In the classical tradition, Wain is more concerned in all of his works with the search for universal truths than with the expression of individual sensibility. Although the now-dead friends who have influenced Wain for good differed greatly in those matters which superficial judgment might call important, they were alike in generosity of spirit, which brought them Wain’s love, and in the courage to live for something outside themselves, which brought them Wain’s respect.
It is appropriate that Dear Shadows both begins and ends with references to Nevill Coghill, the Anglo-Irish Oxford don who was convinced that the best way to teach his students about William Shakespeare was to involve them in producing a Shakespeare play. To his colleagues, conservative scholars, the thought was heresy, the practice a profanation of the College gardens, where the performances were held. Himself a brilliant scholar, Coghill could have repressed his impulses and merged into the mainstream of academia. Coghill, however, was more interested in teaching than in pleasing his colleagues. He knew that his students would understand Shakespeare better if they themselves brought his plays to life onstage than they ever could if the plays were bound to the printed page, and he was willing to pay the price in ridicule and opposition. As one of those students, Wain caught Coghill’s passion for Shakespeare; he also came to recognize the difference between those who lived life selfishly and prudently and those who, like Coghill, lived it as a succession of celebrations which must be shared with others.
Although she was obscure by most standards, the Stratford landlady whom Wain calls only “Julia” shared Coghill’s love of Shakespeare, his commitment to celebration, and his refusal to conform to the rules of lesser people. In the unkindness of Coghill’s colleagues, Wain had seen the price of nonconformity; it was Julia who described to him the price of conformity, thus forcing the young man to face the fact that he has trapped himself in a hasty marriage, from which he must find the courage to escape.
One of the most moving portraits in Dear Shadows is that of “Arnold,” the boy who could not be defeated by grinding poverty, with the ill health, shame, and desperation which attend it. Arnold, actually Arnold Wain, the author’s father, was indeed a nonconformist, for he refused to conform to the usual expectations for a child reared in such a miserable environment. Even in childhood, Arnold displayed a cheerful spirit. Instead of dwelling upon his very real deprivation, he greeted every day as a gift, a gift which he could share by helping others. It was this conviction that the secret to life was service which led Arnold to become a preacher in the Church Army. His success as a spiritual leader was demonstrated early. When he was still a young man, he had already conquered the skepticism which most prophets find among their own countrymen, and it was Arnold to whom the poor of his native town turned in illness and death. Even when he sought and won the offices of city councillor and magistrate, Arnold’s guiding spirit remained the same: Given more influence,...
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The period through which John Wain has lived has been one of great change in his native England and in the world as a whole. Like Marshall McLuhan and Robert Lowell, in his own way Wain has attempted to interpret the world he recalls and the world into which humanity is moving, so that the inhabitants of that world can find some truths on which to base their lives.
In his volume A House for the Truth: Critical Essays (1972), Wain not only defined the purpose of art as the presentation of truths but also pointed out instances of models for human behavior in Samuel Johnson’s poetry and in Boris Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958). The selfless doctor, Robert Levet, who was supported and admired by Johnson, and the sensitive hero of Pasternak’s novel are alike in their wholeness, according to Wain. It is this need for complete, outgoing humanity which Wain has stressed throughout his career as a novelist, poet, critic, and biographer. In his first novel, Hurry on Down (1953), Wain satirized the pettiness of British society by inflicting upon it a down-and-out young man who, unfortunately, sees life from his own original viewpoint. Although his later novels lost the rollicking tone of Hurry on Down, they continued to point out the heroism of those who refused an easy conformity.
Yet Wain does not urge a romantic rebellion for rebellion’s own sake. In one of his finest works, the biography Samuel Johnson (1974), Wain presents a full-length portrait of a man who ordered his life according to the dictates of his own conscience, guided by tradition and reason, but who at the same time was the kindest, most understanding of men, even toward those who did not meet his own exacting standards of behavior.
Thus the purpose of John Wain’s criticism, his fiction, his biographies, in short, of all of his work, has been to inspire his readers to the attainment of an ideal self, a self which is both independent in thought and generous in spirit. Dear Shadows is a significant addition to the body of Wain’s work because in it he has drawn from life, indeed, from his own life; his models are those friends, now absent, who themselves showed Wain the way to live.