Lewis, Wyndham (Short Story Criticism)
Wyndham Lewis 1882(?)-1957
(Full name Percy Wyndham Lewis) Canadian-born English novelist, essayist, critic, short story writer, editor, poet, autobiographer, and dramatist.
One of the leading and most controversial figures in British literary and artistic circles in the first half of the twentieth century, Lewis has garnered equal measures of praise and censure for his brilliant prose style, startling originality, brash personality, and pro-Fascist political leanings. He was instrumental in establishing the anti-Romantic movement in literature in the early 1900s and the Vorticism movement in art in the years before the First World War; wrote extensively about politics and aesthetics in the 1920s and 1930s; and was the art critic for the Listener in the 1950s. A gifted painter, Lewis's writing shows his concern with revealing "external" life using objective, visual techniques, in stark opposition to the "internal" technique of stream-of-consciousness employed by such contemporaries as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Marcel Proust. His short stories, mostly satires, reveal an acerbic sense of the comic and seek to give voice to his complex aesthetic, political, and philosophical theories. Lewis's anti-democratic, elitist political views and satirical attacks on other writers made him an unpopular figure for much of his career, but his talents as a literary stylist were admired by such distinguished writers as T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. Recent critical attention has focused on his skills as a satirist, his portrayals of the suffering artist, his Cartesian philosophical views, and his innovative style.
Lewis was born aboard a yacht off the coast of Nova Scotia to an American father and English mother, and spent his early years in Canada and Maine before moving with the family to England in 1888. His parents separated shortly thereafter, and Lewis was raised by his mother, to whom he remained very close. After attending a series of day schools in London and then the public school Rugby from 1897 to 1898, Lewis entered the Slade School of Art. Upon completing his formal studies in 1901, he traveled extensively in Europe for seven years, writing, studying, painting, and living the unconventional life of an artist. Lewis returned to London in 1909 to pursue his painting in earnest, soon making a name for himself with his radical post-Impressionist style. He also quickly became acquainted with the literary notables of his day, including Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Sturge Moore, Ezra Pound, Rebecca West, and Yeats. In 1909 Ford published Lewis's first short story, "The Pole," in The English Review, and in the following years additional short pieces, many of which were written during his stay on the Continent, appeared in other influential literary magazines. During these pre-World War I years, Lewis was also active in organizing the Vorticist group, an abstract art movement that reacted against Futurism and Cubism and which emphasized the use of geometrical lines, impersonality in art, and classical detachment and control. Pound and Lewis together founded a periodical, Blast, in which to promote the ideas of the movement, but because of the onset of the war and financial constraints, they managed to publish only two issues. However, with Blast, Lewis established his reputation as a brilliant, defiant, and highly original thinker whose anarchic ideas often troubled more conventional critics. A good-looking, brash, and arrogant young man, Lewis also became something of a personality and had a number of mistresses, several of whom bore him children.
In 1916, after completing his novel Tarr, which he had been working on since his years in Europe, Lewis enlisted in the army, eventually becoming an officer. Tarr was published at the end of the war to excellent reviews but did not sell well, further establishing Lewis's position as an avant-garde writer. In 1920, Lewis's mother died, which had a great effect on him emotionally. Already embittered by the war, he felt that his mother's death was caused by its effects, and in the following decades his writings, many of which were political in nature, were aimed at preventing another such event. He favored rightwing politics, despising liberalism and pacifist democracy—which he considered catered to the weaknesses of the "herd" and encouraged conformity—and advocated a system that promoted a strong, stable authority under which he believed intellectuals and artists could flourish. Lewis's literary output in the 1920s and 1930s was prolific, and included some of his best-known work, including The Art of Being Ruled (1926), a rabid critique of politics, art, and society; Time and Western Man (1927), an assault on the literary-philosophical positions of the leading writers of his day; The Wild Body (1927), a collection of short stories that had been written before the war and were revised to reflect his current aesthetic and political theories; and The Apes of God (1930), a venomous portrayal of the members of the literary establishment. The latter work did a great deal to alienate Lewis from critics and other writers, but he never apologized for his unpopular opinions and barbed commentary on what he considered were the shortcomings in others' work. From 1927 to 1929 Lewis edited and wrote for the literary review The Enemy (he said he found the literary persona of the "enemy" suitable to his temperament), which was perceived as being sympathetic to Fascism. In his essay Hitler (1931), he praised Adolph Hitler's rise to power and expressed approval of National Socialism. Although he retracted these views in his later essays, The Hitler Cult and The Jews, Are They Human? (1939), Lewis's name was permanently tainted by his earlier, pro-Fascist politics.
