Who better than Ackroyd to tackle this theme? He has written biography and fiction about Thomas More, Thomas Chatterton, William Blake and Charles Dickens, and London: The Biography. Albion revisits familiar lives and riffles through old files for material. Ackroyd reminds us that ''the greatest writers are those, like Johnson, who effortlessly transcend the limitations of genre; their writing, whatever temporary form it takes, is of a piece.'' He's set himself among them.
The final effect is that of a master crammer, refreshing our memories of an Englishness whose broad lines are familiar but whose fine details may have grown a bit cloudy. Albion is not a highly original book. But it is sensible, literate and at times entertaining -- illustrating what is most pleasing in the tradition it evokes.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr.
Even a writer as popular, prolific and inventive as Ackroyd can concoct a bore. Nevertheless, Albion is likely to succeed on his considerable reputation and the success of his bestselling London: The Biography. Here Ackroyd seeks to define and describe what he sees as distinctive qualities of the English imagination as they have developed since the country's beginnings. Quoting the 17th-century Richard Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, he claims a cultural continuity-"we weave the same web still, twist the same rope again and again." But the Englishman, as Daniel Defoe remarked, and Ackroyd concedes, remained infinitely adaptable, having already assimilated waves of invasion and conquest-and become "Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman-English." Explaining that "mungrell" mingling in 53 thematic chapters, Ackroyd appropriates nearly every quality in literature and the arts for England (largely ignoring Ireland and downplaying Scotland). He cites love of gardens, worship of trees, cultivation of dream-visionaries, affection for eccentricity, affinity for morbid sensationalism, attraction to understatement, pleasure in alliteration, fondness for cross-dressing, passion for antiquarianism, ease with an empirical temper, relish for detective and ghost stories, penchant for portrait miniatures, creative adaptation of folksong. It is a sentimental stretch. Where London was animated by a brilliant exploitation of anecdote, Albion lacks its verve. Rather, it is armed with a goodly-and defensive-helping of "It has often been said," "it might even be said," "It is no surprise, either, that," and often bogs down in bland thesis and empty persuasion. Yet vastly learned and frequently engaging, it may prove good bedtime reading-a veritable night school. B&w and color illus. not seen by PW. (On sale Oct. 21) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
In this impressive study, novelist, biographer, and poet Ackroyd (London: The Biography) traces the roots of the uniquely English imagination as manifested in literature, music, the visual arts, philosophy, and science. This imagination, he maintains, is an endless circle that moves both backward and forward; no art can be viewed in isolation since all the arts are part of the same continuum going back to Anglo-Saxon times. Ackroyd explores such elements of the English imagination as a strong sense of place ("territorial imperative"), a sentimental attachment to the past, the habit of assimilating and appropriating elements from other cultures, a preference for empiricism and pragmatism over intellectualism, a predilection for the motley by combining disparate elements, and tendencies to understatement and irony. Factors influencing the English imagination examined here include Arthurian legend, Britain's Catholic heritage, Gothic literature, the love of spectacle and melodrama, and a passion for gardening. Entertaining as well as informative, this work is highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/03.]-Denise J. Stankovics, Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
A vast and rich panorama encompassing English literature, philosophy, science, art, and music. Holding together a narrative of such ambition is a Herculean task, and British biographer/novelist Ackroyd (London, 2001, etc.) occasionally falters. For instance, he never fails to signal that A Big Theme is coming, e.g.: "In the course of this narrative it will be demonstrated that English literature, in particular, borrowed elements and themes from continental texts only to redefine them in the native style." Nor is he averse to sending readers to the closest dictionary with words such as "hypnagogic" or "oneiric." Ultimately, though, he’s saved by his erudition and panache, as he details how, starting with the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the predominant strains of the English sensibility have been assimilation and adaptation. From Chaucer to Dickens, the polyglot culture of London encouraged creators to mix high and low, comedy and tragedy, sacred and profane, he writes. In a particularly fascinating section on how literature borrowed and blended elements from different sources, Ackroyd underscores the crucial impact of translation on the nation’s letters, not only through the King James Version of the Bible, but through Thomas Wyatt, Christopher Marlowe, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and William Wordsworth, whose poems were influenced by those they translated. Loss also figures in the English imagination, from the death of Arthur through the often melancholy strains of Ralph Vaughn Williams. Though most comfortable with literature, Ackroyd also verges afield with brio to analyze the national vogue for miniatures, gardening, and landscape painting. He can masterfully weave a creator’s life andwork together, then summarize it with a pithy one-liner, as when he describes John Donne as "a disciple of death and a voluptuary of decay." A learned, eye-opening survey of the "mixed style" that shaped a nation’s culture and self-image. (70 pp. color and b&w illustrations)
“An ingenious essay in cultural anthropology.”The New York Times Book Review
“Beguiling. . . . A hugely readable book. . . . Pick it up whenever you need, open it wherever you like, read as much as you want with profit and pleasure.”The Wall Street Journal
"This work could have been produced only by the liveliest of intellects, drawing on an astonishing depth of experience. Ackroyd in his own writing demonstrates the quality of the English imagination." The Spectator
"As ever, where Ackroyd excels is in the patient accumulation of suggestive detail or sudden descent unto a distinctive corner of the English world." The Independent