John Barrington Wain was a British man of letters of major importance, most famous for his early novel Hurry on Down and for his prize-winning biography of Samuel Johnson. He was born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England, on March 14, 1925, the son of Arnold A. Wain and Anne Wain. A man of humble background, Arnold Wain had become a dentist, the first professional person in his family. Generous and compassionate, he served as a preacher in the Church army, a city councillor, and a magistrate, and he became a model for his son, who paid tribute to his father in Dear Shadows.
After attending school at Newcastle-under-Lyme, Wain, who had been rejected by the army for poor eyesight, went to Oxford and entered St. John’s College. At Oxford University, he met Charles Williams and was tutored by C. S. Lewis. He also came to know Richard Burton and with him participated in Shakespeare productions under the direction of the dynamic, unconventional don Nevill Coghill. Nevill inspired his students to love Shakespeare and, by acting on his convictions in the face of criticism from his peers, became another role model for Wain. In 1946 Wain received his B.A.; from 1946 to 1949, when he received his M.A., he was Fereday Fellow at Oxford. Meanwhile, in 1947, he married Marianne Urmston and became a lecturer in English at the University of Reading, where he remained until 1955. He resigned this position to become a freelance writer. The next year, his marriage was dissolved.
With the publication of a book of poetry in 1951, Mixed Feelings, Wain’s meteoric rise in reputation began. It was followed by another volume of poetry, which despite its conventionality was praised for voicing the anguish of humankind in the twentieth century. In 1953 he published the picaresque novel Hurry on Down, the story of an aimless university graduate who wanders through British society seeking a niche where he can feel at home. Despite Wain’s protests, this book brought him the label of “angry young man” (applied to those postwar writers who were attacking the English class structure). Critics predicted a bright future for Wain; many of them assumed that he would be the primary writer of his generation. During the decade, he produced three more novels and a critical work on Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1953, he was chosen to edit a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) program featuring new writers. That same year, he edited two books of essays and a two-volume literary annual.
In 1960, Wain married Eirian James, with whom he eventually had three sons. His...
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