Findings - Autumn 2007

Findings: Amateurism

From the Spring 1976 issue of The Scholar

By William Haley | September 1, 2007


Amateurism as a fact must be older than civilization. The cave paintings at Lascaux and many earlier artifacts give every sign of having been made to satisfy some urge for individual expression rather than with any object of gain. Judged on this time scale, amateurism as a concept is very modern. “Amateurism is the curse of the nineteenth century” — the first use of the word known to the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary — is dated 1868. It was indeed a concept of that century. The word amateur in the sense of “one who cultivates anything for a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally,” came into being in 1803. Such a starting point for the discussion of an eminently serious subject is not pedantry. H. L. Mencken — who once told me that if he ever had the good fortune to be sentenced to life imprisonment, he would ask only that he should be allowed to have permanently in his cell the thirteen volumes of the large Oxford English Dictionary — rightly held that the history of words could sometimes be more revealing than the history of events.

If both the earnestness and the materialism of the nineteenth century sought to establish a distinction between activity for pleasure and activity for gain — and I believe that it was a growing awareness of professionalism that brought the hitherto little-noticed idea of amateurism to the fore — the demarcation line between them soon began to grow blurred. In some fields today it can no longer be established. In sports one admired Avery Brundage’s efforts to keep the Olympic Games simon-pure; elsewhere the attempt has been abandoned altogether. Golf and lawn tennis amateurs and professionals now compete with each other on equal terms. English cricket no longer has Gentlemen or Players.

In many fields such evolution, or the lack of it, may be of interest only to the social historian. It does not affect the well-being of society as a whole. In the arts, and particularly in the art of writing, the issue of amateurism and professionalism — which in effect has become the battle to preserve amateurism — is of the greatest possible importance. It is crucial because, while money may be the readiest indicator of the distinction between amateur and professional, it is by no means the sole, or even the paramount, criterion. Remy de Gourmont, writing on Renan in the first of his Promenades litteraires, noted that the artist who painted for pleasure, “to obey his genius,” would outlast the artist who painted for gain. He traced the reason back to the child’s love of play, which he saw as an exercise in disinterested intelligence. Those who preserved this “childishness” in later years were, he held, the true artists. “Genius almost always has in it a strong element of play” — in other words an overpowering love of what it is doing. The root of the word amateur is in the word love.

No one has illustrated this more fully than Ruskin, one of the greatest amateurs of the Victorian age. Stones, leaves, twigs, mountains, buildings, paintings — through the years he brought a pure and undiluted joy to the contemplation of them all. And when he shocked his contemporaries by moving in middle age to sociology and political economy, it was in the same unselfish spirit. “Every principle of painting which I have stated,” he wrote, “is traced to some vital or spiritual fact.” This was basically true of Ruskin in whatever sphere he wrote. The tragedy of his having passed his last decade in a state of second childhood does not lessen the force of his example as an amateur, or of the truths he had uttered. If any further proof is needed that amateurism is the irresistible play of the loving spirit wherever it listeth, it can be found in the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.

The effort at first to restrict, and eventually to obliterate, amateurism in writing has recently been seen in its crudest form in British journalism. The Labour government favors “closed shops” (firms and organizations in which every worker must belong to a trade union). Many industries are perforce ready to accept closed shops; British newspapers are not. Assurances by the National Union of Journalists that they have no such absolute restrictions in mind have been belied by the actions of their members. Some national newspapers have had to appear with blank spaces that should have been filled by reports or articles written by non-union members, some of them members of the rival Institute of Journalists. Had they not done this, the members of the National Union of Journalists would not have brought out the paper.

While the struggle has now become intense, the desire of professional journalists to exclude amateurs from contributing to the newspapers on which they work is of many years’ standing. It is only the coming to power of a Labour government, after the opposition of the British trade union movement that had made the continuance of a Conservative government in office impossible, and the incoming Labour cabinet’s awareness that it must placate the unions, that has brought matters to a head. Whatever the ultimate outcome — and that will depend as much on practice as on legislation, and may not be clear for some years — the freedom of British editors henceforth is not likely to e as complete as it has been for a century and a half. The demands of journalists to control their paper’s policy, to veto an editor’s appointment6s to his staff if they do not approve of them, and to run the editorial department by committee are growing not only in Britain, but also in France and elsewhere in Europe.

