The Most Underrated Books and Authors, from the Times Literary Supplement, 1977


Source: “Reputations revisited,” Times Literary Supplement, 21 January 1977

The first issue of the TLS appeared on January 17, 1902. To mark our 75th anniversary we asked a number of writers, scholars and artists to nominate the most underrated and overrated books (or authors) of the past seventy-five years.

This feature is remembered now for two reasons: first, the revival of the reputation and works of the English novelist Barbara Pym; second, for Vladimir Nabokov’s odd choice of H. G. Wells’ lesser novel, The Passionate Friends, which one Wells biographer described as, “by anybody’s standards … a solemn and boring book.”

The responses are presented in the order of the original article. I have omitted the “overrated” responses.


·Anthony Powell:

My underrated candidate is Jocelyn Brooke (1908-1966). Brooke used to receive reasonably good notices when alive, but nowadays his name is rarely mentioned when writers of that generation are listed, among whom he holds his own unique place. Brooke’s genre was reminisenc lightly touched with fiction. In The Dog at Clambercrown (1955) his best qualities are to be seen as autobiographer, traveler, critic. The Dog was a pub at a neighbouring village called Clambercrown, a concatenation of names that haunted him as a child, but a place he only visited in later life. The Military Orchid (1948) and The Goose Cathedral (1950) [collected with A Mine of Serpents and published as The Orchid Trilogy] are also recommended. Brooke was on the whole less at ease with straight novel writing than with a blend of memory and inventions, and with his special passions, botany and fireworks; nevertheless, The Image of a Drawn Sword is a remarkable Kafkaesque tour de force for a writer who had, in fact, never read Kafka when the book was written.

·Roland Barthes:

Raymond Queneau, a daring, noble writer whose death went almost unnoticed because French society is not very fond of its humorists and soon forgets those who have made it laugh.

·Angus Wilson:

John Cowper Powys’ Porius. [Margaret Drabble wrote of Porius in the Guardian: “a work that beggars description. He thought it his best. Set in October in 499 AD, it is more like a mountain landscape or an epic poem than a novel. Its characters include King Arthur, a Pelagian monk, a Roman matron, a Jewish doctor, the shape-shifting Myrddin Wyllt (otherwise known as Merlin), the bard Taliessin and a family of completely convincing aboriginal giants, who live on the slopes of Snowdon…. There is comedy, Miltonic sublimity, chaos and confusion in equal measure.” — ed.]

·Richard Ellmann:

Henri Michaux is well known in France, but his work, though it lends itself to translation and has been translated, has not achieved much noticed in English-speaking countries…. Michaux is, however, accessible and oddly funny. His quarrel with the world has exemplary force…. [He wrote] that series of extraordinary books which were collected under the title The Space Within. In them he attacked with fury or with savage humour the masters of the world and all they had congealed in him…. He is a brilliant writer.

·Isaiah Berlin:

Tinker’s Leave, by Maurice Baring. [A novel based on Baring’s experiences in Paris, Russia, and Manchuria at the time of the Russo-Japanese War. — ed.]

·Robert Lowell:

The military historian J. F. C. Fuller — as good in his way as Bertrand Russell. [Fuller is best known for his three-volume Military History of the Western World and his studies of the military leadership of Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Grant, but he also wrote on yoga, the black arts, and the Kabbalah. — ed.]

·Richard Cobb:

Let me begin with the underrated (and indeed, largely forgotten). In French, Henri Béraud’s La Gerbe d’Or, delightful and tender evocation of a Lyon childhood in Les Terreaux of the city, its rivers, its quays, and its montées, and its inhabitants and their language; René Lefevre’s two-volume Le Film de ma Vie, again tender, very funny, and marvellously optimistic; and third, the series of novels by Marc Bernard, set in Nimes [none yet translated into English — ed.]…. In English, Of Love and Hunger, by Julian Maclaren-Ross: a South Coast seaside town and middle-class impoverished gentility and teashops in the mid-1930s, observed from bus-top level. A very fine piece of social observation, humourous, compassionate, and never angry….

