Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Conrad Aiken’s Ushant, the poet’s major prose work, falls into no clear literary category. It is at once an autobiography, a confession, and a participatory novel which involves the reader in the journey of remembrance, creation, and imagination on which Aiken sets forth. Following the precedents of such writers as Laurence Sterne and James Joyce in his use of free-association and stream-of-consciousness techniques, Aiken created a literary form to suit his needs, allowing the contents of his memory and the honesty of his self-analysis to give shape and meaning to his circular narrative. Ushant, which is divided into six sections, is a journey of return to the “beginning without beginning” of his life. The book is Aiken’s synthesis of his life as a poet, and it is linked to the modernist view of man as the creative artist of his life.

In the book, which draws on the author’s past experiences so that he may fully realize his creative ego, Aiken often portrays himself as a cultural artifact rather than as a person. The circular journey that returns him to his roots is paralleled by the journeys of many other “travelers.” Along the way there are numerous contacts with the world of a whole generation of American and British artists who contributed to the vital movement of modernism in the first half of the twentieth century.

The central image of the narrative is that of the tiny ship at sea amid a dream seascape, approaching the mythical island of Ushant. In cabin 144 are twelve sleeping travelers returning from the United States to England two weeks after the close of World War II. Among them is the main character D. (for Demarest, the main character in Aiken’s novel Blue Voyage, written in 1927). D. details the lives of several of his cabin mates and compares their need to return to England with his own. His empathy with their compulsion to revisit England underscores the fact that these passengers link him with the rest of humanity. D. is the “eye” and the “I” of the book. He is returning to Ariel’s Isle (England) and to Saltinge, the country house of which he has many memories.

The form of the narrative is governed by D.’s...

(The entire section is 906 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Denney, Reuel. Conrad Aiken: Pamphlets on American Writers. Vol. 38, 1964.

Hoffman, Frederick J. Conrad Aiken, 1962.

Martin, Jay. Conrad Aiken: A Life of His Art, 1962.

Rountree, Mary. “Conrad Aiken’s Heroes: Portraits of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Failure,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination. XIII (Fall, 1980), p. 82.

Spivey, Ted R. The Writer as Shaman: The Pilgrimages of Conrad Aiken and Walker Percy, 1986.