40 PHI KAPPA PHI FORUM
One of my
is a mammoth
volume, as big as a
brick, that’s rested
at the top of my
living room shelf
and presided over
for years, in the
quietly monumental vein of a gargoyle
perched on a cathedral.
I’m talking about the complete collected
essays of the British writer V.S. Pritchett,
who died in 1997 at age 96. About
Pritchett, you might already know. He
was, at the time of his death, perhaps the
last living author easily described by that
old-fashioned honorific, a “man of letters.”
It’s a term once commonly used for
geniuses who didn’t merely work in
literature but seemed to inhabit it, having
a pitch-perfect fluency in multiple genres
and an encyclopedic command of cultural
knowledge. “Man of letters” more
recently evolved into “person of letters,”
a happy acknowledgment that this kind
of brilliance isn’t restricted to gender.
Virginia Woolf, whose fiction, memoir,
and cultural criticism displayed dazzling
virtuosity, proved that point well enough.
She was a person of letters personified.
How does one get to be a person of
letters? A curious chapter in Pritchett’s
DANNY HEITMAN, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, frequently writes about literature and
culture for national publications.
lessons to his own novels and stories.
That’s how a book shortage helped V.S.
Pritchett become a person of letters.
Temporarily relieved of the obligation to
chase the Next Big Thing, he could probe
more fully books already in his library.
Pritchett’s path to greatness intrigues
me because it challenges our common
assumption that with information, as
with any other cherished commodity,
more is invariably better. If our culture
no longer seems to produce as many
figures who rank as a person of letters,
perhaps it’s because the sheer scale and
speed of new information — new books,
new movies, new music, new theater —
encourages breadth but not depth, reflex
rather than reflection.
No reasonable person would wish for
another global cataclysm like the one
that forced a thoughtful pause in V.S.
Pritchett’s intellectual life. The trick for
us is to create those pauses for ourselves
on a smaller scale. It might take the form
of a quiet evening with the smartphone
silenced, the TV off, and an old-fashioned
book resting like ballast across our lap.
Maybe it’s time, I’ve been thinking to
myself, to fetch Pritchett from the shelf.
‘Man of letters’ is a term once
commonly used for geniuses who
didn’t merely work in literature
but seemed to inhabit it.
MAKE A SPACE
FOR REFLECTIVE PAUSE
life yields a clue. After a childhood as a
voracious reader, Pritchett knocked about
as a foreign correspondent and travel
journalist, honing his skills as a fiction
writer. By the 1940s, he was back in
London, earning much of his living as
a literary critic. But then World War II
threw him a curve. The war meant few
new books were being published — no
small challenge for the reviewer who
depends on recent releases to supply his
gristmill. Necessity forced Pritchett to
create an alternative. Each week, instead
of writing about a new title, Pritchett
published a 2,000-word essay on a classic
author, an assignment that required him
to revisit the foundational writers of
Pritchett was already whip-smart,
but the experience deepened him. Now
grounded more firmly in the texts of
the masters, Pritchett could speak with
greater gravitas and authority on writers
both old and new, also applying their