Does the death of literary critic and scholar Frank Kermode on August 17 signal the impending end of a cultural epoch?
Adam Kirsch, senior editor at the New Republic thinks so. Kermode “was one of the last exemplars of an ideal that dates back at least to Matthew Arnold: the ideal of the literary critic as the humanist par excellence,” Kirsch writes in Slate. “What gave the critic his special authority was the way that he thought and wrote at the intersection – of the classics and the contemporary world, of literature and society, of the academy and the common reader.” In addition to teaching at Cambridge and Columbia, Kermode authored or edited more than fifty books. He wrote regularly for publications such as the London Review of Books, which he helped initiate, and the New York Review of Books.
As it happens, one of the essays in Fighters & Writers germinated with an NYRB review Kermode wrote of a collection of nonfiction by George Orwell. A reference Kermode made to an accusation that could have radically altered Orwell’s reputation prompted me to investigate the charge, delve into books about Orwell, revisit his work and produce a personal essay about his lasting impact on me.
Fighters & Writers also includes a piece on Martin Amis, whose The War against Cliché Kermode discusses in a biting passage Kirsch quotes in his obituary. Kirsch wrote one of the more astute assessments of another Amis collection, The Second Plane, as I note in my essay about that book.
I’d like to think Kirsch is wrong about a literary era’s death coinciding with Kermode’s. I mention the connections with my work simply to illustrate that the intersection Kermode mapped still sees some traffic.