John Gross, critic, editor and 'best-read man in Britain,' dies at 75

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 12:01 AM

John Gross, 75, a British literary critic and editor whose wide-ranging interests seemed to be a modern-day reflection of the learned writers he memorialized in his 1969 bestseller, "The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters," died Jan. 10 in London. He had heart and kidney ailments.

A onetime academic who fled the cloistered life of the university for the hurried world of journalism, Mr. Gross was once called by the British Spectator magazine "the best-read man in Britain." He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the works of Shakespeare and was equally adept in politics, drama and history.

From 1974 to 1981, Mr. Gross was editor of the Times Literary Supplement, helping transform the review section of London's Sunday Times newspaper into one of the pre-eminent literary journals in the world.

At the TLS, as it is generally known, Mr. Gross took the controversial step of including bylines on reviews that had traditionally been anonymous. The old practice, he said, permitted "the worst critics, Mr. Puff and Mr. Sneer, to sound like impersonal oracles."

From 1983 to 1989, Mr. Gross was a book reviewer and cultural critic for the New York Times. After returning to England in 1989, he was the drama critic for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper until 2005.

Mr. Gross wrote or edited several books but remained best-known for "The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters." His book, he noted, was about a particular kind of British writer who "aimed higher than journalism but made no pretence of being primarily an artist."

Noting that the term "man of letters" had the musty scent of the antique, Mr. Gross wrote, "nothing has really taken its place."

His book revived the half-forgotten careers of such Victorian early 20th-century writers as Matthew Arnold, Edmund Gosse and John Middleton Murry, who toiled in the low-paying but combative literary world. Mr. Gross's book became an unexpected bestseller.

John Jacob Gross was born March 12, 1935, in London's East End. His father, a doctor, was an emigrant from Poland.

In a 2001 memoir, "The Double Thread," Mr. Gross described his early life, in which his Jewish roots and his emerging identity as an English literary figure sometimes clashed.

He graduated from the University of Oxford in 1955 and worked in publishing and as a college professor early in his career.

Later in life, Mr. Gross drew on his vast knowledge of literature when he edited a series of books for the Oxford University Press, including anthologies of essays, English prose, literary anecdotes and parodies.

He served on many British cultural councils and was chairman of the judging committee of Britain's prestigious Man Booker literary prize.

His marriage to Miriam May Gross ended in divorce. Survivors include two children.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company