Professor David Daiches, CBE, MA, DPhil, FRSE, FRSL (2 September 1912 - 15 July 2005)
One of the major humanities scholars of the twentieth-century, David Daiches had a distinguished academic career on both sides of the Atlantic, teaching at Chicago, Cornell, Cambridge, and Edinburgh. He was also one of the founders of the University of Sussex.
Born in Sunderland, David Daiches moved to Edinburgh in early childhood when his father, Rabbi Dr Salis Daiches, was appointed to minister to the city’s small Jewish community, which he was to unite as the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation, and became the ‘virtual, but not nominal’ spiritual leader of Scottish Jewry.
Attending Edinburgh’s George Watson’s College, where he wrote for The Watsonian, and the University, where he was review editor of The Student, Daiches proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, as the first Andrew Bradley Fellow, and was awarded a DPhil on the Hebrew sources of the English Bible of 1611. At Oxford, his brilliance was noticed by the visiting President of Chicago University, who immediately offered him a teaching post, and Daiches and his wife Isobel Mackay moved to the United States in 1937. It was there that he began seriously to explore his interest in Scottish literature, and before the age of forty had produced two pioneering re-assessments of Stevenson and Burns. His Robert Louis Stevenson - a revaluation (1941) ‘rescued Stevenson from those who regarded him as a children’s entertainer, and brought him back into the mainstream of Scottish culture, so establishing him as a writer worthy of critical attention.’ Similarly, his seminal work on Burns (1950) ‘took the man out of the sentimental Burns Supper tradition’, to consider him, for the first time, as a poet in the wider literary and social contexts of his age.
Daiches’ 1951 essay ‘Scott’s Achievement as a Novelist’ is considered to be central to the revival of critical interest in Scott, who had languished as ‘an un-read literary landmark’. It is not extravagant to say that modern Scott scholarship owes its existence to Daiches’ championing intervention. In 1984, he was appointed vice-chairman of the advisory board of the Edinburgh edition of the Waverley Novels, being regarded as the project’s ‘academic godfather’. Daiches was also invited to contribute the foreword to each of the novels in the Edinburgh edition.
Although Daiches was to describe himself as one of the last generalists, he did however specialise in particular periods at different times in his career: his first book, The Place of Meaning in Poetry, was published in 1936, and was followed the next year by New Literary Values: studies on modern literature. These, and the Novel and the Modern World (1939), and his Poetry and the Modern World (1940) helped established his reputation as an important writer on aspects of ‘modernism’. His 1942 study of Virginia Woolf was for many years the standard critical introduction to her novels, and his 1951 book on the American writer Willa Cather was the first single critical study to be devoted to her work. The war years Daiches spent in the United States, where he had been seconded to the British Embassy in Washington. Immediately following the war, he was involved in the early work of the educational and cultural organisation that was to become UNESCO, and which the American government was keen to stall. Indeed, Daiches was responsible for preventing its indefinite postponement. He also set up the exchange scheme for teachers between the UK and the US, and was co-founder of the British Universities International Summer Schools, which were created to meet the demand from American service-men and -women whose university studies had been interrupted during the war and who wished to study in the UK.
After his stay in the US, Daiches and his wife and their young family came to the UK, where he took up an appointment as lecturer in English literature at Cambridge and was fellow of JesusCollege. There, he was to experience another extraordinarily productive period.
However, the critical methodology of the ‘New Criticism’ which Daiches had imported from the US, which many English academics regarded with suspicion, combined with the awfulness of the faculty politics meant his years there were perhaps not the happiest in his professional life. During this time, he wrote his important primer on Milton (1957), ‘the most Hebraic of English major poets’, and his magisterial Critical History of English Literature (1960).
After the war, for social as well as economic reasons, expansion at all levels in education became a matter of national importance, and during the 1950s plans were made for the creation of seven new universities in England. Because of his experience of higher education on both sides of the Atlantic and his formidable reputation as university teacher, Daiches was invited to join the planning committee of the University of Sussex, and in 1961 became its first Professor of English, and Dean of English (and later, American Studies).
In addition to his vast output of scholarly, critical writings, Daiches also wrote poetry and short stories, some of which were published during his US years in ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘Vogue’. He also wrote two volumes of autobiography. The first, Two Worlds, was published in the United States in 1956, though written earlier, partly in Chicago, ‘in a mood of pure self-indulgence.’ A reminiscence of his two childhood worlds - his Scottish Edinburgh and his Jewish Edinburgh - it has established itself as a piece of sociocultural Scottish history. The book also shows interesting parallels between Daiches’ life and Robert Louis Stevenson’s: both displayed precocious literary talent, both had a difficult relationship with their fathers, and both had to remove themselves to America following what their respective fathers viewed as unsatisfactory marriages. In the expanded edition of his memoir, he includes a poignant essay about his father, ‘Promised Lands’, with a postscript: ‘The Rabbi’s Street’, which refers to Daiches Braes, in north-east Edinburgh, the only street in Scotland, possibly the UK, to be named for a rabbi.
Although it is true that Daiches spent the greater part of his professional life furth of Scotland, his influence on Scottish cultural life was perhaps unparalleled. Indeed, it can be said that no-one in the twentieth century did more than David Daiches to ‘regenerate engagement with Scottish literature and the wider Scottish cultural context.’ On his retirement from Sussex in 1977, he returned to Edinburgh and involved himself fully in the work of the Advisory Council for the Arts in Scotland (AdCAS), the Saltire Society, the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, and ScottishPEN. He continued to write: editing A Companion to Scottish Culture; giving the Edinburgh Gifford Lectures in 1983 (published in 1984 as God and the Poets); and co-edited A Hotbed of Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment (1986). He also produced highly readable histories of Glasgow (1977) and Edinburgh (1978). In 1994 he published a selection of his own poems, A Weekly Scotsman. His three books on Scottish whisky, of which he was an expert connoisseur, represent a further important contribution that Daiches made to the cultural life of Scotland.
The 2008 publication, David Daiches: a celebration of his life and work, acknowledges his prominence as literary critic and cultural historian, and contains an extensive bibliography of his critical writings.
Text Copyright: Michael Lister © 2008 (Used with permission)