The period through which John Wain has lived has been one of great change in his native England and in the world as a whole. Like Marshall McLuhan and Robert Lowell, in his own way Wain has attempted to interpret the world he recalls and the world into which humanity is moving, so that the inhabitants of that world can find some truths on which to base their lives.
In his volume A House for the Truth: Critical Essays (1972), Wain not only defined the purpose of art as the presentation of truths but also pointed out instances of models for human behavior in Samuel Johnson’s poetry and in Boris Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958). The selfless doctor, Robert Levet, who was supported and admired by Johnson, and the sensitive hero of Pasternak’s novel are alike in their wholeness, according to Wain. It is this need for complete, outgoing humanity which Wain has stressed throughout his career as a novelist, poet, critic, and biographer. In his first novel, Hurry on Down (1953), Wain satirized the pettiness of British society by inflicting upon it a down-and-out young man who, unfortunately, sees life from his own original viewpoint. Although his later novels lost the rollicking tone of Hurry on Down, they continued to point out the heroism of those who refused an easy conformity.
Yet Wain does not urge a romantic rebellion for rebellion’s own sake. In one of his finest works, the biography Samuel Johnson (1974), Wain presents a full-length portrait of a man who ordered his life according to the dictates of his own conscience, guided by tradition and reason, but who at the same time was the kindest, most understanding of men, even toward those who did not meet his own exacting standards of behavior.
Thus the purpose of John Wain’s criticism, his fiction, his biographies, in short, of all of his work, has been to inspire his readers to the attainment of an ideal self, a self which is both independent in thought and generous in spirit. Dear Shadows is a significant addition to the body of Wain’s work because in it he has drawn from life, indeed, from his own life; his models are those friends, now absent, who themselves showed Wain the way to live.