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


(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 radio. He died in 1957.

Major Works

Much of Lewis's work between World War I and World War II reflects his belief that artists and intellectuals should not be at the mercy of an apathetic, uncultured, and ignorant public His novel Tarr, for example, depicts the title character as a man indifferent to social customs who rises to artistic and economic success in contrast to his less-talented German counterpart Kreisler, who succumbs to public pressures, adopts middle-class social values, and eventually commits suicide. The experimental prose style of Tarr earned Lewis a critical reputation as a groundbreaking writer ranked with James Joyce. Lewis's next literary endeavor, The Man of the World, was a lengthy examination of social and cultural phenomena that eventually was published in parts under the titles The Art of Being Ruled (1926), The Lion and the Fox (1927), Time and Western Man (1927), The Childermass (1928), Paleface (1929), and The Apes of God (1930). These collections of essays, criticism and satirical fiction reveal Lewis's abandonment of his previous influences and his adoption of “The Enemy” persona. Widely divergent in subject matter and merciless in its assessments of such current writers as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Stephen Spender, The Man of the World series, particularly the satirical novel The Apes of God and the essays collected in Time and Western Man alienated Lewis from many of his former supporters. The Art of Being Ruled attacks contemporary society, human relations, and political systems as forced conformity at odds with individual growth and creative freedom. Time and Western Man begins as study of the linear and cyclical time theories of Henri Bergson, Oswald Spengler, and Albert Einstein, but ultimately develops into an assault on almost all contemporary schools of philosophic, artistic, and literary thought. Central to The Man of the World series is Lewis's insistence that people must make conscious decisions rather than surrender to unconscious desires and the influence of the masses. In The Apes of God, Lewis depicts great artists as gods and savagely lampoons lesser artists, patrons, and an uneducated public as apes.

In 1930, Lewis received a commission from Time and Tide magazine to cover Germany's National Socialist movement, resulting in his fascination with Fascism as the preferred alternative to democracy and communism because it alone, he believed, elevated the social position of artists and intellectuals. These ideas were reported in his book Hitler (1931) and furthered by Lewis's association with such Fascist sympathizers as Sir Oswald Mosley during the 1930s and the works urging England to avoid war with Germany: Left Wings over Europe (1936) and Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! (1937). By 1939, however, Lewis withdrew his support for Hitler in The Hitler Cult (1939) and The Jews, Are They Human? (1939). Lewis also wrote a series of novels in his later years that serve as an apologia for the arrogance and cruelty evidenced in much of his earlier works. Such works as The Revenge for Love (1937), The Vulgar Streak (1941), and Self Condemned (1954) are noted for their humanity and sensitivity. Near the end of his life, Lewis finished the trilogy The Human Age, which included the novels The Childermass, Malign Fiesta (1956), and Monstre Gai (1956). Set in the afterlife, The Human Age is a surrealistic and obscure examination of the sufferings of an artist, who must remain detached from human experience in order to portray it.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Tarr (novel) 1918; revised 1928

The Caliph's Design (essay) 1919

The Art of Being Ruled (essays) 1926

The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare (essays) 1927

Time and Western Man (essays) 1927

The Wild Body (short stories) 1927

*The Childermass (novel) 1928

Paleface: The Philosophy of the Melting Pot (essays) 1929

The Apes of God (novel) 1930

Satire and Fiction (criticism) 1930

The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator (essays) 1931

Hitler (essay) 1931

The Doom of Youth (essays) 1932

Enemy of the Stars (drama) 1932

Snooty Baronet (novel) 1932

Engine Fight Talk (poetry) 1933; also published as One-Way Song, 1960

Men Without Art (criticism) 1934

Left Wings over Europe; or, How to Make a War about Nothing (essays) 1936

Blasting and Bombardiering (autobiography) 1937

Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! or, A New War in the Making (essays) 1937

The Revenge for Love (novel) 1937

The Hitler Cult (essay) 1939

The Jews, Are They Human? (essay) 1939

The Vulgar Streak (novel) 1941

Rude Assignment: A Narrative of My Career Up-to-Date (autobiography) 1950

Rotting Hill (short stories) 1951

Self Condemned (novel) 1954

*Malign Fiesta (novel) 1956

*Monstre Gai (novel) 1956

The Letters of Wyndham Lewis (letters) 1963

The Roaring Queen (novel) 1973

Unlucky for Pringle: Unpublished and Other Stories (short stories) 1973

Enemy Salvoes: Selected Literary Criticism (criticism) 1976

Mrs. Dukes' Million (novel) 1977

*These works were published as The Human Age in 1955.

