Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

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Now recognized as a journalistic catchphrase rather than the name of a full-fledged literary movement, the term “angry young men” was commonly applied to a number of writers of the mid-1950’s, including Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne, and John Wain. Their individuality and diversity have often been overlooked as certain similarities in their writings have been emphasized—particularly their portrayal of working-class protagonists who ardently voiced their social discontent, as well as their forthright inclusion of formerly “unmentionable” subject matter, “vulgar” language, and raucous comedy. From the outset, however, Wain was particularly uncomfortable with the label, and Sprightly Running is in part an explicit declaration of literary independence:Speaking for myself, I reject the label, and will always continue to reject it, because (i) it is the creation of journalists who know nothing, and care less than nothing, for the art to which my life is dedicated, (ii) it is a hindrance to anyone who holds serious opinions and is able to be genuinely serious about them, and (iii) because I refuse to be institutionalized, whatever may be the immediate advantages in terms of hard cash.

Wain’s autobiography is also a valuable guide to an understanding of the pessimism that becomes increasingly prominent in his later fiction, which lacks the comic verve of his earlier work. Appropriately, his favorite author is Samuel Johnson, whose observation that “human life is every where a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed” epitomizes a point of view much like Wain’s own.

Although he acknowledges in Sprightly Running that many have found his criticism to be stronger than his creative work (as many subsequent critics have agreed), he has continually refused to confine himself to one type of writing, though he admits a surprising preference for short fiction and poetry to the novel, for which he remains better known.

His middle-class family background and antileftist opinions also fundamentally differentiate him from many “angry young men,” whose origins were more directly in the working class and whose political sympathies were more left-of-center. Like the occasional Cold War tenor of his anti-Soviet rhetoric (however justifiable it may have been), Wain’s disclaimer of revolutionary intent is a recognizable product of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s—a reminder of the comparative mildness of the then-startling “anger” that would, less than a decade later, be supplanted by far more radical and convulsive expressions of revolutionary rage, both in literature and in life.