On the life and works of the master humorist.
Athough it is shocking to report, candor requires that I begin by acknowledging that it was not until 1982, when I was in my late twenties, that I first acquainted myself with the sublime work of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.
I remember the occasion vividly. I was recovering from the effects of oral surgery after a botched root canal. Thanks to some tablets prescribed by my doctor, I passed a few days lying on a sofa in a not unpleasant sort of semi-coma, almost forgetting the excavation site on the gum above my abused molar. Leafing through The Times Literary Supplement as I mended, I paused over a review of Frances Donaldson's biography of Wodehouse. It sounded like good stuff.
It was (as Wodehouse himself might have put it) the work of a moment to nip down to the local bookstore, pick up a volume or two, and nip back to my bed of modified woe. Anyone inclined to doubt the workings of Providence should attend closely to what happened next. Of the dozens of Wodehouse titles available, the one I first opened was Carry On, Jeeves (1925), a masterly collection of stories whose first chapter explains how that unsurpassable valet, the brainy Jeeves, came into the employ of the feckless chump Bertie Wooster:
Lots of people think I'm much too dependent on him. My Aunt Agatha, in fact, has even gone so far as to call him my keeper. Well, what I say is: Why not? The man's a genius. From the collar upward he stands alone. I gave up trying to run my own affairs within a week of his coming to me.
Wodehouse (the name, by the way, is pronounced "Woodhouse") was amazingly prolific; as Frances Donaldson notes, no one knows the exact extent of his output because, when young, he often wrote under other people's names or noms de plume. But we do know that over the course of his ninety-three years he wrote at least ninety-six books, wrote or collaborated on sixteen plays, and composed at least some of the lyrics and/or the book for twenty-eight musicals. The man was a writing machine. And although he often wrote at or near the top of his form, surely it was (as the Marxists say) no accident that I should have stumbled onto one of his supreme masterpieces right off the bat. These things must be fated. When St. Augustine was going through a rough patch and he heard some children chanting tolle lege — "take and read" — he picked up the Bible and it changed his life.
I won't say that my discovery of Wodehouse was quite so earth-shaking, but it was serendipitous. After two or three pages I was hooked. Had my doctor seen me then, convulsed as I was with laughter, he doubtless would have looked askance and confiscated those tablets. But Wodehouse, if addictive, is an innocent, indeed a beneficent, addiction. Although I came to him late, I have made up for that tardiness with unwavering devotion. No writer has given me more merriment and delight. It was naturally with great pleasure, then, that I greeted the announcement that the Everyman Library was bringing out a handsome hardcover edition of Wodehouse's novels and stories.1 The first four volumes — including three masterpieces, Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), The Code of the Woosters (1938), and Pigs Have Wings (1952) — were published last spring. Five more — including the superlative Summer Lightning (1929) and The Mating Season (1949) — are scheduled to be published later this fall. This is the first uniform edition of Wodehouse to appear, and it is long overdue.
Oscar Wilde said that he put his genius into his life and only his talent into his work. Wodehouse upped the ante and put everything into his work. Everyone who knew Wodehouse described him as excessively shy. When his wife set out to get a flat in New York, Wodehouse asked her to be sure it was on the ground floor because he never knew what to say to the lift boy. In 1939, Oxford gave him an honorary degree; when at a dinner following the ceremony the crowd began to shout "We want Wodehouse," he just barely managed to get to his feet and mumble "thank you."
Wodehouse was kindly and well-meaning; he was also irretrievably dull. And definitely not funny. Donaldson says Wodehouse was "a genuine recluse and socially incompetent." "I loathe clubs," said the inventor of the Drones Club in 1956. In matters of haberdashery, the creator of the impeccably turned out Psmith took after the shabby Lord Emsworth. When he suffered a small stroke in 1951, Wodehouse wandered in a dazed state into a doctor's office on Park Avenue. "A bum came into my office," the doctor reported: arrangements were being made to have him sent to Bellevue when a secretary, going through his pockets in an effort to identify the mystery man, announced, "He's not a bum, he's an Englishman!" Bellevue was scratched in favor of Doctor's Hospital, a private institution. Donaldson concluded that the key to Wodehouse's character lay "in his inability to feel strong emotions." Wodehouse might well have agreed. "I haven't got any violent feelings about anything," he said in a 1961 interview. "I just love writing."
