Wyndham Lewis 1882(?)-1957
(Full name Percy Wyndham Lewis) Canadian-born English novelist, essayist, critic, short story writer, editor, poet, autobiographer, and dramatist.
One of the leading and most controversial figures in British literary and artistic circles in the first half of the twentieth century, Lewis has garnered equal measures of praise and censure for his brilliant prose style, startling originality, brash personality, and pro-Fascist political leanings. He was instrumental in establishing the anti-Romantic movement in literature in the early 1900s and the Vorticism movement in art in the years before the First World War; wrote extensively about politics and aesthetics in the 1920s and 1930s; and was the art critic for the Listener in the 1950s. A gifted painter, Lewis's writing shows his concern with revealing "external" life using objective, visual techniques, in stark opposition to the "internal" technique of stream-of-consciousness employed by such contemporaries as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Marcel Proust. His short stories, mostly satires, reveal an acerbic sense of the comic and seek to give voice to his complex aesthetic, political, and philosophical theories. Lewis's anti-democratic, elitist political views and satirical attacks on other writers made him an unpopular figure for much of his career, but his talents as a literary stylist were admired by such distinguished writers as T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. Recent critical attention has focused on his skills as a satirist, his portrayals of the suffering artist, his Cartesian philosophical views, and his innovative style.
Lewis was born aboard a yacht off the coast of Nova Scotia to an American father and English mother, and spent his early years in Canada and Maine before moving with the family to England in 1888. His parents separated shortly thereafter, and Lewis was raised by his mother, to whom he remained very close. After attending a series of day schools in London and then the public school Rugby from 1897 to 1898, Lewis entered the Slade School of Art. Upon completing his formal studies in 1901, he traveled extensively in Europe for seven years, writing, studying, painting, and living the unconventional life of an artist. Lewis returned to London in 1909 to pursue his painting in earnest, soon making a name for himself with his radical post-Impressionist style. He also quickly became acquainted with the literary notables of his day, including Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Sturge Moore, Ezra Pound, Rebecca West, and Yeats. In 1909 Ford published Lewis's first short story, "The Pole," in The English Review, and in the following years additional short pieces, many of which were written during his stay on the Continent, appeared in other influential literary magazines. During these pre-World War I years, Lewis was also active in organizing the Vorticist group, an abstract art movement that reacted against Futurism and Cubism and which emphasized the use of geometrical lines, impersonality in art, and classical detachment and control. Pound and Lewis together founded a periodical, Blast, in which to promote the ideas of the movement, but because of the onset of the war and financial constraints, they managed to publish only two issues. However, with Blast, Lewis established his reputation as a brilliant, defiant, and highly original thinker whose anarchic ideas often troubled more conventional critics. A good-looking, brash, and arrogant young man, Lewis also became something of a personality and had a number of mistresses, several of whom bore him children.
In 1916, after completing his novel Tarr, which he had been working on since his years in Europe, Lewis enlisted in the army, eventually becoming an officer. Tarr was published at the end of the war to excellent reviews but did not sell well, further establishing Lewis's position as an avant-garde writer. In 1920, Lewis's mother died, which had a great effect on him emotionally. Already embittered by the war, he felt that his mother's death was caused by its effects, and in the following decades his writings, many of which were political in nature, were aimed at preventing another such event. He favored rightwing politics, despising liberalism and pacifist democracy—which he considered catered to the weaknesses of the "herd" and encouraged conformity—and advocated a system that promoted a strong, stable authority under which he believed intellectuals and artists could flourish. Lewis's literary output in the 1920s and 1930s was prolific, and included some of his best-known work, including The Art of Being Ruled (1926), a rabid critique of politics, art, and society; Time and Western Man (1927), an assault on the literary-philosophical positions of the leading writers of his day; The Wild Body (1927), a collection of short stories that had been written before the war and were revised to reflect his current aesthetic and political theories; and The Apes of God (1930), a venomous portrayal of the members of the literary establishment. The latter work did a great deal to alienate Lewis from critics and other writers, but he never apologized for his unpopular opinions and barbed commentary on what he considered were the shortcomings in others' work. From 1927 to 1929 Lewis edited and wrote for the literary review The Enemy (he said he found the literary persona of the "enemy" suitable to his temperament), which was perceived as being sympathetic to Fascism. In his essay Hitler (1931), he praised Adolph Hitler's rise to power and expressed approval of National Socialism. Although he retracted these views in his later essays, The Hitler Cult and The Jews, Are They Human? (1939), Lewis's name was permanently tainted by his earlier, pro-Fascist politics.
