Norman Douglas Essay - Critical Essays

Douglas, Norman


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.

Principal Works

On the Darwinian Hypothesis of Sexual Selection (scientific monograph) 1895

Unprofessional Tales [as Normyx, with Elsa FitzGibbon] (short stories) 1901

Siren Land (travelogue) 1911

Fountains in the Sand: Rambles Among the Oases of Tunisia (travelogue) 1912

Old Calabria (travelogue) 1915

London Street Games (essay) 1916

South Wind (novel) 1917

They Went (novel) 1920

Alone (travelogue) 1922

Together (travelogue) 1923

D. H. Lawrence and Maurice Magnus: A Plea for Better Manners (essay) 1925

Experiments (essays, reviews, and stories) 1925

In the Beginning (novel) 1927

Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology (essays) 1927

Some Limericks (poetry) 1928

Nerinda (short story) 1929

One Day (travelogue) 1929

How About Europe? Some Footnotes on East and West [republished as Good-bye to Western Culture, 1930] (essay) 1929

Capri: Materials for a Description of the Island (travelogue) 1930

Paneros. Some Words on Aphrodisiacs and the Like (essay) 1932

Summer Islands: Ischia and Ponza (travelogue) 1931

Looking Back: An Autobiographical Excursion (reminiscences) 1933

An Almanac (epigrams) 1941

Late Harvest (essays) 1946

Footnote on Capri (travelogue with photographs) 1952


Elizabeth D. Wheatley (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "Norman Douglas," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XL, No. 1, January, 1932, pp. 55-67.

[In the following essay, Wheatley surveys such major works by Douglas as South Wind, Experiments, and Goodbye to Western Culture, commenting favorably on his main themes and style and comparing his main themes and style and comparing his writings to those of other authors, both contemporary and classical.]

Here in America and perhaps in general elsewhere, Norman Douglas has suffered from neglect. Except for the attention paid to South Wind and the rather craven acceptance of Goodbye to Western Culture, he has not been properly introduced...

(The entire section is 4999 words.)

H. T. Webster (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Norman Douglas: A Reconsideration," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2, April, 1950, pp. 226-36.

[In the following essay, Webster examines Douglas's reputation and the reception of his works by critics and the general reading public. He concludes that the autobiographical nature of Douglas's work accounts for its abiding energy and vibrancy.]

In the burgeoning of the 1920's, when every publisher's list seemed to make literary history, few writers enjoyed a greater succès d'estime than Norman Douglas. Everybody who thought of himself as belonging to the cognoscenti, the intelligentsia, the sophisticates, or even the intelligent minority,...

(The entire section is 4442 words.)

R. W. Flint (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Norman Douglas," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Autumn, 1952, pp. 660-68.

[In the following essay, Flint surveys Douglas's career, praising his travel writings but concluding: "his literary reputation must remain a small one."]

So, while her arm rested lightly on mine, we wandered about those gardens, the saintly lady and myself; her mind dwelling, maybe, on memories of her one classic love-adventure and the part she came nigh to playing in the history of Europe, while mine was lost in a maze of vulgar love-adventures which came nigh to making me play a part in the police courts of Rome.

from Alone,...

(The entire section is 3168 words.)

Graham Greene (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Norman Douglas," in Collected Essays, The Bodley Head, 1969, pp. 362-65.

[Greene was one of the most popular and respected authors of the twentieth century. A prolific novelist, dramatist, critic, and essayist, he is perhaps best known for the novels Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), and The Third Man (1950). In the following essay, originally published in 1952, he fondly recalls Douglas's life and discusses what South Wind meant to his generation of writers.]

In those last years you would always find him between six and dinner-time in the Café Vittoria, unfashionably tucked away behind the Piazza....

(The entire section is 1171 words.)

Cyril Connolly (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Norman Douglas," in Previous Convictions, Hamish Hamilton, 1963, pp. 224-26.

[Connolly was a very influential English critic, nonfiction writer, and literary journal editor. In the following positive review of Old Calabria, he praises Douglas's talents as a travel writer.]

This would seem to be the first edition of Old Calabria for twenty-five years. It belongs to the great tradition of English travel books: it is more solid than all the author's other work, and may well be that for which he is longest remembered.

It is introduced by Mr. John Davenport, who has some robust and original comments to make on the author. I...

(The entire section is 904 words.)

Ralph D. Lindeman (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Novels," in Norman Douglas, Twayne Publishers, 1965, pp. 121-58.

[In the following excerpt, Lindeman examines Douglas's novels, discussing their plots and main themes, and relating some of the critical commentary they generated.]

Douglas' three novels—South Wind, They Went, and In the Beginning—are usually considered satirical. Satire is difficult of definition. Its tone is one of disapprobation; its tools are irony, wit, humor, and exaggeration. And it is theoretically didactic, since its implied purpose is the renovation of society. Douglas' novels are witty and humorous, employing the kind of exaggerated characterization...

(The entire section is 15762 words.)

Keath Fraser (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Norman Douglas and D. H. Lawrence: A Sideshow in Modern Memoirs," in The D. H. Lawrence Review, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1976, pp. 283-95.

[In the following essay, Fraser examines the dispute between Douglas and Lawrence over the memoirs of Maurice Magnus, Memoirs of the Foreign Legion (1924), which Douglas wrote about in D. H. Lawrence and Maurice Magnus: A Plea for Better Manners.]

The cause of the breach between the two novelists whom E. M. Forster called [in Aspects of the Novel, 1962] "a doughty pair of combatants, the hardness of whose hitting makes the rest of us feel like a lot of ladies up in a pavilion," is summed up in two words:...

(The entire section is 4084 words.)

Paul Fussell (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Norman Douglas's Temporary Attachments," in Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars, Oxford University Press, 1980, pp. 119-30.

[Fussell is an outspoken American nonfiction writer, essayist, and critic whose best-known worksincluding The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Class: A Guide through the American Class System (1983), and BAD: or, the Dumbing of America (1991)—are noted for their scrupulous scholarship, accomplished prose style, and often polemical tone. In the following excerpt, he examines Douglas's travel writings in light of his pederastic relationships with young boys.]

The titles of the two...

(The entire section is 4044 words.)

George Woodcock (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Norman Douglas: the Willing Exile," in Ariel, Vol. 13, No. 4, October, 1982, pp. 87-101.

[Woodcock was a highly respected and influential Canadian literary critic. In the following essay, he discusses the theme of exile in Douglas's works and in his life-]

To talk of exile writers is to cover an extraordinary range of experience, for even when one has excluded those who have observed poignantly on their wanderings but have returned to their spiritual and physical homes to record those observations, like André Gide and Graham Greene and the classic nineteenth-century scientific wanderers, there remains the fundamental division between those one can call...

(The entire section is 5629 words.)

Further Reading


Woolf, Cecil. A Bibliography of Norman Douglas. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954, 210 p.

Comprehensive bibliography of Douglas's works, including his books, pamphlets, and journal articles.


Holloway, Mark. Norman Douglas: A Biography. London: Seeker & Warburg, 1976, 519 p.

Standard biography of Douglas.


FitzGibbon, Constantine. Norman Douglas: A Pictorial Record. London: The Richard's Press, 1953, 71 p.

Includes a critical consideration of Douglas's life and career.

Leary, Lewis....

(The entire section is 197 words.)