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Though best known for his first novel Hurry On Down (1953; published in the United States as Born in Captivity, 1954), the press reaction to which placed him prominently but uncomfortably among the “angry young men” of the 1950’s, John Wain was among the most prolific and versatile writers of the decade—during which he had also produced two volumes of poetry (1951 and 1956), a collection of short stories (1960), a book of criticism entitled Preliminary Essays (1957), numerous other reviews, and three additional novels: Living in the Present (1955), The Contenders (1958), and A Travelling Woman (1959). Sprightly Running, which was completed in September, 1960, as he “reached the exact half-way point in threescore years and ten,” is his personal assessment of the major influences on his development as a writer, poet, and teacher.

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“My 1930s,” the first of the book’s nine chapters, comprises more than one-fourth of its total length. Wain’s depiction of his childhood painstakingly details the isolation of a sensitive and somewhat frail boy who, as a member of the middle class (the son of a dentist), finds himself resented as an outsider and bullied by lower-class “roughs” in the schoolyard and the community at large. Though such persecution is certainly not unique (and he omits its details, noting that its forms remain much the same in any decade), Wain’s early experience as a victim of bullying and intolerance gave him an acute sympathy for victims of persecution elsewhere—particularly, during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, those in Nazi Germany.

The second chapter, “Love and the War,” begins with the diagnosis of a detached retina in his left eye that confined the sixteen-year-old Wain to bed for three months and left him partially blind, causing him to be rejected for military service at age eighteen. During this time, he also developed an intense and prolonged but unrequited adolescent infatuation with the daughter of an insurance salesman—a “wretched hopeless passion” that continued until his enrollment at Oxford several years later. Influenced by his parents’ support of the pacifist cause in the 1930’s, young Wain again saw himself in a minority that was “oppressed, despised, [and] in possession of the truth but powerless to impose its will,” characterizing his attitude as the Pharisaism of “any youth growing up in the attitude of high-minded martyrdom, such as prevails among pacifists in a liberal country during a war . . . a holier-than-thou attitude.”

Although he had reacted intensely against formal education in his younger years and had received only haphazard grounding in educational fundamentals, he entered St. John’s College, Oxford, in 1943; his experience there is described in the book’s lengthy third chapter. Under the direction of his tutor C.S. Lewis, who taught him the importance of meticulous analysis and rigorously precise writing, he began to shape his identity as a writer, while his friend Charles Williams instilled in him a reverential love of great poetry. During this time he befriended the brilliant but eccentric E.M.W. Meyerstein as well as Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, who were soon to begin their own distinguished literary careers; he also developed an abiding fascination with the life and works of Samuel Johnson, an interest which culminated in Wain’s noteworthy biography of him published in 1975.

About his first marriage (1947) and divorce (1956) Wain discloses very little, giving it only a four-page chapter and declining even to reveal his wife’s name in order to avoid “an unwarranted intrusion on someone else’s privacy.” The marriage’s ending came “slowly, messily, in a welter of tears and agony,” leaving him at the end ofnearly a decade of suffering . . . with the knowledge that parting from someone you care for is the worst kind of pain, the slowest to heal and the most deeply felt . . . the nearest thing to hell that life can offer; and that the most terrible of all words is Good-bye.

“A Literary Chapter,” the book’s fifth, is devoted primarily to Wain’s career as a writer (beginning at age nine with parodies of detective novels) and, from 1947 to 1955, as a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Reading. Though he resigned to become a full-time free-lance writer, Wain’s own university associations were to continue throughout his career, culminating in his position as professor of poetry at Oxford from 1973 to 1978. His assessment of contemporary poetry within Sprightly Running is forthright and acerbic, decrying “the collapse of the consumer wall of the literary triangle” that has allowed the ascendancy of (unnamed) ersatz poets and fame-building publicity-mongers “whose methods make Barnum look like an archbishop.”

Following a brief chapter on “The Wains in History,” describing his now-unknown working-class ancestors as “among the people who carried the heavy weight of England on their backs,” a chapter titled “Thoughts in an Aeroplane” is devoted to his travels in the United States and the Soviet Union. For reasons discussed at length in an article published in truncated form in the Observer but included in full in the chapter called “Criminal Record,” Wain found that, despite the physical beauty of its countryside and the friendliness of its people, “the total effect of being in the Soviet Union was to depress me almost suicidally.” In “Going Home,” the final chapter, Wain assesses the meaning of his own Englishness and reasserts his view of the fundamentally tragic nature of human life.

The book’s title and its epigraph are taken from act 4, scene 1 of John Dryden’s tragedy Aurengzebe (1675)

. . . None would live past years again,Yet all hope pleasure in what remain;And, from the dregs of life, think to receiveWhat the first sprightly running could not give.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 56

Creber, J.W. Patrick. “Some Lessons from a Short Story,” in English Journal. LXXVI (February, 1987), p. 82.

Gray, James. Review in Time. LXXXI (May 24, 1963), p. 102.

Pryce-Jones, Alan. Review in Newsweek. LXI (May 13, 1963), p. 108.

Ryan, F.L. Review in Best Sellers. XXIII (May 15, 1963), p. 69.

Salwak, Dale. John Braine and John Wain: A Reference Guide, 1979.

Salwak, Dale. John Wain, 1981.

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