Grub Street was a geographical and socio-economic reality in 18th-century London. Dr. Samuel Johnson worked there, as did many another ink-stained wretch trying to earn a living as a poet, essayist or pamphleteer. Today, it is primarily a state of mind -- the condition in which free-lance writers must put themselves to live by their wits. Walter Allen, one of the street's more eminent inhabitants in our time, thinks its days may be numbered, at least in his specialized branch of the profession:
"It seemed to me very likely that I belonged to the last generation of the old type of literary journalist, those who number among them Fielding, Goldsmith, Johnson, Smollett, Hazlitt, Pritchett conspicuously in our time and Edmund Wilson in the States, where the breed has been less evident, those writers, in other words, who have sometimes been called hacks and sometimes men of letters . . . While the reading public might be bigger than it had ever been, the reading public for my sort of writing was probably smaller."
The overtone of knight-errantry in the title of "free lance" is not misplaced. In an age when job-hunters fresh out of college ask the personnel managers searching questions about health and pension benefits, this hardy (and usually hungry) breed of writers wanders quixotically through the wild places of our society, questing the holy grail of an exclusive story and doing battle with monsters in the guise of public officials, information officers, celebrities and a whole range of others with dirty little secrets.
The professional life expectancy of the free lance is short, the tangible rewards usually scanty, but the excitement can be high -- including the dream of glory glimmering just beyond the horizon and the (partially illusory) knowledge that you are your own boss. For Allen and other literary journalists, the glory is relatively modest but the work is congenial, and you do meet interesting people.
"As I Walked Down New Grub Street" is packed, wall-to-wall, with the interesting people Walter Allen met in his years as a scrivener: T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, Robert Frost, Richard Hughes, Lewis Mumford, Wyndham Lewis, Lionel Trilling and Graham Greene, to name only a handful. One of the book's highlights is the account of a memorable evening spent with Dylan Thomas, drinking and talking about poetry until 4 a.m.
For the free-lance literary journalist, a further compensation lies in the frequent intersections of Grub Street with the road that leads to Academe. Allen eventually accepted a chair of English in the New University of Ulster, but that was not the first academic institution to attract his attention or give him a job offer. For about 15 years before accepting the chair, he had been a frequent guest teacher at colleges all over the United States, and offers of something more permanent came as early as 1955 -- at a small Presbyterian college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Teaching to supplement the precarious income of a novelist and free-lance critic is one thing. Living forever in Iowa (where, in 1955, Allen still detected strong residues of McCarthyism) was something else. He agonized over whether he wanted his children to grow up as Americans -- whether he could accept the role of the immigrant father in an American family. He had marveled at the phenomenon of supermarkets, found himself fascinated by the remaining traces of the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald in his surroundings, and compared the affluent, anxiety-ridden America of the Eisenhower years unfavorably with the free, open and generous America he had known as a visitor during the Depression.
"I found myself feeling consciously European," he reports, and it all crystallized somehow on the day he was taken to his first football game: "It was novel yet utterly familiar, just like what one had seen in the movies, pure Scott Fitzgerald. The only things missing were the hip-flasks circulating in the stands, which wouldn't have done in Puritan Iowa. It was the American way of life made flesh, and as I watched all I could think was How bloody, bloody, bloody silly."
So it was back to Grub Street, cozy and stimulating. The up-and-down life of the free lance -- was in his blood. "From early on," he says, "I had convinced myself that it was intrinsically better to work for oneself than to pursue an occupation that carried with it regular working hours and a regular wage. I had come to suspect that one became a free lance at least partly because one wasn't capable of buckling down and accepting the discipline inseparable from filling a regular job." And of course there were compensations. He comments with clear and justifiable pride on his novel "All in a Lifetime," which made him a best seller in England for one giddy month, and his study "The American Novel," which a whole generation of students plagiarized in term papers.
But there were also frustrations. One comment on his relations with Lionel Trilling seems to be capable of broader application: "My memories of personal encounters with Trilling are trivia." So are many of his anecdotes about other literary lions; though they often cast an oblique light upon the personalities, they deal largely with the public men (public, at least, in the small circle of London literary life) rather than anything deeper.
There are modest exceptions -- the long-forgotten fiction writer Julian Maclaren-Ross, for example, comes through in three dimensions, and so does Kingsley Martin, who was long the editor of the New Statesman. And his anecdotes are interesting -- from Auden's youthful hunger (we see him picking up a piece of ham he had dropped on a sawdust-strewn restaurant floor and stuffing it into his mouth) to Eliot's willingness to make a small "loan" to an impoverished fellow poet. But still, "trivia" seems a fair description.
Allen himself remains a public person in his own pages; the story is about his career as a literary journalist, and his wife and children, for example, are the merest shadowy presences in his chronicle of London literary life. Still, he does give a vivid impression of that life,and those who are interested in what it was like will find much of interest in his account.