Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

“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...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.