Sunday, June 28, 2009
THE GREAT GILBERT HIGHET: SCOTTISH-AMERICAN WORDSMITH
Gilbert Highet (1906-1978), coined the charming phrase ‘the small, flat world of the chessboard’. I believe it indubitable that it was first used or popularized by Highet in his radio talks and then republished in 1957 (Oxford University Press)/
The quote is also referred to an old book I read as a boy the piece The Joys of Chess by Fred Reinfeld (New York, 1961). Page 13 mentions that the article, entitled “Chess Men”, was originally a radio talk and of course this is true because Highet’s essays are based on his radio scripts for WQXR in New York..
If one listens to some of the radio scripts as I have one will notice that Highet ad libs from time to time and of course laughs. So there is a slight difference betweek the published essays and the radio talks. But the radio talks were broadcast first so if one wanted to one could date the first date the talk was aired. The radio talks are charming and informative and still worth listening to. I often listen to them while swimming as a change of pace and as a form of relaxation. My father made reel to reel recordings of some of his talks which I first heard in the early ‘60’s –they ended in 1959 but some of there are available on CD format.
Another reference to chess by Highet occurred on page 92 of Highet’s splendid book Man’s Unconquerable Mind (New York, 1954):
“After Stalin had won his struggle for power against Trotsky, Trotsky’s work in building up the Red army was expunged from Communist history books and is now virtually forgotten inside the USSR. Such distortions are extended to quite small details. Thus, the most distinguished of modern chess masters was a Russian, Alekhine; since he repudiated the Bolshevik revolution, his name is not mentioned in Russian histories of chess.”
There is also, as I recall at least one reference to chess in Highet’s great book The Classical Tradition.
I have only a passing interest in chess per se though as a young man I played it often particularly when I lived in Spain but I have a great interest in Gilbert Highet who is one of my favorite authors. At my present age (53) I much prefer literature, languages and music to games such as baseball, football (soccer) and chess though I can be enticed by my wife to see USA beat Spain or Brazil! But I would characterize myself now, at last, as a very casual fan. Modern sports has become so commercialized that it they have ruined the fun for me. And in addition I admit I am probably influenced by the anti-intellectualism and unpleasantness of high school jocks. They are very tiresome and make it hard for me to root for them. I detest athletes and coaches asking me to change the grade of a jock slacker! Absolutely detest it. But it happens regularly. But I hold firm. Mind you I would tutor any athlete who cared about improving his grade. But when the tell me ‘they can’t miss practice” and they “don’t have the time” I tell them that they made their choice and so have to suffer the consequences.
I believe Highet.was one of the greatest teachers and writers of the 20th century. His prose is the equal or superior to George Orwell whose work I have read almost completely. Highet is simply worth reading for his style and clarity. He was the Scottish-American Cicero. Russell Kirk agreed with me as his widow Annette Kirk once told me. Kirk had all of Highet’s books in his library at Mecosta.