†This work was written in 1936.

‡This work was written in 1908.

John Russell (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Proletarian Tragedy: Wyndham Lewis' Revenge for Love,” in Modern Age, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 61-6.

[In the following essay, Russell examines elements of tragedy in Lewis's novel, Revenge for Love.]

One of the easiest things to forget about the two heroes and the heroine of Wyndham Lewis' The Revenge for Love—English characters whose lives come to ruin as they attempt to aid the Spanish communists—is that they are all three proletarians, and in fact the only proletarians shown to us in this 1937 novel (available nowadays from Regnery Gateway). Opening and closing in Spain, on scenes of imprisonment and death, the book is not...

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Keith Tuma (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wyndham Lewis, Blast, and Popular Culture,” in ELH, Vol. 54, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 403-19.

[In the following essay, Tuma discusses Vorticist tenets as evidenced by the material Lewis wrote or accepted for the journal Blast.]

Several critics and literary historians have noted Wyndham Lewis's fascination with the popular culture of England and France in the years before World War I. For the most part, this scholarship has been concerned with the influence of various forms of popular culture on a developing style—on Lewis's idea of satire, or his creation of a “visual text” in the manifestoes of Blast. We know, for instance, that...

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Sue Ellen Campbell (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Enemy Versus the Zeitgeist: Cultural Criticism,” in The Enemy Opposite: The Outlaw Criticism of Wyndham Lewis, Ohio University Press, 1988, pp. 165-90.

[In the following essay, Campbell identifies key philosophical influences on Lewis's critical theories, fiction, and nonfiction, including Oswald Spengler, Albert Einstein, and Julien Benda.]


To explain his temerity in dealing with matters outside the arts, Lewis writes: “It has been suggested … that I should be better advised to ignore such things [as mathematical physics], and only attend to what happens in my own field. Now that I should be...

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Scott Klein (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Experiment of Vorticist Drama: Wyndham Lewis and Enemy of the Stars,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 37, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 225-39.

[In the following excerpt, Klein places Lewis within the early twentieth-century's avant-garde, and declares Lewis's play, The Enemy of the Stars, an important example of Vorticist art.]

Wyndham Lewis was the only writer and painter in England during the early part of the twentieth century who was consistently engaged by the continental avant-garde. His movement, vorticism, spearheaded by the 1914 magazine Blast, brought the radicalism of futurism and cubism into British painting and the...

(The entire section is 6388 words.)

Daniel Schenker (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wyndham Lewis in the Modernist Canon: Dissent, Division, and Displacement,” in Wyndham Lewis: Religion and Modernism, The University of Alabama Press, 1992, pp. 1-18.

[In the following excerpt, Schenker declares that Lewis's politics and morality prevent him from receiving acknowledgement as a major cultural figure.]

In a few lines of verse from his satiric self-portrait “If So the Man You Are,” Wyndham Lewis described with uncanny accuracy his place in English letters as it stood in 1933 and has continued to the present day:

I am an “outcast” and a man “maudit.”
But how romantic! Don't you envy me?
A sort of Villon, bar the...

(The entire section is 8373 words.)

Victor M. Cassidy (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Who Was Wyndham Lewis?” in The New Criterion, Vol. II, No. 10, June, 1993, pp. 26-38.

[In the following excerpt, Cassidy presents biographical details of Lewis's childhood to explain his later inability to focus his art.]

Everyone seems to have heard of Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), but no one is quite sure who he was. He is known—more or less—as an artist, a novelist, a man of controversy, an associate of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and a fascist. He was all these—and more. Lewis is a puzzle, so much so that many find it more expedient to ignore him than to try to make sense of him.

No one did more to create confusion about himself...

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Andrew Hewitt (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wyndham Lewis: Fascism, Modernism, and the Politics of Homosexuality,” in ELH, Vol. 60, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 527-43.

[In the following excerpt, Hewitt responds to Fredric Jameson's conclusions in Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis as Fascist, and explores Lewis's attitudes toward nazis and homosexuals.]

It is with a certain dismissive embarrassment that Fredric Jameson—in his treatment of Wyndham Lewis, a writer he otherwise admires—finally confronts the writings collected by Lewis under the title Hitler.1 Characterizing this book as a “slapdash series of newspaper articles,” Jameson nevertheless uses this text to...

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Vincent Sherry (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wyndham Lewis: L'Entre Deux Guerres,” in Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 91-39.

