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In the foreword to Dear Shadows, John Wain explains the purpose of his book: to honor a number of people who are no longer alive except in his memory. Because they concern the lives of others, these essays can be classified as miniature biographies; because their treatment of Wain’s subjects is limited to the influence which they had upon him, however, the effect of the essays is to some degree that of a memoir of Wain himself. At the conclusion of his foreword, Wain suggests that perhaps this book might even be considered a sequel to his autobiography, Sprightly Running: Part of an Autobiography (1962), which dealt with the first thirty-five years of his life.

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If Dear Shadows were a sequel to the earlier volume, however, it would certainly begin with the 1960’s. These essays are not limited to the later years of Wain’s life. “Arnold,” for example, is the life story of Wain’s father, beginning with his birth during the reign of Victoria, ninety-one years before the essay about him was written. Wain came to know the subjects of other essays, such as Nevill Coghill, Richard Burton, Conway, and the fascinating Julia, during World War II. Some of the chapters in Dear Shadows reach into the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the last two essays reach into the 1980’s, with the deaths of the subjects.

In the final essay, “Summer, and Shakespeare, and a Welsh cadet,” Wain begins with the news of Richard Burton’s death in 1984. From that point, Wain moves back to the 1940’s, when he and Burton participated in the Shakespeare productions at the University of Oxford, under the direction of Nevill Coghill, which had been mentioned in the first essay of the book. In the first essay, Coghill had been the central figure; in the final essay, the focus is on Wain’s friend Burton and, to a lesser degree, on the third young Oxonian, Conway. Although this circling back to the Oxford of the 1940’s has been criticized as repetitive, it seems unlikely that so careful a craftsman as Wain would use the same situation in his first and his last chapters without some rationale. The device does pull together the various essays and put a period to them; nevertheless, the repetition may also have a philosophical purpose. In the foreword, Wain indicated that the people in his essays came to him, asking to be included in his collection. If indeed he believes that they are spiritually still alive, Wain must consider them no longer subject to the arbitrary restrictions of time. As they move in and out of his memory, so his book should move in and out of the times when Wain knew them, ignoring chronology, repeating and retelling as recollection dictates.

In a book such as Dear Shadows, unity must depend upon tone and topic. In selecting the people for his book, Wain comments in the foreword, he chose only those who had won his love because of the nobility of their natures. Famous or unknown, scholarly or uneducated, all of them shared the same qualities of generosity and compassion. Therefore they are presented as models of human behavior who will inspire those who read about them as they inspired Wain and the others who knew them. The essays are as unified in tone as in topic, for since Wain chose only subjects who were admirable, his respect and affection for them is evident throughout.

As far as the length of his book is concerned, Wain says in the foreword that it was dictated by his choice of subjects. When all the people who were important to him in the same way and for the same reasons had been memorialized, the book was complete. Certainly, with only 186 pages Dear Shadows does rank as a fairly short book. Following the foreword, which states the purpose and focus of the volume, the contents lists eight chapters, four titled simply with proper names, four more fancifully, like the final chapter, “Summer, and Shakespeare, and a Welsh cadet.” The length of the chapters varies greatly, from the total of eleven pages each in the last chapter and in “At Tantine’s” to the thirty-three pages required, not surprisingly, by the verbose Marshall McLuhan and the forty devoted to the nocturnal urban world in “‘Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines.”’ Just as he permitted no artificial considerations to dictate the number of people he honored, so Wain left the length of the chapters to the needs of his characters and to the demands of his own memories.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 64

Berry, Neil. “Leisurely Older Man,” in The Times Literary Supplement. April 25, 1986, p. 445.

Blishen, Edward. “Dr. Johnson’s Footsteps,” in The Times Educational Supplement. June 20, 1986, p. 25.

Encounter. Review. LXVII (July/August, 1986), p. 30.

Hague, Angela. “Picaresque Structure and the Angry Young Novel,” in Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal. XXXII (Summer, 1986), pp. 209-220.

Kermode, Frank. “Past-Praiser,” in London Review of Books. VIII (June 5, 1986), p. 10.

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