Wyndham Lewis Essay - Lewis, Wyndham (Short Story Criticism)

Lewis, Wyndham (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

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 entire section is 220 words.)

Criticism

Rachel Annand Taylor (essay date 1927)

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...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

Conrad Aiken (essay date 1928)

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...

(The entire section is 1090 words.)

Wyndham Lewis (essay date 1951)

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...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)

Geoffrey Wagner (essay date 1953)

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."...

(The entire section is 5423 words.)

Hugh Kenner (essay date 1954)

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."...

(The entire section is 2188 words.)

William H. Pritchard (essay date 1968)

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...

(The entire section is 1725 words.)

Timothy Materer (essay date 1970)

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....

(The entire section is 4479 words.)

C. J. Fox and Robert T. Chapman (essay date 1973)

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 entire section is 3738 words.)

Robert T. Chapman (essay date 1973)

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 entire section is 7800 words.)

Bernard Lafourcade (essay date 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 5308 words.)

Kelly Anspaugh (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1476 words.)