"I haven't got any violent feelings about anything," he said in a 1961 interview. "I just love writing."
As it happens, Donaldson — the daughter of the playwright Frederick Lonsdale — came to Wodehouse even later than I did. She knew the master personally, having been a close friend of Leonora, Wodehouse's beloved stepdaughter (who died in her late thirties in 1943). But it was not until Donaldson was seventy that she "got" Wodehouse. She then sat down and read through virtually the entire corpus in a couple of years. Her biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, now out of print) is simply splendid. It is well-written, well-informed, admiring but by no means hagiographical. Donaldson claims that of ten confirmed Wodehouse addicts, only one will be a woman; "women as a whole," she says, do not care for the sort of "masculine fantasy" he specialized in. My own informants take issue with that judgment. But it is hard to imagine a better biography of this peculiar man.
Wodehouse's father was a magistrate in Hong Kong. His mother was staying with a sister in Guildford when P.G., the third of her four sons, was born in 1881. There were some glittering antecedents. The family could trace itself back to the sister of Anne Boleyn; and Cardinal Newman was a great uncle on his mother's side. There had, however, been a considerable falling off. Donaldson describes Wodehouse's mother as a "stupid woman" whose "actions continually suggest that her emotions were as undeveloped as her intellect." She certainly seems not to have been overly burdened by the maternal instinct. The infant Wodehouse returned with her to Hong Kong, but was shipped back to England with his older brothers two years later to be brought up by a Miss Roper, a complete stranger. Wodehouse grew up being passed from aunt to aunt, a fact that has been made much of by those seeking personal correlatives for the formidable aunts who populate his books. ("It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts," we read in The Code of the Woosters. "At the core they are all alike. Sooner or later out pops the cloven hoof.")
Wodehouse went to school at Dulwich College, where he did well at games, especially cricket. At first he worked hard at his studies, but when it transpired that there would not be enough money to send him to university, his attention drifted. But he had loved Dulwich: "To me, the years between 1894 and 1900 were like heaven." After leaving school, he worked briefly at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in London: it was an uncongenial experience. He had begun writing at the age of seven: it was the thing he was born to do. He began contributing to numerous papers and magazines and had published his first book by 1902.
In later life, Wodehouse was universally known as "Plum" or "Plummie." As he explained in the preface to Something Fresh (1915), the first of the Blandings Castle novels, in those days a writer in America who "went about without three names was practically going around naked." So the Pelham Grenville, he thought, helped his early career. But he never liked the names: "I have my dark moods when they seem to me about as low as you can get. At the font I remember protesting vigorously when the clergyman uttered them, but he stuck to his point. 'Be that as it may,' he said firmly, having waited for a lull, 'I name thee Pelham Grenville.'"
Fans of the Blandings Castle stories will be interested to learn that after Dulwich, Plum spent time visiting a friend at a school called Emsworth House in a village of the same name; the friend was Herbert Westbrook, an inveterate sponger who was the model for Ukridge (pronounced to rhyme with "Duke-ridge"). Wodehouse rented a house there called Threepwood — Lord Emsworth's family name — and in 1905 acquired a car with what amounted to a year's wages. Like one of his characters, he promptly succeeded in driving it into a ditch. "He left the car there," Donaldson tells us, "and never drove again." Jeeves, we learn, is named for a Warwickshire cricketer called Percy Jeeves, though Wodehouse first thought of his most famous character after reading Harry Leon Wilson's Ruggles of Red Gap, which features a super-competent butler.
Wodehouse made his first trip to America in 1904 and by 1909 was coming regularly. In August of 1914, Wodehouse met a young widow named Ethel Newton in New York. By the end of September, they were married — quick service for a shy chap, you might say, but probably instigated more by Ethel than the retiring Plum. Ethel was not the brains of the family, exactly, but she was clearly its senior management: treasurer, executive secretary, and CEO. She took entire charge of Wodehouse's affairs, and, Donaldson observes, "stood between him and the rest of the world in all things, except those which most immediately concerned his work."
Sex is conspicuous by its absence in Wodehouse's work.
