EDITOR’S NOTE: This obituary appeared in the May 3, 1966, issue of National Review.
I once encountered a very angry lady in Dallas, Texas, who announced herself head of a vigilance committee to keep dirty books out of the local libraries, and we talked a bit. I forgot just how the conversation moved, but at one point I said that to pull out all the salacious passages from modern literature would require the end of individual reading. All of us would have private readers, like the old eccentric who forced his prisoners to read to him the works of Charles Dickens in the novel by Evelyn Waugh. Who, asked the lady book critic, was Evelyn Waugh? The greatest English novelist of the century, I ventured, but on ascertaining that he was not a dirty writer, she lost all interest, and went off to look for more dirty books to rail against.
I wrote Waugh and told him about the episode. My letter did not include any reference to any business matter, so I knew he would not reply to it; but I knew the little story would appeal to his sense of satire, so strongly developed as to make him, in the judgment of the critic Edmund Wilson, the “only first-rate comic genius the English have produced since George Bernard Shaw.” (Waugh’s reply, several years later to an interviewer who asked what was his opinion of Edmund Wilson: “Is he American?” End comment.) But Waugh was much more than that, though millions of his readers who read only Handful of Dust, and Scoop, and The Loved One, did not know about the other dimensions; did not know that Evelyn Waugh the great satirist was a conservative, a traditionalist, a passionately convinced and convincing Christian, a master stylist routinely acknowledged, during the last decade, as the most finished writer of English prose.
He died at 62 having completed only one volume of a long autobiography. In it he recorded, dispassionately, the impressions of his early years; something of the lives of his ancestors, many of them eccentric; and of the Chaos of his undergraduate career at Oxford, from which he was duly expelled, as so many interesting Englishmen are expected to be. He decided, in his mid-twenties, that the thing to do was to commit suicide, and he describes, as he would in a novel, his own venture in this dramatic activity–the verse from Euripides about water washing away the stains of the earth, neatly exposed where it could not be missed by grieving relatives or meticulous coroners; wading out into the ocean, thinking diapasonal thoughts; then running into a school of jellyfish, and racing back to the beach, putting on his clothes, tearing up Euripides, and resuming his career, for which we thank God’s little jellyfish.
He was an impossible man, in many respects. At least as far as the public was concerned. Like J. D. Salinger and James Gould Cozzens, he simply refused to join the world of flackery and televised literature. On one occasion when he did consent to grant an interview to a young correspondent from Paris Review, because he was related to an old friend, Waugh thoroughly disconcerted the interview by arriving in his hotel suite, taking off his clothes, getting into bed, lighting a huge cigar, breaking open a bottle of champagne, and then uttering: “Proceed.”
Rather than live a public life, he situated himself in a large old house in the country, surrounding himself with a moat that was proof against all but his closest friends, and the vicar. The piranhas made a specialty of devouring first-class mail asking for interviews, comments, suggestions, whatever. I confess to having successfully swum across the moat, after several fruitless assaults. I discovered that the squire felt an obligation to reply to all letters concerning questions of commerce; so that if you wanted a comment or two on a matter of literature or philosophy or politics, you could hope to get it by dropping into your letter a trivial question relating to business.
But he was a man of charity, personal generosity, and, above all, of understanding. He knew people, he knew his century, and, having come to know it, he had faith only in the will of God, and in individual man’s latent capacity to strive towards it. He acknowledged the need to live in this century, because the jellyfish will not have it otherwise; but never, ever, to acclimate yourself to it. Mr. Scott-King, the classics teacher, after his tour through Evelyn Waugh’s Modern Europe, comes back to school, and there the headmaster suggests that he teach some popular subject, in addition to the classics–economic history, perhaps, for the classics are not popular. “I’m a Greats man myself,” the headmaster says. “I deplore it as much as you do. But what can we do? Parents are not interested in producing the ‘complete man’ anymore. They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the public world. You can hardly blame them, can you?” “Oh yes,” Scott-King replies. “I can and do.” And, deaf to the headmaster’s entreaties, he declares, shyly but firmly, “I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.” Waugh got the best of the modern world, but paid a high price for it: he gave it his genius.