Literature and Society, 1938
The Novel and the Modern World, 1939, revised 1960
Poetry and the Modern World, 1940
The King James Version of the English Bible: A Study of Its Sources and Development, 1941
Virginia Woolf, 1942, revised 1963
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1947
A Study of Literature for Readers and Critics, 1948
Robert Burns, 1950, revised 1966
Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction, 1951
Stevenson and the Art of Fiction, 1951
Walt Whitman: Man, Poet, Philosopher, 1955
Critical Approaches to Literature, 1956
Literary Essays, 1956
Two Worlds: An Edinburgh Jewish Childhood, 1956 (autobiography)
Milton, 1957, revised 1966
The Present Age in British Literature, 1958
A Critical History of English Literature, 1960, revised 1997 (2 volumes)
George Eliot: “Middlemarch,” 1963
English Literature, 1964
The Paradox of Scottish Culture: The Eighteenth Century Experience, 1964
More Literary Essays, 1968
The Teaching of Literature in American Universities, 1968
Some Late Victorian Attitudes, 1969
Scotch Whiskey: Its Past and Present, 1969
A Third World, 1971 (autobiography)
Sir Walter Scott and His World, 1971
Robert Burns and His World, 1971
The Last Stuart: The Life and Times of Bonnie Prince Charlie, 1973
Robert Louis Stevenson and His World, 1973
James Boswell and His World, 1975
Was: A Pastime from Time Past, 1975
Moses: The Man and His Vision, 1976
Scotland and the Union, 1977
Literary Landscapes of the British Isles: A Narrative Atlas, 1979 (with John Flowers)
Robert Fergusson, 1982
Literature and Gentility in Scotland, 1982
God and the Poets, 1983
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 1962, 1984 (with others)
The Idea of a New University: An Experiment in Sussex, 1964, 1970
Robert Burns, Commonplace Book, 1773-1785, 1965
Literature and Western Civilization, 1972-1975 (5 volumes; with others)
Robert Burns: Selected Poems, 1980
A Companion to Scottish Culture, 1981, revised 1993 (as The New Companion to Scottish Culture)
A Hotbead of Genius, 1986 (with Peter Jones and Jean Jones; also known as The Scottish Enlightenment, 1730-1790: A Hotbead of Genius)
A Weekly Scotsman, and Other Poems, 1994
David Daiches (DAY-cheez) is a prime example of the old-fashioned humanist “man of letters.” Such writers consider their primary duty to be illuminating their subjects by unearthing all the information they can find and then arranging it in order. In doing so they act under the direction of no particular critical theory other than the assumption that the historical context of the work considered has much to do with the ways in which it can be understood and appreciated.
The son of a distinguished rabbi, Daiches was reared in Sunderland, England, and later in Scotland, where his parents moved after World War I. He attended the University of Edinburgh, where he earned both B.A. and M.A. degrees with first-class honors in 1934. He then attended Oxford and Cambridge Universities, receiving doctorates from both in 1939. Daiches embarked on a teaching career that would take him to many universities in both the United States and England, ending at the University of Sussex, where he spent the years from 1961 to 1977. After his retirement, he settled in Edinburgh, Scotland, and in 1991 was honored with the CBE (commander of the Order of the British Empire) for services to literature.
Daiches’ scholarly career began even before he had completed his graduate studies. At first he concentrated on general studies in the theory of literature, producing a series of books concerning the function of literature in society and attempting to establish basic principles for the study of literature. In these, especially in Literature and Society, he proves an able exponent of the so-called Genetic Criticism, which prevailed before the advent of the New Criticism. Certainly not doctrinaire, he simply argues persuasively that reading is an act of interpreting a text, that authors intend to communicate a meaning through the text, and that the best way to uncover that meaning is to learn as much as possible about authors and their times.
Daiches next began a series of what could be called practical applications, having settled the questions of general theory. The first of these, drawing upon his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, was a literary study of the King James Bible, one of the central documents in the stylistic development of English prose. As could be predicted from the theoretical works, his object was to learn all he could about the translators, the circumstances of the translation, and what the translators believed they were doing. Other works on specific writers followed, of which Virginia Woolf, Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns, and Milton are particularly noteworthy. The book on Woolf arguably remains the single best introduction to her work; here Daiches for the first time entirely subordinates himself to his subject, so that his prose becomes an unobtrusive medium of revelation. The study of Stevenson has not been surpassed, perhaps because the subject is a writer most effectively read from the perspective of Daiches’ theories. The masterpiece, however, is the study of Burns; Daiches’ intellect burns away the fog left by previous commentators, and his prose illuminates his insights.
In 1951 Daiches left Cornell University, where he was chair of the English Department and a role model for students, and began a residency at the University of Cambridge, where he continued to work in both general theory and particular illustration. These works were well received, though none was judged exceptional. His Critical Approaches to Literature, however, served as a bible to the generation of graduate students beginning work from the mid-1950’s, and his introductions to twentieth century writers for The Norton Anthology of English Literature synthesized the basic facts and backgrounds for students whose literary studies began in the 1960’s. In 1956 he published the first volume of his autobiography, Two Worlds: An Edinburgh Jewish Childhood, interesting in its own right but made even more fascinating by the simplicity, clarity, and directness of his prose style. In 1960, when the study of literature was becoming increasingly compartmentalized, specialized, and theory-ridden, he presented his two-volume A Critical History of English Literature, easily the clearest, most balanced, and most successful of the spate of literary histories appearing at the time.
In 1961 Daiches helped create the new University of Sussex and returned to his studies of individual writers, redoing several he had done previously and formulating his conclusions about teaching after twenty years’ experience. He also wrote a fascinating and authoritative book on an unusual nonacademic subject: the history, technology, and art of distilling scotch whiskey. Scotch Whiskey: Its Past and Present would become one of his most popular works. In it, Daiches approached his subject exactly the way he approached a literary tradition: He aimed to disclose the continuing influence of the past on the present, to show exactly how past practice continues to interact with and inform life today. Almost equally popular is Daiches’ study of the Jacobite movement, The Last Stuart: The Life and Times of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Astonishingly, Daiches managed to write for the general reader while meeting the most exacting standards of specialist scholarships.
With his retirement in 1977 and his return to Edinburgh, Daiches’ work focused on Scottish literature and society (Literature and Gentility in Scotland) and his Jewish roots (God and the Poets). A Weekly Scotsman reflects a resurgence of his poetic creativity.
Daiches’ work anticipates subsequent formulations such as deconstructionism, new historicism, reader-response, and psychologically oriented criticism. His studies of authors such as Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, and Hugh MacDiarmid questioned and broadened the canon. The work of this prolific author reflects a highly accomplished and learned scholar, broadcaster, reviewer, and raconteur who writes well and often profoundly on many subjects.