Sex is conspicuous by its absence in Wodehouse's work. (Some of his early stories attempt to include a love interest: the effort is always embarrassing.) As Richard Usborne, author of the excellent Wodehouse at Work (1961) noted, "There is no suggestion that either clubman or girl would recognize a double bed except as so much extra sweat to make an apple-pie of." How far this attitude extended into Wodehouse's life is uncertain. Donaldson rightly observes that "Wodehouse may or may not have been inhibited sexually as well as emotionally and this inhibition may have been partial or complete. Not a matter on which one is ever likely to have exact evidence, it is in this case not one which matters very much."
In 1914, Wodehouse had yet to hit his stride. When he married Ethel, he had exactly $100 in the bank. By the 1920s he was earning $100,000 per annum from his books and his work in the theater. (Although not much noticed today, Wodehouse's theater work, much of it done in collaboration with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern, was extraordinarily successful.) In 1929, he went to Hollywood, where he was paid $2,000 a week to be a rewrite man — money for jam, as he might have put it. He was socking the stuff away. Wodehouse himself was the opposite of mercenary. As long as he had some pipe tobacco and could be left alone with his typewriter he was happy. But, then as now, the Internal Revenue Service couldn't look at a pile of money without wanting a good bit of it, and in 1932 the first of several tax imbroglios ensued. Donaldson notes that in all his tangles with the IRS and England's Inland Revenue, Wodehouse "either won or achieved a compromise settlement in his favor." In 1934, partly to escape the badgering tax authorities, he and Ethel acquired a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France, which became their home base for several years. They were there in 1939 when World War II started. They were still there the next year when the Germans rolled through and appropriated the villa, confiscated much of their property, and interned Wodehouse.
Wodehouse was in various German camps for about a year; he was released in 1941 just shy of his sixtieth birthday and was allowed to go to Berlin. It was there that he recorded five radio talks to be broadcast to America and England. The talks themselves were completely innocuous:
Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me "How can I become an Internee?" Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there until the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.
But the response back home was not at all amused. It was first put about that Wodehouse had agreed to do the broadcasts in exchange for his release; this turned out not to be true. It didn't matter. William Connor, writing as "Cassandra" in the Daily Mirror, excoriated Wodehouse as a quisling. Broadcasting later on the BBC, Connor began: "I have come to tell you tonight the story of a rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale — that of his own country." Donaldson devotes about a third of her book to these broadcasts and their aftermath. Her conclusion was the conclusion of the officials who investigated the episode after the war: The broadcasts were ill-advised, certainly, but "Wodehouse did not betray his country: he spoke no word of propaganda, he did no deal."
Again, it didn't matter. Wodehouse was awarded a knighthood in 1975, two months before he died (on Valentine's Day, which seems somehow appropriate). But many who faulted him for the broadcasts never forgave him. After the war, Wodehouse settled permanently in America, first in New York City, then in Remsenburg, Long Island. There was no assurance, had he returned to London, that he would not have been prosecuted. In 1953, Wodehouse was induced to give lunch to William Connor. It tells us a lot about Wodehouse's character that he became fast friends with a man who had caused him so much damage. "We got on together like a couple of sailors on shore leave," Wodehouse reported in a letter. "We parted on christian name terms, vowing eternal friendship."
Donaldson is doubtless right that Wodehouse was "socially incompetent." He was also one of the most accomplished prose writers of the century. High praise. But it is entirely in keeping with the encomia Wodehouse's work has elicited over the years. In a radio broadcast from 1934, Hilaire Belloc called him "the best writer of English now alive . . . the head of my profession." That remark loosed an avalanche of inquiries: What could Belloc have meant by such extravagant commendation for a writer of what, after all, are only light comedies? A few years later, in a preface for a chrestomathy called Week-end Wodehouse (1939, and still in print), Belloc elaborated:
Writing is a craft, like any other: playing the violin, skating, batting at cricket, billiards, wood carving . . . ; and mastership in any craft is attainment of the end to which that craft is devoted. . . . The end of writing is the production of a certain image and a certain emotion. And the means towards that end are the use of words in any particular language; and the complete use of that medium is the choosing of the right words and the putting of them into the right order. It is this which Mr. Wodehouse does better, in the English language, than anyone else alive.
