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.
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.
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.