Guy Ortolano. The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xi + 295 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-89204-9.
Reviewed by Peter Mandler
Published on H-Albion (January, 2010)
Commissioned by Thomas Hajkowski
The Two Cultures
The controversy between C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis over the “two cultures” was not just another round in the eternal ding-dong between the claims of science and the claims of literature. What gave it its resonance--some of which it still just about retains in the early twenty-first century--was, as Guy Ortolano shows in this subtle and illuminating book, its rough congruence with key disagreements within English liberalism at a very crucial moment for liberalism in the late 1950s and early 1960s (that is, just “before the deluge” of the later 1960s and afterward which greatly polarized society and politics). Ortolano starts by pointing out some surprising similarities between Leavis and Snow. Both were upwardly mobile from provincial lower middle-class backgrounds, Leavis the son of a Cambridge shopkeeper, Snow the son of a Leicester clerk. Both were fierce critics of the old British Establishment and equally fierce defenders of meritocracy. Both mistrusted equality and sought to generate an intellectual elite in their own image. But they differed radically on their diagnoses of contemporary civilization, and on what kind of elite was needed. Snow was essentially an optimist, a champion of the forces of modernization--scientific, technical, economic--that he saw transforming and improving not only his own society but also those of others around the world. Leavis was a deep-dyed pessimist, a mordant observer of a moral and cultural decline that he thought had set in as far back as the seventeenth century, and had then been radically aggravated by the Industrial Revolution. To him, “modern civilization” was practically a contradiction in terms, and his intellectual elite could probably never be other than a saving remnant, tending the guttering flame of true civilization that still shone in great books and exemplary lives.
Ortolano sketches these two worldviews--perhaps a little too ingeniously, by focusing on Snow’s novels and Leavis’s attitudes to science--and then shows in the four core chapters of the book how their conflict highlights changing sensibilities at the dawn of the 1960s. In the years while the university world was “waiting for Robbins”--that is, just before the explicit governmental embrace of a rapid expansion of higher education--both Snow and Leavis cultivated nurseries at Cambridge (Snow at the new foundation, Churchill College, Leavis from his personal base at Downing College), not only to breed the new elites they thought necessary either to advance or to stymie modernization but also to help them to enunciate the very meaning of a university. Both the Churchill and the Downing English experiments were drowned or at least diluted by the Robbins deluge that followed. Intellectually, both Snow and Leavis adumbrated a particular interpretation of English social history: Snow’s a “scientific” variety, exemplified by Peter Laslett and the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, though he valued this work instrumentally to the extent that it supported his own triumphalist account of social progress; Leavis’s a romantic-critical variety, which to his disappointment would in the 1960s be taken up principally by Marxists who otherwise proved unpleasant bedfellows. Most importantly, both Snow and Leavis addressed directly one of the most heated arguments of the late 1950s and early 1960s, over the nature and sources of English economic “decline.” Unsurprisingly, Snow was one of the principal promoters in Britain of the modernization program of Kennedy liberals like W. W. Rostow, whose influential “non-Communist manifesto,” The Stages of Economic Growth (1960), took Britain’s Industrial Revolution as a model and proposed to broadcast it throughout the world. Snow had no difficulty fitting this up for domestic consumption, attempting to reignite the engines of British industrialization with doses of state action--investment in new technologies and, again, new scientific elites--in the brief heyday of Harold Wilson’s “white heat,” though also following Rostow in recommending industrialization to the developing world, in his view a “modern” alternative to the agrarianism and paternalism of the old imperial ethos. Leavis, of course, was not much bothered by economic decline--he thought “modernization” the problem rather than the solution--and intriguingly contributed something of the New Left’s cultural relativism (and perhaps even some of its environmentalism) by scorning the idea that the lives of Congolese or Indonesians would be in any way ameliorated by “increasing supplies of jam” (p. 211).
The payoff comes in the final chapter when Ortolano shows how in their different ways both Leavis and Snow were devastated by the rise of egalitarianism and relativism in the 1960s. Their educational experiments were both out of step with the Robbins generation, though both left their marks. Snow’s political career capsized when he failed to be able to explain why he had to send his own son to Eton. Both of these rugged individualists were soured by what they took to be the indiscipline and frivolity of youth. Their trajectories towards the end of their lives are highly revealing. Though Ortolano does not make much of this, the rapid polarization of the socialist and the liberal elements in the Labour coalition during the 1970s highlights how tenuous had been their coexistence pact. Had he lived long enough, Snow would surely have left with the SDP split and probably ended up amongst the American neoconservatives to whom, as Ortolano neatly reveals, he had long been close. Snow, at least, had a liberal mainstream to return to; Leavis was left high and dry. The odd parallelisms that organize Ortolano’s book break down here because Leavis’s thought was simply too idiosyncratic to flow neatly into one of the main currents of social and political thought. As Ortolano can and does argue, many of Leavis’s romantic-critical motifs fed into the New Left--his influence on Richard Hoggart, E. P. Thompson, Stuart Hall, and especially Raymond Williams is given due attention here--but not in ways that Leavis would have recognized as Leavisite. It would perhaps have been better to uncomplicate the argument and admit that Leavis was most himself not when social or political but when literary. That is to say, the “two cultures controversy” was not only about "science and literature," but also about science and about literature, and Ortolano’s argument would have been less neat but more complete had he allotted more space to Leavis’s specifically literary self-positioning.
Yet even this cul-de-sac indicates one of the signal virtues of this book, which is that it captures a pregnant moment in the history of ideas--around 1960--in all its momentariness. In some respects that moment accelerates trends, in others it mashes and recombines them, in still others it confronts them with unhappy endings. History is messy like that. Ortolano’s book conveys that moment of agonized contingency beautifully, making sense enough out of it that the non-specialist can connect his particular material to some of the big stories of postwar British history--democratization, modernization, decolonization, and “decline”--while generally resisting the temptation to make more sense than the material will bear. This is an exceptionally thoughtful, and thought-provoking, work from which (truly) every modern British historian will learn something fresh and useful.
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Peter Mandler. Review of Ortolano, Guy, The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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