Wodehouse himself was the opposite of mercenary. As long as he had some pipe tobacco and could be left alone with his typewriter he was happy.
Belloc particularly admired Wodehouse's similes, citing as an example his description of Honoria Glossop as "one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge."
Evelyn Waugh shared Belloc's high opinion. Reviewing Week-end Wodehouse, he praised Belloc for treating Wodehouse "as he deserves, soberly and seriously, as a prose stylist and as the expression of a culture for the safety of which Mr. Belloc feels anxiety." Waugh admired Wodehouse partly for "the exquisite felicity of his language," partly for the incorrigible innocence of his vision. Quoting Wodehouse's remark that "Jeeves knows his place, and it is between the covers of a book," Waugh underscored the purely literary quality of Wodehouse's characters and the world they inhabit.
We do not concern ourselves with the economic implications of their position; we are not skeptical about their quite astonishing celibacy. We do not expect them to grow any older, like the Three Musketeers or the Forsytes. We are not interested in how they would "react to changing social conditions" as publishers' blurbs invite us to be interested in other sagas. They are untroubled by wars (Jeeves first appeared . . . in 1917, and Bertie Wooster, then unquestionably of military age, was "in the dreamless" at 11:30 a.m.). . . . They all live, year after year, in their robust middle twenties; their only sickness is an occasional hangover. It is a world that cannot become dated because it has never existed.
In "An Act of Homage and Reparation to P. G. Wodehouse" (1961), Waugh came back to this point. Bertie Wooster, like other Wodehouse characters, "inhabits a world as timeless as that of Dream and Alice in Wonderland." Waugh stressed that Wodehouse characters are not, as is sometimes said, "survivals of the Edwardian age. They are creations of pure fancy. . . . The Drones [Club], with its swimming bath and its smoking concerts, its "Old Beans" and "Old Crumpets" touching one another for fivers, has no correspondence at all with any London club of any period."
The central oddity of Wodehouse's artistry is its purity, which means in part its distance from the cares and concerns of ordinary human life. In her biography, Donaldson observes that "no humour is consistently funny which is not related to human life." Perhaps so. But Wodehouse reminds us of the irony that one way of being related to human life is by bracketing its everyday imperatives. To some extent, that is something all art does. Wodehouse does it more radically, and with greater virtuosity, than almost anyone. In a memorial piece from 1975, Bernard Levin observed that "it is difficult to find comparisons that do not jar, because [Wodehouse's] matter was so utterly unlike that of his true peers of manner, and none of those whose matter was recognizably similar to his could write like him." It is silly to compare him to Shakespeare or Swift or Rabelais (to pick a few favorites from the literature on Wodehouse). But lesser touchstones seem somehow unfair to his excellences.
Those excellences do not fully emerge in short quotations. Wodehouse was not a coiner of epigrams. (Though he did come up with some great lines. Here are a few famous ones: "Slice him where you like, a hellhound is always a hellhound." "I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled." And this gem about understanding the gist of an argument: "He followed me like a leopard.") Wodehouse's real genius lay in his ability to endow patently absurd situations with momentary conviction.
Waugh admired Wodehouse partly for "the exquisite felicity of his language," partly for the incorrigible innocence of his vision.
Many of the Bertie and Jeeves stories involve extricating Bertie from a matrimonial engagement that he (or sometimes Jeeves) deems inadvisable. A frequent subplot involves some article of Bertie's clothing that doesn't pass muster with Jeeves. In "Jeeves Takes Charge," Bertie is more or less happily engaged to Florence Craye, a frightful bluestocking with a "wonderful profile" who was "particularly keen on boosting [Bertie] up a bit nearer her own plane of intellect." Bertie's usual reading matter, insofar as he has any, does not depart far from mystery novels of the pulpier sort. But Florence has him ploughing through a book called Types of Ethical Theory. Still, "seen sideways," as Bertie says, she was "most awfully good looking."
Florence threatens to break off their engagement unless Bertie can destroy the manuscript of his Uncle Willoughby's "Recollections of a Long Life," a gossipy trove with horrid things about everyone he knew when young, including Florence's father. "You may look upon it as a test, Bertie." she says, "If you have the resource and courage to carry this thing through, I will take it as evidence that you are not the vapid and shiftless person most people think you."
