(Short Story Criticism)

Alun Lewis 1915–-1944

Welsh short story writer and poet.

Lewis is considered one of the most significant short story writers of World War II. While critics are divided over whether or not his stories take critical precedence over his poetry, most agree that Lewis's short fiction is an important contribution to the canon of war literature written during the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Lewis was born in Cwmaman, Wales, in 1915. The family briefly moved to Yorkshire, England, during World War I so that Lewis's father could enlist in the army. When he was wounded in 1918, they returned to Cwmaman and then moved to Glynhafod, where Lewis began school in 1920. Lewis entered Cowbridge Grammar School in 1926, where he contributed short stories to the school journal, The Bovian. In 1932 Lewis enrolled at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth, majoring in history, and began contributing stories to the university's literary journal, the Dragon, in 1934. Lewis graduated in 1935 and in September of the same year, began attending Manchester University. In 1937 he earned a master's degree in medieval history, but soon grew disillusioned with scholarly research. Lewis did, however, continue to write short fiction, most of it published once more in a student journal. In May 1937 Lewis attended a retreat in France, but his dissatisfaction and unhappiness continued. He returned to Aberystwyth to work for a teacher's diploma and spent the next months as a student teacher in Dolgellau before he obtained his diploma the following year. In 1939 he began working as a teacher at Lewis School in Pengam, Wales. Throughout the autumn of that year Lewis was torn between his desire to serve in World War II and his ambivalent feelings about killing. In March 1940 he registered in the reserves, as a way of serving in the war without having to kill. A few months later he changed his mind and went into active service on the railroad at Longmoor, Hampshire, England. In 1941 Lewis married Gweno Ellis. Lewis was sent to serve in India in 1942, where he was made an intelligence officer. Stationed on Lake Kharakvasla, Lewis was offered a captaincy, but refused the promotion. Having suffered most of his life from frequent bouts of depression, Lewis again succumbed while in India and also was hospitalized for malaria. In 1944 his battalion was transferred to Burma, where he volunteered to join a patrol in the Goppe Pass. Lewis was killed by a shot from his own pistol. While the official inquiry ruled that the shooting was accidental, many fellow soldiers who were aware of his struggle with depression were convinced that Lewis committed suicide.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Lewis published only one volume of short stories, The Last Inspection, during his lifetime. The rest of his short fiction was published in magazines and journals and collected in several volumes after his death: In the Green Tree (1948), Alun Lewis: Selected Poetry and Prose (1966), Alun Lewis: A Miscellany of His Writings (1982), and Alun Lewis: Collected Stories (1990). While his stories generally are categorized as either war stories or non-war stories, many contain common themes, such as the isolation of the individual in a world hostile to human aspirations. Many of Lewis's early stories, such as “The Tale of a Dwarf,” “The End of the Hunt,” and “They Say There's a Boat on the River,” contain elements of neo-Gothic fables and explorations of nature and ideal beauty. In others—notably “If Such Be Nature's Holy Plan” and “The Whirligig of Fate”—Lewis probed the dark side of nature's powers. Lewis's early stories also frequently reflect his training as a medievalist and his Welsh heritage, and have been compared favorably with the fiction of D. H. Lawrence. Around the time Lewis enlisted in the service, his subject matter shifted to issues surrounding World War II. Most of the stories in The Last Inspection evidence Lewis's ambivalent feelings about war. Some, such as the title story “The Last Inspection” and “It's a Long Way to Go,” are satirical depictions of what Lewis saw as the military's cold and uncaring attitude toward civilian suffering during wartime. Others are often tragic and ironic examinations of the confusing and alienating effects of war on both soldiers and civilians, including one of Lewis's best-known stories, “Almost a Gentleman.”

Critical Reception

While Lewis is well known as a war writer, many critics feel that his other stories, which range widely in tone and theme, have been unjustly neglected. Others find his war stories pedestrian and overly intellectualized, evidence of the emotional distance of the upper-middle classes from the harsh realities of life during wartime. But Lewis's proponents point out that by concentrating many of his war stories on civilian suffering rather than on soldiers fighting on the front, Lewis democratized the experience of war for all social classes. These and other critics contend that Lewis made a significant contribution not only to war literature of the twentieth century but also to Anglo-Welsh literature.