Other Literary Forms

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In addition to his short fiction, Wyndham Lewis published more than forty books in his lifetime, including a number of novels. He wrote some poetry and plays, two autobiographies, a considerable amount of art criticism and literary criticism, a volume of letters, and a mass of materials published posthumously. His...

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In addition to his short fiction, Wyndham Lewis published more than forty books in his lifetime, including a number of novels. He wrote some poetry and plays, two autobiographies, a considerable amount of art criticism and literary criticism, a volume of letters, and a mass of materials published posthumously. His “Human Age” trilogy was successfully performed as British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio drama, and his novels partake of a number of genres: Nietzschean novel, fantasy, political thriller, travelogue, murder mystery, detective thriller, and country house weekend novel. Lewis’s canon is diverse and his productivity stunning. Lewis was interested in the political, cultural, and philosophical repercussions of art and literature; he enjoyed polemic. His subjects included Adolf Hitler (whom he initially praised and later condemned), James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, all Bergsonian advocates of stream of consciousness (of which he disapproved on artistic grounds), the Bloomsbury Group, and Gertrude Stein. His best-known critical work is Time and Western Man (1927).

Achievements

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A man of multiple talents—poet, novelist, essayist, satirist, critic, editor, philosopher, political thinker, journalist, revolutionary, and painter—Wyndham Lewis was one of the major controversial intellectual figures of his age. He originated the British neoclassic, vorticist movement in the arts, together with Ezra Pound founded the journal Blast to further vorticism, and was a longtime contributor to such periodicals as The Egoist, Athenaeum, The Little Review, and The Listener. Although Lewis never won a large readership, the literary greats of his age admired his work. T. S. Eliot called him “the most fascinating personality of our time” as well as “the greatest prose master of style” of their generation; William Butler Yeats praised his philosophical work, and Pound believed that Lewis should have won the Nobel Prize for his novel Self Condemned (1954). If Lewis had been less irascible, dogmatic, and self-destructive, if he had not tainted his public image with anti-Semitic and fascist political tracts, he might be better received. Yet, in spite of everything, as Marvin Lachman notes in his Dictionary of Literary Biography article on Lewis, he was “an independent, courageous artist and brilliant social observer,” a gadfly for contemporaries and well deserving of modern consideration.

Other literary forms

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In addition to his book-length works of fiction, Wyndham Lewis published more than thirty other books in his lifetime; in addition, two novels, a volume of letters, and numerous collections of previously unpublished or uncollected material have appeared since his death. This mass of material is awesome in its diversity as well as in its bulk. It includes three volumes of short stories (The Wild Body, 1927; Rotting Hill, 1951; Unlucky for Pringle, 1973), two plays and a book of poems (Enemy of the Stars, pb. 1914, 1932; The Ideal Giant, pb. 1917; One-Way Song, 1933; these have been brought together in Collected Poems and Plays, 1979), and two autobiographies (Blasting and Bombardiering, 1937; Rude Assignment: A Narrative of My Career Up-to-Date, 1950). The bulk of Lewis’s writing, however, is neither fictional nor, strictly speaking, literary. He wrote enough art criticism to fill one volume (Wyndham Lewis on Art, 1969) and enough literary criticism to fill several (Men Without Art, 1934; The Writer and the Absolute, 1952; Enemy Salvos: Selected Literary Criticism, 1976), but even while writing such criticism he always focused on the political, cultural, and philosophical implications of the works of art. In keeping with this focus, Lewis wrote extensively on politics and philosophy, and his works of this kind should probably be called political, cultural, and philosophical criticism, given that in these books he was always on the attack. Far and away the best-known and most important of these works is Time and Western Man (1927). Wyndham Lewis: An Anthology of His Prose (1969), a fine collection edited by E. W. F. Tomlin, provides an excellent selection of the rest of Lewis’s writings. An additional collection of essays, Creatures of Habit, Creatures of Change, appeared in 1989.

Achievements

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It is often said, probably correctly, that Wyndham Lewis’s actual achievements fell far short of what he should have achieved, given his immense talents. Those talents were widely recognized by some of his most eminent contemporaries: T. S. Eliot called Lewis “the most fascinating personality of our time” and “the greatest prose master of style of my generation—perhaps the only one to have invented a new style”; William Butler Yeats read Lewis’s philosophical work “with ever-growing admiration and envy”; Ezra Pound thought that Lewis should have won the Nobel Prize for his late novel Self Condemned. He did not receive the Nobel Prize, however, and, unlike these friends and admirers, he never became a household name. Lewis continues to appeal only to a small—if devoted—audience.

In a sense, Lewis had too much talent. Painter and writer, novelist and critic, philosopher and political thinker, he tried to do everything. He simply wrote too much and did too many different kinds of writing to achieve perfection in any one thing. In this, he is more like Ford Madox Ford or D. H. Lawrence than Eliot or James Joyce, who wrote little and therefore had time to perfect the works he produced. Lewis’s achievement is scattered across forty or fifty books, which makes it difficult to see his work as a whole or to find the right place to start. Each book has its interest; none is perfect.