Bertie fails, of course, largely because Jeeves sees to it that the manuscript finds its way to the publisher. At first, he is so outraged that he fires Jeeves. Gradually, however, he changes his mind. "It was her intention," Jeeves had told him, "to start you almost immediately upon Nietzsche. You would not like Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound." The story ends with this exchange:
"Oh, Jeeves," I said; "about that check suit."
"Is it really a frost?"
"A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion."
"But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is."
"Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir."
"He's supposed to be one of the best men in London."
"I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir."
I hesitated a bit. I had a feeling that I was passing into this chappie's clutches. . . . "All right, Jeeves," I said, "You know! Give the bally thing away to sombody!"
He looked down at me like a father gazing tenderly at the wayward child.
"Thank you, sir. I gave it to the under-gardener last night. A little more tea, sir?"
Silly. Preposterous. Absurd. But as Wilde's Algernon said about a similar absurdity, perfectly phrased.
To canvass Wodehouse for quotable scenes is to be in the position of a child in a candy store.
To canvass Wodehouse for quotable scenes is to be in the position of a child in a candy store. And I don't mean one of those small, village operations, with only a shelf of sweets. I mean a large, multi-storied emporium stuffed to the gills with toothsome morsels. Consider, for example, the golf stories and the tales spun by Mr. Mulliner at the Anglers' Rest and the character of Monty Bodkin. In my opinion, one of Wodehouse's greatest novels is Leave it to Psmith (1924). Unaccountably, the book is somewhat slighted in The Literature. It is accorded respect but not the wild enthusiasm it deserves. Perhaps its reappearance in the Everyman series will correct that error. When we are introduced to Ronald (or Rupert — Wodehouse wasn't quite sure) Eustace Psmith, he has fallen on hard times. Nevertheless the "very tall, very thin, very solemn young man" cuts a striking figure in his "speckless top hat and a morning-coat of irreproachable fit." He is on his way through a run-down neighborhood to visit the wife of his school friend Mike Jackson.
A small maid-of-all work appeared in answer to the bell, and stood transfixed as the visitor, producing a monocle, placed it in his right eye and inspected her through it.
"A warm afternoon," he said cordially.
"But pleasant," urged the young man. "Tell me, is Mrs. Jackson at home?"
"Not at home?"
The young man sighed.
"Ah, well," he said, "we must always remember that these disappointments are sent to us for some good purpose. No doubt they make us more spiritual. Will you inform her that I called. The name is Psmith. P-smith."
"No, no. P-s-m-i-t-h. I should explain to you that I started life without the initial letter, and my father always clung ruggedly to the plain Smith. But it seemed to me that there were so many Smiths in the world that a little variety might well be introduced. Smythe I look on as a cowardly evasion, nor do I approve of the too prevalent custom of tacking another name on in front by means of a hyphen. So I decided to adopt the Psmith. The p, I should add for your guidance, is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan. You follow me?"
"You don't think," he said anxiously, "that I did wrong in pursuing this course?"
"Splendid!" said the young man, flicking a speck of dust from his sleeve. "Splendid! Splendid!"
After various vicissitudes, Psmith winds up at Blandings Castle impersonating the modern poet Ralston McTodd. A diamond necklace has been stolen. The Efficient Baxter, Lord Emsworth's secretary and Psmith's nemesis, suddenly has the idea that it may be hidden in one of the flowerpots on the terrace. It is after 2:00 a.m.when he starts digging, strikingly attired in lemon-colored pyjamas; it is getting on to dawn when he realizes that he is locked out of the castle and wakes his employer by hurling flowerpots through his bedroom window. Suspecting that his secretary has gone off his rocker, Lord Emsworth rouses Psmith and brings him along to confront Baxter.
Lord Emsworth adjusted his glasses.
"Your face is dirty," he said, peering down at his dishevelled secretary. "Baxter, my dear fellow, your face is dirty."
"I was digging," replied Baxter sullenly.
"The terrier complex," explained Psmith. "What," he asked kindly, turning to his companion, "were you digging for? Forgive me if the question seems an impertinent one, but we are naturally curious."
