Wilson Harris Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Wilson Harris’s first published novel appeared in 1960, when he was thirty-nine years old. Before that time, his creative efforts were mainly in poetry, which, given the poetic prose of his novels, is not surprising. He published a few volumes of poems, including Fetish (1951), issued under the pseudonym Kona Waruk, and Eternity to Season (1954). Although the first collection is perceived as apprentice material, the second is generally praised and seen as complementary to Harris’s early novels; it anticipates the novels’ symbolic use of the Guyanese landscape to explore the various antinomies that shape the artist and the community. Harris has also published two volumes of short stories: The Sleepers of Roraima (1970), with three stories; and The Age of the Rainmakers (1971), with four. These stories are drawn from the myths and legends of the aborigines of the Guyanese hinterland. Harris does not simply relate the myths and legends; as in his novels, he imbues them with symbolic and allegorical significance.

Conscious of how unconventional and difficult his novels are, Harris has attempted to elucidate his theories of literature in several critical works. His language in these publications, however, is as densely metaphorical as in his novels. Harris’s ideas are outlined in Tradition, the Writer, and Society (1967), a group of short exploratory essays on the West Indian novel, and History, Fable,...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

From the publication of his very first novel, Wilson Harris’s work attracted a great deal of attention. Though many readers are puzzled by his innovative techniques and by his mystical ideas, his works have received lavish critical praise. Although firmly established as a major Caribbean novelist, Harris is not seen as simply a regional writer. Critics outside the Caribbean perceive him as one of the most original and significant writers of the second half of the twentieth century and, in trying to come to grips with his ideas and techniques, have compared him with William Blake, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, and William Butler Yeats.

As would be expected of one who eschews the conventional realistic novel, Harris is not without his detractors. Some readers have pounced on his work for being idiosyncratic, obscure, and farraginous. Those who defend him note that Harris’s novels demand more of the reader than do more conventional works and that what initially appears to be merely obscure and confused is intended to shock readers and force them to deconstruct habitual perceptions and responses. Harris’s importance as a novelist is reflected in the many awards and honors bestowed upon him by cultural and academic institutions: He has received the English Arts Council Award twice (in 1968 and in 1970), and in 1972 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has held many visiting professorships and fellowships at institutions such as Aarhus University (Denmark), Mysore University (India), Newcastle University (Australia), the University of Toronto, the University of the West Indies, the University of Texas, and Yale University. In 1984, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies, and subsequently he was awarded the 1987 Guyana Prize for Fiction. In 1992 he won Italy’s Mondello Prize for fiction. In 2002, as part of the Guyanese commemoration of Harris’s eightieth birthday, he was awarded a special Guyana Prize for Literature in recognition of a lifetime of writing that has explored the implications of Caribbean identity in the postcolonial era.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Wilson Harris seeks to present the complex culture of the Caribbean. How did the slave trade contribute to this complexity?

Is Caribbean culture too complicated in its ethnic and sociological makeup to be regarded as an entity?

What makes such elements as diaries and the recollection of dreams useful for Harris?

Examine the scarecrow as metaphor in Harris’s novel The Eye of the Scarecrow.

Harris is a writer with a record of success in academic institutions. Does he cut himself off from less academic audiences by his difficult style?

No resolution takes place in Palace of the Peacock. What literary or other cultural experiences of Harris’s audiences in recent times have prepared them to accept such an apparent deficiency?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Cribb, Tim. “T. W. Harris, Sworn Surveyor.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 28, no. 1 (1993): 33-46. A biographically oriented essay that discusses the relevance of Harris’s early experience as a surveyor in the Guyanese interior to his fictional oeuvre; especially relevant to The Four Banks of the River of Space.

Drake, Sandra. Wilson Harris and the Modern Tradition: A New Architecture of the World. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Places Harris in the modernist tradition and shows how his fiction comprises a “third-world modernism.” The reading of four novels—Palace of the Peacock, Tumatumari, Ascent to Omai, and Genesis of the Clowns—in this light rounds out the discussion. The accompanying bibliographical essay provides a valuable survey of the critical response to Harris’s work.

Gilkes, Michael, ed. The Literate Imagination: Essays on the Novels of Wilson Harris. London: Macmillan, 1989. This collection, edited by a well-known scholar of Caribbean literature, includes Harris’s discussion of “Literacy and the Imagination,” as well as eleven essays by international critics whose work is divided into three sections: “Phenomenal Space,” “Language and Perception,” and “The Dialectical Imagination.”

Howard, W. J. “Wilson Harris’s...

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