Alun Lewis Essay - Critical Essays

Lewis, Alun

Introduction

Alun Lewis 1915–-1944

Welsh short story writer and poet.

Lewis is considered one of the most significant short story writers of World War II. While critics are divided over whether or not his stories take critical precedence over his poetry, most agree that Lewis's short fiction is an important contribution to the canon of war literature written during the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Lewis was born in Cwmaman, Wales, in 1915. The family briefly moved to Yorkshire, England, during World War I so that Lewis's father could enlist in the army. When he was wounded in 1918, they returned to Cwmaman and then moved to Glynhafod, where Lewis began school in 1920. Lewis entered Cowbridge Grammar School in 1926, where he contributed short stories to the school journal, The Bovian. In 1932 Lewis enrolled at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth, majoring in history, and began contributing stories to the university's literary journal, the Dragon, in 1934. Lewis graduated in 1935 and in September of the same year, began attending Manchester University. In 1937 he earned a master's degree in medieval history, but soon grew disillusioned with scholarly research. Lewis did, however, continue to write short fiction, most of it published once more in a student journal. In May 1937 Lewis attended a retreat in France, but his dissatisfaction and unhappiness continued. He returned to Aberystwyth to work for a teacher's diploma and spent the next months as a student teacher in Dolgellau before he obtained his diploma the following year. In 1939 he began working as a teacher at Lewis School in Pengam, Wales. Throughout the autumn of that year Lewis was torn between his desire to serve in World War II and his ambivalent feelings about killing. In March 1940 he registered in the reserves, as a way of serving in the war without having to kill. A few months later he changed his mind and went into active service on the railroad at Longmoor, Hampshire, England. In 1941 Lewis married Gweno Ellis. Lewis was sent to serve in India in 1942, where he was made an intelligence officer. Stationed on Lake Kharakvasla, Lewis was offered a captaincy, but refused the promotion. Having suffered most of his life from frequent bouts of depression, Lewis again succumbed while in India and also was hospitalized for malaria. In 1944 his battalion was transferred to Burma, where he volunteered to join a patrol in the Goppe Pass. Lewis was killed by a shot from his own pistol. While the official inquiry ruled that the shooting was accidental, many fellow soldiers who were aware of his struggle with depression were convinced that Lewis committed suicide.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Lewis published only one volume of short stories, The Last Inspection, during his lifetime. The rest of his short fiction was published in magazines and journals and collected in several volumes after his death: In the Green Tree (1948), Alun Lewis: Selected Poetry and Prose (1966), Alun Lewis: A Miscellany of His Writings (1982), and Alun Lewis: Collected Stories (1990). While his stories generally are categorized as either war stories or non-war stories, many contain common themes, such as the isolation of the individual in a world hostile to human aspirations. Many of Lewis's early stories, such as “The Tale of a Dwarf,” “The End of the Hunt,” and “They Say There's a Boat on the River,” contain elements of neo-Gothic fables and explorations of nature and ideal beauty. In others—notably “If Such Be Nature's Holy Plan” and “The Whirligig of Fate”—Lewis probed the dark side of nature's powers. Lewis's early stories also frequently reflect his training as a medievalist and his Welsh heritage, and have been compared favorably with the fiction of D. H. Lawrence. Around the time Lewis enlisted in the service, his subject matter shifted to issues surrounding World War II. Most of the stories in The Last Inspection evidence Lewis's ambivalent feelings about war. Some, such as the title story “The Last Inspection” and “It's a Long Way to Go,” are satirical depictions of what Lewis saw as the military's cold and uncaring attitude toward civilian suffering during wartime. Others are often tragic and ironic examinations of the confusing and alienating effects of war on both soldiers and civilians, including one of Lewis's best-known stories, “Almost a Gentleman.”

Critical Reception

While Lewis is well known as a war writer, many critics feel that his other stories, which range widely in tone and theme, have been unjustly neglected. Others find his war stories pedestrian and overly intellectualized, evidence of the emotional distance of the upper-middle classes from the harsh realities of life during wartime. But Lewis's proponents point out that by concentrating many of his war stories on civilian suffering rather than on soldiers fighting on the front, Lewis democratized the experience of war for all social classes. These and other critics contend that Lewis made a significant contribution not only to war literature of the twentieth century but also to Anglo-Welsh literature.

Principal Works

The Last Inspection 1942

In the Green Tree 1948

Alun Lewis: Selected Poetry and Prose [edited by Ian Hamilton] 1966

Alun Lewis: A Miscellany of His Writings [edited by John Pikoulis] 1982

Alun Lewis: Collected Stories [edited by Cary Archard] 1990

Raiders' Dawn and Other Poems (poetry) 1942

Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets: Poems in Transit (poetry) 1945

Letter from India (letters) 1946

Alun Lewis: Letters to My Wife [edited by Gweno Lewis] (letters) 1989

Criticism

John Hampson (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: “Fiction,” in The Spectator, Vol. 170, No. 5983, February 26, 1943, pp. 204, 206.

