Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1136
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 growth. Yet, like William Wordsworth, he retains an almost pantheistic reverence for the natural world as a restorative refuge from the man-made environment.
Notwithstanding Wain’s pessimism and his ultimately tragic view of life, Sprightly Running is by no means a misanthropic book; his repeated self-characterization as an outsider makes possible not only a tone of wry detachment but also a dry humor that, however satirical it may be, is consistently based on a humane and compassionate understanding. Thus, for example, even though his portrait of members of academia’s “half dead” middle-aged professorate has much the same animus as his friend Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim (1954), Wain also details (from personal experience) the causes of such burnout: “the horrible drudgery of a don’s life—the stacks of essays to be waded through, the committee meetings with boring colleagues, the fresh wave of empty young heads, every October, that have to be filled somehow.” Although he would hold a number of faculty positions later in his career (at the University of Bristol in 1967, at the Centre Universitaire Experimentale in Vincennes, France, in 1969, and at Oxford in the mid-1970’s), at the time of writing Sprightly Running he felt pleased to have “got out” of the classroom, foreseeing a return to teaching only if he were to come under “the lash of poverty.”
Given his distinctly antiauthoritarian predilections and his sympathies for the individual rather than the group (especially when the former is being persecuted or bullied by the latter), Wain’s averse reaction to his one-month visit to the Soviet Union is not entirely surprising, though he acknowledges that it fundamentally changed his understanding of the world. Accustomed to the English atmosphere of political and social toleration, he found both the absence of individual liberties and the presence of univocal official propaganda to be oppressive.
Though his novel Hurry On Down had been translated into Russian and had reportedly sold out in an edition of 250,000 copies (from which his share of the revenues had to remain inside the Soviet Union), he found that his work was of interest there because it was viewed as a manifestation of the anti-Western rebellion of one of the renowned (and, the Soviets had obviously concluded, potentially revolutionary) “angry young men.” His art, in short, had been suborned to a political purpose that he did not endorse, enlisted in support of a radical cause in which he did not believe, and used as confirmation of the government-sponsored propaganda whose unchallenged and vitriolically anti-Western worldview he deplored. Yet, Wain insisted, more offensive than the use of his (and others’) writings for such purposes were the “Newspeak” and “Doublethink”—terms coined by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)—with which the Soviets feigned a sincere interest in Western literature and art.
Earlier in 1959, shortly before his visit to the Soviet Union, Wain had ended an eight-month sojourn in the United States, first at New Hampshire’s Macdowell Colony, a retreat for artists and writers, and subsequently in New York’s Brooklyn Heights. Although Sprightly Running contains very few details of his travels throughout America, the overall impression was a strongly favorable one, though not uncritically so; though exhilarated by the size and diversity of America as well as the helpfulness of its people, he was disconcerted by the relative impermanence of its culture, the devaluation of tradition, and the relentless barrage of advertising.
After having repeatedly portrayed himself as an isolated outsider—a wry, sensitive, and introspective if pessimistic and beleaguered observer—in his final pages Wain surprisingly contends:I have long recognized myself as a participator . . . the sort of person who rushes headlong at life, collides with it, and gets hurt. But the hurt of staying away, the dull ache of seeing life go past without you, is worse than the shock of participation.
The book’s final line (“Spirits of my unknown ancestors, speak through me: green hills of Staffordshire, stand firm in my mind!”) echoes the famous closing line of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916): “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead!”
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