Just before the outbreak of World War II, his popularity and reputation in deep decline, Lewis moved to North America with his wife, a woman he had met in 1918, married in 1930, and who stayed with him through his numerous infidelities. The couple lived in virtual poverty for a good part of their stay in the United States, with Lewis earning a little money painting portraits and relying on the goodwill of friends. They enjoyed some stability during Lewis's year-long appointment at a small college in Ontario, Canada, before returning to a life of shortages and rationing in London in 1945. In 1946 Lewis became the art critic for the Listener, an influential post he held for five years. His years abroad had softened him somewhat, and in his reviews he offered insightful and generous appraisals of younger artists. Although Lewis was beset by blindness in his last years, he continued to write, in 1954 producing what many consider his finest novel, Self Condemned, a tragic story about a self-destructive rationalist living in exile who denies human feelings in his commitment to discovering the truth. Critics consider the work to be based on his humbling experiences in North America. Lewis died in 1957 of a brain tumor.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Lewis wrote in 1935 that "The short story . . . was the first literary form with which I became familiar. . . . The 'short story' was the crystallization of what I had to keep out of my consciousness while painting." Lewis's first literary recognition came from the publication of his short stories in influential literary journals, and early admirers found his work marked by a structural clarity evident in his visual art that announced him as an original talent and thinker. The stories revealed also his anti-Romantic, realist bent and his gift for savagely humorous satire. The 1917 story, "Cantelman's Spring-Mate," considered one of his best, is a fine example of Lewis's controlled, descriptive, hardedged style. In his 1927 collection, The Wild Body, which he called "essays in a new human mathematic," Lewis rewrote some of his early stories and added new ones to form a sequence of satiric tales told by a single comic narrator who recounts his adventures among the peasants of Brittany. Like his other work, the stories explore the contrast between the cultivated intellect and the savage, mechanized body and reveal his low opinion of women. Also included in the collection are two important essays, "Inferior Religions" and "The Meaning of the Wild Body," in which Lewis expresses the aesthetic, philosophic, and comic theories undergirding the stories in the collection. The other volume of stories published during Lewis's lifetime, Rotting Hill, is a series of sketches about life in London's Notting Hill after the Second World War and conveys the atmosphere of what he considered the "universal wreckage and decay" of post-war socialist Britain. The tone of this collection is a far cry from the lively satire of the earlier stories, and in this later work Lewis's descriptive realism gives way to the construction of types to make clear his distaste for the social and cultural politics he describes. Before he died, Lewis had intended to publish another book of short fiction, but the project never materialized. Unlucky for Pringle: Unpublished and Other Stories, published in 1973, includes unpublished pieces and others written between 1910 and 1956 that were not collected in the two other volumes.
