Dear Shadows Critical Essays

John Wain


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In the classical tradition, Wain is more concerned in all of his works with the search for universal truths than with the expression of individual sensibility. Although the now-dead friends who have influenced Wain for good differed greatly in those matters which superficial judgment might call important, they were alike in generosity of spirit, which brought them Wain’s love, and in the courage to live for something outside themselves, which brought them Wain’s respect.

It is appropriate that Dear Shadows both begins and ends with references to Nevill Coghill, the Anglo-Irish Oxford don who was convinced that the best way to teach his students about William Shakespeare was to involve them in producing a Shakespeare play. To his colleagues, conservative scholars, the thought was heresy, the practice a profanation of the College gardens, where the performances were held. Himself a brilliant scholar, Coghill could have repressed his impulses and merged into the mainstream of academia. Coghill, however, was more interested in teaching than in pleasing his colleagues. He knew that his students would understand Shakespeare better if they themselves brought his plays to life onstage than they ever could if the plays were bound to the printed page, and he was willing to pay the price in ridicule and opposition. As one of those students, Wain caught Coghill’s passion for Shakespeare; he also came to recognize the difference between those who lived life selfishly and prudently and those who, like Coghill, lived it as a succession of celebrations which must be shared with others.

Although she was obscure by most standards, the Stratford landlady whom Wain calls only “Julia” shared Coghill’s love of Shakespeare, his commitment to celebration, and his refusal to conform to the rules of lesser people. In the unkindness of Coghill’s colleagues, Wain had seen the price of nonconformity; it was Julia who described to him the price of conformity, thus forcing the young man to face the fact that he has trapped himself in a hasty marriage, from which he must find the courage to escape.

One of the most moving portraits in Dear Shadows is that of “Arnold,” the boy who could not be defeated by grinding poverty, with the ill health, shame, and desperation which attend it. Arnold, actually Arnold Wain, the author’s father, was indeed a nonconformist, for he refused to conform to the usual expectations for a child reared in such a miserable environment. Even in childhood, Arnold displayed a cheerful spirit. Instead of dwelling upon his very real deprivation, he greeted every day as a gift, a gift which he could share by helping others. It was this conviction that the secret to life was service which led Arnold to become a preacher in the Church Army. His success as a spiritual leader was demonstrated early. When he was still a young man, he had already conquered the skepticism which most prophets find among their own countrymen, and it was Arnold to whom the poor of his native town turned in illness and death. Even when he sought and won the offices of city councillor and magistrate, Arnold’s guiding spirit remained the same: Given more influence,...

(The entire section is 1306 words.)