It must be admitted that some British editors have brought part of the trouble on themselves and their fellows. In crime, in sport, and in other spheres of popular interest, they have paid great sums of money to people of fame or notoriety for matter written by journalists on their own paper’s staff. “Ghosting” reached unacceptable dimensions many years ago. But this is no longer the issue. Now it is the right of editors to use qualified outsiders writing under their own names. Last spring the Times Literary Supplement printed on its front page a letter signed by more than sixty authors, declaring the proposed Act of British Minister of Labour Michael Foot, himself a distinguished writer and an ex-Fleet Street editor, to be “one of the most serious potential threats to the liberty of expression that has arisen in this country in modern times.” The gravity and weight of the protest can be measured by naming some of the letter’s signatories: Professor Alfred Jules Ayer, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Lord (Kenneth) Clark, Professor Roy Fuller, William Golding, Graham Hough, Arthur Koestler, Peter Medawar, Harold Pinter, J. H. Plumb, V. S. Pritchett, J. B. Priestley, Lord (Alfred) Robbins, Sir Steven Runciman, C. P. Snow, Christopher Sykes, Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, C. V. Wedgwood, Rebecca West, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, and Angus Wilson. In all my fifty years of broadcasting I cannot recall so impressive a protest. The Times Literary Supplement published a feeble reply by Mr. Foot, which was effectively scuppered by resolutions voted by the National Union of Journalists at its Cardiff conference. That the union’s leaders were aware of the inadvisability of this and sought to get the resolutions reversed could not hid the fact that the restrictive urge was still there.

All this may seem to be of interest only on the European side of the Atlantic. But history shows that international influence rarely stays entirely unilateral. American ideas, American values, and some aspects of the American way of life have penetrated nations in both hemispheres. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here is not an outdated warning. Some unexpected things have happened in the United States since he wrote that fiction. And if it can be said that none has been on the horrific scale he portrayed, or even on the level of the apprehensions we now have in Europe, it is relevant to remember the sudden mass arrests of the Opposition members to Mrs. Gandhi’s government and the temporary complete censorship that blackened democracy in India this past summer. Who would have expected that?

Whether or not American readers think these fears illusory, the question of the roles of the amateur and the professional in literature and its purlieus does have relevance for writers in all the so-called free countries. It has many other aspects. Geoffrey Grigson has raised one of them. Writing to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Grigson said that, while he had signed the protest without too much misgiving, he was concerned that “another class of persons is already driving writers by gift and profession out of a realm of comment over which they used to preside and over which they have a claim to preside.” He was referring to academics. He pointed out that the reviewers in the issue containing the protest included at least sixteen dons. He saw the same tendency in the review pages of the daily and Sunday newspapers and in the “literary” output of the BBC.

So far as the BBC is concerned, I think I must take some of what Mr. Grigson would call the blame, and what I still consider the credit. When we created the Third Programme of the BBC in 1946, we had a number of related objects in mind. The first was that the BBC’s postwar radio system should have three Programmes (networks) — Light, Home, and Third, at differing levels of popularity, between them covering the whole spectrum of information, education, entertainment, and the arts. It was also the intention that there should be some plan to lead listeners upward through the Programmes — the Light, say, playing the Rosenkavalier waltzes, the Home some days later broadcasting an act from the opera and the Third eventually giving the complete work. I must confess this did not work out as well as I had hoped.

The Third Programme was the key to the whole idea. It created a new set of essentials. Paramount was the need to free at least one strand of British broadcasting from the tyranny of time. Up to then program making had largely been a carpenter’s job: finding material of specified lengths to fit into a daily time pattern and around fixed points. To do this, even the greatest masterpieces of literature, and sometimes of music, had to suffer on the program planners’ Procrustean beds. So that this should not happen in the Third Programme, I decided that it should have no fixed points. The governors of the BBC pleaded for at least one news bulletin in the program at a regular time. I withstood this, and persuaded them that the series of news bulletins in the BBC’s two other transmission systems would be fully adequate. The compilers of the Third Programme were given a completely clean slate every day, and for an unlimited succession of days. If they wanted four consecutive evenings to broadcast The Ring, or five for Back to Methuselah, they could have them. Some remarkable programs were broadcast as a result, a mammoth series on The Ideas and Beliefs of the Victorians and a history of European music among them.

