Fonds SMIJ - Papers of James Smith

Identity area

Reference code



Papers of James Smith


  • 1872-1974 (Creation)

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Extent and medium

2 boxes

Context area

Name of creator


Biographical history

James Smith, the son of a schoolmaster, was born in 1904 and educated at Batley Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he passed examinations in English and Modern and Medieval Languages. After spending several years in academic research and travel, he worked successively as a teacher of European languages and an inspector of schools. In the early 1930s he began contributing articles to Scrutiny, the journal associated with the influential Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis, and in 1938, under the influence of this connection, he returned to Cambridge, where he undertook various academic work, including the supervision of some Leavis’s students at Downing College. Shortly after this move Smith was received into the Catholic church, and from this time onwards his connections with Catholics and members of Leavis’s circle became important elements in his life. From 1940 to 1946 he worked in Venezuela as a teacher and administrator for the British Council, and in 1947, after a brief return to Cambridge, he was appointed Professor of English at the Catholic University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where he remained for the rest of his working life. In 1968, after a serious illness, he gave up his allegiance to the Catholic church, and a year later he retired and returned to Cambridge, where he died in 1972.

Smith had planned at least two monographs, but the only book to appear in his name was a posthumous collection of shorter pieces entitled Shakespearian and Other Essays. Nevertheless, within his own circle his reputation was high. The Spanish scholar A. A. Parker, for example, who attributed to Smith the most important elements of his own training, declared that he was ‘the most brilliant linguist and had the widest literary culture and the finest critical mind that I have ever come into contact with’.

Archival history

These papers were presented to Trinity in 2008 by Stephen Porter of the Cambridge booksellers Galloway and Porter, who discovered them while clearing out some desks at the firm. Mr Porter indicated that most of the papers had come from the library of H. M. Adams, a former fellow and librarian of the college, but since all but three of the items are letters or other documents sent to James Smith (1/1–2/5), which are clearly from the same source, Mr Porter’s qualification probably only indicates that he was unsure whether the remaining three items (3/1–3) belonged with them. In fact at least one of these odd items, a letter to Edward M. Wilson (3/3), was probably with the Smith papers before Adams had them. The letter is dated in 1974, the year in which Wilson issued a posthumous collection of Smith’s work, prepared in part from ‘a profusion of typescripts and manuscripts’ found after Smith’s death. It seems likely that, in addition to these literary papers, Wilson had also taken custody of other papers of Smith’s, including at least those in the present collection, and that the letter to him became mixed up with them inadvertently. The literary papers were afterwards deposited in Cambridge University Library (MS. Add. 7972). The papers in the present collection probably came into the hands of H. M. Adams some time after Wilson’s death in 1977, and Adams’s library, in turn, was presumably acquired by Galloway and Porter some time after his own death in 1985. Two letters by T. S. Eliot which were probably in Smith’s possession when he died are now in the University of Virginia: one of these is a testimonial written in 1946 in connection with Smith’s application for the chair of English at Fribourg, the other a letter of congratulation sent to Smith the following year.

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

Galloway and Porter, booksellers of Cambridge

Content and structure area

Scope and content

The collection mainly consists of letters to Smith from various friends and acquaintances, most of them literary scholars or Catholics or both. There are also five testimonials written for Smith in support of his application for the chair of English at the University of Fribourg in 1946 and three items apparently added to the papers by accident.

Appraisal, destruction and scheduling


System of arrangement

On their arrival at Trinity an inventory of the papers was made, but as there was no apparent significance in the order in which they then stood, a new systematic order was imposed on them in cataloguing.

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      This catalogue was compiled by A. C. Green in 2014, and revised by him in 2019.




          Accession area