Just before the outbreak of World War II, his popularity and reputation in deep decline, Lewis moved to North America with his wife, a woman he had met in 1918, married in 1930, and who stayed with him through his numerous infidelities. The couple lived in virtual poverty for a good part of their stay in the United States, with Lewis earning a little money painting portraits and relying on the goodwill of friends. They enjoyed some stability during Lewis's year-long appointment at a small college in Ontario, Canada, before returning to a life of shortages and rationing in London in 1945. In 1946 Lewis became the art critic for the Listener, an influential post he held for five years. His years abroad had softened him somewhat, and in his reviews he offered insightful and generous appraisals of younger artists. Although Lewis was beset by blindness in his last years, he continued to write, in 1954 producing what many consider his finest novel, Self Condemned, a tragic story about a self-destructive rationalist living in exile who denies human feelings in his commitment to discovering the truth. Critics consider the work to be based on his humbling experiences in North America. Lewis died in 1957 of a brain tumor.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Lewis wrote in 1935 that "The short story . . . was the first literary form with which I became familiar. . . . The 'short story' was the crystallization of what I had to keep out of my consciousness while painting." Lewis's first literary recognition came from the publication of his short stories in influential literary journals, and early admirers found his work marked by a structural clarity evident in his visual art that announced him as an original talent and thinker. The stories revealed also his anti-Romantic, realist bent and his gift for savagely humorous satire. The 1917 story, "Cantelman's Spring-Mate," considered one of his best, is a fine example of Lewis's controlled, descriptive, hardedged style. In his 1927 collection, The Wild Body, which he called "essays in a new human mathematic," Lewis rewrote some of his early stories and added new ones to form a sequence of satiric tales told by a single comic narrator who recounts his adventures among the peasants of Brittany. Like his other work, the stories explore the contrast between the cultivated intellect and the savage, mechanized body and reveal his low opinion of women. Also included in the collection are two important essays, "Inferior Religions" and "The Meaning of the Wild Body," in which Lewis expresses the aesthetic, philosophic, and comic theories undergirding the stories in the collection. The other volume of stories published during Lewis's lifetime, Rotting Hill, is a series of sketches about life in London's Notting Hill after the Second World War and conveys the atmosphere of what he considered the "universal wreckage and decay" of post-war socialist Britain. The tone of this collection is a far cry from the lively satire of the earlier stories, and in this later work Lewis's descriptive realism gives way to the construction of types to make clear his distaste for the social and cultural politics he describes. Before he died, Lewis had intended to publish another book of short fiction, but the project never materialized. Unlucky for Pringle: Unpublished and Other Stories, published in 1973, includes unpublished pieces and others written between 1910 and 1956 that were not collected in the two other volumes.
Lewis never enjoyed popular recognition, in part because his inaccessible style is often underwritten by difficult philosophical or aesthetic theories, but for most of his career he was considered a force in intellectual circles, even when his reputation was at a low ebb. Although Lewis's work was praised highly by some of his literary contemporaries, including Eliot, who called him the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century, other critics found fault with his pro-Fascist politics, his brutal and unbalanced attacks of other artists' work, and the aggressive theorizing in his non-fiction and fiction alike. Early reviews of singly published stories and his Wild Body collection were mixed, with some critics heralding their originality and zest and others characterizing them as brutal, vulgar, and confused. Critical analysis of Lewis's work after his death has been concerned mainly with his novels, essays, and criticism, generally considered his best works, which showcase his incomparable idiosyncratic style and his devastating critical insight. Opinion of his stories in Rotting Hill is largely negative, and most critics consider it a tired, unimaginative attack on socialist politics. However, recent studies of the Wild Body collection have unanimously praised those stories' brilliant use of satire, strong sense of form, and psychological astuteness. Lewis is a difficult writer whose highly individual style, penetrating eye, and aggressive opinions, critics agree, reveal him to be one of the most fascinating and unsettling figures in modern literature.