Lewis never enjoyed popular recognition, in part because his inaccessible style is often underwritten by difficult philosophical or aesthetic theories, but for most of his career he was considered a force in intellectual circles, even when his reputation was at a low ebb. Although Lewis's work was praised highly by some of his literary contemporaries, including Eliot, who called him the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century, other critics found fault with his pro-Fascist politics, his brutal and unbalanced attacks of other artists' work, and the aggressive theorizing in his non-fiction and fiction alike. Early reviews of singly published stories and his Wild Body collection were mixed, with some critics heralding their originality and zest and others characterizing them as brutal, vulgar, and confused. Critical analysis of Lewis's work after his death has been concerned mainly with his novels, essays, and criticism, generally considered his best works, which showcase his incomparable idiosyncratic style and his devastating critical insight. Opinion of his stories in Rotting Hill is largely negative, and most critics consider it a tired, unimaginative attack on socialist politics. However, recent studies of the Wild Body collection have unanimously praised those stories' brilliant use of satire, strong sense of form, and psychological astuteness. Lewis is a difficult writer whose highly individual style, penetrating eye, and aggressive opinions, critics agree, reveal him to be one of the most fascinating and unsettling figures in modern literature.
The Wild Body 1927
Rotting Hill 1944
Unlucky For Pringle: Unpublished and Other Stories 1973
Other Major Works
Tarr (novel) 1918
The Caliph's Design (essay) 1919
The Art of Being Ruled (essays) 1926
The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare (criticism) 1927
Time and Western Man (essays) 1927
The Childermass (novel) 1928
Paleface; The Philosophy of the "Melting Pot" (essays) 1929
The Apes of God (novel) 1930
The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator (essays) 1931
Hitler (essay) 1931
The Doom of Youth (essays) 1932
Enemy of the Stars (drama) 1932
Snooty Baronet (novel) 1932
One-Way Song (poetry) 1933
Men Without Art (criticism) 1934
Left Wings Over Europe; or How to Make a War about Nothing (essays) 1936
Blasting and Bombardiering (autobiography) 1937
Count Your Dead! They Are Alive!, or, A New War in the Making (essays) 1937
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SOURCE: "Some Modern Pessimists," in The Spectator, Vol. 139, No. 5. December 17, 1927, p. 863.
[In the following excerpt from an early review, Taylor finds the "noise and fury" of Lewis's satire in The Wild Body distasteful]
In The Wild Body Mr. Wyndham Lewis finds matter for his savage mirth, his "beast of humour," in the more glaring towns of the Spanish border, and the more brutish spots of Brittany. . . . When he devotes his inordinate vocabulary of scorn to express his Timon-like hatred of mortality by conjuring up the bestial or preposterous figures that give him a painful joy, the noise and fury are too much for me, who fall to thinking with what deadly quietness Swift undertook the assassination of his kind. Mr. Lewis, that hater of the Romantics, here exhibits himself as a Romantic of the worst French kind in his taste for monsters. His Bestre is as much a romantic grotesque as Quasimodo, and obscene as Quasimodo is not. Lashing himself into mirth, Mr. Lewis is a startling spectacle. Since, of course, his is no ordinary mind, one or two of these sketches have a tortured power, like some of the interlinear patterns in his other books that look like scorpions stinging themselves to death.
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SOURCE: "Wyndham Lewis," in A Reviewer's ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present,W. H. Allen, 1961, pp. 268-71.
[In the following review of The Wild Body, originally published in the New York Post in 1928, Aiken admires what he considers Lewis 's first-rate narration in his psychological short stories, but finds that the writer's self-conscious theorizing mars his otherwise brilliant work.]
Mr. Wyndham Lewis is something of a cornac himself—he is not without curious resemblances to his admirable portrait of a showman in the story called "The Cornac and His Wife." In this story we are presented with a melancholy creature who is in a sense a victim of his own audiences. His audience works him, just as he, too, in turn works his audience; a queer kind of reciprocal puppetry. The public expects, demands, extracts from the sad cornac the kind of humor it wants. His mere presence there, in the ring, provokes the public to a particular appetite: they are unable to look at him without becoming excited; without beginning to desire to see him excited. And at the proper moment, when the mutual chemical or psychological influence has reached the right pitch, the cornac goes into action. He and the audience throw themselves into the ritual, which has become inevitable for them, each playing on the other. The cornac thus becomes something which is not...