Well, Baxter is eventually sent packing, but not before he exposes Psmith as an impersonator. Psmith explains that he did it to save Lord Emsworth embarrassment. When Emsworth mistook him for McTodd at the Senior Conservative Club in London, Psmith decided to step into the breach and save the dreamy peer from the "inconvenience of having to return here without a McTodd of any description."
His lordship digested this explanation in silence. Then he seized on a magnificent point.
"Are you a member of the Senior Conservative Club?"
"Why, then, dash it," cried his lordship, paying to that august stronghold of respectability as striking a tribute as it had ever received, "if you're a member of the Senior Conservative, you can't be a criminal. Baxter's an ass!"
When Psmith suggests that he stay on and take over Baxter's position as secretary, Lord Emsworth asks if he has had any experience. Psmith admits that he hasn't, adding that until recently his family was well-to-do and owned a local pile called Corfby Hall.
"Corfby Hall! Are you the son of the Smith who used to own Corfby Hall? Why, bless my soul, I knew your father well."
"Yes. That is to say, I never met him."
"But I won the first prize at the Shrewsbury Flower Show the year he won the prize for tulips."
"It seems to draw us very close together," said Psmith.
In many ways, Wodehouse achieved what Flaubert aspired to do: to write a novel about nothing.
In many ways, Wodehouse achieved what Flaubert aspired to do: to write a novel about nothing.
Wodehouse achieved his effects through a combination of flawless diction and fastidious plotting. Not that there is anything original about his plots. On the contrary, he tells the same handful of stories over and over again. Even many of his characters are interchangeable. In his preface to Summer Lightning, Wodehouse mentions "a certain critic" who "made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' " Wodehouse cheerfully owned the charge; that critic, he wrote,
has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.
In fact, Wodehouse's success in retelling the same few stories is a further testimony to his skill. It is a matter of success through limitation. As the English critic Ernest Newman observed in 1956, Wodehouse was
the last perfect representative of a once great race of artists — the practitioners of the commedia dell'arte. These people did not trouble about anything so easy as inventing new forms, new settings, new characters. They took the standardized characters of Pulcinella, Scaramouche, Harlequin, the Captain, the Doctor, the Notary, and so on and re-created them afresh each time out of the abundance of their own genius. This was really a much harder thing to do than to invent quasi-new beings with names and place them in new situations.
Another measure of Wodehouse's skill was the expert way he handled clichés. He knew just how to deploy them for maximum humor. Typically, he cut them in two. Like Caesar, his motto was divide and conquer. "If Uncle George wants to marry waitresses," Bertie tells Jeeves, "let him, say I. I hold that rank is but the penny stamp — ." "Guinea stamp, sir." "All right, guinea stamp. Though I don't believe there is such a thing." Wodehouse's mastery of the cliché was inseparable from his celebrated use of literary quotations: Burns above, but primarily from Shakespeare and the Bible, and also from Kipling, Omar Khayyám, Bret Harte, and others. Wodehouse's penchant for literary allusion has led some people to commend his erudition. In fact, as Donaldson notes, his stock of references was actually quite small. Wodehouse did have a classical education, but he himself drew attention to the importance of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, "that indispensable adjunct to literary success." He was not a scholar, much less was he an intellectual: a class of people that he rather feared and disliked but that he nevertheless managed to entertain mightily.
Wodehouse understood perfectly what he was about. "I believe," he remarked in an oft-quoted letter to his friend William Townend, "there are only two ways of writing a novel. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going down deep into life and not caring a damn." Most great artists plumb the depths; Wodehouse remained fixed, gloriously, on the surface. That was both his limitation and his achievement. What he lacked in profundity he made up for in verbal dexterity. His province was humor: he didn't trespass into other realms. He came bearing pleasure, not insight. A master of incongruity, Wodehouse left anguish and betrayal, self-knowledge and social awareness to other, generally lesser, talents.
Roger Kimball. "The genius of Wodehouse." The New Criterion (October, 2000).
Reprinted with permission of Roger Kimball. Image: The author P.G. Wodehouse. Photo: TimeLife.
Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the publisher of Encounter Books. Mr. Kimball is the author of many books, including Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism, The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, Tenured Radicals, Revised: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age, The Survival of Culture: Permanent Values in a Virtual Age, Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity, The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, and Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse.Copyright © 2000 The New Criterion
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