William Empson: Volume I: Among the Mandarins

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William Empson (1906-1984) was the foremost English literary critic of the twentieth century. He was a man of huge energy and curiosity, and a genuine eccentric who remained imperturbable in the face of all the extraordinary circumstances in which he found himself. The discovery of contraceptives in his possession by a bedmaker at Cambridge University led to his being robbed of a promised Fellowship. Yet Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), drafted while he was still an undergraduate, promptly brought him world-wide fame.

Empson invented modern literary criticism in English. He acted too as a cultural fifth-columnist, challenging received doctrine in life and literature. "It is a very good thing for a poet...to be saying something which is considered very shocking at the time," he maintained. "To become morally independent of one's formative society...is the grandest theme of all literature, because it is the only means of moral progress."

His public life took him through many of the major political events of the modern world—the rise of imperialism in Japan, the Sino-Japanese war in China, wartime propaganda for the BBC, and the Chinese civil war and Communist takeover of Peking in 1949. His friends and critical sparring partners included I. A. Richards, Kathleen Raine, J. B. S. Haldane, Humphrey Jennings, George Orwell, Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender, Helen Gardner, and T. S. Eliot.

"It is of great importance now that writers should try to keep a certain world-mindedness," he insisted. "Without the literatures you cannot have a sense of history, and history is like the balancing-pole of the tightrope-walker...; and nowadays we very much need the longer balancing-pole of not national but world history." His passionate world-mindedness, and his humanism, combativeness, and wit, are fully in evidence in this, the first of two volumes exploring his remarkable life and work.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"John Haffenden's labors have been on a heroic scale, even by the standards of devoted biographers. These volumes are exceptionally perceptive and illuminating about Empson's writing and thinkingThis remarkable biography now enables us to reconstruct the core experience of being Empson."-Stefan Collini, The Nation

"John Haffenden's biography of the greatest English literary critic of the 20th century provides the capstone to more than two decades of steady, patient labor. It follows upon several volumes in which this industrious scholar not only gathered Empson's uncollected writings (e.g., essays in Argufying , imaginative work in The Royal Beasts ) but also brought out a sumptuously annotated edition of his complete poems. All serious students of literature must feel themselves in Haffenden's debt.... The writing is clear, the documentation impeccable and the knowledge of Empsoniana beyond question.... [A] comprehensive, irreplaceable biography."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

"John Haffenden's superb 'William Empson: Among the Mandarins,' the first of a two-volume biography of Britain's most brilliant and influential literary critic, captures the multiple angles of an unusually complex man.... Empson's development into one of the most charismatic poets of the 1930s is a subject about which Haffenden writes with immense shrewdness and warmth.... A work of scholarship and passion, Haffenden's 'Among the Mandarins' is a fine book that should restore Empson to the pedestal from which he had begun to slide. It will, above all, bring readers back to one of our most invigorating and rewarding poets and critics."—Miranda Seymour, Los Angeles Times

"Another great English pioneer was the literary critic William Empson, the subject of a magnificent biography this year by John Haffenden.... This grippingly readable volume charts Empson's rake's progress from Yorkshire squirearchy to bohemian Fitzrovia to dedicated teacher in China and Japan."—Terry Eagleton, New Statesman (Books of the Year)

"[Haffenden's] majestic biography...must be counted, so far, as one of the finest biographies of an English literary figure.... Haffenden is an exceptionally scholarly and diligent guide; the book rests on prodigious feats of labour.... Haffenden's marvellous book is full of shrewd readings, suggestive details, and comic facts.... The second volume of this fine work, which will continue Empson's life from 1940 to 1984, now has a formidable elder sibling to emulate."—James Wood, The Guardian

"The first installment of the biography is spirited and humane, with a fine sense of both Empson's personal quirks and the social settings within which he lived and worked.... [Haffenden's] portrait so far is notable for its sympathy and scholarly assiduity."—John Gross, New York Review of Books

"[A] magnificent and surprisingly gripping book, intelligently written, with a background of thorough research, well-illustrated and well-indexed."—The Sunday Telegraph

"A wonderful book... Haffenden's research is exhilaratingly deep and wide, his feeling for both the work and the man is warm but always judicious, and his prose is a model of elegant, grown-up clarity, seasoned with quiet and civil wit."—The Sunday Times [London]

"Haffenden is the most genial of scholarly chroniclers, adopting a leisurely and discursive pace and tone that are appropriately Empsonian in warmth and wit, as well as suggestive explications de texte. This is a very long and detailed book, in the door-stopper category but never for a minute dull."—The Spectator

