Sir Herbert Read, knighted by Winston Churchill in 1953 “for services to literature,” is one of the most enigmatic of the modern essayists who interpreted Modernist aesthetic values and styles to a reluctant English literary culture. Of those who established their mark in the vanguard movements of English literary circles during the period between
World Wars I and II, and in spite of his over 60 books, Read remains one of the forgotten, even though his reputation in the 1950s placed him alongside well-known cultural-literary critics such as Matthew Arnold, William Morris, Paul Valéry, T.S.Eliot, and George Orwell. Read became visible after World War I as a young poet and defender of the newest Modernism. Along with more notorious Modernists like Georges Sorel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T.E.Hulme, Wyndham Lewis, and T.S.Eliot, Read identified himself with the dissident movements in literary and cultural values. Inspired by the convergence of the visual arts and letters and philosophy in continental movements, he founded a journal, Arts and Letters (1917), which joined Modernism to the criticism of the philistine bourgeoisie and the mass culture encroaching on England.
His editing of T.E.Hulme’s notebooks for A.R.Orage’s The New Age (1922) and Hulme’s Speculations (1924) helped secure Read’s solidarity with Eliot and the Criterion, to which Read began contributing in 1922. Read’s long association with Eliot, whom he first met in 1917, remains even today not easy to assess. Both writers published and encouraged other writers—Read at Routledge and Kegan Paul, Eliot at Faber and Faber—and both writers were not afraid to relate ethical and cultural values to forgotten literary figures or emergent artistic movements. But Eliot’s conservative Christianity and Read’s anarchism and his commitment and engagement to a political outlook, as well as his affirmation of the creative nature of the unconscious self, separated them into intellectually opposed camps. What often joins them in a common cause is the necessity to come to terms with the Romantic principle of imagism translated into the impersonality of form in poetry.
Read’s essays in the 1930s, whether polemical, austere, or personal, were written in a style accessible to the reader searching for new insights into modern life through the surrealist journals that linked art and surrealism to the radical and politically changing cultures in Spain, Germany, England, and Russia. In the 1930s alone Read published over 400 essays and books. Socialism versus barbarism was on the agenda, and being engaged with the “contemporary” was a required stance. Placed against the smaller number of Eliot’s essays, which are written in an imperious, scholastic style, or Orwell’s journalistic plain speaking, Read may sound remote, didactic, or tendentious. But his work avoided mannerism and maintained diversity, including essays on art exhibitions, literature, education, social action, and aesthetics; all together it numbers well over 1100 publications and reveals a protean intelligence in his public essays and an introspective lyrical turn in his autobiographical writings.
Read was a philosophical anarchist and outspoken pacifist during World War II, and his defense of craft-based work and syndicalist working habits marks his entire outlook and must be associated even with his essays championing Wordsworth, Shelley, and Coleridge. This development of the ideology of Romanticism would inevitably stamp him as an outsider in the face of Eliot and Pound’s objectivism and classicism. Read’s visionary side was infused with the mystique of nonviolent anarchism, guild and revolutionary socialism, and the mythology of place, especially the northern English landscape, symbolized in his essayistic Blakean novel, The Green Child: A Komance (1935), which was puzzled over by Jung and admired by a range of literary and artistic fellow travelers of Modernism and mysticism, including the writer Kenneth Rexroth, and artists of the Dynaton Group around Wolfgang Paalen. Read’s lifelong admiration first for Freud and then for Jung allowed him to place the unconscious into a direct relationship with the artistic process. By linking inorganic imagery to abstraction, and empathy to the human need for primal form, and both with the drive for aesthetic freedom, he provided readers with a unique intellectual context for a social consciousness that is different, if not absent, from many of his contemporaries, for example F.R.Leavis, Christopher Caudwell, or, later, Raymond Williams.
Just as his attempt to set standards for understanding modern art did not appeal to later cultural critics like Raymond Williams, Read’s association with the anarchists of the Freedom Press group puzzled the sensibilities of traditional leftists like Stephen Spender.
