The English Intellectuals in War-time

By Ernest Peixotto

[The Century Magazine, October 1917]

It is not extravagant to claim in behalf of England that beyond all other countries she has been distinguished by the production of dissident minorities, and powerful rebellious persons. The greatness of most advanced countries may commonly be measured by the splendor of their representative men, and of such modern England has many in politics and industry, in science and philosophy. But in dynamic literature and art she has comparatively few men who are representative in the full and simple sense of the word. There her greater sons are apt to be anarchic persons, in revolt against the established order, defiant of the national ways and even of the national institutions. For a man to be accepted in England as a leader in ideas or the art of life, it is not necessary that he should be in harmony with the dominant movements of his time. Quite the contrary. We prefer to have him oppose and assail them; we like the insurgent and the adventurer in him. An alien observer of our enthusiasms would probably say that our educated or half-educated public gives the largest meed of admiration to the man whose heresies are most pronounced, or whose scheme of things is the least likely to be adopted by ourselves. It is indeed true that our generation has demanded of the man of letters that he should be a man of the world and the hour, a fighter, a debater, or a constructive worker; and it is undeniable that we have assigned to him an extraordinary prominence and prestige. For the most part, unless his social orthodoxy was unimpeachable, we have kept him out of the positions of authority; and yet it may be doubted whether during our generation the intellectuals have wielded so great an influence in any part of the world as they have in the country which is not seldom accused of despising them.

What, then, has been happening to the English intellectuals during the last three years? Those popular leaders and guides of ours, who for long before the overturn had things pretty nearly all their own way, what has the war done to and for them? How have their position and influence been affected? How do they stand to-day, and what is likely to be their plight when the war is over and we return, if we ever do, to the pursuits and interests that once made up the lives of educated people?

At least one interesting thing has occurred which hardly any one could have foreseen. The war has drawn a very large number of literary craftsmen into one form or another of the public service. We hear from time to time of young poets, romancers, and scholars who have been swallowed up by the armies, and the world grieves on their account; but for the most part we do not hear of the writers of maturer years who have been recruited by the Government as correspondents or translators and for the many literary and semi-literary tasks coming within the scope of the foreign office, the press bureau, and the complex enterprises of censorship and propaganda that this war has developed. Not by any means all of this work is of an expert or responsible kind. Many a man of literary gifts is to-day content to be doing a plain piece of drudgery as his part of citizenship in war-time. Usually it is only the popular novelist or versifier to whom is given the prize of an adventurous job as correspondent or secret agent. A John Masefield may share in the heroic disaster of Gallipoli; a Compton Mackenzie in Greece may be put in the way of exploits the story of which will some day make "Sinister Street" seem by comparison a very dull yarn. Humbler members of the craft have to content themselves with humdrum tasks in the purely departmental sphere.

A word should be said at the outset in reference to those leaders of the universities who, before the enrolment of the country's manhood had emptied the colleges, took their stand, like the enemy professors, in the line of intellectual defense. In one respect we may take a certain pride in our academic representatives. On the whole they have come out of the ordeal better than, say; the bishops and the editors. At all events, when we compare their general tone with that of their German compeers, we feel that the judgment of the court can hardly be in doubt. There was revealed, however, a difference of character and sympathy between the two old universities of England. The historians and classicists of Oxford discovered an unsuspected facility in pamphleteering, and very nearly to a man they were engaged from the beginning in stating and defending the purposes of the Allies. On the other hand, the mathematicians and metaphysicians of Cambridge furnished intellectual leadership for the minority against the war policy. Oxford, from Gilbert Murray to L. P. Jacks, is orthodox and confident about the British case and the only tolerable end of the war; while Cambridge, emptied like all other universities of its youth, has in Bertrand Russell the most uncompromising of non-resisters, in Lowes Dickinson the most philosophical and persuasive advocate of peace without victory, and in the conductors of "The Cambridge Magazine" the most resolute band of academic internationalists. The reasons for the contrast between the two ancient seats of learning might not be hard to divine, but perhaps we may be content to recall that long ago Kant remarked upon the tendency of scientific studies toward intellectual remoteness from the passion of contemporary affairs.

