I first came across Logan Pearsall Smith as an undergraduate when I chanced upon a copy of his book Trivia in a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London and bought it. Later, I discussed his work with Mario Praz in Rome, who owned all the works and had been an admirer since his early days at the University of Liverpool. I learned from him that Pearsall Smith had been a mentor to Cyril Connolly when the younger man worked as his amanuensis. Since Connolly himself was (unwittingly) a mentor of mine through his excellent criticism and excellent book recommendations every week in The Sunday Times, I wrote to to him to ask some questions about the American writer - born to a notable Quaker family in Philadelphia in 1865. Unfortunately all I got was a reply from his secretary, because Connolly had died the same week I wrote the letter. I consoled myself by buying a first edition of his most famous book Enemies of Promise (1938).
The interest in Pearsall Smith continued, so when I published my book Emperor to Emperor with Constable many years later, I asked the Chairman, Ben Glazebrook, if he would be interested in doing an anthology since Pearsall Smith had been a Constable author. The result was Logan Pearsall Smith: An Anthology, London: Constable, 1989.
He was fine writer and an important literary influence in Britain for several decades. As a critic, his careful scholarship produced essays which were widely praised, especially those in the volume Words and Idioms: Studies in the English Language (1925). His small book On Reading Shakespeare (1933), although often derided by academic critics, contains many fine observations on his language and characterisation.
His literary fictions, modelled on Flaubert and Baudelaire, were very much sui generis and cannot readily be placed into the usual literary categories. In that sense he used to remind me of Borges, but these are slight and Pearsall Smith never pretended them to be otherwise. Yet they are exemplars of well-honed irony and illustrate a superb control of English prose. He himself refers with delicate irony in the Preface to Trivia to his habit of overworking his prose.
For many years Logan Pearsall Smith lived in a privileged position on the edge of the British literary world. Already well-connected, through family friendships with such writers as Walt Whitman, William and Henry James, and later Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set. He became related to Bernard Berenson and Bertrand Russell through his sisters’ marriages. The list of his friends, acquaintances and correspondents is so extensive that it would be quite possible to create a fresh and original view of English literary life in the early years of the century from a close study of his life.
In fact his autobiography, Unforgotten Years (1938), is a fine piece of craftsmanship which provides the best possible introduction to the unusual personality of this reclusive and private man. His humour was subtle, as when he ascribed his relative lack of success at Oxford to the fact that he had started off on the wrong foot by arriving in the city on the now-defunct Bletchley line (which used to run cross country from Cambridge to Oxford) via Euston instead of directly from Paddington.
The most important and interesting criticism is contained in Words and Idioms and in On Reading Shakespeare (1933). His essay ‘Four Romantic Words’, which influenced Mario Praz when he was working on his seminal work The Romantic Agony (1933), stands up well even today, and other essays such as ‘English Sea Terms’ might be rather narrow and specialised but are still worth reading.
Rather then prepare a new edition of the anthology, my plan here is to give a brief selection of short fictions which will give some idea of the writer and of the man. But I believe the autobiography is well worth seeking out for those with an interest in the literary worlds of Philadelphia and London before the Second World War. So too can the essay on 'Four Romantic Words' still stimulate new ideas and emphasise the importance of etymology in understanding the past.
Here, then, is a sample of very short fictions taken from his volumes Trivia (1918), More Trivia (1922) and Last Words (1933). With endearing modesty there was also a collection titled All Trivia (1933). These early works are no longer covered by copyright.
The Vicar, whom I met once or twice in my walks about the fields, told me that he was glad that I was taking an interest in farming. Only my feeling about wheat, he said, puzzled him.
Now the feeling in regard to wheat which I had not been able to make clear to the Vicar, was simply one of amazement. Walking one day into a field that I had watched yellowing beyond the trees, I was dazzled by the glow and great expanse of gold. I bathed myself in the intense yellow under the intense blue sky; how it dimmed the oak trees and copses and all the rest of English landscape! I had not remembered the glory of the Wheat; nor imagined in my reading that in a country so far from the Sun, there could be anything so rich, so prodigal, so reckless, as this opulence of ruddy gold, bursting out from the cracked earth as from some fiery vein beneath. I remembered how for thousands of years Wheat had been a staple of wealth, the hoarded wealth of famous cities and empires; I thought of the processes of corn-growing, the white oxen ploughing, the great barns, the winnowing fans, the mills with a splash of their wheels, or arms slow-turning in the wind; of cornfields at harvest-time, with shocks and sheaves in the glow of sunset, or under the sickle moon; what beauty it brought into the northern landscape, the antique, passionate, Biblical beauty of the South!
Although that immense country house was empty and for sale, and I had got an order to view it, I needed all my courage to walk through the lordly gates, and up the avenue, and then to ring the door-bell. And when I was ushered in, and the shutters were removed to let the daylight into those vast apartments, I sneaked through them, cursing the dishonest curiosity which had brought me into a place where I had no business. But I was treated with such deference, and so plainly regarded as a possible purchaser, that I soon began to believe in the opulence imputed to me. From all the novels describing the mysterious and glittering life of the Great which I had read (and I have read thousands), there came to me the vision of my own existence in this Palace. I filled those vast halls with the shine of jewels and stir of voices; I saw a vision of ladies sweeping in their tiaras down the splendid stairs.
But my soul, in her swell of pride, soon outgrew these paltry limits. Oh no! Never could I box up and house under that roof the Pomp, the Ostentation of which I was capable.
Then for one thing there was stabling for only forty horses; and this, of course,aAs I told them, would never do.
There is a great tree in Sussex, whose cloud of thin foliage floats high in the summer air. The thrush sings in that umbrage, and blackbirds, who fill the late, decorative sunshine with the shimmer of golden sound. There the nightingale finds her green cloister; and on those branches sometimes, like a great fruit, hangs the lemon-coloured moon. In the glare of August, when all the world is faint with heat, there is always a breeze in those cool recesses; always a noise, like the noise of water, among their lately-hung leaves.
But the owner of this tree lives in London, reading books.
from LAST WORDS
How can they say my life is not a success? Have I not for more than sixty years got enough to eat and escaped being eaten?