Read’s advocacy of anarchism and of education through art, and his lingering lifelong admiration for Hegel, Schiller, and Marx reinforced his belief that alienation was a condition of modern life that could not be resolved through Eliot’s Christian stoicism or religion. In his essays on industrial design he drew parallels between a utopian vision of a human-scale, abstract technology, and primitive and children’s art, which are also abstract and sensual. His desire to see our nature through depth psychology that reveals the inner biological basis of form informs his 1920s essays as well as the psychoanalytically informed essays on aesthetics in the postwar period. But ultimately Read focuses his moral disgust for the ugliness of industrialism on the systems that grind individuals down into robotic dependency on the state. He pilloried the English (Poetry and Anarchism, 1938) for failing to understand literary values that were not simply culturally acceptable values, and his pamphlet essay “To Hell with Culture: Democratic Values Are New Values” (1941) became the cornerstone essay for other works like The Politics of the Unpolitical (1943) and The Education of Free Men (1944).
Read’s lucid prose was neither academic nor fashionably belletristic, but was suffused with an energetically pamphleteering, albeit feuilletonist quality that brought together analysis, defiance, and acquaintance with the work at hand. He ultimately scorned the Bloomsbury literati, and his defense of surrealism and “degenerate art” in little journals like Axis, Minotaur, Southern Review, or Circle identified him as a spirited voice addressing apologists for bourgeois culture in the name of the outsiders and aesthetically dispossessed. At the same time his reviews in publications like the Times Literary Supplement, the Nation, Adelphi, the Listener, Horizon, and Architectural Review gave him license, guerrilla-like, to speak patiently and intelligently about the cultural contradictions beween insider, official culture, and artistic innovation and experiment.
Often labeled a highbrow Modernist voice, or primarily a poet (George Woodcock, 1972), Read, like his counterparts in the United States, Lionel Trilling or Clement Greenberg, came to be seen as an apologist for liberal values—one who sought the assimilation of modern literature and art into the mainstream. Yet his work is too broad in scope for these reductions. His prose style is deceptively and consciously personal without imposing the voice of his private “personality.” Hating the stridency of a Wyndham Lewis, he stands with Swift, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Nietzsche, Tolstoi, Lawrence, and Freud those writers who do not cater to the common reader as “a passive recipient of pleasures for which he pays a fair market price” (English Prose Style, 1928) or to the often decadent manner of being leisurely, tasteful, and unconcerned. In the final analysis, he sees himself as a psychologist of the soul. In this, a Romantic attachment to both scientific analysis and the desire to dissect the realities of modern life, where science and art both conflict and coincide, Read consciously adopted the persona of the diagnostician, discoverer, and psychologist as the basis of the essay form. In Collected Essays in Literary Criticism (1938), his introduction boldly states that psychoanalytic depth psychology is necessary for understanding literary creation, and that through the psychoanalytic domain we understand the place of the irrational in an irrational age. He writes: “I have been gradually drawn towards a psychological type of literary criticism because I have realized that psychology, more particularly the method of psychoanalysis, can offer explanations of many problems connected with the personality of the poet, the technique of poetry, and the appreciation of the poem.” One of the first in England to advance and develop this perspective in the mid-1920s, and at home as a Romantic in an anti-Romantic age, he recognized that he wrote against the grain of the expectations of an age limited to traditional moral ideas about realism in art. As a crusader for contemporary art Read never lost touch with the Romantic idea that art is in a sense speaking to us as moderns.
