Wilson Harris Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Using the richly varied landscape and the diverse cultural traditions of his homeland, Theodore Wilson Harris is a prolific and complex novelist. He was born in British Guiana (later Guyana), the son of middle-class parents. His father was Theodore Wilson, an insurer and underwriter, and his mother was Millicent Josephine (née Glasford) Harris. Harris attended both Catholic and Protestant schools in Georgetown, the capital, before attending Queen’s College from 1934 to 1939. Queen’s College was one of the best schools for boys in the Caribbean, and Harris studied under English schoolmasters who taught the canonical British texts and classical literature. Of mixed racial origin himself, Harris was to combine his education with his own lifelong development of a cross-cultural, symbolic imagination. After leaving school he studied to be a land surveyor, qualifying to practice in 1942.{$S[A]Waruk, Kona;Harris, Wilson}

As a government surveyor until 1958, Harris led expeditions to coastal areas and into the rough interior of the country. Spending long periods of time with men of different races and classes and encountering the Amerindians of the interior had a profound effect upon his imagination and provided a metaphor for his later explorations of the unity and diversity in nature and culture. The surveyor became a principal recurring character in his fiction. In 1945, he married Cecily Carew, and about the same time he began publishing short stories, poems, reviews, and critical essays in the literary journal Kyk-over-al, which was edited by the Guyanese poet Arthur Seymour from 1945 to 1961. His long apprenticeship resulted in two small books of poetry, the first published under the pseudonym Kona Waruk. In 1950, he visited England and Europe, particularly France, for the first time. By the late 1950’s, his first marriage had ended in divorce, and Harris had decided to become a professional writer. He immigrated to England, where in 1959 he met and married the Scottish lyricist and writer Margaret Nimmo Burns, settled in London, and abandoned poetry for the novel.

His first novel, Palace of the Peacock, began a series of novels, at one a year, which Harris himself described as the Guyana Quartet. They were set in Guyana and explored the natural and cultural history of Guyana, but they did so in such an unconventional mode that many readers found themselves utterly lost, as if in a Guyanese wilderness. Rejecting the chronological realism of conventional stories, Harris allied himself with modernistic stylists but retained the essential, universal issues from classical mythology. He sought to force his readers into an initial bewilderment that would erode their preconceptions about race, culture, power, tradition, and nature. He hoped to provoke his readers into shedding these preconceptions in order to learn new ways of seeing the world and its peoples. While Harris did not wish to downplay the gritty potential of humans to harm others of their kind, he did sense deeply that humanity could imagine its own redemption. Many of the themes and devices which Harris employed in his first novel continued in the rest of his fiction but with ever-increasing depth and complexity. As the Guyana Quartet progressed through The Far Journey of Oudin, The Whole Armour, and The Secret Ladder, Harris developed an elaborate mythology on the interrelationship of the races. Technical...

(The entire section is 1403 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Theodore Wilson Harris was born in New Amsterdam, British Guiana (now known as Guyana), on March 24, 1921. From 1934 to 1939, he attended Queen’s College, a prestigious high school staffed by English expatriates. He went on to study land surveying and geomorphology and in 1942 became an assistant government surveyor and made the first of many expeditions into the interior of Guyana. Between 1944 and 1953, he led several expeditions into other interior and coastal areas. The interior, with its dense tropical jungles, vast savannahs, and treacherous rivers, and the coastal region, with its mighty estuaries and extensive irrigation system, had a strong effect on Harris, later reflected in his novels. These expeditions also made Harris aware of the life of the Amerindians (indigenous peoples of the region) and of the peoples of Guyana of African, Asian, and European ancestry, who would later populate his novels. While working as a surveyor, he nurtured his artistic talents by writing poems, stories, and short essays for the little magazine Kyk-over-al, edited by the poet A. J. Seymour.

In 1950, Harris visited Europe for the first time, touring England and the Continent, and in 1959 he emigrated to Great Britain. That year, he married Margaret Burns, a Scottish writer. (He was married in 1945 to Cecily Carew, but the marriage ended in divorce.) With the publication of his first novel in 1960, Harris became a full-time writer. He settled in London but constantly traveled to take up fellowships and professorships in Europe, Australia, India, the Caribbean, Canada, and the United States. Harris has stated that these travels assisted him in providing some of the global backdrops and cosmic sensibility of his later fictions. His trip to Mexico in 1972, for instance, was especially influential on his use of the Quetzalcoatl legend in The Carnival Trilogy.

With tireless devotion to the evolution of his fictional voice and to promoting discussion of the postcolonial culture through numerous prestigious university appointments, Harris continued writing well into his seventies, publishing dense experimental narratives in which he sought in myth what history could not provide: a context for understanding the historical colonial imperative essentially to dismember the Caribbean and Amerindian culture. Perennially short-listed for the Nobel Prize, Harris announced in 2007 through his longtime publisher, Faber & Faber, that The Ghost of Memory, his frankest (and most urgent) treatment of the dynamic between myth and history, would be his last novel.