John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters came out around the time I got my first university job. It made a formative impression at an impressionable period of my life. It was not a book title (with that prejudicial ‘men only’ implication) that would easily slip past the editorial committee nowadays but it expressed a cultural fact. High literacy, of the kind Gross honoured in 1969, was historically masculine and clubbish. One aspired to join that club – even though, as Gross’s Gibbonesque title indicated, the genus was headed for extinction.
The ideal of the man of letters was, above all, to be ‘well read’. One did not need to have a doctorate for that. Indeed, those alien letters were regarded as conducive to Germanic dullness. Gross – a distinguished higher journalist for fifty years – has stayed true