James Hanley Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

James Hanley was one of the most prolific of twentieth century writers. Apart from twenty-six novels and many volumes of short stories, he wrote a considerable number of plays for stage, radio, and television. Say Nothing (pr. 1961, broadcast) is a successfully produced play based on his novel by the same name. Plays One (1968) includes his famous play “The Inner Journey,” which was staged at Lincoln Center, New York, to excellent critical reviews.

Hanley’s Broken Water: An Autobiographical Excursion (1937) provides insights into his early life at sea and his determined efforts to become a writer. Grey Children: A Study in Humbug and Misery (1931), is a compassionate study of unemployment among miners in South Wales. John Cowper Powys: A Man in the Corner (1969) is a biographical and critical study of the English novelist whose A Glastonbury Romance (1932) was Hanley’s favorite novel. In Herman Melville: A Man in the Customs House (1971), Hanley’s own love for the sea enables him to present Melville from a refreshing new perspective. Don Quixote Drowned (1953) is a collection of essays, personal and literary. In one of these essays, Hanley includes a passage that describes himself as a “chunky realist and flounderer in off-Dreiserian prose, naïve and touchy about style.” The volume also provides valuable information about some of the sources for Hanley’s novels.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

James Hanley is the neglected giant of modern literature. Around 1940, T. E. Lawrence found in Hanley’s novels “a blistering vividness.” E. M. Forster called him a novelist of distinction and originality. Henry Green considered him to be superior to Joseph Conrad. Herbert Read commented that Hanley was one of the most vigorous and impressive of contemporary writers. John Cowper Powys called Hanley “a genius.” C. P. Snow recognized Hanley’s humanity, compassion, and sheer imaginative power. Henry Miller wrote an enthusiastic introduction to the third edition (1946) of Hanley’s novel No Directions. Yet, in spite of this impressive roster of applause, Hanley has been assessed as “one of the most consistently praised and least-known novelists in the English speaking world.”

In the 1930’s and early 1940’s, Hanley was at the height of his popularity because of his novels about the war and some of the early volumes of the Fury saga. By the 1950’s, however, his popularity had declined and his reading public was a small cult group; he was practically unknown in the United States. Hanley is a complex writer who demands from the reader the same undivided attention he devoted to his carefully conceived and crafted novels and plays. Irving Howe points out in his brilliant review of Hanley’s A Dream Journey that Hanley’s novels demand to be read slowly, in order to protect oneself from his relentlessness. It’s like having your skin rubbed raw by a harsh wind, or like driving yourself to a rare pitch of truth by reflections—honest ones for a change—about the blunders of your life.

Hanley was not unduly concerned about the lack of a wider audience. He pursued his art with dedication and artistic integrity, he was uncompromising and unwilling to change his style to satisfy fluctuating fads and fashions of the literary world, and he survived completely through his writings. Maintaining such an authentic aesthetic individuality over a period of nearly sixty years was in itself a major achievement of James Hanley.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bryfonski, Dedria, ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. Presents a sampling of book reviews, including those from New Leader, Spectator, and The New York Times Book Review. The reviews reflect the praise Hanley received for his work, as well as the acknowledgment that he does not get the recognition he deserves.

Desmond, Graham. Review of A Kingdom, by James Hanley. Stand 20, no. 1 (1978-1979): 50-52. Desmond discusses Hanley’s work in general, which he calls “poetic fiction.” In the commentary on A Kingdom, set in Wales, Desmond notes that the work is much less stylized and mannered than The Welsh Sonata. Compares A Kingdom to the work of Henry James but says that it falls short and would have been more successful had it been expanded.

Gibbs, Linnea. James Hanley: A Bibliography. Vancouver: W. Hoffer, 1980. A useful source.

Harrington, Frank G. James Hanley: A Bold and Unique Solitary. Francestown, N.H.: Typographeum, 1989. A good source of biographical information.

Mathewson, Ruth. “Hanley’s Palimpsest.” The New Leader, January 3, 1977, 17-18. Reviews A Dream Journey, noting that it is a good introduction to Hanley’s work. Mathewson also briefly discusses Hanley’s earlier novels and comments that A Dream Journey is a “palimpsest of earlier works.”

Stokes, Edward. The Novels of James Hanley. Melbourne, Australia: F. W. Cheshire, 1964. Contains excellent criticism.

Vinson, James, ed. St. James Reference Guide to English Literature. Chicago: St. James Press, 1985. A critical piece by Edward Stokes cites the importance of Hanley’s writing, which has been compared to that of Thomas Hardy and Fyodor Dostoevski. Notes, however, that Hanley’s work is uneven and his characters lacking in popular appeal.