Sprightly Running Critical Essays

John Wain


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Written at a relatively early point in his career, Sprightly Running records the growth of John Wain’s artistic sensibility and traces the intellectual origins of the worldview of this erudite and versatile mid-twentieth century man of letters. With a stoical acceptance of life’s hardships and a determination to focus on the effects of such events on his personality rather than their precise details, he typically offers few specifics about some of his particularly painful experiences. Thus, in a single sentence or paragraph he often dismisses—as already too familiar—those sources of sentimental and/or sensational anecdotal material with which more typical autobiographies abound (the persecutions endured as a schoolboy, the agonies of unrequited adolescent love, the problems and deprivations of day-to-day wartime existence, the miseries of an unhappy marriage). Instead, in an engaging and insightful narrative that is at times unsparingly self-critical as well, he reveals the deeply personal origins of thematic preoccupations that recur throughout his fiction and criticism.

Among the foremost of these are his self-confessed pessimism and his concern with the exploitation of power in interpersonal relationships of all kinds. The first chapter, for example, not only adeptly recaptures the intensity of childhood experiences but also places them within the context of a mature adult’s understanding of power and a particularly English class consciousness. Even at the age of five, as he lived in fear of the bullying practiced by children living in The Sutton (a nearby housing project), he hadlearned the following lessons: (i) that the world was dangerous; (ii) that it was not possible to evade these dangers by being inoffensive, since I was surrounded on all sides by those who hated me, not for anything I had done, but for being different from themselves; (iii) that, although the natural reaction to all this was fear, I could not admit to feeling fear or I should be disgraced.

During his teenage years, his sense of life being essentially tragic was reinforced by the hardships of war as well as his unrequited love, so that by the time of his arrival at Oxford he had constructed a worldview that “excluded the very idea of happiness except for the gross, the naive, or the unreflecting”—an attitude that he characterizes (from his more mature perspective) as a “dangerous web.” The miseries of his first marriage, though undisclosed, also clearly confirmed the view to which he had long adhered.

From infancy onward, Wain felt an intense love of nature and the English countryside, though this too, he grew to realize, was constantly menaced and soon to be lost, a victim of the continual encroachment of industrial expansion and urban...

(The entire section is 1136 words.)