Wilson, Angus 1913-1991
English short story writer, novelist, critic, playwright and essayist.
Wilson was recognized as a prominent figure in both fiction and literary criticism in post World War II England. He began his career as a short story writer, and these tales—laced with violence and satire—are considered by numerous critics to be precursors of the social protest works by the Angry Young Men of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of Wilson's stories are semiautobiographical, analyzing dysfunctional family relationships and depicting postwar society in flux. Wilson criticized traditional middle-class aspirations and values while focusing on the shortcomings of his characters and the collapse of social structure. Critics contend that his works serve as a detailed social history of the times, due to his painstaking recreation of time and place as well as his considerable talent for mimicry. Wilson gained immediate acclaim for his collections of short fiction, but eventually abandoned this form once he began writing novels in the 1950s.
Wilson was born in England to parents from wealthy families. Largely due to his father's gambling, however, the family was forced into genteel poverty, and Wilson spent much of his boyhood living in hotels. The family's somewhat nomadic existence, combined with the fact that Wilson was much younger than his siblings, led him to feel insecure and isolated; these feelings were compounded with his mother's death when he was fifteen; subsequently, themes of childhood, family dynamics, and loss often presented themselves in his short fiction and novels. Wilson took up writing in his thirties as a form of therapy after a nervous breakdown. Despite the success of his first volume of stories, Wilson's writing was confined to weekends and limited to short fiction because of the demands of his full-time job at the British Museum Library. After several collections of short stories and a novel were published, Wilson decided to leave his job and devote himself to literary matters. After writing several novels, he experimented with nontraditional form and also produced highly regarded works of criticism. Wilson was knighted in 1980 for his literary achievements and contributions to arts and services organizations.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In 1949 Wilson published his first volume of short fiction, titled The Wrong Set and Other Stories. This collection yielded one of his most controversial stories, "Raspberry Jam," in which a young boy is confronted with cruel and untrustworthy adults in the form of two women who torture a bird in his presence. Such Darling Dodos and Other Stories appeared the following year; the title story, which uses terminal illness to symbolize the death of 1930s liberal ideals, was lauded for keenly portrayed psychological and historical details. Wilson's third collection, A Bit Off the Map and Other Stories, was distinguished by its softened stance toward the characters, mixing the pathos and comedy that often marks his writings with more subtle satire. It was at this time that Hemlock and After, Wilson's first novel, appeared. Subsequently, only different collections of his early stories were published, with the occasional piece of short fiction appearing in literary magazines. His The Wild Garden or Speaking of Writing, based upon university lectures, delves into the major influences on his writing and is considered a candid look at his creative process.
When Wilson's first stories were published, reviewers were impressed with the technical skill displayed by the fledgling author. They praised his work for its attention to detail, expert mimicry, and accurate representation of the English social scene. One element that evoked negative comments was the violence exhibited in his fiction. A critic of Wilson's first collection expressed surprise at the horror and cruelty depicted in the stories, but acknowledged that it aptly reflected the "sickness" of the postwar period. In general, however, most commentators judged Wilson's stories as innovative and bold, taking some pleasure in the sometimes humorous unpleasantness of the tales. Wilson's reputation grew with the publication of several popular novels, but his experimentation with nontraditional form in subsequent works drew mixed reactions. Indeed, some of his later novels were deemed inaccessible, but renewed interest in—and appreciation of—his work was sparked shortly before his death in 1991.
The Wrong Set and Other Stories 1949
Such Darling Dodos and Other Stories 1950
A Bit Off the Map and Other Stories 1957
Death Dance: Twenty-Five Stories 1969
The Collected Stories of Angus Wilson 1987
Other Major Works
Emile Zola: An Introductory Study of His Novel (criticism) 1952
Hemlock and After (novel) 1952
For Whom the Cloche Tolls: A Scrapbook of the Twenties (fictional journal) 1953
The Mulberry Bush (play) 1955
Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (novel) 1956
The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (novel) 1958
The Old Men at the Zoo (novel) 1961
The Wild Garden or Speaking of Writing (essay) 1963
Late Call (novel) 1964
No Laughing Matter (novel) 1967
The World of Charles Dickens (criticism) 1970
As if by Magic (novel) 1973
The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling (criticism) 1977
Setting the World on Fire (novel) 1980
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SOURCE: "On the Way Up or Down," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXIII, No. 11, March 18, 1950, p. 15.