Herbert Edward Read. Born 4 December 1893 at Muscoates Grange, Kirbymoorside, Yorkshire. Studied at the University of Leeds, 1911–14. Served in the army, 1915–18, fighting in France and Belgium: made captain, 1917; mentioned in dispatches; Military Cross, Distinguished Service Order, 1918. Founder, with Frank Rutter, Arts and Letters, 1917–20 (during the war via correspondence and when on leave). Married i) Evelyn Roff;
z) Margaret Ludwig; four sons and one daughter. Assistant principal of the Treasury, London, 1919–22. Assistant keeper of ceramics and stained glass, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1922–31. Contributor, the Criterion, 1921–39, editor, Burlington Magazine, 1933–39, and editor, English Master Painters series, from 1940. Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Arts, University of Edinburgh, 1931–33; Sydney Jones Lecturer in Art, University of Liverpool, 1935–36; Leon Fellow, University of London, 1940–42.; Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1953–54. Knighted, 1953. Fellow, Center for Advanced Studies, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 1964–65. Awards: Erasmus Prize, 1966; honorary degrees from four universities. Honorary fellow, Society of Industrial Artists; Foreign Corresponding Member, Academie Flamande des Beaux Arts, 1953; Foreign Member, Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm, 1960; Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1966. Died at Stonegrave house, Yorkshire, 12 June 1968.
Essays and Related Prose
Reason and Romanticism: Essays in Literary Critidsm, 1926
English Prose Style, 1928
The Sense of Glory: Essays in Criticism, 1929
Julien Benda and the New Humanism, 1930
Art Now, 1933
The Innocent Eye, 1933
Henry Moore, Sculptor, An Appreciation, 1934
Essential Communism, 1935
Art and Society, 1936
In Defence of Shelley and Other Essays, 1936
Collected Essays in Literary Criticism, 1938; as The Nature of Literature, 1956
Poetry and Anarchism, 1938
To Hell with Culture: Democratic Values Are New Values, 1941
Education Through Art, 1943
The Politics of the Unpolitical, 1943
The Education of Free Men, 1944
A Coat of Many Colours: Occasional Essays, 1945; revised edition, 1956
The Grass Roots of Art, 1947
The Philosophy of Modern Art: Collected Essays, 1952
The True Voice of Feeling, 1953
Anarchy and Order: Essays in Politics, 1954
The Tenth Muse: Essays in Criticism, 1957
The Forms of Things Unknown: Essays Toward an Aesthetic Philosophy, 1960
A Letter to a Young Painter, 1962
The Contrary Experience: Autobiographies, 1963
To Hell with Culture, and Other Essays on Art and Society, 1963
Art and Alienation: The Role of the Artist in Society, 1967
Essays m Literary Criticism: Particular Studies, 1969
A One-Man Manifesto and Other Writings for Freedom Press, edited by David Goodway, 1994
Other writings: poetry (including The End of a War, 1933), three radio plays, the novel The Green Child (1935), works on art history and literature, and a book on English prose style.
Gerwing, Howard, and Michael W.Pidgeon, A Checklist of the Herbert Read Archive, Victoria, British Columbia: University of Victoria McPherson Library, 1969
Read, Benedict, and David Thistlewood, in Herbert Read: A British Vision of World Art, edited by Read and Thistlewood, Leeds: Leeds City Art Galleries, 1993
Goodway, David, editor, Herbert Read, Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 1997
Hortmann, Wilhelm, Wenn die Kunst stirbt, Duisberg: Braun, 1976
Ideologies of Britishness in Post-War Art and Culture, Collapse special issue, 1 (1994)
Keel, John Siegfried, The Writings of Herbert Read and Their Curricular Implications (dissertation), Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1960
King, James, The Last Modern: A Life of Herbert Read, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990
Read, Benedict, and David Thistlewood, editors, Herbert Read: A British Vision of World Art, Leeds: Leeds City Art Galleries, 1993
Skelton, Robin, editor, Herbert Read: A Memorial Symposium, London: Methuen, 1970
Thistlewood, David, Herbert Read: Formlessness and Form: An Introduction to His Aesthettcs, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984
Treece, Henry, editor, Herbert Read: An Introduction to His Work by Various Hands, London: Faber, 1944; Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1969
Woodcock, George, Herbert Read: The Stream and tbe Source, London: Faber, 1972
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