[In the following essay, Hampson reviews The Last Inspection, praising the volume and calling the stories “both touching and beautiful.”]

Readers who enjoy out-of-the-ordinary books should … make a point of reading Alun Lewis's first collection of short stories, The Last Inspection. Lewis is a poet, and his themes are lit by tenderness and sensibility. In a brief foreword he explains that eighteen of his twenty-three stories “are concerned with the Army in England during the two years' attente since the disaster of June, 1940.” He, too, presents the problems and conflicts of individuals caught up in the struggle of nations. He is a serious writer, using courage, sympathy and humour for his critical interpretation of life in the Army, with its sudden isolation of the individual from his familiar community. The full implications of this commonplace, yet most difficult problem, are sensitively illumined and realised. His characters, ranging from the small child and the simple recruit to the conscious and intellectual adult, are recognisable human beings. Lewis, like Leslie Halward, can explore the province of the inarticulate, and bring back riches, but his range is not confined to the proletariat. “Private Jones,” “Lance-Jack,” “Interruption,” “Acting Captain,” and “They Came,” contain a wealth of experience transformed by imagination into exciting prose. The last-named story reveals the mind of a soldier whose wife was killed in an air-raid on the first night of his leave, as he returns to his unit. In its economy of effect it is both touching and beautiful. This collection carries a recommendation from the Book Society.

Philip Toynbee (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: “New Novels and Stories,” in The New Statesman and Nation, Vol. 25, No. 630, March 20, 1943, pp. 191-92.

[In the following essay, Toynbee praises Lewis's stories in The Last Inspection but offers reservations about the authenticity of Lewis's depiction of war.]

Had Mr. Alun Lewis spent as many years in the army as Mr. Phelan spent in prison, his stories might have achieved the same assurance and unity. But where Phelan moves almost too slickly among his “mugs” and “grasses,” Lewis is less at ease with “Jerry Planes,” “Civvy Street” and the “Boss Class.” His reactions to army life are intensely interesting, for he is the 1943...

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Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1943)

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: “Soldier Tales,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2147, March 27, 1943, p. 149.

[In the following essay, the anonymous reviewer provides a mixed assessment of The Last Inspection, finding only some of the stories to be successful.]

The best stories in this collection of short stories [The Last Inspection], by which is meant those that probably struck the author, too, as presenting fresh facets of truth, include the title-piece. This account of the Brigadier's last rounds before retirement comes from the ranks, from the crew of the service train, from below the windows...

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John Lehmann (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: “A Human Standpoint,” in The Open Night, Longmans, Green and Co., 1952, pp. 109-16.

[In the following essay, Lehmann provides an overview of Lewis's life and work.]

The first thing I knew of Alun Lewis's death was when I was rung up from the editorial offices of a daily newspaper, and asked if I could write a short obituary note. The news was a great shock to me, and I found it quite impossible to say anything then and there. Up to that moment the war had seemed miraculously to spare the young English writers and artists whose work I most believed in; but in that moment I knew there were going to be no miracles, and my mind was trapped in a miserable...

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John Stuart Williams (essay date 1964-65)

SOURCE: “The Short Stories of Alun Lewis,” in The Anglo-Welsh Review, Vol. 14, No. 34, Winter, 1964-65, pp. 16-25.

[In the following essay, Williams examines major themes in Lewis's stories, contrasting them with the themes of Lewis's poems.]

The short stories of Alun Lewis were first published in periodicals as different as Lilliput and The Welsh Review. Twenty-three of them were collected in The Last Inspection, published by George Allen and Unwin in 1942, and six appeared, with selections from his letters, in In the Green Tree, also published by Allen and Unwin, in 1948. Another story, “Manuel,” was re-printed in First...

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Jacqueline Banerjee (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Alun Lewis: The Early Stories,” in The Anglo-Welsh Review, Vol. 20, No. 46, Spring, 1972, pp. 77-82.

[In the following essay, Banerjee examines Lewis's early stories, finding in them evidence of the success of the later, better-known stories and poems.]

The relative merits of Alun Lewis's poetry and short stories have long been in dispute. Was he basically a prose-writer, who only turned to poetry under the stress of service conditions, or was he, as one reviewer suggested, “a natural poet fascinated by the problems of the short story, which he once or twice brilliantly solved?”1 One clue is to be found in a letter to Freda Aykroyd in India,...

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Walter Allen (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Thomas, Alun Lewis,” in The Short Story in English, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1981, pp. 299-305.

[In the following essay, Allen discusses Lewis's story “The Wanderers,” which Allen considers his best story.]

A South Wales man, Alun Lewis was killed in an accident while on active service in India in 1943. He was then a lieutenant in the South Wales Borderers. Lewis's primary reputation was and remains that of a poet, but he left behind a handful of stories of great promise which suggest also that he might have become a novelist of stature. It would be easy to believe that it was the experience of war that wrenched Lewis out of a narrow, parochial...

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