[In the following excerpt, Sherry examines Lewis's visual art as well as his body of written work to support his claim that Lewis failed to present a philosophically cohesive, unified body of work.]

To purge “the bad effects of English education,” Wyndham Lewis set out in 1902, at the age of nineteen, to finish his schooling on continental ground. For six years he followed his instincts along the Franco-German axis we traced in the first chapter. In Munich (1902), he briefly entered a sphere already shaping the debates...

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Andrea Freud Lowenstein (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Molten Column Within: Wyndham Lewis,” in Loathsome Jews and Engulfing Women: Metaphors of Projection in the Works of Wyndham Lewis, Charles Williams, and Graham Greene, New York University Press, 1993, pp. 119-87.

[In the following excerpt, Lowenstein presents a detailed analysis of Lewis's body of work to identify Lewis as a misogynist, nazi, and homophobe.]


One could argue that to begin the main body of this book with an indepth examination of the life and work of self-proclaimed “Enemy” Wyndham Lewis hardly promises a balanced approach. As Fredric Jameson puts it in his Fables of...

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Kelly Anspaugh (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Blasting the Bombardier: Another Look at Lewis, Joyce, and Woolf,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 365-78.

[In the following excerpt, Anspaugh examines Lewis's critical reaction to the writings of Virgina Woolf and James Joyce.]

It has been with considerable shaking in my shoes … that I have taken the cow by the horns in this chapter.

(Wyndham Lewis, Men Without Art 140)

In her essay “Jellyfish and Treacle: Lewis, Joyce, Gender and Modernism,” Bonnie Kime Scott—leader of what she herself terms “the...

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Paul Peppis (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Anti-Individualism and the Fictions of National Character in Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 226-55.

[In the following excerpt, Peppis identifies themes and motifs in Lewis's novel Tarr.]

No reader of Tarr, Wyndham Lewis's first-published, most-studied, and arguably best novel, can ignore the central role that nationality plays in the text. As Lewis's international characters interact chaotically on the streets and in the cafés of pre-war Paris, they spend endless time contemplating their “national” characteristics and justifying their actions in terms of “national...

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Sharon Stockton (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Aesthetics, Politics, and the Staging of the World: Wyndham Lewis and the Renaissance,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 42, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 494-515.

[In the following excerpt, Stockton traces Lewis's political and philosophical development.]

Wyndham Lewis is best known for what he termed his “enemy” rhetoric—a discourse that posits Lewis himself as a marginalized and persecuted member of a small group desperately clinging to “traditional value” in the face of what he defines as the encroaching flood of modernist corruption. Lewis assumes this embattled stance in Blast, the vorticist manifesto of 1914 and 1915, directing...

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Paul Edwards (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wyndham Lewis's Narrative of Origins: ‘The Death of the Ankou,’” in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 92, January, 1997, pp. 22-35.

[In the following excerpt, Edwards declares Lewis more successful as a visual artist, and explores Lewis's short story “The Death of the Ankou.”]

The least manageable of modernist writers, aggressive, almost baroque in the intricacy of his mannered but slapdash prose, and apparently an enemy not just of sentimentality but of humanity itself, Wyndham Lewis made himself more unmanageable yet by his parallel role as an innovator in the visual arts. As a painter, Lewis is no more heartwarming than as a writer, but his...

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Anne Quema (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introduction: Modernism Reclaimed,” in The Agon of Modernism: Wyndham Lewis's Allegories, Aesthetics, and Politics, Bucknell University Press, 1999, pp. 11-29.

[In the following excerpt, Quema identifies Lewis as an unfairly neglected master of modernist literature.]

Metaphors of gigantic, totemic statues buried in dust, preserved in their primitive state, and awaiting to be discovered by the curious archeologist of earlier twentieth-century art haunt the critical imagination of those who have taken the time to read Wyndham Lewis's texts and examine his visual works. Invariably, a monograph on Lewis's artistic activities begins with the almost ritualistic...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Meyers, Jeffrey. The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis. London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980, 391 p.

Assesses Lewis's life and work as a combination of artistic genius and unfortunate and irrational hatreds.


Ayers, David. Wyndham Lewis and Western Man. London: Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd, 1992, 251 p.

Focuses on the different approaches to the concept of “self” in the works throughout Lewis's writing career.

Bridson, D. G.. The Filibuster: A Study of the Political Ideas of Wyndham Lewis. London: Cassell &...

(The entire section is 638 words.)