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.
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.”
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.
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
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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...
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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 equivalent of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. As a prose-writer he is inferior to both, but his reactions may be contrasted. Graves and Sassoon were civilised human beings, outraged by the stupidity and horror of trench warfare. Their reactions were more or less clear-cut and clearly expressed. Lewis, who has seen only the home-duty incidentals of war, is far more confused and uncertain. His attitude to the army oscillates between disgust and fascination. Very consciously left-wing he is anxious to establish the democracy and comradeship of an army in which he recognises the obstacles to both. The attitude is sympathetic, but leads to indifferent writing. He is at his best in the story called “Almost a Gentleman,” the portrait of an...
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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 of the saloon that holds all the food and all the speeches. It is comic, critical, and above all in relief: the reader shares the author's view of the world as he might a painter's. Another indisputable success is “They Came,” the sketch of a soldier returning from the leave on which his wife was killed in an air-raid.
In a slightly different class are such tales as “The Wanderers” and “The Prisoners,” tales which now and again sound the right note but not, to some ears, all the time; tales in which, one suspects, the author, confident of giving great pleasure to a great many people anyhow, has let his attention wander and his energies flag. When a writer has promise he is exposed to dangers from which the...
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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 foreboding. But I was also embarrassed by the newspaper's request, because I had never met Alun Lewis, though we had corresponded for several years, and I was critical of him as a poet, though I had published several of his poems.
I still feel something of the same embarrassment, because Alun Lewis had many friends who knew him intimately and loved him, and many who had never met him loved his poetry with an unqualified enthusiasm I could never muster. To all those I offer my apologies for writing as I shall in these pages, but it would be wrong of me to pretend that I thought he was comparable in his poetic achievement with Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen, the victims of an earlier war, and his own admired masters, or even with...
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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 View, a collection of short stories chosen by G. F. Green published by Faber and Faber in 1950. His achievement in this genre is perhaps easier to assess than his achievement as a poet. Certainly some critics who, like Glyn Jones, found it difficult to ‘get the wavelength’ of the poet, found no such difficulty with the writer of short stories. Yet both came out of the same sensibility, the same experience and the same pre-occupations, and Lewis's virtues and faults as a poet and as a short-story writer are not surprisingly often related. Perhaps we are less critical when we read prose; perhaps in poetry, especially lyric poetry, a single line out of place can unbalance the poem, whereas in the short story the virtues are more able to carry...
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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, where Lewis tries to define the impulses which lie behind the poetry and the prose, and himself suggests that the two represent different but complementary aspects of his art: “I think the poems are an act of daring, always daring, to plunge and tear and enter; the stories are an act of recognition and steadiness … the stories … stick to things the poetry sweeps above or below.”2 But it may be significant that his earliest interest was, in fact, in prose; and that his development in this form was more even. It was soon apparent that his achievement here was to rank with that of other writers who have used the medium, not simply to tell a lively tale, but to explore and extend their vision of the universe.
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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 tradition of English writing in Welsh. That this was not so is shown conspicuously by “The Wanderers,” one of the five stories in his volume The Last Inspection that do not deal with the war. It is perhaps the finest story he ever wrote; in its suggestion of a kinship with the young Lawrence it indicates the nature of his talent and his affinities.
The opening sets its scene and ambience:
The heat inside the caravan was too much for her. The wooden wall-boards were warped and the paint bubbled and flaked by the burning hot noon. She fell asleep in the middle of stitching a corner of the red quilt in the boy's trousers. Running up the steps in nothing but his rough green...
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Pikoulis, John. Alun Lewis: A Life. Mid Glamorgan, Wales: Seren Books, 1991, 322 p.
Provides a critical biography of Lewis.
John, Alun. Alun Lewis. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1970, 98 p.
Examines Lewis as a distinctly Welsh writer.
Jones, Gwyn. “Postscript.” In In the Green Tree, by Alun Lewis, pp. 137-41. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1948.
Offers a personal reminiscence of Lewis as a writer and correspondent.
Stegner, Wallace. “Waiting.” New York Times Book Review (20 June 1943): 4-5.
Admits some flaws in The Last Inspection but finds that the stories provide a valuable artistic service in their examination of the ordinary, non-heroic, aspects of army life.
Additional coverage of Lewis's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 20, 162; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 3.
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