[In the following review, Benét praises The Wrong Set, noting that Wilson 's writing "is marked by sharp detail and a keen eye and ear. "]
These are very good short stories. I was surprised at howgood they are, for I did not know the author's name. I was even more surprised to read that he has worked since 1937 on the staff of the British Museum Library, for that staid atmosphere is not reflected here. It is only fair to warn that the stories [in The Wrong Set] are not always pleasant ones. If you are squeamish you may object to some of the emotions for there is a queer, morbid vein running through them, but I doubt if you will forget them. Angus Wilson has been compared to Saki—"the sudden round-the-corner surprise of Saki"—and at least one story here reminded me of Katherine Mansfield's method. His writing is his own but like Saki's and Mansfield's it is marked by sharp detail and a keen eye and ear. The emotional content is high. I thought I was a case-hardened reader, but I felt a pricking and my hair standing on end over one called "Raspberry Jam," about a little boy who has tea with two crazy ladies—insane-crazy.
The stories often have a savage intensity and Mr. Wilson can write with equal knowledge and accuracy about a professor of English poetry...
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SOURCE: "Human Frailty," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2903, October 18, 1957, p. 62.
[In this mixed review of A Bit Off the Map, the critic approves of Wilson's "accurate " and "kindly " fictional observations but speculates that the stories might become dated due to their emphasis on contemporary society.]
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SOURCE: "Angus Wilson's Guide to Modern England," in The New Republic, Vol. 137, No. 2244, November 25, 1957, pp. 17-18.
[In the following excerpt, Millgate finds A Bit Off the Map to be more compassionate than Wilson's earlier story collections. The critic also believes that the book is an insightful guide to the English social structure after World War II.]
It is, of course, the characters in Angus Wilson's new book of short stories who are off the map, hopelessly lost in a land of shifting values and changing class-lines—not the author himself. He, indeed, sits squarely in the middle of the contemporary English scene, like a supersensitive radar scanner sweeping the horizon on every side. With one exception, the stories in A Bit Off the Map are set in the post-1945 period, and, with his references to Suez, Elvis Presley and the Angry Young Men, Wilson contrives to seem as up-to-date as this morning's newspaper. He even manages to make the Angry Young Men themselves look old-fashioned: for he is more aware than most of that group seem to be of the political and social forces at work in Britain today, and much better equipped to convey this awareness in terms of human relationships.
Wilson's newest novel, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, took a great sweep through English life at many levels; one was always conscious of the social structure which conditioned the words and...
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SOURCE: "Angus Wilson: Studies in Depression," in Critical Essays on Angus Wilson, edited by Jay L. Halio, G. K. Hall & Co., 1985, pp. 81-7.
[In this essay, originally published in Cox's 1963 book The Free Spirit, the critic argues that Wilson's short stories represent a liberal humanist attitude but that the author's pessimism about human life makes his humanist sentiments less idealistic than those of authors like English novelist E. M. Forster.]
The fiction of Angus Wilson provides evidence for the great changes that have taken place in the thinking of liberal humanists during the last hundred years. In fact George Eliot would have found him a very odd humanist indeed. Particularly in the early short stories, his attitude towards human life appears to be one of disgust. There is a revulsion from the body in all his writing, and this saps his work of full vitality. For example, in "Union Reunion" he dwells upon the fat, bloated flesh of the whites in South Africa. The women are like "so many brightly painted barrels," and their eating dinner is "a deliberate locust-like advance that finally left the table a battlefield of picked bones, broken shells, dry skins and seeds." Minnie's once attractive small hands and feet now only look absurd on her mountainous body, and her attempts at foot-play under the table with her old admirer, Harry, make her an object of contempt. This kind of physical...
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SOURCE: An excerpt, in The Wild Garden or Speaking of Writing, University of California Press, 1963, pp. 23-55.
[In this excerpt from his book-length commentary regarding his development as a writer, Wilson discusses the manner in which events and characters from his life influenced his short fiction.]
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SOURCE: "The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos, " in Angus Wilson, Oliver and Boyd, 1964, pp. 13-26.
[In this chapter from his book-length study of Wilson, Halio discusses the author's first two collections of short stories and outlines the characters, situations, and constructs employed in his fiction.]
The original, enthusiastic response to Wilson's first two collections of short stories, The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos, unquestionably owed much to their refreshing wit and vigorous satire. Causing this response, too, was the brilliant way that they treated the problems of contemporary life, particularly the difficulties of social re-adjustment in post-war England. They offered no panaceas, of course, but as John Wain has observed [in The New Yorker, XXXV, No. 11, April, 1959] they had the merit of telling their readers something about the world they were then living in. If, a decade and a half later, they still hold both our interest as well as our admiration, we may have to look further to find some more solid basis for judgment. We shall see then, perhaps, that their ultimate appeal lies in a fundamental concern with recurrent human predicaments, like defeated pride or divided loyalty, rather than in an obvious ability to amuse or in an expert detailing of time and place. Finally, in their development of the short story form we may discover still another reason...