In return for this freedom, those in charge of the Third Programme had to accept two responsibilities. One was to give every work they broadcast the full length of tie its creator had conceived for it. The other was to ensure that every broadcast was the best that could be arranged. Anything threatening to be second-rate must wait until the resources (human and material) were available to make it first-rate. It was on this basis that for six years the Third Programme created a new dimension in radio, not only in Britain but throughout the world.

My second objective could be achieved only with this prerequisite. One of the things that had struck me most forcibly when I became the first editor-in-chief, and then director-general, of the BBC was that, except for its news bulletins, no substantial proportion of the audiences for its other programs had been drawn from the classes that formed the readership of the Manchester Guardian and The Times. This was markedly true in the academic world. Oxford and Cambridge showed a general ignorance of, and a lack of interest in, the BBC’s output as a whole. As the BBC then had a monopoly, that meant in broadcasting as a whole. It seemed to me that if the cultural range of the Third Programme was right, if its quality was high, and if the little-known but the worth-knowing, both in subjects for the spoken word and in music, could offer an alternative to the hackneyed, then the universities could listen and contribute as well.

Of course dons had broadcast in the days of Lord Reith (Lowes Dickinson had been notable among them). But their contributions had been few and spasmodic. Nothing on this scale and as a deliberate act of policy had been attempted before. The plan succeeded more quickly and far more widely than we had hoped. Its effect spilled over into the periodicals and the newspapers. Faced after the war with the threatened competition of television and radio, which they greatly overrated, the only defense the publishers of these journals seemed to be able to think of was to use those broadcasters whose names had become household words. Book publishers followed suit. Academics had written for them before, but now the scale was different. The rewards open to these newcomers were many times those available in the past. Many amateurs became professionals. They remain so, to Mr. Grigson’s chagrin.

Their experience had, moreover, given them an advantage over their predecessors: it had made them more lucid than they would otherwise have been. Producers of BBC talks strive for lucidity far more assiduously than newspapers or publishers’ sub-editors do. They work with prospective speakers on the same broadcast again and again. The speakers become more aware that they are no longer communicating to a specialist or selected audience but to the public at large. It is true that oversimplification sometimes results, but more often the gain in comprehension is made without loss. Academic and other amateurs became popular writers as well as broadcasters. When Robert Oppenheimer gave the Reith Lectures on the BBC Home network (more popular than the Third Programme) in 1953, the first five broadcasts of the series, which he had written in the United States before arriving in London on the eve of the transmissions, were well-night incomprehensible to the majority of listeners. Only the final lecture, which he agreed to let the BBC work on with him, made any general impact. He admitted that he had not realized such alchemy was possible.

If amateurs-turned-professionals can bring such advantages, it may be asked why must we be solicitous to save the permanent amateur from extinction? Is it in the public’s interest? Is it in his own? Did not Dr. Johnson assert, “None but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”? Johnson is the richest cornucopia of common sense in the English language, but, as both Hawkins and Walpole have told us, he was in this instance speaking of himself.

Sir Walter Scott started as an amateur. It was a pity he could not have stayed one. The greater his compulsion to write for money became, the greater grew the deterioration of his work, until both life and work ended in tragedy. Was Trollope ever an amateur? Certainly not. Although he was throughout his life a highly regarded civil servant, his novels were as professionally organized and written as if they had been his sole means of subsistence. He kept his author’s accounts most carefully. He was merely a two-job man.

On the other hand, Sir Henry Taylor, an even more distinguished civil servant who was contemporary with Trollope, set out to be a professional — “a literary adventurer” — he termed it — and soon became an amateur. Neither his masterpiece, The Statesman, nor, famous as it was in his day, his failure, Philip van Artevelde, was anything but a mental vacation from a highly successful public career. His London Magazine and Quarterly essays soon fell away. The time came when he shunned London society because it was too literary. In all this, he showed the same sound judgment as he showed in his public life.

Was Disraeli an amateur? The answer must surely be yes. Not all the twelve handsome columns of the Bradenham edition of his novels can persuade us that he was ever a professional. Some of them are far better than many professional novelists have been able to write. Some were, it is true, written for money. The negotiations that obtained him £10,000 for Endymion — still worth every penny of that Victorian sterling values — are famous. But they were the works of a genius who put his mind to creating them only when he did not have what he considered greater and better things to do. History has agreed with him. One can be reasonably sure that if he had been merely a professional writer he would never have written his three masterpieces. Coningsby, Sybil, and Endymion could not have been conjured from an author’s brain; they had first to be lived. Disraeli showed a sense of history also in making his farewell with Endymion rather than with any memoirs. A professional in his position would not have shown the same restraint.

