Posthumous biographical studies of Dylan Thomas record a change in appreciation that was long overdue. During his lifetime, Thomas was regarded in the United States as a great English poet and reciter, but only after his death did his work—which includes poetry, fiction, dramas, essays, and impressionistic sketches—come to be regarded as a multifaceted whole. Representative of this reassessment was the growing respect accorded his first collection of short stories, which is also a mock-autobiography, that Thomas titled in imitation of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).
If his critics are right in concluding that most of Thomas’s best poetry was written in Swansea before he left Wales for London at the age of twenty, it may also be suggested that this collection of short stories, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, set in Swansea and environs, laid the foundations for much of the work that was to follow. “One Warm Saturday,” the final story in the collection, seems to anticipate the events of Thomas’s next book of prose, the unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade (1955), which uses the same surrealistic style. In both the story and the novel, the ever-pursued eludes capture by the hero as reality dissolves around him. In fact, this may well be the underlying theme of the entire collection Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.
The relationship of these stories to the Thomas canon, however, is not entirely straightforward. Adventures in the Skin Trade was the first prose work; Thomas called it his “Welsh book.” It was commissioned by a London publisher, and the first chapter appeared in the periodical Wales in 1937. The previous year, Richard Church had suggested that Thomas write some autobiographical prose tales. After his marriage in July, 1937, Thomas took up this project but set to work in a very different style. He first produced “A Visit to Grandpa’s,” in which the surrealism is muted and the lyrical tone sustained by the young narrator; this story, standing second in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, became Thomas’s favorite broadcast and reading material. The most interesting feature of the new style of story is the rapid succession of apparently logical but often haphazardly related events, the whole ending in a diminuendo that seems anticlimactic. The intention of the play of events on the diminutive observer is to record, by means of an episode that largely concerns or happens to others, a stage in the observer’s growth, that is, in his development as a “young dog.”
The development of the Thomas found in the collection into the “young dog” of the final tales is related to the development of the real Thomas as a writer. This is seen principally in his use of autobiographical material for prose, poetry, and drama. Thomas delivered the typescript of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog to his publisher, in lieu of the “Welsh book,” in December, 1939. Nine days later, talking to Richard Hughes, he remarked that the people of Laugharne, where he was then living, needed a play of their own. This remark is usually recognized as the origin of Under Milk Wood, which was first broadcast as a radio drama in 1954. Some years earlier, Thomas had toyed with the notion of doing another imitation of Joyce, a sort of Welsh Ulysses that would cover twenty-four hours in the life of a Welsh village. The notion of imitating Joyce and the suggestions of Church and Hughes coalesced with his development of a distinct prose style (instead of a prose extension of his verse, as in Adventures in the Skin Trade) and resulted in his best-known prose and drama. The autobiographical base is common to both works and to his poetry.
Fern Hill and Ann Jones stood as models to Gorsehill and Auntie Ann of the first story, “The Peaches,” and also to the poems “Fern Hill”...
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