Plainly the Government could not be making its manifold use of English literary men and women if it were not that with few exceptions they are fully identified with the national policy in the war. In any other country such a state of affairs could not excite remark; in England it is without precedent. England at war has in the past always meant an educated public bitterly divided, with the intellectuals mostly in opposition. Even during the Napoleonic wars some of the greatest writers of the age were openly admiring of their country's arch-enemy. In our own time, before the war, the men most generally associated with the higher intelligence of England have been emphatically of the minority. To-day, apart from the Cambridge group, leaders of opinion so widely different as Bernard Shaw and Graham Wallas and Clutton Brock have preserved a remarkable balance of mind; but the rest have nearly all undergone a spiritual conversion. Take, as an example which every one will admit to be striking, the case of John Galsworthy. He is a minority representative if ever there was one. He belongs as completely and inevitably to the few as Rudyard Kipling and Conan Doyle belong to the many. Such men as those are unimaginable in any other relation; they are incapable of intellectual or emotional isolation. Galsworthy, on the contrary, is detached in an extraordinary degree. He has always been much more (or, as the belletrists would say, much less) than a man of letters. He is by nature a preacher, a reformer, an agitator. Before the war it was impossible for him to separate his creative gift, whether in fiction, drama, or satire, from his preoccupation with certain barbarities of contemporary society. He arraigned the prison and the criminal law, the slaughter-house, the blood sports of old England, the time-honored diversions of his own class—the legal inequality of the sexes, the land monopoly. In all England one could hardly find an eminent man of letters more completely endowed with the qualities that put a man among the dissidents. But the war, which leaves Rudyard Kipling and Henry Newbolt and Mrs. Humphry Ward exactly where they were before, has transformed John Galsworthy out of recognition. He lined himself up with the multitude of his countrymen; he can write expositions of the war policy or exhortations to America which appear without incongruity in the popular prints. He performs, of course, his own particular piece of war service with the inconspicuous devotion and responsibility of which the English writing class has furnished many instances. But—and here is the odd contradiction—in his propagandist writing he reveals himself as a typical Englishman of the class to which in his novels and plays he has offered a merciless and persistent challenge. We need not be surprised that the process of creation with him should be suspended, as it is with John Masefield and almost every man who is thinking not of art, but of service. The one Galsworthy novel of war-time, "The Freelands," is a documentary story of ante-bellum days. It has no more to do with the experience or the atmosphere of war-time than has "The Lion's Share," a story which is chiefly interesting as showing how completely a mind of such high general capacity as Arnold Bennett's can be absorbed in the politics of the struggle while leaving his capacity for invention altogether untouched.

Even more curious is the case of that brilliant rebel combination, Hilaire Belloc and Gilbert Chesterton. During the lustrum before the deluge these doughty comrades were leading what appeared to be a singularly forlorn hope. They were tilting against progressivism and social reconstruction on the plea that all the forces involved in the movement were making for the consolidation of the Servile State. But no one whose business or interest caused him in those years to follow the currents of opinion could fail to remark that, although Belloc and Chesterton were plainly on the losing side, they were making their weight tell. A multiple movement of reaction was afoot, and it was easy enough to detect the impress of their combined intelligence and humor and their dubious conception of democracy.

The coming of the Great War gave Hilaire Belloc a unique professional opportunity. He had, as he did not allow us to forget, undergone a term of service in the French army. He had tramped over a great part of the theater of war. He had long been an energetic, of erratic student of warfare, medieval and modern. By a happy stroke of business a moribund sporting weekly was taken over for him, and for three years "Land and Water" has supplied a bewildered world with evidence of the inexhaustible Bellocian resources: a knowledge of strategy and tactics never confessedly at fault, a topographical acquaintance with all the fronts which no reader can withstand, and a hardihood in prophecy which, after the innumerable strainings and falsifications of three years, is as prolific and confident as in the first flush of that restraining optimism which bade us not to expect the entry of the Russian armies into Berlin before the Christmas of 1914! Verily, as Matthew Arnold delighted to affirm, Oxford is justified of all her children.

The fortune of Hilaire Belloc's indispensable ally has been less dazzling. It so happened that Gilbert Chesterton was prevented from playing in this crisis the conspicuous part which would seem to be his by every kind of right. A physical breakdown some months before the war forced a long retirement. He was, however, already in partial retreat. Abandoning the newspaper pulpit from which week by week he was enabled to address a few million readers, he had joined himself to a little group of muck-rakers who interpreted all public affairs in terms of political and financial corruption. Chesterton was not at home in this company. He denied his own genius when he permitted it to be linked with a peculiarly bitter sectarianism, and trimmed his splendid enthusiasm for freedom and common humanity to the catchwords of an ignoble cabal.