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SOURCE: "The Short Stories of Angus Wilson," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 2, Winter, 1966, pp. 117-25.
[An English man of letters, Bradbury is best known as the author of such satiric novels as Eating People Is Wrong (1959) and Stepping Westward (1965). He has also, as a literary critic, written extensively on English and American literature, especially the works of E. M. Forster. In this analysis, he discusses Wilson 's unusual mix of moral realism and absurd, grotesque characters.]
Many of the critics who have commented on Angus Wilson's fiction appear to have seen him as a direct inheritor of a central tradition in English fiction—the socio-moral tradition, which concerns itself with the moral analysis of life in society. Seen in this light, Wilson is a writer who carries on the habitual concerns of storytellers from Jane Austen to Forster into the world of post-Second World War uncertainty. He is a writer of intense moral concern, a moral realist devoted to the analysis of man in his social context. He is a writer of liberal humanist sympathies, seeking honest conduct and exploring the dilemmas of modern humanism under conditions of extreme strain and tension. He is a novelist of manners, his social world that of the English upper middle classes and their associated intelligentsia, a world with elaborated social forms and distinct social types, a world the standards of...
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SOURCE: A review of Death Dance: Twenty-five Stories, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. LII, No. 27, July 5, 1969, pp. 33-4.
[Oates is an American fiction writer and critic who is perhaps best known for her novel Them (1969), which won a National Book Award in 1970. Her fiction is noted for its exhaustive presentation of realistic detail as well as its striking imagination, especially in the evocation of abnormal psychological states. As a critic, Oates has written on a remarkable diversity of authors—from Shakespeare to Herman Melville to Samuel Beckett—and is appreciated for the individuality and erudition that characterize her critical work. In this favorable review, Oates comments on the preoccupation with death that plagues many of Wilson's characters.]
Here are stories from Angus Wilson's The Wrong Set, Such Darling Dodos, and A Bit Off the Map—masterful, concise, rather macabre tales of postwar England. The collection is aptly named, for most of the characters in this volume are involved in dances of death of one kind or another, consciously or unconsciously celebrating the doom of their civilization.
Wilson is a master of what we now call the Chekhovian short story: beginning with an immediate involvement in the consciousness of a central character, giving us details which, like dabs of color in an impressionist painting, suggest a...
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SOURCE: "Death Dance: 25 Stories Designed to be Dipped Into," in Los Angeles Times, August 25, 1969, p. 8.
[In this mixed review of Death Dance: Twenty-Five Stories, Kirsch criticizes Wilson's detachment in his stories and his overemphasis on English class relations, traits that often result in one-dimensional characters.]
Death Dance: Twenty-five Stories by Angus Wilson should not be read straight through but rather dipped into. I suspect that the first procedure produces a response similar to the presence of a weekend guest: he is interesting at times but an intense exposure produces moments of ennui.
The fact is that too much of Wilson, with his coolness and detachment, his concern with the nuance of class, caste and condition, results in an impatience.
In fairness, however, it must be said that just when you want to put the book down, you run into a story such as "More Friend Than Lodger," a superb and knowing tale about a poseur and a parasite in the world of publishing, or "After the Show," which reveals the coming of age of a young man who finds in the sordid circumstances of his elders an almost irresistible romantic appeal.
There are others: "A Little Companion," the story of a middle-aged spinster haunted by the apparition of a vulgar and whining little slum child, whose appearance might be of psychotic or psychic...
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SOURCE: "An interview with Angus Wilson," in The Iowa Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall, 1972, pp. 77-105.
[In the following excerpt, taken from an interview conducted in the fall of 1971, Wilson discusses various writers that have influenced his work, including Charles Dickens, Fedor Dostoevsky, and Samuel Beckett.]
[McDowell]: You have presented your views on Dickens at considerable length in The World of Charles Dickens. . . . Like Dickens you tend to have one or two characters presented in some detail (especially with respect to their moral choices), surrounded by a group of characters presented from the outside. Dickens illustrates this principle in surrounding Pip, Arthur Clennam, Esther Summerson, and David Copperfield by externally conceived characters. Do you admit to such a principle of organization in your fiction?
[Wilson]: Yes. I have read Dickens since I was very young, and I suppose I have read him more often than any other author; and he inevitably goes very deep into my work. Apart from the humor of Dickens which lies very close to a good deal of my humor, what is vital to his approach and to mine is that he sees his central figures always in relation to, first of all, a group and then in relation to the whole of society. Frequently with him the direction in his novels is, rather, outward from society and inwards toward the group and the central figure but...
