Wordsworth and Coleridge: literary frenemies

Literary fight clubs

We may not like to admit it, but literary fights and feuds are much more entertaining than friendships
November 13, 2014
Literary Rivals by Richard Bradford (Robson Press, £14.99)

When I first began to study literary history at university, I was struck by the friendship between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. How was it that so many great British writers met their literary doubles and nemeses early in their careers? Which came first, the chicken of genius or the egg of empathy? Were Wordsworth and Coleridge magnetically drawn together because they were both great poets, or did they become great poets because they were drawn together? And why were these writers always male?

Richard Bradford begins his musings on literary rivalry with the friendship of Wordsworth and Coleridge. When they met in 1795, they were mutually enamoured as poets and radicals. “Wordsworth is a very great man,” wrote Coleridge, “the only man to whom at all times and in all modes of excellence I feel myself inferior.” Wordsworth found the mystical, adventurous, experimental Coleridge “the most wonderful man I ever knew.” Within six weeks, Coleridge had moved to Grasmere to be close to his new friend. While Wordsworth was inspired by Coleridge’s fireworks, Coleridge was steadied by his friend’s disciplined ambition. Their historic collaboration on the Lyrical Ballads (1798) kicked off the Romantic movement.

But the very qualities that attracted them to each other soon began to drive them apart. By 1809, Wordsworth was fed up with Coleridge’s procrastination, dithering and addictions, confiding to a mutual friend that “neither his talents or his genius mighty as they are, nor his vast information will avail him anything: they are all frustrated by a derangement of intellectual and moral constitution.” They never had an open confrontation, but met less and less, although it took another 20 years for Coleridge to admit his disillusionment with Wordsworth’s growing conservatism and dull domesticity. “I was repelled by the infinite number of dissonances which his way of thinking, feeling and arguing created with my own,” Coleridge wrote. “Recently all the shortcomings, each marked him in his early manic manly years, have increased considerably; the grand flourishings of his philosophic and poetic genius, have withered and dried.”

Wordsworth and Coleridge are Bradford’s template for all the subsequent literary friendships that curdled and withered into animosity. He re-tells some familiar stories of authorial infighting—Vladimir Nabokov versus Edmund Wilson, Samuel Richardson versus Henry Fielding, William Thackeray versus Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway versus Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas and Sherwood Anderson, and Salman Rushdie versus Islam. Bradford also includes some more discursive essays on the “deep-rooted, and often distasteful, features of the literary world,” with an emphasis on the relationship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, about whom he has written three books. He intersperses bold-face pages of vicious quotations from masters of the art of insult—enticingly entitled “US Bile,” “Lady Chatterley’s Haters” and “Bitchy”—which “disclose the often hateful spirit that has spawned some of the most fascinating and notorious bouts of literary loathing.”

One delightfully bitchy story he recounts is the battle between Bevis Hillier and AN Wilson in the 1980s. Wilson had published a devastating review of Hillier’s authorised biography of John Betjeman, calling it “a hopeless mishmash.” When Wilson announced his own biography of Betjeman, he received a letter from a mysterious French woman including the copy of an unpublished letter from Betjeman to Honor Tracy, describing their affair. Wilson could not resist including it in his book, and when the biography came out Hillier gleefully revealed that the letter was an acrostic, spelling out “AN Wilson is a shit.” It’s petty but perfect revenge, and perhaps this is what Bradford means when he says that British literary rivalry “serves an inherent appetite among its customers for, at its most popular, double entendres and innuendo.”

It’s clear that Bradford relishes the literary loathing and distasteful scandals he claims to despise—and why not? What’s the use of criticism that doesn’t cut? Feuds are more entertaining than friendships.

Bradford acknowledges Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence, but he is unconcerned with the psychological complexities of rivalry. He doesn’t consider the patterns of the bonds and break-ups he reprises, although he constantly finds parallels between the rivalries of different generations of writers, and so do the writers themselves. Among the repeating patterns in his book, though, are the fraternal literary twins who eventually turn on each other; the writers who complement and complete each other until one must break away; and the novelists who compete ferociously in the marketplace of fiction and ideas, but then join up to form a profitable team of rivals.

Bradford does, however, see a difference between British and American literary rivalries: the Americans compete to write the Great American Novel and aggressively take on the talent in the room, while the British hide their ambitions under satire and conceal their jealousy beneath humour. It was the American critic Dale Peck’s collection of slashing book reviews, Hatchet Jobs (2004), that brought killer criticism to public attention eight years before a prize was started in Britain for the “Hatchet Job of the Year,” announced at a fashionable London bash. Bradford thinks that “autobiographical novels in which… confession makes the truth seem less nasty are commonplace in American fiction, with Philip Roth being the most celebrated practitioner.” Roth certainly does take on Saul Bellow as Felix Abravenel and Bernard Malamud as EI Lonoff in his 1979 novel The Ghost Writer. But in life, Roth is among the most genial and funny of competitors, responding to John Updike’s comic “Rabbit” novels about the imaginary Jewish writer Henry Bech with the suggestion that he could do his own version—“Rabbi, Run.”