The accident of his younger brother's being called to the colors gave him the chance, doubtless most unwelcome, of showing what he could do with a weekly journal. It has been interesting to watch Chesterton as editor. He cannot help turning out forceful and distinctive work, but "The New Witness" is not his organ. Chesterton fighting in another man's armor is not the man we knew. The wit that was the most effective weapon wielded by any controversialist is blunted; the marvelous vitality and fecundity of thought and phrase which made him the most formidable of antagonists have in large measure disappeared. Not even Chesterton can be a boy forever, and our campaigns and perils in these days are vastly more momentous than the very restricted combats in which he gained his spurs.

Something more, however, is needed to explain the fact that Gilbert Chesterton, a mighty youthful champion during the Boer War, has no position of leadership in the war of the ages. The explanation lies in this, that the crash of Europe has carried him, unresisting, into the camp of the majority. Long ago he was told that it was odd for a thoroughly typical Englishman, such as, by his own reiterated description, he was, to appear so singular in modern England. The simple truth is that to-day he has no choice. He is of his own people; he agrees with the multitude, and for a Chesterton there is no fun in that. The fight a man like Chesterton rejoices in is a fight with his own side. The British junker is his mortal enemy, but he can make little of him if he is compelled to join with the crowd in the attack upon Prussianism. His task in these days is to set in fresh lights the assumptions and arguments that are the present stock in trade of his old antagonists. He does it, but the price exacted is the sacrifice of the most joyous and brilliant free-lance of his generation. It is poor compensation, to him that, while defending the greater cause, he can keep up the assault upon the Servile State. For that means a running contest with Lloyd George and the war government, as well as with the war profiteer; and the Government, after all, is the one constituted authority by means of which the policy in which Mr. Chesterton believes can be carried into effect.

There are many who would say that if this is not Gilbert Chesterton's war, still less is it Bernard Shaw's. It has brought to him a large measure of eclipse. One cannot call him a pacifist, and only an imbecile would suspect him of being pro-German. He looks toward an ordered world from which, apparently, force is not to be eliminated. He believes in large aggregates, governmental and economic. He would rejoice over the painless extinction of every nationality and the disappearance of every small state in Europe. In August, 1914, he affirmed that the war was the nemesis of foreign office procedure and England must go into it as the only reparation she could make to Europe. Three months later he published his considered judgment in "Common Sense about the War," a pamphlet which, whatever its perversity, insensitiveness, and inaccuracy, is sure of a place among the few pieces of polemical writing produced during these years that will live. It was far less widely read in England than in America. To the generality of the educated public its temper and method were detestable, and many of Shaw's old friends, who would have had no feeling against the same case differently presented, were pained by it beyond expression.

But three years of discussion and diplomatic disclosure have done their work in regard to "Common Sense." Within a few months of its appearance, as Shaw remarked with justice, his hostile analysis of Sir Edward Grey's diplomacy was adopted by a powerful section of the British press. The discerning minority took occasion to point out that, for all his exasperating tone, Bernard Shaw had delivered a smashing blow against Junkerdom. But not in the German Empire alone; while in the neutral countries it was held that the uncensored publication of "Common Sense about the War" was a brilliant proof that England was at least still a land of free discussion.

Its author, however, was not taken back into favor, notwithstanding that a crowd can always be gathered to hear his lectures. With the exception of the prefaces to "Androcles" and to "Pygmalion," Shaw's product during the war has been almost negligible. That once overflowing brain and pen have been surprisingly quiet, and the wit in which two hemispheres took delight has found quite inadequate scope in such rollicking trifles as O'Flaherty, V. C. and "The Inca of Perusalem." Amid the illusions of war-time there is little room for that piercing intelligence or for that merciless statement of fact which men and women agree to call paradox of cynicism. But of course his day will recur, and he will be there to enjoy it with a zest enhanced by silence and unadvertised labor. For there is one thing especially about Bernard Shaw which his friends, know and prize, though the world could not have guessed it, I mean the astonishing amount of hard, detailed, and wholly unrecognized service which he has performed, in the flush times as in the bare, for the causes in which he believes. The one keen regret his admirers have, is that the years are gathering about his head. The war caught him at sixty. It caught Wells at fifty and Chesterton at forty, and there has been no more interesting personal study in these days than is offered by the varying ways in which; the three men have reacted to its overpowering stimulus.

