Terry Teachout on Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

August 28th, 2008

In Commentary magazine “Contentions” blog, critic Terry Teachout salutes the fine series of reissues from New York Review Books and reflects on one of its titles, Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes:

Originally published in 1956, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was a deliberate attempt to write a novel in the style of Dickens and Trollope whose subject matter was unambiguously contemporary. It tells the tale of Gerald Middleton, a wealthy, washed-up historian who at the age of sixty upends his comfortable but unsatisfying life by investigating a Piltdown Man-like archaeological fraud for which the great friend of his schooldays turns out to have been responsible. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is at once deeply felt, brilliantly witty and morally serious to the highest degree, a combination of traits rarely to be found in a single novel.

This is a far more generous view than Time magazine’s reviewer took when the book was first published in 1956:

Angus Wilson is a social satirist with an itchy trigger finger. The novel is his shooting gallery, and the characters he sets up as targets not only have clay feet but clay minds and clay hearts as well. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is his longest, cleverest and most annihilating display of literary marksmanship to date, and after it is all over, what hangs in the air is the acrid odor of an unrelenting misanthropy.

Wilson’s renown may be back on the rise again. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is back in print on both sides of the Atlantic–from NYRB in the US and Faber Finds in the UK. His work is certainly worth a look for anyone who wants the richness of a 19th century novel combined with the moral complexity of a 20th century work.

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