnest and shortest chin-stroking epilogue, unsupported by original research but full of knowing and with-it cultural references (Sandage trots out Bob Dylan, Dilbert, Tommy Hilfiger, and that inevitable emblem of the zeitgeist, “the Columbine tragedy”); and affix a misleadingly grandiose subtitle (here, “A History of Failure in America”). None of this diminishes Sandage’s real achievement, but this book isn’t as ambitious and all-embracing as it promises to be. Still, it’s ambitious enough.


Roza_ShaninaWar in the Wild Eastby Ben Shepherd (Harvard). The epic clash on the Eastern Front in the Second World War remains arguably the largest conflict ever fought. It claimed 80 percent of all German casualties in the war. The front stretched for 1,900 miles (the distance from the northern tip of Maine to the southern tip of Florida), and the seemingly unremitting military operations staged there were of unparalleled scale (the Battle of Kursk alone drew in 3.5 million men). Perhaps most significant, the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought with singular viciousness and unprecedented efficiency: scholars now put the number of Soviet soldiers killed at a staggering 14.7 million, and the number of civilians killed at close to 20 million. And for its part, elements of the Red Army wreaked a most terrible revenge, raping at least two million women as the Russians invaded and occupied Germany. In short, the war in the east constitutes the single most terrible chapter in world military history—but it’s a chapter that in many essential ways is only now being written.

Since the publication, in 1975, of the final volume of John Erickson’s magisterial history of “Stalin’s War,” scholarship on various aspects of the Red Army’s military operations—much of it recondite, but necessary to fill in huge gaps in the historical record—has swollen. But the books that have received the most attention have probed the German army’s conduct. Owing largely to self-serving accounts written by Wehr-macht generals after the war, the conventional wisdom long held that even here the regular German army was—as Shepherd, a young Scottish historian, characterizes that point of view—”an oasis of honor and decency amidst the barbaric apparatus of the Nazi state.” But Omer Bartov’s pathbreaking 1985 study, The Eastern Front, 1941—45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare, demonstrated convincingly that in fact the Wehrmacht—not just the SS and other Nazi ideologues—had willingly, even enthusiastically, participated in the slaughter of Soviet civilians and the attempted extermination of the Jews.

In his important examination of the Wehrmacht’s war against Soviet partisans (among the most gruesome facets of the Russo-German conflict, in which neither side gave any quarter, and in which up to 300,000 Soviets, mostly civilians, were killed) Shepherd largely confirms Bartov’s general conclusions but adds layers of nuance and shades of (dark) gray. Analyzing the official paperwork of three army security divisions responsible for the suppression of Soviet insurgents, Shepherd focuses on the conduct and motivation of field officers, who served as the crucial links that “converted the ideological, military, and economic imperatives of the Third Reich’s war of extermination into action.” He reveals that at all levels the Wehrmacht was thoroughly indoctrinated in Nazi anti-Bolshevik, anti-Slav, and anti-Semitic ideology, and that even prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union it was quite happily prepared to act with ruthlessness against Soviet civilians. Although the Wehrmacht planned its barbaric strategy for largely pragmatic reasons (given its small numbers relative to the size of the territory and the population it had to subdue, terror tactics seemed exigent), it also “colluded to the hilt in the mass murder of Jews and other groups by the SS.”

But Shepherd reveals that as partisan activity intensified, many officers (mostly from western Germany, and so largely immune from the anti-Slav sentiment that pervaded eastern Germany) calculatedly acted with some restraint and even attempted to cultivate ties with Soviet civilians in order to stanch support for the guerrillas and woo deserters—even as other Wehrmacht units, commanded by ideological fanatics (who tended to be from eastern Germany), continued and extended their arbitrary killing spree. Shepherd in no way exonerates the Wehrmacht. The conduct of all German officers he examines was ferocious, even criminal—though some were more brutal than pragmatic, and some more pragmatic than brutal. But in highlighting the diversity and fluidity of the Wehrmacht’s response to the partisan threat, he illuminates both the mercurial nature of warfare and a particularly savage aspect of the most savage war yet waged


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