Magazine | September 30, 2019, Issue

Walter Bagehot: The Great Victorian Journalist

From the cover of Bagehot (W. W. Norton)
Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian, by James Grant (W. W. Norton, 368 pp., $29.95)

Few writers are as highly praised, and as unknown to contemporary audiences, as Walter Bagehot. The banker, essayist, journalist, author, and editor of The Economist, whose last name rhymes with “gadget,” dazzled literary, financial, and political circles in Britain from his first major essay in 1851 to his death in 1877. Now his name is known primarily as the title of a column in the magazine he once edited. “Bagehot is one of those distinguished literary figures,” wrote Roger Kimball, “who seems to have been embalmed by his own distinction.”

James Grant’s lucid and captivating biography proves that Bagehot is worth remembering. He was more than a prolific writer. The variety of his interests and the versatility of his pen were emblematic of the period in which he lived. Long after his death, the historian G. M. Young, in an article for The Spectator, announced that Bagehot had been the “greatest Victorian.”

Bold claim. Yet Bagehot meets Young’s criteria. “We are looking for a man,” Young said, “who was in and of his age, and who could have been of no other: a man with sympathy to share, and genius to judge, its sentiments and movements: a man not too illustrious or too consummate to be companionable, but one, nevertheless, whose ideas took root and are still bearing.”

Indeed, Bagehot’s books on British politics, on finance, and on the development of civilization are worth reading today. The reader of Bagehot will also be struck by the role he played in the history of journalism. This public intellectual avant la lettre displayed all the virtues and faults of his chosen profession.

Or should I say professions? Bagehot, like his literary descendant Christopher Hitchens, kept two sets of books. For Hitchens, radical politics accompanied a conservative aesthetic. For Bagehot, the conservatism of his private life as a banker contrasted with the pyrotechnics of his journalism.

Commentators on Bagehot emphasize this divided nature. “His singular genius derives from his double vision,” wrote Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence. “In any conflict of persons or of ideas he was always able to see that neither side was perverse or stupid, but had reasons for militancy; and he entered not only into these reasons but also the feelings attached.”

The duality was present in Bagehot’s upbringing. He was born in 1826 to a country banking family. His father was Unitarian, his mother Anglican. His father was stolid, upright, his mother subject to what Grant describes as “flights of madness.” In school Bagehot was aloof, in politics elitist. On the page he was grand company; in life he was a man apart. “We see but one aspect of our neighbor, as we see but one side of the moon,” he wrote. “In either case there is also a dark half which is unknown to us. We all come down to dinner, but each has a room to himself.”

Grant is less interested than other scholars in Bagehot’s “dark half.” His brisk narrative is more devoted to economic history than to psychology. “I draw up the assets and liabilities with a libertarian’s biases,” he writes. What troubles him are the uses to which modern central bankers have put Bagehot’s insights into markets.

Bagehot long held, against the orthodoxy of his age, that in financial crises central banks should be lenders of last resort. He also held that such lending should be at high rates of interest and against good collateral. The architects of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, of “too big to fail,” of keeping interest rates at zero, and of quantitative easing ignore Bagehot’s caveats.

“His epigrams did not lead today’s central bankers to take actions that they would not have otherwise taken,” Grant concludes, “but those words put the gloss of conservative authority on unprecedented monetary experiments.” And no one knows how these experiments will end.

Bagehot had the two qualities of successful journalists. The first is a recognizable style. “His writing was so pithy and epigrammatic,” noted Gertrude Himmelfarb, “that any commentary on him is a series of quotations.” The second is a contrarian sensibility.

He displayed both traits as early as 1851. Bagehot found himself in Paris during Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état. He wrote a 60,000-word dispatch for the Inquirer, a Unitarian paper, in defense of Louis-Napoleon. French society, he said, had deteriorated to the point where a dictator was necessary to restore order. His readers were shocked by Bagehot’s arguments but could not help enjoying the way he phrased them.

In 1858, Bagehot married Eliza Wilson. Her father, James, was the passionate free trader who had founded The Economist. Bagehot had contributed articles to the publication and become a protégé of his father-in-law. When Wilson died in 1860, he took the reins.

Bagehot’s productivity is breathtaking. Somehow, he managed to edit and write for the periodical while also advising governments, contributing to other journals, publishing books, and serving as a director of the family bank. “Bagehot’s mind afforded him polymathic scope — not that he was alone, or even so very unusual, in the wide range of his interests,” Grant writes. “For many accomplished Victorians, curiosity seemed unbounded.”

Another mark of a great journalist is an allergy to specialization. He might have one or two areas of particular concern but he is never afraid to research, analyze, and report and comment on the passing scene. Readers don’t mind, because they are reading him not for specific content but for the familiarity and ingenuity of his voice. The New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling wrote about urban life, boxing, newspapers, World War II, and food. Tom Wolfe’s subjects ranged from Hugh Hefner to Chuck Yeager to horse breeding to the social life of Miami retirement homes. Bagehot wrote about not only banking and trade but also politics, foreign policy, history, and literature.

The danger is that the journalist, his attention spread in so many directions, won’t find the time to concentrate his efforts on a single object. “In each of his domains he is highly prized,” Barzun said of Bagehot, “but versatility looks like a division, not an addition of powers.” Another danger is that the journalist will be wrong, his judgments superficial, his contrarianism facile.

It was a trap Bagehot fell into sometimes. He wrote that the Union was doomed to lose the American Civil War and dismissed Lincoln as “a village lawyer.” He failed to predict the most spectacular bankruptcy of his lifetime, the collapse of financial giant Overend Gurney. In his brilliant English Constitution he denigrated the U.S. Constitution and gave a false portrait of Queen Victoria’s role in politics. The book “became a bestseller,” Paul Johnson remarked in The Offshore Islanders, “and deluded a nation.” His masterpiece, Lombard Street, is an unsurpassed description of finance in the mid to late 19th century. It also continues to provide justification for the aggrandizement of central bankers.

His weakness was substituting intellectual superiority for class superiority. “Neither Disraeli nor Mill was given to sneering at the weak or the ignorant,” writes Grant. “Bagehot sneered habitually.” His sneer was often incisive, and always entertaining. Wrong though he might be, Bagehot always was worth paying attention to. The pleasure of his company alone is worth the price of this volume. Bagehot may not have been the greatest Victorian, but he was the greatest Victorian journalist. And that is no small feat.

This article appears as “Versatile Victorian” in the September 30, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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