It may be easy to decide that Disraeli must be placed on the amateur side of the dividing line. It is not so easy to give an exact definition of the line so that the status of every writer can be settled. Sir Thomas Browne was clearly an amateur. So was Dr. John Brown. He was a practicing medical man all his life. (It is regrettable that come collections of Horae subsecivae leave out the medical essays; they are among the most entertaining.) His writings came as the spirit moved him. Vathek’s Beckford was an amateur. What were the Brontës? Charlotte can be deemed to have become a professional; Anne and Emily, never. Yet, as C. P. Sanger showed in his fascinating pamphlet, The Structure of Wuthering Heights, no novel of Jane Austen’s was more meticulously constructed to an actual calendar. Only two indications of date are given in the whole of Emily’s Chinese puzzle of a novel, but every incident in it can be rearranged and chronologically placed, down to a change in the English game laws. Still, this does not make Emily a professional. It merely demonstrates that even a volcanic eruption can have a pattern.

Samuel Butler (Erewhon, not Hudibras) brings the problem on to new ground. Even if one were to grant that he was a professional writer — which I am not prepared to do — he outraged the professionals by at least one amateur effort. Readers of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Adventures in criticism may recall the surprisingly severe opening to his essay “Who Wrote the Odyssey?” (for Q was usually a most mil-mannered and urbane man).

It may sound overweening, but I do not see how any man of ordinary common-sense can think of Samuel Butler without pity and impatience — pity that so rare a man should throughout his life have missed his market — pity again for the suffering his mistakes must have inflicted, and confessedly did inflict, upon a spirit so egotistical — impatience as one sees him inviting his punishment time after time by his ingrained habits of touchiness and offensiveness.

One goes back to Matthew Arnold’s “A Word About Spinoza” to find an opening more damning.

What was Butler’s offense? He had written a book, The Authoress of the Odyssey, and had translated Homer to prove that the Odyssey had been composed by a woman. And the book had gone into a second edition! Butler’s offense was not in holding so heretical a view or even, in Quiller-Couch’s words, in making “not a plain translation at all, but a diabolically clever one, elastically worked to suit a theory.” The uproar was caused by his effrontery in daring to challenge the academics to a stand-up fight in their own exclusive domain. In this case Butler was admittedly an amateur. So was Goethe, with his complicated theory of colors. So was Mill when he wrote on Coleridge. In these and many other cases, the incursion of the amateur into the field of the professional was beneficial. Q himself relented toward the end of the attack, and found some attraction to Butler’s theory about Trapani. Stagnant waters had been stirred. The furor was gain.

One of the most remarkable cases of a writer invading alien territory was that of Morley Roberts. Now that George Hissing is enjoying a revival, Roberts may also be resurrected. He was the most understanding of Gissing’s friends; his book The Private Life of Henry Maitland is still the best portrayal of Gissing we have. Roberts’ Western Avernusm the story of his American experiences as a sheepherder in Texas, a navy in Minnesota, and a farm worker in California, is important in giving his background. He returned to England penniless. He wrote a score of novels, essays, and plays, all now forgotten. The death of his daughter and then of his wife set this strange, poverty-stricken, literary man-of-all-work brooding on medical matters. Storm Jackson, in her monograph “Morley Roberts: The Last Eminent Victorian,” has told the subsequent miracle: “It was after his wife died that, to distract himself, he began the work, on the nature and cause of cancer, which more and more engrossed him, and drew from him three of his most remarkable books.” If there could be any strictly forbidden territory for the amateur, it would surely be cancer. Had Roberts been a popular writer, and had his conclusions been wild, he could have done great harm. This was territory upon which Keep Out signs seemed not only permissible but obligatory. Roberts persisted. In 1934 five of the greatest medical authorities in Britain — the Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge University, the Professor of Morbid Anatomy in the University of London, the senior Surgeon of the Middlesex Hospital, and Sir Arthur Keith, an ex-president of the British Association for the Advancement of Learning — wrote a long letter to The Times drawing attention to a new edition of Roberts’s book, Malignancy and Evolution, and stressing the importance of his work from a practical point of view. Never can an amateur — in a world completely unknown to his upbringing and experience — have been more authoritatively justified.