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SOURCE: Foreword to Rotting Hill, Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1951, pp. vii-xii.
[In the following essay, the foreword to his volume of stories Rotting Hill, Lewis characterizes his work in the collection as showcasing the "universal wreckage and decay"prevalent in politics and social life in post-World War II, socialist Britain.]
If I write about a hill that is rotting, it is because I deplore rot. For the decay of which I write is not romantic decay. But specific persons or Parties are in no way accountable for the rot. It is either the fault of everybody or of nobody. If we exist, shabby, ill-fed, loaded with debt (taxed more than any men at any time have ever been), let us recognize that the sole explanation of this is our collective stupidity. If it soothes us to pin the blame upon our masters, past or present, by all means let us do so. The fact remains that this is only a subjective judgement. But who is responsible for ten years of war in a generation? All human groups, whether French, German, Italian, Polish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Czecho-Slovak, or any other are like our own a raw material, and are not responsible for the shape they take. I should add that our ostensible masters are raw material too. War is what is immediately responsible for the chaos which afflicts us at the present time. No cause can be assigned for these fearfully destructive disturbances (though of course we account...
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SOURCE: "The Wild Body: A Sanguine of the Enemy," in Nine, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1953, pp. 18-27.
[In the following essay, Wagner argues that the collection of stories The Wild Body embodies Lewis's theory and practice of satire, explaining that his political thinking and comic sense have their roots in the conflict between the savage body and the cultivated intellect, and further that satire is at the heart of Lewis 's realism.]
When Wyndham Lewis defined politcs, in America and Cosmic Man, as "a melodrama for teen-aged minds," he was hinting at what he was to elaborate in Rude Assignment, namely that "There are no good politics." Yet although there can be no "good" politics, he also asserted in Rotting Hill that contemporary fiction must be steeped in politics to be a true reflection of reality; this, in short, has been his dilemma. His art was born in war, he has recently written, and his "philosophic criticism", or political "pamphlets" (as he calls a work of over four hundred pages), grew out of his creative work. It is thus consistent that we can find in The Art of Being Ruled, which he has called a "key-book", concepts of human nature which subsume his work and in which his earlier satire is embedded.
In The Art of Being Ruled, that book of "jujitsu for the governed", Lewis finds that all political thought tends to...
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SOURCE: "Tarr into Cantelman," in Wyndham Lewis, New Directions, 1954, pp. 49-57.
[In the following excerpt, Kenner contends that the protagonist of Lewis's short story "Cantelman 's Spring-Mate " is a fusion of two characters, Tarr and Kreisler, from his novel Tarr, and embodies Lewis's interest in the interrelated conflicts between mind and body, logic and emotion, intellect and animal nature.]
Lewis joined the army as a bombardier, shortly after finishing Tarr, and took his problems with him to France. Out of the complex experience of the war came two new efforts at focus: a story called "Cantelman's Spring-Mate" and an essay, "Inferior Religions."
"Cantelman's Spring-Mate,"3 the best of his early stories, which Joyce and Pound admired and on account of which, it is now difficult to believe, an issue of the Little Review was banned from the mails three years before the more notorious affaire Bloom, presents a new Lewis persona, an amalgam of Tarr's detachment and Kreisler's scornful sensuality. This fusion is conveyed by a new mutation of the Lewis prose, a thick suave pigment, marvelously sensuous, yet crisper and more conscious than anything in Tarr. The affairs of the body—specifically, sexual affairs—are consigned, Tarr-fashion, to mechanism; they aren't touched by Kreisler's hysterical sense of doom. At least, Cantelman doesn't...
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SOURCE: "Self Condemned: Last Wills and Testaments," in Wyndham Lewis, Twayne Publishers, 1968, pp. 136-65.