·Elie Kedourie:

H. J. Simson’s British Rule, and Rebellion, published in 1937 and now almost forgotten, is all that Seven Pillars of Wisdom is not. It is cool and judicious, crisp and ironical, sound and honest, still the best book perhaps ever written on mandatory Palestine and, read nowadays, uncannily prefigures the unfolding of recent events and policies in Ulster.

·J. R. Vincent:

sir Herbert Butterfield’s reflections on international power politics, particularly on the place of ideology therein, may be found at their best in one of his least-known books, Christianity, Diplomacy, and War (1953), as unfashionable as perhaps only an Epworth Press book can be…. This child’s guide to aggression presents hatred not as wrong but as naive; and by thus striking at a central function of the intelligentsia, ensures it will never be “in Penguin.”

·Philip Larkin:

The six novels of Barbara Pym published between 1950 and 1961 [Some Tame Gazelle (1950); Excellent Women (1952); Jane and Prudence (1953); Less than Angels (1955); A Glass of Blessings (1958); and No Fond Return Of Love (1961) — ed.] which give an unrivalled picture of a small section of middle-class post-war England. She has a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life. [Larkin and Lord David Cecil’s mention of Pym’s works not only led to their reissues, but also spurred Pym to submit new works to publishers, resulting in three more novels being published before her death in 1980. — ed.]

·Vladimir Nabokov:

The Passionate Friends by H. G. Wells is my most prized example of the unjustly ignored masterpiece. I must have been fourteen or fifteen when I went through its author’s fiction after some five winters of tacit access to my father’s library. Today at seventy-seven I clearly remember how affected I was by the style, the charm, the cream of the book, while not bothering about its “message” or “symbols” if any. (I have never reread it and now I see it as a coloured haze leaving only some final details — growing a little closer to me in time — still coming through.)

·William Empson:

I cam across a very good book about Stonehenge, translated from the French of a South American author, in a Bookerama in a side street of Newark, Delaware. I am not sure this book is not underrated, but it seems likely to be, and it certainly deserves recommending. It is very sober and well-informed, but independent in its views (The Mysteries of Stonehenge, by Fernand Niels, 1974).

·Liam Hudson:

For the most underrated in his own field, Norman O. Brown, a professor of classics who came to Freud somewhat late in the day and as a result wrote two remarkable books: Life Against Death and Love’s Body. He was elevated to the status of guru, and is taken accordingly to have been a shallow rhapsodist; but in fact was almost alone in writing as a psychologist and being fastidious in the use of words. While the rest of us fumble our sentences, Brown used his intimacy with languages much as a mathematician uses numbers: as a vehicle for discovery in its own right.

·John Betjeman:

We the Accused by Ernest Raymond is one of the best London novels and a masterpiece of suspense. A Family That Was is another powerful novel. [George Orwell wrote of We the Accused: “… a peculiarly sordid and convincing murder story, probably based on the Crippen case. I think it gains a great deal from the fact that the author only partly grasps the pathetic vulgarity of the people he is writing about, and therefore does not despise them. Perhaps it even — like Theodore Dreiser’s An American tragedy — gains something from the clumsy long-winded manner in which it is written; detail is piled on detail, with almost no attempt at selection, and in the process an effect of terrible, grinding cruelty is slowly built up.” — ed.]

·Pamela Hansford Johnson:

Benito Perez Galdos, known all over the Spanish-speaking world and in some parts of the United States; he is, despite a fine translation by Lester Clark, virtually unknown here. One the evidence of The Disinherited and Fortunata and Jacinta, worthy to stand in the first half dozen European writers of all time.
Also, James Hanley. Probably has had the most wonderful press of this century, but he is seldom mentioned when lists of contemporary writers of great merit are drawn up. He can be dull at times; but The Furys and The Hollow Sea show a vein of pure genius.

·Hugh Trevor-Roper:

Jack Yeats was a painter with the brush of a poet and the pen of an artist. Two hundred and fifty-one of his letters, mainly to his son and wife, were published (by Faber and Faber) in 1944, on wartime paper. His letters remind me of those of Keats, with their universal sentiments, their literary and aesthetic elements, and their sensitive observations on poets and ideas. This to me is a golden book. [The book is Letters of J. B. Yeats to His Son W. B. Yeats and Others, 1869-1922, reissued by Faber and Faber in 1999 with a preface by John McGahern — ed.]

