Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1064
John Barrington Wain was a British man of letters of major importance, most famous for his early novel Hurry on Down and for his prize-winning biography of Samuel Johnson. He was born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England, on March 14, 1925, the son of Arnold A. Wain and Anne Wain. A man of humble background, Arnold Wain had become a dentist, the first professional person in his family. Generous and compassionate, he served as a preacher in the Church army, a city councillor, and a magistrate, and he became a model for his son, who paid tribute to his father in Dear Shadows.
After attending school at Newcastle-under-Lyme, Wain, who had been rejected by the army for poor eyesight, went to Oxford and entered St. John’s College. At Oxford University, he met Charles Williams and was tutored by C. S. Lewis. He also came to know Richard Burton and with him participated in Shakespeare productions under the direction of the dynamic, unconventional don Nevill Coghill. Nevill inspired his students to love Shakespeare and, by acting on his convictions in the face of criticism from his peers, became another role model for Wain. In 1946 Wain received his B.A.; from 1946 to 1949, when he received his M.A., he was Fereday Fellow at Oxford. Meanwhile, in 1947, he married Marianne Urmston and became a lecturer in English at the University of Reading, where he remained until 1955. He resigned this position to become a freelance writer. The next year, his marriage was dissolved.
With the publication of a book of poetry in 1951, Mixed Feelings, Wain’s meteoric rise in reputation began. It was followed by another volume of poetry, which despite its conventionality was praised for voicing the anguish of humankind in the twentieth century. In 1953 he published the picaresque novel Hurry on Down, the story of an aimless university graduate who wanders through British society seeking a niche where he can feel at home. Despite Wain’s protests, this book brought him the label of “angry young man” (applied to those postwar writers who were attacking the English class structure). Critics predicted a bright future for Wain; many of them assumed that he would be the primary writer of his generation. During the decade, he produced three more novels and a critical work on Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1953, he was chosen to edit a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) program featuring new writers. That same year, he edited two books of essays and a two-volume literary annual.
In 1960, Wain married Eirian James, with whom he eventually had three sons. His new happiness was reflected in what is probably his best book written during this period, Sprightly Running, which surveys the first thirty-five years of his life honestly and often joyfully. In the 1960’s, Wain’s energy was evidenced by a steady outpouring of work, including seven editions of works by writers as diverse as Alexander Pope, Fanny Burney, Thomas Hardy, and William Shakespeare and two books of criticism. As the decade proceeded, he published four volumes of poetry, which steadily became more experimental in form than his earlier works, as well as more concerned with social and political matters. He also brought out two collections of short stories and wrote three novels, which like the poetry were more serious and more pessimistic than his previously published fiction. Yet reviewers continued to be lukewarm about both his poetry and his fiction.
Despite the attractiveness of Sprightly Running, it was not until the 1970’s that Wain attained the eminence which had been predicted for him. Although along with favorable comments, critics continued to voice disappointment in his poetry and his fiction, which seemed to stop just short of brilliance, Wain was acknowledged as a distinguished man of letters. In 1973 he was honored with the place of professor of poetry at Oxford. Then came a work which fulfilled Wain’s early promise. Interestingly, it was a work of criticism, his perceptive biography of Samuel Johnson, which was universally admired and earned for Wain the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. It was followed by a novel, The Pardoner’s Tale, which was admired by most critics, some of whom called it his best fictional work, and then by another well-reviewed novel, Young Shoulders, in 1982. In 1981 a work in another genre, Lizzie’s Floating Shop, had been published; it won for Wain the Whitbread Award for children’s literature. Readers also were delighted with another autobiographical volume, Dear Shadows, which, like its predecessor Sprightly Running, was not presumptuous but honest, warm, and frequently insightful.
Wain’s beloved wife Eirian died in 1987; he then married Patricia Dunn the following year. Despite ill health and diminished vision, Wain labored on at his, ultimately, final project, the three novels that constitute the Oxford Trilogy: Where the Rivers Meet, Comedies, and Hungry Generations. This epic work covers three decades in the life of Peter Leonard, from his undergraduate years at Oxford in the mid-1920’s, through World War II, to the ending in 1956. The novels include a multitude of characters who all speak their minds about politics, world news, and the progress of society. In 1994, the year the last volume of the trilogy was published, Wain died of a stroke at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.
Throughout the acclaimed Johnson biography, Wain had emphasized the need for courage in a tragic world, for reason in an irrational world, and for tradition in a world which is changing, not necessarily for the better. These Johnsonian themes are also Wain’s themes. In Dear Shadows, Wain writes about eight people, four famous and four unknown, who were important in his life. In them, he saw the qualities he admires: his father’s courage and sense of duty, the Stratford landlady’s commonsensical look at hasty passion, and Nevill Coghill’s determined revival of the Shakespearean tradition in twentieth century Oxford. Although none of Wain’s imaginative works has quite fulfilled the expectations of the critics who so praised his first novel, the fact that year after year he brought out works in various genres which are always respectable and often very good suggests that his place in literary history is secure. He did not limit himself to one area but influenced his age through works of many kinds, not least of which is his scholarly biography of one of the greatest men of letters in English literature, Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 200
John Barrington Wain was born in Staffordshire, England, in 1925, the son of a dentist. After he was found unfit to join the armed forces because of poor eyesight, he went in 1943 to St. John’s College, Oxford, being graduated in 1946 and staying on for three years as a Fereday Fellow. At Oxford he began to publish his first verse and met Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, both of whom spoke both respectfully and venomously of him in conversation and memoir. He left teaching and became a full-time writer in 1955. In 1953, he served as host of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s “First Reading” program, which became a springboard for the British movement poets. Although he objected to being classified as one of the “Angry Young Men,” the label stuck. Because Wain, Amis, and John Osborne, all near thirty years old, were writing social protest and caustic humor, they were inevitably—if artificially—grouped by critics. Despite their individual differences, they did have the collective effect of sharpening England’s social sensibility and invigorating its literature. Wain and his second wife Eirian James had three sons; she died in 1988. He married Patricia Dunn the next year. In 1994, Wain died of a stroke.
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