[In the following excerpt from a book-length study of Lewis's life and work, Pritchard considers Lewis's collection of stories Rotting Hill an artistic failure, noting that the collection 's lack of vitality and imagination mirrors the grey austereness of socialist Britain that was the target of Lewis's reproach in the stories.]
Before his fiction and criticism of the 1950's began to appear, Lewis published Rude Assignment, a last enormous effort to explain, justify, qualify, and assert once more various positions he had taken—or had been accused by others of taking. An invaluable document about his past as revealed in the books he wrote, it is perhaps not to be read through or appreciated as an entity so much as to be consulted for the backgrounds and outlines of controversies and misunderstandings. Ideally, Rude Assignment was to clear the air and reveal what a considerable writer (and, incidentally, splendid chap) was Mr. Wyndham Lewis. There is no indication that the book accomplished this objective, but with the publication of Rotting Hill in the following year Lewis entered a period when, for the first time since the late 1920's, he was accorded some kind of recognition, however embarrassed or grudging it often sounded. But the relative attention he...
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SOURCE: "The Short Stories of Wyndham Lewis," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall, 1970, pp. 615-24.
[In the following essay, Materer discusses Lewis's comic theory and sense of irony in The Wild Body, arguing that the narrator of the sequence of stories, Ker-Orr, like Lewis, views the world from a detached but not disinterested perspective and sees comedy as springing from the discrepancies between human beings' physical bodies and intellectual aspirations.]
The short stories of Wyndham Lewis were enthusiastically received by critics like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot when they were first published and have earned renewed praise in the past few years. As an editor of The Little Review, Pound, supported by Eliot in The Egoist, championed Lewis' early writings and welcomed him as a fellow revolutionary.1 In recent years, V. S. Pritchett and John Holloway in England, as well as Raymond Rosenthal in America, have praised the restrained, sardonic style of Lewis' collection of stories, The Wild Body.2
Nevertheless, while satires like The Apes of God, novels like Self-Condemned, and criticism like Time and Western Man and The Lion and the Fox, are reissued in paperbacks, Lewis' stories appear only as isolated selections.3 Since his stories suffer more than most short pieces from being read...
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SOURCE: Introduction to Unlucky for Pringle: Unpublished and Other Stories, Vision Press, 1973, pp. 7-17.
[In the following introduction to a collection of Lewis's short fiction, Fox and Chapman provide an overview of Lewis's work in the genre and touch on some major elements that mark his short stories, including their peculiar sense of dark comedy; rootedness in the politics and culture of the day; unsympathetic portrayal of women; interest in violence; and recurrence of the figure of the Impostor.]
Recalling the early stages of his career, Wyndham Lewis wrote in 1935 that "The short story, as we call it, was the first literary form with which I became familiar . . . The 'short story' was the crystallization of what I had to keep out of my consciousness while painting."1 The latter part of this statement would seem to relegate Lewis's short fiction to a disproportionately secondary place in his œuvre. For, from the beginning of his 45 years as a visual and literary artist, Lewis was quite prolific as a fiction writer and, with the exception of the later 1920s and the 1930s, the short story figures prominently among his works in this field.
Lewis's first published stories appeared in 1909—a year after Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale and a year before H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay—and the last stories published during his lifetime were...
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SOURCE: "Natures, Puppets and Wars," in Wyndham Lewis: Fictions and Satires, Vision Press, 1973, pp. 47-67.
[In the following essay, Chapman examines the development of Lewis's style and themes in his early stories and their later revision in The Wild Body, pointing out that Lewis's early socio-psychological concerns were later abandoned for a greater interest in more abstract philosophical ideas.]