"[Haffenden's] book justifies its length by supplying a mass of relevant detail on the life of a man who would be extraordinary even if one left out of account his achievements as poet and critic.... In the years covered by this volume Empson did an enormous amount of dignified and sometimes eccentric thinking, and it is a virtue of the book that it gives us a clear view of it.... Haffenden excels himself in his account of these years [at National Peking University]."—Frank Kermode, London Review of Books

"Exceedingly well-informed, full of excellent and well-told anecdotes and very helpful when it comes to major developments in Empson's intellectual life."—P. N. Furbank, Threepenny Review

"Because Haffenden has, above all, so successfully let his subject speak out for himself, his book is a necessary companion to his wonderful editions of Empson's remarkable poems and prose. Among the Mandarins will sustain anyone's curiosity about Empson and make anyone curious eager for his second volume."—Adam Phillips, The Observer

"Thank goodness that the poet and critic William Empson at last has a proper critical biography.... Haffenden's mighty labour is constantly warmed by something that comes through his prose: affection for his subject."—The Daily Telegraph

"A labour of love, and a work of faultless scholarship."—Evening Standard

"Haffenden's portrait of Empson is poignant; I kept thinking, with astonishment, of Samuel Johnson."—Tom D'Evelyn, Providence Journal

"The arrival of the first volume of John Haffenden's exhaustive and authoritative biography of poet and literary scholar William Empson, then, is timely. For one thing, it shows that the debate rekindled by Derrida's death has been going on, in one form or another, for the better part of a century. More significant, though, Haffenden offers an intimate view of Empson's own grappling with the uses, challenges, and limitations of rational inquiry."—Bookforum

"[An] extraordinary new biography.... In England, perhaps, but I doubt that any American professor today would begin an article, as Roger Sale did in these pages...with "Everyone knows Empson by name," or end it, "So that for many of thethings that matter most," he is "the first critic in the world." We must be grateful to Haffenden for showing us how, for the things that matter most, if not for all his scratchings, this might even now be so."—The Hudson Review

"In this first volume of his definitive biography of the celebrated English literary critic, Haffenden traces Empson's life from his 1906 birth in Yorkshire to his 1939 return to the UK from China, where he was teaching. The account is exhaustive and magisterial and it gets stronger as it progresses.... This study, when complete, will be the definitive Empson biography. Essential."—Choice

Publishers Weekly
Haffenden takes a completist approach to his idiosyncratic subject and his groundbreaking critical works, including Seven Types of Ambiguity. Empson (1906-1984) hailed from Yorkshire squirearchy whose unexceptional history interests Haffenden perhaps more than it should. Empson distinguished himself as a public school student with his mild unconventionality. At Cambridge on scholarship, he gained notoriety for his technically striking poetry. But his academic career, fostered by I.A. Richards, was derailed by scandal after a housekeeper's discovery of prophylactics in his possession clinched suspicions that Empson had a female visitor in his rooms (Haffenden identifies her, though the gentlemanly Empson did not). He published Seven Types of Ambiguity to immediate acclaim and accepted teaching positions abroad, which took him to Japan and then China during the Japanese invasion. In between, he returned to London, rubbing shoulders with Dylan Thomas and W.H. Auden. Haffenden, a professor of English literature at the University of Sheffield (where Empson eventually taught) and editor of Empson's Complete Poems, is a competent biographer, but for such a fascinating character and such an eventful life, he delves into the details without bringing off Empson in his singular brilliance. 16 b&w photos not seen by PW. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199276592
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 6/2/2005
  • Series: William Empson Ser.
  • Pages: 720
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Currently Head of Department at the University of Sheffield, John Haffenden was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and Oxford University, and began his teaching career at H. M. Prison, Oxford. He has received awards from the Authors' Foundation of the Society of Authors and the British Academy, and has been a British Academy Research Reader and a Leverhulme Research Fellow. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an elected founding Fellow of the English Association.

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Table of Contents

Table of Dates
1. Introduction
2. In the Blood: Sir Richard Empson, Professor William, and John Henry
3. 'A horrid little boy, airing my views'
4. 'Owl Empson'
5. 'Did I, I wonder, talk too much?'
6. 'Mr Empson gave a very competent performance'
7. 'His presence spellbound us all': The Experiment Group
8. The Making of Seven Types of Ambiguity: Influence and Integrity
9. 'Those Particular Vices': Crisis, Expulsion, and Aftermath
10. Seven Types of Ambiguity: The Critical Reception
11. The Trials of Tokyo
12. Poems 1935
13. Scapegoat and Sacrifice: Some Versions of Pastoral
14. 'Waiting for the end, boys': Politics, Poets, and Mass-Observation
15. Camping Out: China 1937-38
16. 'The savage life and the fleas and the bombs': China 1938-39
17. Postscript
Appendix: Further Famous Forebears

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