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For Patrick Kurp.

New at IWP Books: Desmond MacCarthy, Portraits, 1931.

Arthur Krystal (A Word or Two Before I Go, 2023):

Thirty years ago I contemplated writing about the British critic and raconteur Desmond MacCarthy. Accordingly, I headed off to Broadway and Thirteenth Street. In those days the literary criticism at the Strand was stuck in with Literature, which was somewhere toward the back of the store, near the left wall. Before I reached the rows designated by the letter M, a book fell from an upper shelf, just missing my head. I knew it was from a high shelf because of the loud clap it made on hitting the floor. It was Desmond MacCarthy: The Man and His Writings, a collection of essays put together by the British biographer David Cecil and published in 1984 by Constable and Company Limited. It wasn’t the book I was looking for, but what were the chances of this one dropping at my feet, not just in a demure way, but seemingly pushed from a spot it shouldn’t have been in the first place at the exact moment I was passing by? This was no random occurrence. The universe and I may not have been reconciled, but at least we were in sync.

But to what purpose? I never did write a piece about MacCarthy, even though I soon found the book I was looking for in a used bookstore in Englewood, New Jersey. Titled simply Criticism, it was published in 1932 by Putnam and printed in England, and its preface concludes with a nod to Logan Pearsall Smith for help with the selections. Both books were a small revelation. Most critics write as though they know a lot more than their readers, but MacCarthy scribbled or typed as though we all belong to the same bookish fellowship. His prose conveys a modesty that complements rather than distracts from his considerable learning: “When I come across a profound piece of criticism into which the critic has, I feel, been led by surrendering to his own temperament, I wonder if my own method of criticizing is not mistaken.” Striving to read impartially, he tamped down his biases and predilections in order to go “straight to the spot where a general panorama of an author’s work is visible.”