The writer and critic John Gross, a former literary editor of the New Statesman, died yesterday at the age of 75. After a brief career in academia, Gross gravitated in the mid-1960s towards Grub Street, where he rapidly established a reputation as one of the country’s subtlest yet most productive literary journalists.
Gross was made editor of the Times Literary Supplement in 1974, a post he held until 1981.The TLS as we recognise it today owes much to Gross’s editorship, the principal and most controversial innovation of which was the introduction of signed reviews (until then, reviewers had written anonymously). Gross didn’t abandon scholarly work altogether, however, and in 1969 he published his first, and perhaps best known, book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, which A N Wilson described as a paean to the “the ideal of a human life, spent reading, and making a living by what one reads”.
NS editor Jason Cowley, reviewing Gross’s memoir of his East End Jewish childhood A Double Thread in 2001, saw in him a fine practitioner of the literary essay, a form that, “as perfected by Montaigne, Charles Lamb, George Orwell, E B White and Lewis Lapham . . . strives for literary permanence and concerns the search for a personal voice”. Gross’s book, Cowley concluded, had all these attributes and was a reminder that “the best essayists are those, like Gross, who have the gift of digression, those who surprise the reader and themselves, who are able to luxuriate in language and to elaborate and inflate any chosen subject”.
In October 2009, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Gross’s masterpiece, the critic D J Taylor wrote in the NS that, with one or two “trend-defying exceptions”, the man of letters as Gross imagined him was extinct. Until yesterday, one of those exceptions was Gross himself:
[Gross’s] Man of Letters can range from a simple “bookman”, snug in his study with 3,000 novels for company, to the kind of highbrow critic whose followers invest his cult with well-nigh religious significance, or the moonlighting MP who sees literature as a kind of default setting for his political schemes. What unites them is a passion for books, a fixation with the culture in which books get produced and evaluated, and an assumption that, as Gross puts it in his final sentence, “the idea of the man of letters has a place in any healthy literary tradition”.