Study Guide

Wilson Harris

Wilson Harris Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Using the richly varied landscape and the diverse cultural traditions of his homeland, Theodore Wilson Harris is a prolific and complex novelist. He was born in British Guiana (later Guyana), the son of middle-class parents. His father was Theodore Wilson, an insurer and underwriter, and his mother was Millicent Josephine (née Glasford) Harris. Harris attended both Catholic and Protestant schools in Georgetown, the capital, before attending Queen’s College from 1934 to 1939. Queen’s College was one of the best schools for boys in the Caribbean, and Harris studied under English schoolmasters who taught the canonical British texts and classical literature. Of mixed racial origin himself, Harris was to combine his education with his own lifelong development of a cross-cultural, symbolic imagination. After leaving school he studied to be a land surveyor, qualifying to practice in 1942.{$S[A]Waruk, Kona;Harris, Wilson}

As a government surveyor until 1958, Harris led expeditions to coastal areas and into the rough interior of the country. Spending long periods of time with men of different races and classes and encountering the Amerindians of the interior had a profound effect upon his imagination and provided a metaphor for his later explorations of the unity and diversity in nature and culture. The surveyor became a principal recurring character in his fiction. In 1945, he married Cecily Carew, and about the same time he began publishing short stories, poems, reviews, and critical essays in the literary journal Kyk-over-al, which was edited by the Guyanese poet Arthur Seymour from 1945 to 1961. His long apprenticeship resulted in two small books of poetry, the first published under the pseudonym Kona Waruk. In 1950, he visited England and Europe, particularly France, for the first time. By the late 1950’s, his first marriage had ended in divorce, and Harris had decided to become a professional writer. He immigrated to England, where in 1959 he met and married the Scottish lyricist and writer Margaret Nimmo Burns, settled in London, and abandoned poetry for the novel.

His first novel, Palace of the Peacock, began a series of novels, at one a year, which Harris himself described as the Guyana Quartet. They were set in Guyana and explored the natural and cultural history of Guyana, but they did so in such an unconventional mode that many readers found themselves utterly lost, as if in a Guyanese wilderness. Rejecting the chronological realism of conventional stories, Harris allied himself with modernistic stylists but retained the essential, universal issues from classical mythology. He sought to force his readers into an initial bewilderment that would erode their preconceptions about race, culture, power, tradition, and nature. He hoped to provoke his readers into shedding these preconceptions in order to learn new ways of seeing the world and its peoples. While Harris did not wish to downplay the gritty potential of humans to harm others of their kind, he did sense deeply that humanity could imagine its own redemption. Many of the themes and devices which Harris employed in his first novel continued in the rest of his fiction but with ever-increasing depth and complexity. As the Guyana Quartet progressed through The Far Journey of Oudin, The Whole Armour, and The Secret Ladder, Harris developed an elaborate mythology on the interrelationship of the races. Technical...

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Wilson Harris Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Theodore Wilson Harris was born in New Amsterdam, British Guiana (now known as Guyana), on March 24, 1921. From 1934 to 1939, he attended Queen’s College, a prestigious high school staffed by English expatriates. He went on to study land surveying and geomorphology and in 1942 became an assistant government surveyor and made the first of many expeditions into the interior of Guyana. Between 1944 and 1953, he led several expeditions into other interior and coastal areas. The interior, with its dense tropical jungles, vast savannahs, and treacherous rivers, and the coastal region, with its mighty estuaries and extensive irrigation system, had a strong effect on Harris, later reflected in his novels. These expeditions also made Harris aware of the life of the Amerindians (indigenous peoples of the region) and of the peoples of Guyana of African, Asian, and European ancestry, who would later populate his novels. While working as a surveyor, he nurtured his artistic talents by writing poems, stories, and short essays for the little magazine Kyk-over-al, edited by the poet A. J. Seymour.

In 1950, Harris visited Europe for the first time, touring England and the Continent, and in 1959 he emigrated to Great Britain. That year, he married Margaret Burns, a Scottish writer. (He was married in 1945 to Cecily Carew, but the marriage ended in divorce.) With the publication of his first novel in 1960, Harris became a full-time writer. He settled in London but constantly traveled to take up fellowships and professorships in Europe, Australia, India, the Caribbean, Canada, and the United States. Harris has stated that these travels assisted him in providing some of the global backdrops and cosmic sensibility of his later fictions. His trip to Mexico in 1972, for instance, was especially influential on his use of the Quetzalcoatl legend in The Carnival Trilogy.

