NEW GRUB STREET

By George Gissing

Modern Library. 516 pp. Paperback, $13.95

George Gissing (1857-1903) was a late-Victorian novelist who never achieved the success and recognition he craved and deserved. He came closest with New Grub Street, published in 1891, which remains to this day the most devastating fictive portrayal of the conflict between materialism and idealism in the literary and journalistic worlds. It is, as Francine Prose observes in her brief, perceptive introduction to this welcome new edition, "faithful to its own moment and descriptive of our own," a point that struck me when I first read the novel about two decades ago. At the time, USA Today had just been born, and it turned out to have been foretold by Gissing nearly a century before, in the words of a hack London journalist named Whelpdale, proposing a new paper to be called Chit-Chat.

"No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length," Whelpdale proclaims in delight, "and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs." The paper, he says, would "address itself to the quarter-educated," the "young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention."

In just a few words, Gissing hit the nail head-on:

"As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chat information -- bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can't sustain beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat."

Two decades have passed, and USA Today is a far better newspaper than it was in its formative years, but those few paragraphs in New Grub Street have lost none of their pertinence, indeed have gained even more as the Chit-Chat formula has found its way into the predictable places (supermarket tabloids, cable-television "news" shows) and into the mainstream press as well. A populace "incapable of sustained attention" is much larger now than it was in late 19th-century London, the technological means of feeding it "the lightest and frothiest of chit-chat information" are infinitely greater, and the impulse toward serious journalism and literature is ever more difficult to sustain.

The novel should be read by anyone who works on Grub Street or consumes the products it manufactures. The place was defined by Samuel Johnson in his immortal Dictionary: "originally the name of a street near Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called grubstreet." Gissing might not immediately recognize Grub Street in its present manifestations -- Fleet Street in London, the National Press Club in Washington, the newsrooms of the broadcasters, all with their computers and fax machines and Palm Pilots -- but it wouldn't take long for him to see that it is inhabited by the same people, with the same motives and ambitions and scruples.

"I don't know how it is in other professions," says Marian Yule, a young woman who is just about the only wholly sympathetic character in these pages, "but I hope there is less envy, hatred and malice than in this of ours." Later she says -- as she watches her father and her prospective husband succumb to its meanness and temptations -- "I wish I could have done for ever with the hateful profession that so poisons men's minds!" Her father, Alfred Yule, is "a struggling and embittered man" who is "learned, copious, occasionally mordant in style; but grace had been denied to him." His bitterness has cause: "At the age of fifty he was still living in a poor house, in an obscure quarter. He earned enough for his actual needs, and was under no pressing fear for the morrow, so long as his faculties remained unimpaired; but there was no disguising from himself that his life had been a failure. And the thought tormented him."

He takes out his frustrations on his wife -- whom he arrogantly imagines to be beneath him -- and his daughter, even though she "grew up everything that her father desired," with "the bearing of refinement" as well as being "well endowed . . . with brains." But there is also a kind of honor about old Yule, who deeply loves literature and knowledge. In contrast, there is the novel's protagonist, Jasper Milvain, three years older than Marian and for a brief time her fiance{acute}. He has a "keen eye and critical smile" and is "unmistakably the modern young man who cultivates the art of success." He is not without a certain disarming candor -- "I am rather despicable, you know; it's part of my business to be so" -- but he is surpassingly grasping and cynical. "All my plans and efforts will have money in view -- all," he says. "I shan't allow anything to come in the way of my material advancement."

He writes slick pieces for the magazines and papers. He has designs on Marian Yule, but that does not prevent him from laboring for an editor who is her father's arch-enemy -- he goes by the splendid, Dickensian name of Clement Fadge -- for the simple reason that he follows money wherever it leads him. The "end of literary work . . . is to secure comfort and repute," he believes. The view of literature (and, by implication, journalism) that he outlines early in the novel could just as well be expressed by almost any inhabitant of Grub Street 2002:

"Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. . . . Our Grub Street of today is . . . supplied with telegraphic communication, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy."

Jasper stands in contrast to two other writers, Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen, who are serious men incapable of artifice or compromise, "wholly unfitted for the rough and tumble of the world's labour-market." Reardon harshly views himself as "a novelist who couldn't write novels; a husband who couldn't support his wife and child; a literate who made eager application for illiterate work at paltry wages," and within the context of Jasper's definition of the literary business he is all too correct. In anger he cries out: "What an insane thing it is to make literature one's only means of support! When the most trivial accident may at any time prove fatal to one's power of work for weeks or months. No, that is the unpardonable sin! To make a trade of an art!"

Gissing, who was for the most part no sentimentalist, gives Reardon and Biffen no happy endings; quite the contrary. With cruel attention to Grub Street realities, he has Jasper write a fawning posthumous paean to Reardon's small body of published work, which wins him the favor of Reardon's widow, who as it happens has recently come into an inheritance of £10,000. She is approximately as avaricious as he and, as a lagniappe, is fetching and desirable. Marian, whose inheritance is far smaller and who feels obliged to use it to help her ailing father, is cast aside.

At its core New Grub Street is about money: The word echoes on every page. As Gissing himself said elsewhere: "the most characteristic, the most important part of my work is that which deals with a class of young men distinctive of our time -- well-educated, fairly bred but without money. It is this fact of the poverty of my people which tells against their recognition as civilized beings." The more Grub Street changes, the more it remains the same. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.