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In this brief volume, culled from numerous essays over the years, one of America's leading Marxist literary critics takes on Chandler yet again, arguing that his work "reconstructs both the context in which it was written and the social world or totality it projects." No, seriously. A sharp incisive look that -- whether you agree with Frederic's conclusions or not -- is worth reading for its punchy prose style and big balls thinking.

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So instead of consolidating the start that was made pre-1914, the arts have suffered from a number of debilitating ideas which Barzun subjected to criticism in his 1972 Mellon Lectures. These were published in a book titled The Use and Abuse of Art. He examined the rise of art as a substitute for religion in the nineteenth century, so art simultaneously became the “ultimate critic of life and the moral censor of society”. The next phase in that development was Estheticism and Abolitionism during the period 1890 to 1914, with the tradition of the New resulting in the unremitting destruction of past art as a point of reference for any moral or aesthetic standards. He wrote “By making extreme moral and esthetic demands in the harsh way of shock and insult, art unsettles the self and destroys confidence and spontaneity in individual conduct.”

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At that point Barzun wrote On Human Freedom in an attempt to offer a civilised alternative to old idols and new dogmas. The next major instalment in his project was Darwin, Marx and Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941). The nomination of Wagner rather than Freud in the trinity of emblematic modern minds is a sign of Barzun’s profound interest in music and the arts. He argued that these men achieved their reputations by catching the spirit of the age, like surfers on a wave, backed by the formidable public relations exercises mounted by their followers . This earned them the status of intellectual icons despite their lack of originality and the significant flaws in their systems. He described in some detail how all the leading ideas of evolutionary theory, socialism and the leading role of the artist were commonplace for decades before the big three started work.

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