With tireless devotion to the evolution of his fictional voice and to promoting discussion of the postcolonial culture through numerous prestigious university appointments, Harris continued writing well into his seventies, publishing dense experimental narratives in which he sought in myth what history could not provide: a context for understanding the historical colonial imperative essentially to dismember the Caribbean and Amerindian culture. Perennially short-listed for the Nobel Prize, Harris announced in 2007 through his longtime publisher, Faber & Faber, that The Ghost of Memory, his frankest (and most urgent) treatment of the dynamic between myth and history, would be his last novel.

Wilson Harris Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Wilson Harris is an extremely eclectic and expansive writer. In The Womb of Space, he writes that “literature is still constrained by regional and other conventional suffocating categories.” Harris has spent his career attempting to transcend notions of genre, tradition, and discipline, constructing texts founded on philosophical speculation. Harris attempts, in his writing, to promote new models for civilization and for creative art.

Influenced by Carl Jung, Martin Buber, Elizabethan poetry, William Blake, Native American folklore, and nineteenth century expedition literature, Harris investigates the ambiguities of life and death, of history and innovation, of self and other, and of reality and illusion. Harris questions received concepts of origin, history, and reality. It is Harris’ hope that such inquisitions of the self may prove crucial in the development of a radical revision of history, origin, and identity.

Opening with a series of nightmare vignettes that awaken into each other, the narrator of Harris’ Palace of the Peacock declares: “I dreamt I awoke with one dead eye seeing and one living each closed.” The novel hovers between reality and illusion, death and life, insight and blindness. It chronicles an expeditionary party’s journey into the interior of Guyana. In this expedition into the territory of the self, each member of the party embodies a part of Guyanese identity. A European, an African, and a Native American set out together in a quest to retrieve renegade farmworkers but find along the way that they are, perhaps, the ghostly repetitions of a party that perished on the same river in the early days of European conquest. The allegorical and existential significances of the quest give Harris the opportunity to delve into the nature of narration, of time, of space, and of being. He asserts that humanity can alter fate through recognition of connections and by articulating and celebrating commonly held identities.

The themes Palace of the Peacock raises are also found in the novels that succeed it. In subsequent novels, Harris returns to elaborate and examine the psychological and existential structures by way of which identity ossifies and resists participation in change. By carefully constructing contradictory narrative puzzles, Harris leads his readers into ambiguous regions of understanding where opposites (life and death, reality and illusion, self and other) meet. It is his hope that such expeditions of the imagination will result in greater understanding of identity and community.

Wilson Harris Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Theodore Wilson Harris was born in New Amsterdam, in British Guiana (which became Guyana in 1966) on March 24, 1921. He went to school in the capital, Georgetown, before attending Queen’s College from 1934 to 1939. He studied land surveying, and following graduation in 1942 he was appointed an assistant government surveyor and promoted to government surveyor in 1944. Between 1942 and 1953, Harris made numerous expeditions into the rain forest of his South American country. The Cuyuni River, the Essequibo River, the Potaro River, and various inland and coastal regions, where he came in close contact with the indigenous peoples and pristine landscapes, were later incorporated into his first novel, Palace of the Peacock (1960), as well as two collections of short stories, The Sleepers of Roraima (1970) and The Age of the Rainmakers (1971).

He married Cecily Carew in 1945. In 1950, he visited France and Britain and published his first collection of poems, Fetish, in 1951. A second (and last) book of poetry, Eternity to Season, was published in 1954. Following his divorce from Carew, Harris immigrated to Britain in 1959, where he met and married Scottish writer Margaret Burns, to whom he dedicated all his novels thereafter. A book of essays, Tradition, The Writer, and Society, was published in 1967. Harris and Burns lived in Holland Park, London, an area which was to influence the setting of the novel Da Silva da Silva’s...

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Wilson Harris Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Wilson Harris can safely be called one of the most original and difficult writers of the second half of the twentieth century. His extreme erudition, together with a familiarity with various cultural traditions, allows him, in his fiction, to depict the heterogeneity of his native land. His writing is elusive, calling for numerous interpretations rather than a single and definitive explanation. As he builds a Caribbean identity that has been silenced by the European version of history, Harris refuses to take sides, to reach a final verdict as to who qualifies as victim or victor in the encounter between Europe and the Americas. He thereby leaves room for change and renewal, for a revival of the nearly extinct.

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