Sunday, 10 January 2016

Bringing Sassoon to Texas

One of our members has kindly sent me a present.  It’s a document I’d seen before but never had much time to study, as I didn’t have my own copy.  It is the catalogue of an exhibition that took place at The University of Texas at Austin in 1969, only two years after Siegfried Sassoon’s death.  You may be aware that this university holds an almost unparalleled collection of original Sassoon material, including diaries, letters, manuscripts and valuable first editions of some of his publications.

Looking through a catalogue like this has the serendipitous effect of bringing to mind many different aspects of Sassoon the man: his humour, his artistry, his courage and his sensitivity.  I was eleven when he died, and it is good to know that he was appreciated in his lifetime and so soon afterwards; the introduction to the catalogue is written by none other than his old friend Edmund Blunden, who himself would die five years later, having far exceeded Sassoon in academic achievement but never quite equalled him in fame or literary merit. Nowadays Blunden is becoming more appreciated, but Sassoon’s posthumous reputation has eclipsed all except Wilfred Owen among the war poets, his conduct during the First World War now being seen as an example to others in an increasingly violent international political climate.  Younger people are holding up Sassoon as an icon of our times and attempting to emulate him, in their writing and in their lives.

Blunden describes Sassoon as “more of a book-hunter than a fox-hunter” and comments on the religious aspect of his poetry, which sadly continues to be much ignored by other critics. It is clear even from this short introduction that Blunden understood Sassoon’s character better than almost anybody (he did after all arrange his first contact with Dennis Silk). He focuses on Sassoon’s originality as a person and as a writer, which I think is key to the continued popularity of his work.  To have had Siegfried as a friend, a privilege never granted to most of us who are alive today, would have been to experience his character in full, not only in person but in the shape of letters such as that written to Roderick Meiklejohn in 1917, a few days after making his Soldier's Declaration: “I saw the authorities here today, &, as I expected -- coals of fire were heaped on my rebellious head ... I have gone too far to withdraw, even if I had the faintest desire to do so." Or this one, to Blunden in 1944 after hearing of the death of their mutual friend Rex Whistler, killed in action aged 39: "I suffered a few minutes of bombed out feeling -- it really made me shake my fist at the war. But I have learnt to control such experiences..."

It is just as well he had, because, at the time of Siegfried Sassoon's death, the world was in the throes of a conflict that would make a lasting impact on the international political scene as well as on the culture of many nations.  Noam Chomsky's important essay, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals", had been published earlier in 1967, and Sassoon would certainly have been aware of it, since it had been published as a supplement to the New York Times Review of Books.  In it, Chomsky referred back to a quotation from the critic and philosopher Dwight  Macdonald: "Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster."  Surely Sassoon was one such, but (to the best of my knowledge) he did not condemn.

By the time the exhibition was put on, other events had stirred up even greater opposition to the Vietnam War, including film of a South Vietnamese officer shooting a prisoner in the head.  The protests were spreading, and on 15 October 1969, while the Sassoon exhibition was running,  coordinated demonstrations were taking place throughout the USA.  The Kent State shootings and the "napalm girl" were yet to come.

I wonder how much influence reaction to the Vietnam War had on public perceptions of Sassoon, and whether the coincidence of his death during this period had something to do with the subsequent growth in his popularity.  I wonder, in fact, whether this is one of the reasons a university in Texas was keen to acquire a collection relating to Sassoon and his work.  Perhaps a subject for further investigation...
Post a Comment