Of all the great 20th-century critics, I.A. Richards is perhaps the most neglected. There is a crankish, hobbyhorsical quality to his work, an air of taxonomies and technical agendas which befits the son of a chemical engineer. His transatlantic counterpart in this respect is Kenneth Burke. Some of Richards's work smacks of the laboratory, and isn't helped by his charmless, bloodless prose style, laced as it is with briskly self-satisfied flourishes which his opponents saw as insufferable arrogance. An ardent propagandist for so-called Basic English, a project which reduced the language to a mere 850 words, Richards was also a precursor of today's global industry of English-language teaching. He published some founding, now forgotten texts in modern methods of language teaching, and once worked with cartoonists in the Disney studios, drawing up simplified language instruction manuals for the US Navy. He also conducted seminars with leading North American educators, and was hired by the Rockefeller Foundation to draw up a statement on the practice of reading. Some of his late works of the 1960s are described by the editor of this superb selection of his writings, a man not averse to rapping his author smartly over the knuckles, as 'febrile', 'unbalanced' and 'salvationist'.
LRB 25 April 2002 | PDF Download