FRIENDS OF PROMISE: CYRIL CONNOLLY AND THE WORLD OF HORIZON by Michael Shelden, New York: Harper & Row, 254 pp., $24.95
AS 1939 drew to a close, the shadow of war lengthened over England. It did not seem a very auspicious moment to launch a magazine devoted to literature and the arts. People, presumably, would have more important - or, at any rate, more pressing - matters on their minds than the state of culture. Wartime rationing would (and did) limit the amount of paper allotted to so nonessential an enterprise.
December 1939, however, saw the first issue of Horizon. ``Small, trivial, dull. So I think from not reading it,'' pronounced Virginia Woolf with even more than her usual hauteur. She had declined an invitation to contribute to it. Woolf's attitude notwithstanding, the magazine was an instant success and served in the decade to come as the cultural life preserver its editor, Cyril Connolly, had hoped it would be. For all that the war and its attendant privations posed a threat to culture, Connolly believed that war could also be ``an opportunity for the artist to give us nothing but the best, and to stop his ears'' against the din.
``It was the right moment,'' Connolly later reflected, ``to gather all the writers who could be preserved into the Ark.'' It also happened to be the propitious moment when such periodicals as the Criterion, the London Mercury, and New Verse had ceased publication, leaving the field wide open.
Balancing his own predilection for the more purely literary and aesthetic with coeditor Stephen Spender's penchant for the political, Connolly managed to produce a magazine that was stimulating, eclectic, and widely recognized - and sometimes mocked - for its commitment to culture. Although Horizon was (with good reason) classified by friend and foe alike as a ``highbrow'' magazine, a survey of its readership in 1941 found that they were drawn from a variety of classes and occupations. In America, one fan was New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
Horizon featured poetry by W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, C. Day Lewis, and Stephen Spender. American poetry was represented by Randall Jarrell, E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, and John Berryman, although Connolly's right-hand assistant Sonia Brownell (who later married George Orwell) astonishingly and rudely rejected Theodore Roethke's ``The Lost Son'' as typifying the ``heartless'' quality of American verse! But on the whole, Horizon was receptive to a wide range of styles, subjects, and nationalities, from the writers of the French Resistance like Sartre, Aragon, and Eluard, to such diverse transatlantic talents as Mary McCarthy, James Thurber, Marshall McLuhan, and Ralph Ellison, whose ``Invisible Man'' first appeared in its pages.
Eschewing political or aesthetic agendas, Connolly relied chiefly upon his own intuitive, cultivated, and eclectic taste in selecting the material. One cannot doubt it was the stamp of his lively and receptive personality that made Horizon so appealing to so many people.
The magazine further brightened the gloomy wartime scene with fine reproductions of visual art by such artists as Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud. But perhaps its chief claim to fame lay in the fiction and essays it published by writers like Elizabeth Bowen, Evelyn Waugh, Bertrand Russell, V.S. Pritchett, Kenneth Clark, Arthur Koestler, and Connolly's old schoolmate from Eton and St. Cyprian's, George Orwell, whose ``Politics and the English Language'' (1946) may well have been the most influential essay of the decade.
Although Connolly in his autobiographical ``Enemies of Promise'' had characterized himself as one whose chances of greater achievement had been spoiled by too-early success, he never allowed himself to subscribe to the smug corollary that hardship and rejection were good for a writer's soul. ``I think the chill wind that blows from English publishers with their black suits and thin umbrellas, and their habit of beginning every sentence with `We are afraid,' has nipped off more promising buds than it has strengthened,'' he wrote. By providing a climate that would encourage talent, Connolly made his magazine a friend rather than an enemy of promise.
``Friends of Promise'' focuses on Connolly's Horizon years, from the late 1930s, when he repeatedly urged millionaire arts patron Peter Watson to fund this enterprise, to the onset of the 1950s, when Connolly chose to abandon the magazine in what proved to be a mistaken belief that relinquishing his editorial duties would free him to write the great novel that would finally make his name. While emphasizing Connolly's life and work in the 1940s, this book may be read as a supplement to David Pryce-Jones's book ``Cyril Connolly: Journal and Memoir'' (1983), which focused on the earlier years.
Michael Shelden, an American academic commissioned to write the ``authorized'' Orwell biography, tackles in Orwell's old classmate a very different character: a talented, sybaritic dilettante who often sabotaged his own best efforts. But Shelden finds odd parallels between the two: a shared concern with the rise of obfuscation in the English language and a similar despondency over the grimness of postwar England. This is a brisk, lively, knowledgeable book that conveys a sure sense of the personalities and milieu it is dealing with.