William Empson, Volume I: Among the Mandarins

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9780199539918: William Empson, Volume I: Among the Mandarins
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William Empson 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, 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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About the Author:

John Haffenden is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield.

Review:


"Densely and illuminatingly written."--Irish Times


"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."--Charlotte Taylor, Bookforum


"Haffenden's amazingly detailed narrative makes a rare old page-turner."--The Independent


"Haffenden's marvellous book is full of shrewd readings, suggestive details, and comic facts."--Guardian Review


"Among the Mandarins is a remarkable achievement, it is something of a triumph, it is much more than a devoted exercise in biography or a meticulously researched study of the life -- or half-life -- of its eccentric and brilliant subject."--Textualities


"A stunning demonstration of the power of intellectual biography."--Ronald Shusterman, Universite de Provence


"Measured and affectionate in tone, exhaustive in detail, lucid in the exposition of his difficult verse and often anguished life."--Sam Leith, The Spectator


"Magisterial scholarship."--Ruben Christiansen, The Spectator


"A triumph. It is funny, dense, touching and farcical. This is an exhilarating tale."--Margaret Drabble, "Books of the Year", Times Literary Supplement


"Haffenden is without doubt the world's foremost authority on the details of Empson's life."--Jason Harding, Times Literary Supplement


"A magnificent biography a grippingly readable volume."--Terry Eagleton, New Statesman Books of the Year


"One of the finest biographies of an English literary figure."--James Wood, Guardian Review


"Magnificent and surprisingly gripping book, intelligently written, with a background of thorough research, well-illustrated and well-indexed."--Anthony Thwaite, 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."--Kevin Jackson, The Sunday Times


"In some biographies, the biographer has to keep out of his subject's way. On virtually every page of this biography, Empson writes or says something startlingly interesting in his startlingly unusual way."--Adam Phillips, The Observer


"Few critics have done more for poetry than Empson (1906-1984); few have led stranger or more adventurous lives. Empson's travels make entertaining reading. The main reason for reading Empson's own writings is to see what he made of the authors he cherished. (He was the best reader Donne ever had.). In an era when readers debate whether poetry matters, it helps to remember a man who defended it, and pursued his own arguments about it, even to the ends of the earth."--New York Times Book Review


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