Eggheads at work

I’ve been reading Stephan Collini’s absorbing review of The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 3: 1926–1927 in the London Review of Books. A good deal of the review is taken up with discussion of the role that the Criterion, the serious highbrow literary quarterly of which Eliot had become the editor in 1922, played in the poet’s life. The magazine had at its core a small clique of literary intellectuals who met regularly for dinner. The thing about them that stood out for me is the fact that, with one exception (Bonamy Dobrée), none was an academic. F.S. Flint, for example, worked in the civil service. Howard Reed was a curator at the V&A. Alec Randall was a diplomat. And Orlo Williams was clerk to the House of Commons. (And of course for quite a few years Eliot himself had worked in a bank by day and functioned as a poet and literary intellectual only the evenings and at weekends.)

Noticing this led to one obvious thought about our own time. How many literary intellectuals – or even public intellectuals generally – nowadays have non–academic jobs? (Excluding journalism.) At the moment, I can only think of two: Matt Ridley, who I think is a banker of sorts (at least he was Chairman of one of the banks — Northern Rock — that spectacularly failed during the banking catastrophe); and Howard Davies. There must be others, but at the moment they are the only two that come to mind.

En passant, it’s worth remembering that the fact that the role of public intellectual has become the almost-exclusive preserve of tenured academics in the US is Richard Posner’s main explanation for the decline of the public intellectual in that country.

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