While Bradford mentions the quarrel between Paul Theroux and VS Naipaul, he omits a number of the most heavily publicised recent feuds between living writers. He notably leaves out Martin Amis’s break with Julian Barnes, unpicked in interviews, memoirs and biographies, including a recent one by Bradford himself. He also ignores the rivalry David Lodge felt with Colm Tóibín, when they published novels about Henry James a few months apart in 2005. For Lodge, the contretemps ironically mirrored the subject matter of his novel Author, Author—the competition between James and his close friend George Du Maurier. “Like James,” he wrote in the memoir The Year of Henry James (2006), “I must suffer the pangs of professional envy and jealousy while struggling to conceal them.”

On the other hand, confessing professional antagonism can be a form of self-promotion. In the United States there have been some notable cases of political enemies—the academic Stanley Fish and Dinesh D’Souza, the right-wing pundit, for example—joining up for profitable lecture-debate tours a decade ago. No slouch in advertisements for himself, Fish now gives D’Souza the credit for thinking up the tours. “He was always coming to me and my wife, saying, ‘Why don’t we get together to do a series of talks and lectures on cruise ships?’” Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer also cashed in on their rivalry, coming close to a public fist-fight on more than one occasion.

Above all, Bradford doesn’t notice that his literary feuds seem to be “fight clubs,” forms of competitive male bonding. His only example of feuding women writers is the well-known legal case of Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. On the Dick Cavett show in 1980, McCarthy described Hellman as “tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and a dishonest writer.” Asked to specify, she said “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” Hellman brought a libel suit for $250,000 and only her death four years later saw an end to their bitter contention.

If Bradford knew more about women writers, he could cite many more precedents. Elizabeth Robins was among the 19th-century British novelists who took shots at the (to them) infuriating eminence of George Eliot. In her pseudonymous novel George Mandeville’s Husband (1894), Robins called Eliot “abnormal,” to be “pitied than blazoned abroad as example and excuse.” But Robins also ruefully admitted that “to sit down daily to the task of being George Eliot, and to rise up the ‘average lady novelist’ to the end must... be a soul-tragedy of no mean proportion.” American women writers could be covertly treacherous to their closest friends. Katherine Anne Porter denounced Josephine Herbst as a communist informant to the FBI. And Elizabeth Hardwick wrote a nasty pseudonymous parody of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group in the New York Review of Books, while congratulating her in a personal letter on a “tremendous accomplishment.”

Women writers’ doubles and rivals have often been their actual sisters. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Amy takes revenge against Jo’s older-sister superiority by burning the only copy of her book-in-progress, a collection of fairy tales Jo had laboured on for years. Jo retaliates by letting Amy skate on thin ice and nearly drown. The champion of feminist sisterhood, poet Adrienne Rich, never spoke of her younger sister Cynthia, who also went to Radcliffe, graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, published a prize-winning story called “My Sister’s Marriage” in Mademoiselle in her junior year, and eventually left her marriage to become a lesbian activist. And of course there is the celebrated feud between AS Byatt and her sister Margaret Drabble.

The most effective recent literary feud in the US was the 2010 attack launched by best-selling commercial novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jody Picoult against the gendered double standards of reviewing. They singled out the celebration of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom by the New York Times and Time magazine, while women’s fiction treating similar themes was disdained as “chick lit.” As Weiner explained, “it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book—in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.” Picoult pointed out the unfairness of giving so much space to a male writer when review space was shrinking, and none at all to popular women writers. “There are a lot of readers who would like to see reviews that belong in the range of commercial fiction rather than [the New York Times] making the blanket assumption that all commercial fiction is unworthy.” The squabble, which became known as the “Franzenfreude” affair, received enormous media coverage. There was a lot of criticism of Weiner’s self-promotion and “whining,” but her intervention had a big impact, not least of all on the New York Times Book Review, which, under a new woman editor, has expanded its range, and has reviewed or interviewed both Weiner and Picoult.

Nevertheless, writers today are less likely to engage in open antagonism because the political risks are too great. Between trolls on Twitter, libel law and the pressures of political correctness, writers no longer dare to insult their rivals in the hyperbolically abusive terms that Mailer and Vidal favoured. Richard Bradford might see this as a loss to letters. It’s certainly a demystification of the cult of the warrior artist. But in the absence of slashing rivalries in the present, there’s a vacancy for a compendium of the most entertaining feuds of the past. And Bradford has stepped up to fill it.