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SOURCE: "To 1950: The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos," in Angus Wilson: Mimic and Moralist, Seeker and Warburg, 1980, pp. 1-21.
[In this excerpt from his book-length study of Wilson, Faulkner analyzes the stories in Wilson's first two collections of short stories, noting the author's developing style.]
The title [of Wilson's first collection] The Wrong Set is a highly appropriate one for the whole volume, as well as for the [title] story, for Wilson's central concern is with characters who find themselves with wrong sets of relationships; can there be relationships, the volume asks, which allow and help all concerned to grow and develop, or are they necessarily props for some and prisons for others? The sombreness which underlies the wit comes from the fact that the answer suggested is negative.
Those who think they can helpfully reshape other people's lives are sharply criticised in the first story, "Fresh-Air Fiend". The earnest Elspeth Eccles aims to restore her former supervisor, Professor Searle, to his proper academic eminence by letting fresh air into his relationship with his alcoholic wife Miranda. But the scheme fails—as do those of the interfering idealists in Ibsen's The Wild Duck and O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. The result of the fresh air is to cause Professor Searle to have a breakdown. We are not shown Elspeth's reaction to the news...
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SOURCE: "Trifle Angus Wilson': Two Volumes of Short Stories" in Angus Wilson, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 12-34.
[Gardner is an English-born Canadian educator and critic. In this excerpt from her book-length study of Wilson, she discusses The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos.]
"Mr. Wilson is a satirist," roundly declared an anonymous reviewer when The Wrong Set appeared in 1949. Since many of its stories, and many of those in Such Darling Dodos (1950), are lively, sharp, observant, and particularly concerned with social relationships and social class, it is not very surprising that they should have prompted a reviewer, pressed for time and space, to use this convenient label. "Satire" is also a term that Wilson himself employs quite frequently in The Wild Garden when discussing his early work.
At the same time, however, Wilson has denied any idea that satirizing people is the whole of his intention and it is apparent that he attaches little theoretical weight to his use of the term satire. As he indicated to Michael Millgate in 1957, satire for him "implies an abstract philosophy that I don't have" [Wilson, in an interview by Michael Millgate, Paris Review, 1957]. Though an acute commentator on human behavior, he is neither out to change it nor is he in general malicious about it. Wilson himself prefers to think of his work as "comedy of...
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Angus Wilson also spoke, in the review already referred to, of the need for a collection of short stories to hang together, to have some sort of unity. Of the collections he was reviewing, he singled out Louis Auchincloss's The Romantic Egoists as the best in this respect. Wilson, a liberal humanist, did not approve of Auchincloss's "arrogant, neo-aristocratic" outlook, but it had had a good effect artistically, producing a book of stories with "a strict social framework and a convinced social standpoint." The coherence of Wilson's own earliest collections, both The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos, is equally recognizable, though his middle-class framework is fluid rather than strict, and his social standpoint, that of a convinced liberal with an instinct for tolerance, allows for the inspection and questioning of values rather than for their dogmatic presentation. A characteristic conformation of Wilson's stories was pointed out by Kingsley Amis in 1957: "his subject is most often the explosions and embarrassments touched off when people of different class, training or culture are made to confront one another" [Spectator, 18 October 1957]. There is also in his work a clash of generations: on the personal level, between child and adult; on the public level, brought about by the social and political changes that gradually took place as the middle-class world in which Wilson grew up emotionally was displaced by the postwar...
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After this fairly detailed treatment of The Wrong Set, it is not necessary to spend quite so much time on Wilson's second collection. The feelings, recollections, and social ambience out of which both volumes spring are to a large extent the same, though the stories in Such Darling Dodos sometimes have a certain emotional thinness (as in "Sister Superior") and an element of exaggeration and contrivance (as in "A Little Companion") that suggest an imagination working at reduced pressure while the conscious mind makes a story out of an interesting idea.
"Rex Imperator," which derives its claustrophobic emotional atmosphere from the many vacations Wilson spent in the 1930s at his elder brother's house at Seaford, is a fictional version of that brother's relationship to the rest of the Wilson family: martyred by his relatives' parasitic dependence on him, Rex Palmer is also their "King Emperor" by virtue of having money for their support at his disposal. Offering a sharp study of the perverse operations of "Bourgeoisie Oblige," the story finely balances dislike of Rex's domineering ways and of the ingratitude they provoke in his relatives, with pained admiration for Rex's self-torturing sense of duty and a degree of sympathy for the pretensions by means of which his relatives cling to their human dignity: old Mr. Nicholson, Rex's garrulous father-in-law, is based on Wilson's own father, the archetypal "raffish old sport."...
