Norman Douglas Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Norman Douglas 1869-1952

Full name George Norman Douglas. Austrian-born English travel-writer, novelist, essayist, short story writer, scientist, poet, and critic.

A writer of varied talents, Douglas is best known for his travel books that capture the mood and atmosphere of Mediterranean Europe in the first few decades of the twentieth century and for his novel South Wind (1917), which enjoyed widespread popularity in America during the 1920s and 1930s. As a travel-writer, Douglas is remembered for his erudite and highly expressive prose style in such works as Fountains in the Sand (1912) and Old Calabria (1915). Douglas's novels—characterized by his sardonic wit and trenchant satire—are meditations on hedonism, amorality, and the inadequacies of modern religion, and, like his travel books, are distinguished by his often brilliant evocations of natural setting. In his life and writings Douglas, an aesthete and an aristocrat by birth, adopted a pose of haughty disdain intermingled with flashes of humane concern, and dramatized his adage that "leisure is the key to artistic creation and appreciation."

Biographical Information

Douglas was born in Thüringen, Austria on December 8, 1868. His mother Vanda (Von Poellnitz) Douglass was the daughter of an Austrian Baron and his father Sholto Douglass, who died when Douglas was five years old, owned a local cotton mill. After her husband's death, Douglas's mother sent her son to preparatory school in England, though he later returned to the European continent in 1883 to attend the Karlsruhe Gymnasium. He spent six years at Karlsruhe, learning languages and expanding his youthful interest in the natural sciences—he published several scientific papers in his younger years, the most significant being On the Darwinian Hypothesis of Sexual Selection (1895). After graduating in 1889, Douglas spent the next several years traveling in Mediterranean Europe and North Africa and studying to enter the British Diplomatic Service. He passed his examinations in 1893 and after a year at the Foreign Office was transferred to St. Petersburg. Two and one half years later Douglas left the Diplomatic Service and resumed his travels. In 1898 he married Elsa FitzGibbon, with whom he collaborated on his first literary work, Unprofessional Tales (1901), a collection of short stories published under the joint pseudonym, "Normyx." The two experienced a bitter divorce, however, in 1903, and Douglas soon after left for the island of Capri. By 1907 his fortunes had largely evaporated and Douglas turned to writing to maintain his livelihood. He began to write articles and reviews for several periodicals, including the Atlantic Monthly, Cornhill Magazine, and Putnam's, and to put together his first travel book, Siren Land (1911). He moved back to London in 1910 to find a publisher for the work, and spent three months in Tunisia during that year, a trip he described in Fountains in the Sand, Between 1913 and 1916 he worked as an assistant editor for the English Review. In 1917 Douglas published his most successful novel, South Wind, and two years later took up residence in Florence, were he would stay for the next two decades. In the early 1930s, Douglas experienced some troubles with the fascist government in Italy, especially because of the overtly erotic poetry of Some Limericks (1928). He fled to Lisbon, Portugal and later to London rather than face charges, but eventually returned to Italy after the Second World War. He continued to write and travel during this period, spending a great deal of time on the isle of Capri, the subject of his last work, Footnote on Capri, published shortly after his death (rumored to be the result of a self-induced overdose of medication) on February 9, 1952.

Major Works

While he wrote short stories, poetry, criticism, and scientific monographs, Douglas's significant literary works are generally limited to his travel books and three novels. In the former, Douglas presented many vivid descriptive passages of beautiful Mediterranean regions, including Capri (Siren Land, 1911), Tunisia (Fountains in the Sand: Rambles Among the Oases of Tunisia, 1912), Italy (Old Calabria, 1915, and Alone, 1922), and Greece (One Day, 1929). In his novels he more fully demonstrated his cynical and hedonistic sensibility, as well as varying degrees of humor, ranging from sarcasm to outright brutality. Douglas's first and best known novel, South Wind, was set on the fictional island of Nepenthe (patterned after the author's sometime home of Capri). The novel explores the influence of the Mediterranean atmosphere as a powerful inducement to hedonism, amorality, and ultimately happiness. In They Went (1921), a short novel set in a mythic city in Brittany during the late Roman era, Douglas presents an allegory of goodness pitted against beauty. In the Beginning (1927), similar in tone to the previous work, is an anti-religious fable in which Man, victimized by the disease of "goodness," forsakes a life of pleasure and eventually destroys itself. Among his other writings, Douglas produced several book-length essays, such as a survey of childhood imagination entitled London Street Games (1916) and a virulent reproach of bourgeois values in Good-bye to Western Culture (1929). Other works include Experiments (1925), a collection of formerly published stories, articles, and reviews; Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology (1927), a commentary on these animals, both mythic and real; Looking Back: An Autobiographical Excursion (1933), reminiscences and anecdotes about Douglas's friends; An Almanac (1941), a series of epigrams from his books; and Late Harvest (1946), containing personal commentary on his previously published writings.

Critical Reception

As a novelist, Douglas's reputation rests on South Wind, which is thought to have influenced a generation of young writers in America with its stylized characters, witty dialogue, and glorification of hedonism. Still, charges of poor characterization and a weak plot have since been leveled against the novel. Overall, Douglas's standing has declined considerably since the 1930's, the period of his greatest popularity. Some of his later works, particularly Good-bye to Western Culture, have been called excessively bitter; and some critics have observed that Douglas produced very little that was new in his last decades, opting instead to republish portions of earlier writings. For his travel writing, however, Douglas has been consistently praised, with many critics numbering him among the outstanding authors in the genre for his powerful and evocative descriptions of natural beauty.