by Benjamin Schwarz
Walter Bagehot (1826-77) — the British literary critic, banker, journalist, political sociologist, analyst of finance, social psychologist and editor of The National Review and The Economist — has never lacked for admirers. His devoted friend George Eliot concurred with the verdict of another close friend, Lord Bryce, that his “was perhaps the most original mind of his generation.” Gladstone confided that both Liberal and Conservative governments so prized Bagehot’s financial acumen that they looked to him as a “supplementary chancellor of the Exchequer.” His posthumous idolaters have included Woodrow Wilson (who defined Bagehot’s role as nothing less than “to clarify the thought of his generation”); Herbert Read, the modernist poet, anarchist philosopher, art critic and literary critic, who pronounced Bagehot’s literary criticism “the best of its time” save for Matthew Arnold’s; Jacques Barzun, the intellectual historian, who for decades championed him as “the greatest Victorian”; and Ben Bernanke, who, in a memoir of the most recent financial crisis, cited Bagehot more often than any living economist. Nevertheless, Bagehot is fated to be best known for not being better known.
This limbo probably owes something to the uncertain pronunciation of his name (most say “Badge-it”; some insist on “Bag-ot”) and more to the wide range and seeming incongruity of his fields of expertise, as the disparate assortment of his celebrants suggests. Containing multitudes, Bagehot has been impossible to pigeonhole. Those who examine, say, his comparison of the role of the provinces in “Tristram Shandy” and the novels of Thackeray may well be unaware of “Lombard Street,” his tour de force anatomization of the psychology of finance and banking panics and of the sociology of the London money market. “No book on banking,” John Maynard Keynes wrote, “has ever attained such a position — an undying classic,” imbued with “the glamour of intense reality,” it “is a perfect example of a certain kind of English writing, and its truth of human nature.”
Those who champion his startling elucidation of the social and psychological dimensions of the Crown and the House of Lords in “The English Constitution” tend to form a different constituency from those who look to his pioneering exploration of evolutionary political sociology in “Physics and Politics” (which William James pronounced a “golden little book”), and from those who see his most enduring contribution to be the creation of a new prose style — cool, ironic, epigrammatic, allusive, balanced, sometimes slangy — that remains part of the mental furniture of Oxbridge, Britain’s Civil Service and what used to be called Britain’s “higher journalism.”
While a full appreciation of Bagehot has been hobbled by his polymathic attainments, he has nevertheless been fortunate in his devotees — even if, for the most part, each has been able to illuminate only specific aspects of his career and his genius. In his new biography, “Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian,” James Grant follows this pattern, burnishing his subject’s reputation but offering a somewhat limited appraisal of Bagehot’s achievements.
Grant is a biographer of Bernard Baruch and John Adams, and the founder and editor of the cheeky and stylish Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. The characterization that the highbrow Labour Party politician Richard Crossman (another Bagehot devotee) bestowed on Bagehot’s writing — a “mixture of rollicking cynicism and cool analysis” — applies to Grant’s own brilliantly contrarian criticism in the Interest Rate Observer, The Financial Times and elsewhere of market recklessness, bankers’ irresponsibility and (to Grant) their concomitant, the expansive monetary policies of the Federal Reserve that have defined the booms and busts of the past 30-odd years.
This biography, though, takes wing only when it treats Bagehot’s role as a banker and financial journalist. That these are the very aspects of Bagehot’s work that have been relatively neglected by most scholars, who have tended to concentrate on his literary, political and sociological oeuvre, might be reason enough to commend Grant’s excellent if uneven biography. Bagehot scholarship, however, isn’t accretive, and the 1959 book “The Spare Chancellor,” by the worldly British journalist Alastair Buchan, remains the most astute, elegant and historically informed assessment of Bagehot’s entire life and work — including his participation in and analysis of the powerful and precarious world of finance.