No commiseration of any kind is needed for H. G. Wells. This is his war, if anybody's. For years he had been enjoying its prospective terror and mechanical surprises, always, no doubt, with the proviso that a war maintained by the chemists and mechanicians must be mercifully brief, issuing immediately in the new social order. The magazine reader, at all events, had learned to shape the future, and has watched the processes of the war with eyes trained to the Wellsian formula. To most literary people, as to all men of ordinary affairs, the war brought into being a new and bewildering world. To Mr. Wells, first of all, it brought a miraculous fulfillment of his own dreams. While everybody else had to make an entirely fresh start, he had merely to carry into actuality the lines laid down through years of fantastic invention. What wonder, then, that, seeing his military and mechanical predictions coming true with such staggering exactness, he should play harder than ever at the game of political and social prophecy? There was no journalist or professor readier than he to tell precisely how the conflict would go. Day by day the new Europe grew under his hand, or was broken up again and remodeled afresh.

The gift which most strikingly marks off Mr. Wells from virtually all of his contemporaries is the gift of an imagination which, so far from being benumbed, is immensely and incessantly stimulated by the general catastrophe. Before all else he is the historian of contemporary change. The weekly paper is not more up to date than a Wells novel. And yet, for all his swift and sensitive observation and response, he has not, in either essay or romance, come near to seeing the war as it affects the multitude. Mr. Britling's experience begins and ends with the comfortable classes; indeed, with that small portion of those classes which dwells in the country house, contributes its sons to the public service, and makes up its opinions amid the gossip of the club and the afternoon tea-party. The Wells of Kipps and Lewlshom and Mr. Polly would have interpreted it all from a startlingly different angle; but it is not an accident that before the war the creator of Kipps had devised a new Machiavelli and learned to set his magnificent researchers to work among the governing classes and our old nobility.

In his latest phase Mr. Wells has interested his public by uttering his mind upon two momentous themes. He has declared against monarchy in the affairs of this world, while proclaiming his faith in God the Invisible King. In both directions he was anticipated by Bernard Shaw, who for some years in advance of his startling discoveries in the life and teaching of the Founder of Christianity, had been coupling attacks upon the idolatry of kingship with the declaration of a mystical faith in a Power which he no longer hesitates to call God. This confession of religion, in point of fact, is not surprising in either prophet. Shaw was a preacher of religion long before the days of "John Bull's Other Island;" the religious evolution of Wells could easily have been predicted from "A Modern Utopia" or "The Days of the Comet." Each would seem to have heard of Plato for the first time on the threshold of elderhood; each stands in fascinated wonderment before commonplaces of the faith familiar to every churchgoer, and the curious in such matters may be tempted to make rather more than they should of the circumstance that both alike found something to attract them in the tenuous theism of Rabindranath Tagore. However that may be, the religion of the English intellectuals is another subject, and a decidedly fascinating one.

I close this paper upon a question which we are all, in our several ways, asking today: what is the war likely to do to the men of letters, and more especially to those who, since the disappearance of the great writer in his character of major prophet, had in ante-bellum days combined the functions of journalist and interpreter, if not also of novelist and poet? One thing seems certain: this immeasurable upheaval involves so intense a concentration of energy that while it lasts we cannot expect any great overflow of literary production; nor of course can we, amid the vast and pitiful sacrifice of youth, look for the emergence of new genius in any of the warring countries. The end, in all likelihood, will release a flow of imaginative creation, and we may well expect a revolution in form no less, than a revelation of fresh and startling ideas and experience. The young writers of to-morrow will be provided in overflowing abundance with subjects more compelling than any which have been available in the breakup of the medieval world, and we may be quite sure they will make and follow their own roads. To them may be given an authority greater than that enjoyed by even the most fortunate of their predecessors.

But who can tell? It is conceivable that the world after the war may agree in a profound and largely unreasoning skepticism as to the value of the intellectual in society. If so, few people will have the hardihood to deny that there is embodied, in the history of the overturn and its antecedents, an impressive array of, evidence capable of being used to sustain any condemnation to which the world may set its seal.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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