Wyndham Lewis Lewis, Wyndham (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957

(Full name Percy Wyndham Lewis) Canadian novelist, painter, philosopher, critic, essayist, dramatist, editor, autobiographer, poet, and short story writer.

Lewis is known as one of the “Men of 1914,” a group including Ezra Pound and James Joyce that is credited with revolutionizing twentieth-century art and literature. Enjoying initial success as a painter and portraitist, Lewis became instrumental in the reaction against Romanticism in the first two decades of the twentieth century with his championing of Vorticist values as a painter and editor of the magazine Blast. After World War I, Lewis established himself as a novelist, philosopher, and critic with a series of works that reflect an affinity with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's belief that artists should exist beyond fear of social reproach and female domination. He embraced and later rejected Fascism and Adolph Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s, resulting in a long period of critical and public disfavor in which charges of anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, and misogyny were leveled against him. He is, however, considered by critics to be among modern literature's most influential writers.

Biographical Information

Lewis was born on his family's yacht off the North American coast and spent his first years in Canada and Maine. His father was a former American soldier who had fought in the United States Civil War. He abandoned Lewis and Lewis's mother after moving them to England, forcing Lewis's mother to work as a washerwoman for the remainder of her life. Lewis received a public school education, including two years at Rugby, and from 1898 until 1901 studied at the Slade School of Art in Paris. A sporadic allowance from his father enabled him to travel extensively in France, Germany, Spain, and Holland before returning to England, where he sought to establish himself as a painter. By 1909 Lewis had exhibited many of his paintings and received commissions for many more. That year Ford Madox Ford published several of his short stories in The English Review. An early adherent to the tenets of Futurism as espoused by the Italian artist Filippo Marinetti, Lewis later founded Vorticism with Ezra Pound, Frederick Etchells, William Roberts, and Edward Wadsworth. Drawing ideas from Cubist painting, Imagist poetry, and Polynesian and African sculpture, Vorticist theories advocated classical detachment and total impersonality through the use of rigid geometric forms to depict modern machinery and urban life. The Vorticist intent to shock Georgian England is conveyed by the name—Blast—of the journal Lewis and Pound launched in 1914. Featuring writing by Pound, Rebecca West, and Ford Madox Ford, Lewis's play Enemy of the Stars (1932), and art by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein, Blast proclaimed Vorticism as a major avant-garde artistic movement. The publication folded after its second issue, however, and Vorticism lost its momentum with the advent of World War I. Lewis enlisted as a gunner in the Royal Artillery and served during the battle of Passchendaele, before joining the Canadian War Artists. Following the war, Lewis completed several major paintings and published his first novel, Tarr (1918), before isolating himself to focus on reading philosophy and political science, which would inform his series of literary, political, and philosophical works of the 1920s, which are collectively known as The Man of the World (1924). Most of these works received an apathetic public response and earned him very little money, increasing Lewis's disgust with English society. Days before England declared war on Germany, Lewis traveled to North America, where he lived in near poverty throughout World War II. He returned to England following the war, and became an influential art critic for The Listener. Lewis lost his sight in the 1950s but continued to write, and he enjoyed a resurgence in popularity when his trilogy The Human Age (1955) was adapted for BBC...

(The entire section is 151,055 words.)