·Mary Douglas:

Underrated: Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake. [Titus Groan is the first book in Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, about the first two years of life of the heir to a strange and ancient royal family that lives in a dark, gothic castle peopled by characters with names like Steerpike and Prunesquallor. — ed.]

·Donald MacRae:

The most underrated is the poet and sociologist Charles Madge. [Madge was one of the founders of the Mass Observation school of sociology, which relied on scores of grass-roots observers to record the social events and trends of mid-20th century England. — ed.]

·Daniel Bell:

Franz Borkenau…. His The Spanish Cockpit was a brilliant study of the Spanish Civil War, in which he invoked a combination of topographical and cultural factors to explain the social divisions in the society. Borkenau’s most interesting writings, however, were on culture: they appeared most often in the defunct Twentieth Century and have never been collected in book form.

·A. J. P. Taylor:

The most underrated book is the Authorised Version of the Bible, once the foundation of English prose, now never read in schools and rarely, I believe, in churches. If all knowledge of the AV is lost much of the classic English literature will be incomprehensible and English prose style is doomend. [Canongate Books made a memorable attempt to revive popular interest in the AV with its release in 2000 of the Pocket Canons series, which packaged individual books along with introductions by such well-recognized names as Doris Lessing, Will Self, and Nick Cave. — ed.]

·John Kenneth Galbraith:

Ring Lardner, who wrote brilliantly on the United States and was ignored because he was a former sports writer. I would also like to mention John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra which was as good as Fitzgerald.

·Anthony Burgess:

The most underrated British writer continues to be Ford Madox Ford, despite the Bodley Head’s keeping his major work alive (though Graham Greene’s truncation of Parade’s End is indefensible). The most underrated American is Conrad Aiken.

·Thomas Balogh:

Michal Kalecki — the economist who initiated New Economics before Keynes and is now only recognized by a few.

·P. T. Geach:

[John Milton Keynes’] Studies and Exercises in Formal Logic is as little read as his opponent’s; the result has been that on various topics his work has had to be done again, and moreover errors against which he could have provided a rememdy have been repeated. But I think we largely owe it to Keynes that verbose twaddle does not so easily pass for logic in our day as it did in his.

·M. I. Finley:

Franz Boas, the giant among the founders of modern anthropology, swept aside in this country by two successive waves of fashion, functionalism and structuralism, so that he is not merely underrated, he is unread.

·D. J. Enright:

·Rodney Needham:

How Natives Think, by Lucien Levy-Bruhl and Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rich Burroughs.

·Eugene Genovese:

As for underrated, the works of W. E. B. Dubois — probably the greatest American of our century — require international attention. His The Souls of Black Folk alone could educate world opinion on the depth and meaning of the Afro-American contribution to modern civilization. And at the other end of the ideological spectrum, Eric Voegelin’s Order and History presents a learned if irritating reading of our past.

·Joseph Needham:

Cycles of Taste and The History of Taste by Frank P. Chambers, who was Professor of Architecture at McGill. He argued that history was entirely divided into “dark ages,” when people were creative but life horrid, alternating with “decadent periods,” when life was much more comfortable but people could only criticize. The argument was specifically developed from art and architecture, but is, I think, applicable more widely to Europe, though not to China.

·Dan Jacobson:

H. G. Wells’ novel Tono-Bungay.

·Eric Hobsbawm:

Anatole France; Jean Giraudoux; Italo Calvino

·R. D. Laing:

Lev Shestov’s In Job’s Balances — one of the great books of the century.

·Lord David Cecil:

Barbara Pym, whose unpretentious, subtle, accomplished novels, especially Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings, are for me the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past seventy-five years.

·Karlheinz Stockhausen:

The Urantia Book published by the Urantia Foundation of Chicago.

·Erich Heller:

The year of Wilhelm Busch’s death — 1908 — permits me to say that his is the most underrated genius of the past seventy-five years. His reputation is that of a successfully funny rhymster and draftsman, author of children’s books. Yet, superior to most later cartoonists, he was the creator of the simplest, most telling, and most devastating caricatures of human beings.

·John Sparrow:

Forrest Reid, who wrote stories about boyhood in Belfast.