In case it is claimed that one is guilty of special pleading, and arguing from exceptional cases, I must add that during my editorship of The Times we devoted a column each day to contributors who mostly had never written before. The supply was copious. Much of the quality was high. These amateur writing became one of the most appreciated features in the paper. Some of the writers had books published subsequently. I would not claim that any of these added to the sum of human knowledge, but if they did no more than give pleasure they helped to validate the principle.

In the last analysis, it is necessary to consider the survival of amateurism as a general principle. In these difficult times it is even more necessary first to relate any principle to modern conditions. The case for the amateur has to be restated because amateurism is in greater hazard than ever before. This is an age not only of specialization but also of standardization. John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters is both a fascinating and a melancholy book. The slippered days of authordom are gone. The adventurous days of amateurism are gone. Rising costs are making the author’s calling more and more regimented. The pressures on writers, printers, and publishers to reduce costs to a minimum and to avoid any possible risk of failure lead the professionals into economical and safe ways. Book prices are now so high that many new publications are beyond the purse of the ordinary reader; it is left to the universities and other libraries and institutions to buy them. Such buyers are rarely in the market for amateurism or experiment. They too play safe. Specialists are attracted to specialists. In each field of publishing, and particularly in scholarly fields, there is an undeclared but generally recognized imprimatur. License beyond this license is frowned upon. Courage, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness, is necessary if completely new ground is to be broken. Occasionally it may come from the rebel professional and be successful. It will come more often valuably from the amateur. In their own fields only geniuses among the professionals are completely exempt from logical progression. The world at large is more ready to allow the amateur his brilliant wild guesses — and leave it to the professionals to refute them if they can.

When the professional moves out to territory not his own, his hazards are even greater. The human ego has a subconscious resistance to professional polymaths. The greater the authority a professional has in one field, the less ready we are to surrender to him in others. Why is he on this new ground? Is he seeking to restore a fading reputation? Is he trying to make a new one? All publicity corrupts; television publicity corrupts absolutely: is he just trying to keep in the public eye? The amateur faces far fewer obstacles. He has nothing official at stake — no position to lose, no authority to maintain. His pretensions are more acceptable because they are less pretentious. We are ready to judge with a far more open mind the merits of what he has to say.

The same pressures are exerted at more popular levels. Authors tend more and more to become typed according to the kinds of books they write. Any breakaway that is a failure is a drain on small profit margins, if not an addition to losses. After a study of the authors in the next season’s publishing lists, the predictability of what is to come is high. Since the professionals will stick to their lasts, new ground is more likely to be broken by the amateurs. Sometimes they and their publishers are rewarded by having that ground prove fertile: a number of best sellers in the past decade have been off the beaten track.

If such virtue can bring such rewards, why worry? Unfortunately, it is almost an axiom of publishing today that the higher the public benefit pursued, the greater is the hostage given to fortune. Scholarly journals, presses devoted to learning, serious publishing of all kinds cannot light-heartedly afford such risks. To the intellectual arrogance of the specialists who would keep interlopers out is added the financial attraction of safety. There is a duty to resist both conscientiously. Mankind has benefited immeasurably from the cross-fertilization of ideas. It is from amateurs, and these include specialists straying out of their own domain, that cross-fertilization comes.

Cross-fertilization is a desirable end. It cannot adequately be established as a principle. To find that, one can do no better than to fortify and extend John Stuart Mill’s classic insistence on the right of the one man who is at odds with the rest of mankind. Mill feared his lone dissenter’s being silenced by the tyranny of the political majority. That fear will never become groundless, but even if its abolition were possible, that would not free everybody. Politics and affairs and even religion are not the sum of life. There are cultural, scientific, ethical, artistic, imaginative, creative minorities of one. The world of writing and publishing, whether consciously or subconsciously, whether because of custom, taboos, self-interest, or for any other reason, has no right to deny them expression. The potential fullness of life if limited if they are denied expression.

They are bound to be amateurs to start with. If their hearts remain pure, they will stay that way. They are the leaven that the dull dough of society will always need. “In a civilized state,” Gibbon wrote, “every faculty of man is expanded and exercised; and the great chain pf mutual dependence connects and embraces the several members of society.” The vital, renewing links in that chain will always be the amateurs.”

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To read Richard E. Nicholls’ thoughts on this essay, click here.
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