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Russell Smith: Time heals reputations of flawed artists – well, mostly

The British press are all quite excited about a recent archival acquisition by the British Library. This august institution has finally agreed to house the papers of P.G. Wodehouse, the prolific comic author who died in 1975.

It's a large and interesting collection – it includes volumes of correspondence with a number of important cultural figures – and its acceptance into the British Library archives is symbolic: It allows Wodehouse to join the ranks of such canonized and beloved authors as Arthur Conan Doyle and Virginia Woolf.

But, more importantly, it shows how nothing but time can rehabilitate an artist who was disgraced for his actions.

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Why is the official acceptance of Wodehouse – the creator of Jeeves the butler – such a big deal, and why was it so long in coming? Because Wodehouse was for years a political embarrassment, accused of being a traitor and a Nazi stooge – and the stain of it stayed with him until he died.

Wodehouse was living in France at the time of the German occupation, and was imprisoned as a foreign national. He was sent to a camp in what was then Germany (now a part of Poland), where he waited out the war. While he was there, the Nazi authorities persuaded him to contribute some humorous speeches to a radio broadcast aimed at the United States. Wodehouse gaily participated, making his usual light jokes about his internment. Nothing overtly propagandistic – but participating was of course collaboration.

In 1945, he was released and, on his return to Britain, shamed. The British press called him a traitor, and there was always a hanging question about whether he actually had Nazi sympathies. A government investigation decided that he was guilty of nothing but bad judgment. But Wodehouse was so shaken by the blow to his reputation that he emigrated to America, where he lived out the rest of his life.

His rehabilitation actually began during his lifetime: He was awarded a knighthood just before he died. But to this day, I encounter literary people (academics, mostly), who hear of my love of Wodehouse – his brilliant turn of phrase, his ability to draw humour from awkwardness – with a raised eyebrow. "But wasn't he a fascist?" they say. Of course we can't laugh at the jokes of a fascist, funny as they may be. If he was a fascist, that ruins everything.

I don't know if the same people read the poetry of Ezra Pound, an open fascist, or of T.S. Eliot, an anti-Semite. It's hard to write Pound out of the canon completely, so influential was he. It's easier to ostracize Wodehouse because he was a minor writer, but also because his unabashed love affair with class privilege and unearned wealth makes him unfashionable to start with.

There are fashions in these things. Right now, it seems a far greater sin in an artist to be a misogynist than to be a Nazi. It is known that T.S. Eliot's conservatism veered toward the scary, but not widely known that he was cruel to his first wife; she suffered from a mental illness and once she was committed to an institution he never visited her. I suspect that this knowledge would do more to have him removed from university reading lists than his vile politics could. Being mean to his wife may finally make him worthless as a poet.

Many educated people want to boycott Woody Allen because of an accusation of rape, and I couldn't get my sensitive friends to go see a Roman Polanski film with me if I paid them, but a clever Ezra Pound quote doesn't seem to bother anyone. Indeed, it makes one seem more sensitive to know Ezra Pound.

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The fashions are complicated. It is by no means clear how stringent a good moralist must be when it comes to refusing the art of flawed people. Michael Jackson is a puzzling example. I have not once heard a call for a boycott of Jackson's music, despite the allegations that he was a serial child sex abuser. Indeed, the kind of person calling for the repudiation of Annie Hall tends to be exactly the kind of person claiming Thriller as the apotheosis of art. Michael Jackson is simply cooler.

Sensitive people were a bit confused, briefly, about what to think of the recent film The Birth Of A Nation. It promised, at first, to be the film about U.S. slavery that right-minded people could safely and gushingly praise – mostly because the director Nate Parker was himself African-American and the Oscars were so white. But then, when past accusations of rape surfaced, along with Parker's own admissions that he felt remorseful about his past conduct with women, the tone of reviews changed. It turned out no one thought it was a great film after all.

Speaking of biography, we will never know the true political sympathies of P.G. Wodehouse. Born in 1881, he grew up in such a different time and in such rarefied privilege – a time of empire, a time before women's suffrage – that it is quite likely his politics would appear both hidebound and racist to us. He most likely was not a feminist. And he betrayed at the very least a stunning nonchalance about the suffering of the world at war by participating in Nazi propaganda. It is actually shocking that Britain is now able to accept all this and admire his art at the same time. It doesn't suit the fervour of the times.

The difference between Wodehouse and contemporary criminal artists is, of course, that Wodehouse is long dead. Time softens emotions about the offensive lives of artists, because their art is always present, and they are not.

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