C. P. Snow in retrospect

C. P. Snow's face, round and astonished, wore the perennial expression of a small boy with his nose pressed against the glass. It was as if he could never quite before: I'm here. I've made it. I'm on the inside too.m

Snow got into all the best English circles before he was through. The som of a factory shoe clerk in the Midlands became a tutor of physics at Cambridge, a deputy in the Ministry of Technology, a member of the board of English Electric, and, finally, Lord Snow of the House of Lords.

Like most self-made men, Snow seemed eager to keep the Establishment going once he had made the club. In the novels and plays that made him famous he was not about to admit that such things did not count.

Civilization and the Establishment had a way of becoming confused as one in Snow's writing. He could prattle on a little complacently about those "corridors of power." In his 11-volume series, "Strangers and Brothers," he tended to find the Old Boy network made up of three classes of admirable chaps: near-saintly figures of "absolute integrity"; "high-principled" professionals; and, at the worst, "decent" fellows who certainly tried their best.

Periodically he would interrupt the flow of his narrative -- and Snow was a very good storyteller -- to write a sort of sermon for his alter ego, Lewis Eliot, a rather endearing prig, on Responsibility or Freedom or Reason. ("Reason: Why had so much of our time reneged on it? Wasn't that our characteristic folly, treachery or crime?")

But while Snow could sound like a hired spokesman for the Establishment, those round, astonished eyes misses little. Inside the official Snow a subversive Snow, Tough and shrewd, was signaling wildly to get out. In his celebrated essay, "The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution," he managed, with a touch of mischief, to alienate two Establishments at once, reproving the literary elitists because they did not know Faraday's law while warning the scientists that there is more to life than Faraday could put into a equation.

For all his advantages as a scientist himself, Snow never quite made it into the 20th century. His critics blamed him for this; his fans prized him for it. He was their Trollope -- an author Snow admired -- giving his readers the dense actuality of a society and the way it worked for those who valued it and knew how to use it with some honor.

What Snow wanted all his life was order: a sense of the whole, with all the parts -- science and the arts, factory-town boys and lords -- finally fitting together exuberantly. This was not a 20th-century ambition. It meant, in fact, avoiding a favorite 20th-century theme: the ego and its abyss.

By contemporary standards, Snow kept his distance from the human heart. In the old English tradition, he combined an air of total frankness with the practice of almost total discretion. But if he was remote, he was never cold. His beloved reason had a genuine kindness to it, if not a passion. He truly hated to see any of his characters fall apart in the familiar, unreasonable 20 th-century ways.

It is hard to think of Snow being a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh, or even Anthony Powell. There was no despair in him -- though occasionally he worked at it; and, as a self-made man, he simply could not afford to be a nihilist. In his writing he appeared to be indefatigably peering about him for the romantic models he had looked up to in his childhood. In the end, he became one of them -- the last of the 19th-century English gentlemen.

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