Looking back on his first published writings, Lewis recalled their genesis in his "long vague periods of indolence" in Brittany:
The Atlantic air, the raw rich visual food of the barbaric environment, the squealing of the pipes, the crashing of the ocean, induced a creative torpor. Mine was now a drowsy sun-baked ferment, watching with delight the great comic effigies which erupted beneath my rather saturnine but astonished gaze. . . . The characters I chose to celebrate—Bestre, the Cornac and his wife, Brotcotnaz, le père Françis—were all primitive creatures, immersed in life, as much as birds, or big, obsessed, sun-drunk insects. (Rude Assignment, 117)
These primitive creatures were eventually to emerge as "wild bodies" in the 1927 collection of that name, but in their early form these pieces are not, in the accepted sense of the term, short stories. They are plotless travel sketches peopled by Breton "characters"...
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SOURCE: Afterword, to The Complete Wild Body, Black Sparrow Press, 1982, pp. 403-14.
[In the following afterword to a collection of Lewis's stories, Lafourcade, following Lewis's own example, catalogues the six basic "Attributes " of the Wild Body stories, which are "a real presence," "fascination," "comedy, " "tragedy, " "The grotesque, " and "The absurd. "]
To get some idea of the present status and sweeping magnitude of this remarkable collection of stories—Wyndham Lewis's great initial outburst and constant source of reference for what was to prove most actively vital in his vision—imagine a population of Easter Island monoliths lying face down, half buried in the dust. This spectral host must sooner or later be recovered from oblivion as one of the great exhumations of Modernism, and the object of this book is to promote a long overdue recognition by presenting the procession of these stories complete for the first time.
Pondered and elaborated by Lewis over a period of nearly twenty years, the early intuitions of 1909 eventually yielded a collection of stories, The Wild Body of 1927—a landmark in the history of English short fiction as significant as Dubliners, but which, for a variety of reasons, has remained largely ignored. The final product, with the exception of a second meagre impression in 1932, was not reissued during the author's...
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SOURCE: "Getting Even with Uncle Ez: Wyndham Lewis's 'Doppelgänger'," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 235-43.
[In the following excerpt, Anspaugh argues that the protagonist of Lewis's story "The Doppelgänger" can be seen to represent Lewis's friend Ezra Pound, while the "Stranger" who in the tale proves to be the protagonist's alter ego and superior as a poet, scholar, and man, is a symbol for Lewis himself]
The protagonist of "Doppelgänger," Lewis' Gothic récit a clef33 is named Thaddeus Trunk or "Uncle Thad" (thereby conflating Pound's self-given "Uncle Ez" and the name of Pound's grandfather, Thaddeus Coleman Pound, who appears as "T.C.P." in the Cantos)34 Trunk is a poet and scholar, "A snuffly old passéiste, digging about among musty old manuscripts" (p. 25). Here Lewis' text recalls his earlier representation of Pound in Time and Western Man as a "Man in love with the past." Trunk has for health reasons retreated with his wife to a mountain-top cabin in Vermont and is there surrounded by a host of sycophants. "He may be regarded," observes Lewis' narrator, "As a victim of the Public. Those who, like myself, know what he can do away from men, where he can be a great poet, and hold up his head among the Gods, have lamented at what we saw" (p. 27). Again we hear echoes of Lewis' representation of Ezra in...
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Meyers, Jeffrey. The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980, 391 p.
Major, well-documented biography of Lewis, including extensive coverage of his childhood years.
Wagner, Geoffrey. A Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957, 363 p.
Early biography paying more attention to the details of Lewis's life and work and less on critical assessment; includes an extensive bibliography.
Beatty, Michael. "The Earliest Fiction of Wyndham Lewis and The Wild Body" Theoria 48, No. 1 (1977): 37-45.
Discussion of Lewis's early stories that were later revised and included in The Wild Body.
Duncan, Ian. "Towards a Modernist Poetic: Wyndham Lewis's Early Fiction." In Wyndham Lewis: Letteratura/Pittura, pp. 67-85. Selerio editore, 1982.
Argues that a "redefinition of sensibility" can be detected by examining the differing aesthetic and theoretical concerns in Lewis's early stories and their revised forms in The Wild Body.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Wyndam Lewis: A Reevaluation; New Essays. Montreal: McGill...
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