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Wilson's satisfaction with "Totentanz"—whose heartless yet zestful extravagance gives it a unique place among his short stories—is a feeling his readers have generally experienced toward his two earliest collections as a whole. They are a most distinguished contribution to the genre, and display such versatility of technique and variation of detail that no story seems merely to repeat another, even though they proceed from a mental world recognizably Wilson's own and thus characterized, like that of any writer, by recurrent patterns and underlying assumptions. The world of Wilson's short stories assumes a close emotional link (whether present or desired) between children and parents, an "apprehension of moral ambiguity in relationships" [The Wild Garden], a sense of the comedy and pathos of human life, and a preference for the near-at-hand of the observer rather than for the remote distances of the visionary.
Lying behind all these aspects is the central reality of Wilson's short stories: they present a world of people. Nature is not of much importance in them, and the divine or the eternal even less. It is noticeable that the people in Wilson's short stories are rarely alone; when they are, it is because their relationships are giving them trouble, not because they are seeking solitude. Through interior monologue Wilson is adept at presenting their inner worlds, but his even more striking gift is for the personal or social...
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SOURCE: "The Unknown Angus Wilson: Uncollected Short Stories from the Fifties and After," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 80-97.
[In this essay, Stape analyzes a number of Wilson's lesser-known stories. The critic focuses on the incidents from the author's life that contributed to the tales and discusses the manner in which the characters and themes of the stories are reflected in Wilson's subsequent novels.]
A number of stories published in the 1950s and excluded from Angus Wilson's three short-story collections throw considerable light on the discovery and development of his distinctive voice and on his exploration of the genre. These early stories published in London newspapers, in periodicals specializing in short fiction, and in thematic anthologies, though they share to a certain extent the tone and themes of those collected in The Wrong Set (1949) and Such Darling Dodos (1950), belong neither in those books nor in A Bit off the Map (1957), despite their common focus on displacement, self-deception, and irresponsible innocence. While they differ from the first collections partly in scale, their exclusion from A Bit off the Map can be accounted for by that collection's self-conscious attempt at mid-Fifties topicality.
Two later stories—a self-sustained fragment from an abandoned novel, "My Husband Is Right," published...
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SOURCE: "Last Words," in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 1, January 7, 1988, p. 16.
[An English poet, novelist, and critic, Bayley is best known for his critical studies of Thomas Hardy, Alexander Pushkin, and Leo Tolstoy. In this review, Wilson's stories are compared to the work of English authors D. H. Lawrence and Rudyard Kipling, though Bayley finds that Wilson's early stories, in particular, are "in a class of their own. "]
There is certainly a hint of [D. H.] Lawrence in Wilson's verbal exuberance and zest, and in his ruthless geniality, although the Wilson world is all his own. Lawrence, like [Rudyard] Kipling, makes extensive use of what might be termed the ambiguous event, or non-event, and Wilson does it too, in his own masterly way. In 'The Captain's Doll' and 'The Fox' things happen—a wife's defenestration and a lesbian lady's execution by a falling tree—which strike one as taking place less in the world of action than in that of wish-fulfilment: the husband's and the young soldier's desire to do, or to see done, what then appears actually to take place. Even The woman who rode away' is perhaps best read in this light, as Lawrence's half-sardonic, half-wistful play with the theme of foolish modern romance and true primitive energy. In rather the same spirit, Angus Wilson plays with his vividly-realised contemporary types, placing them in situations in which the life of the mind...
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Admas, Stephen. The Homosexual as Hero in Contemporary Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980, 181 p.
Examines Wilson's portrayal of homosexual characters.
Allen, Walter. "Wilson." In The Short Story in English, pp. 289-95. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Survey of several of Wilson's short stories and their social criticism.
Bowen, Elizabeth. "The Wrong Set." In The Mulberry Tree, pp. 171-72. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1986.
States that Wilson's first collection of stories shows talent, but finds them filled with excessive detail and little humor.
Fletcher, Mary Dell. "Wilson's Raspberry Jam." The Explicator 40, No. 3 (July 1950): 49-51.
Discusses the plot and meaning of one of Wilson's most famous short stories.
Green, Martin. "Artist Astray." Chicago Review 12, No. 3 (Autumn 1985): 76-9.
Deems Wilson's stories grotesque and pornographic.
Mander, John. "A House Divided: The Short Stories of Angus Wilson." In The Writer and Commitment, pp. 111-38. London: Secker & Warburg, 1961.
Describes Wilson's short fiction as influenced by Freud and Marx and argues that Wilson is a "committed" artist.
Millgate, Michael. "The Art...
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