That each book does have its interest is no mean achievement considering the size of Lewis’s oeuvre. A constant source of interest is the personal nature of Lewis’s work. No advocate of impersonality, in the manner of Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, or James Joyce, Lewis is on constant display in his work. More like a Victorian than a modern, in the tradition of, for example, Thomas Carlyle, he also resembles Carlyle in that the personality displayed is partisan, contentious, opinionated, domineering, and eccentric. This is probably why Lewis, virtually alone among modern British novelists, managed to write intellectually rich fiction. Ideas, far more than character or plot, are the fundamental material for Lewis’s novels, which at times seem more like long arguments thannarratives. Lewis wrote, of course, a great deal of nonfiction, and the fiction and the nonfiction interpenetrate. One finds in The Childermass, for example, essentially the same analysis of contemporary politics as that found in The Art of Being Ruled (1926).

Lewis’s novels, however, are not simply romans à thèse, illustrations of points of view found in the nonfiction. In many cases, they are much more interesting and vital than the nonfiction. The reason for this is Lewis’s unforgettable style, which Eliot rightly saw as strikingly original. The originality and achievement of his style also stem from his overwhelming presence in his works. Never striving for the objective representation of the familiar world, which is the aim of the realistic novelist, Lewis through his style uncompromisingly creates a world of his own. Some of his novels are what would today be called science fiction; the majority, set in contemporary society, are not. Whatever the genre of Lewis’s novels, however, he always keeps one aware that one is reading a novel written by Wyndham Lewis. Many readers may find this irritating, preferring the pretense of the conventional novel that it is not a fiction, that it is about something that really happened. Indeed, one aspect of Lewis’s considerable achievement as a novelist is that he anticipated by a full generation the self-conscious fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, Flann O’Brien, Alain Robbe-Grillet, John Barth, and others.

Lewis’s achievement as a novelist, in short, is that, though he may not have written a single work of the stature of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), he is always intelligent, always interesting; in the era of postmodernism, he is a contemporary to an extent that others of his generation such as Eliot or Joyce, let alone E. M. Forster or Lawrence, are not.

Discussion Topics

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Explain how the artistic training of Wyndham Lewis helped generate and enhance his writing career.

What were the principles of art that guided Lewis in both his visual and literary art?

What values in such writers as members of the Bloomsbury Group, Ernest Hemingway, and D. H. Lawrence encouraged Lewis’s satires of them?

What validity is there in Lewis’s assertion that Fascism was better for artists than communism?

How much of Lewis’s success can be attributed to the vigor of his attacks on literary contemporaries?

Bibliography

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Ayers, David. Wyndham Lewis and Western Man. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. See especially Ayers’s chapter on Lewis and Bergson. Ayers is particularly concerned with Lewis’s concept of self. Includes detailed notes and bibliography.

Edwards, Paul. “Wyndham Lewis’s Narrative of Origins: ‘The Death of the Ankou.’” The Modern Language Review 92 (January, 1997): 22-35. Traces Lewis’s modernist style, satire, and primitivism; compares his misleading autobiographical account of writing the original story and the story as published; argues that the series of displacements that take place in the story indicate an artist in a relationship with a tragic reality.

Foshay, Toby Avard. Wyndham Lewis and the Avant-Garde: The Politics of Intellect. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1992. Foshay explores the reasons for Lewis’s “perverse” opposition to modernism. Includes detailed notes and excellent bibliography.

Grigson, Geoffrey. A Master of Our Time: A Study of Wyndham Lewis. London: Methuen, 1951. Grigson, a strong admirer of Lewis, argues that “all Lewis’s work is one work” and that, whether he was right or wrong about life and politics, one can profit from his intellectual passion and his “crystalline” understanding of art. Grigson also praises Lewis’s prose as “Nashe-like,” a prose that “demands reading” and that “cannot be absorbed effortlessly like air.”

Head, Dominic. The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Head devotes a chapter to Lewis’s development of the Vorticist short story. Argues that his collection The Wild Body represents a systematic application of the Vorticist program to the short story. Claims that the fluid representation of personality in modernist literature, a challenge to the limitations of short-story form, was anathema to Lewis; the result is that his characters are isolated.

Jameson, Fredric. Fables of Aggression. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Jameson, ironically, applies Marxist criticism and psychoanalysis to a staunch anticommunist to argue that Lewis’s explosive language practice was a symbolic political act. He explores in Lewis’s canon his aggressiveness, sexism, flirtation with Fascism, and polemics against the countercultural trends of his age. He finds Lewis contemplating a sham world filled with unreal puppets, “a paper world of falsefaces and hollow effigies, walking caricatures, split-men, scarecrows and automata,” and ultimately denouncing himself for the innocence that led him to misread the political trends of his age.

Kenner, Hugh. Wyndham Lewis. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1954. This critical estimate of the importance of Lewis’s writings is reliable and convincing, though its style might be daunting for students. Lewis himself called it a “splendid study.” It places each work in the progression of Lewis’s career to argue that “Lewis reveals the time’s nature” and that “this tough-minded failure was right about Western Man” though wrong about himself as an antithesis. He calls Lewis’s harangues “electrifying” and traces themes and concerns throughout his fiction as a whole: his interest in the unreal and in gradations of unreality, in the disharmony of reason and power and the mechanistic nature of human behavior.

Meyers, Jeffrey, ed. Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation. London: Athlone Press, 1980. Describing Lewis as “the most neglected and underrated major author of this century,” Meyers hopes to “stimulate critical appreciation of the depth and diversity of Lewis’s fifty years of creative life” by providing essays on his prose style and imagery, his philosophical influences, and representative works in a variety of genres (autobiography, short story, mystery, play, Nietzschean novel, fantasy, satire, political tract, travelogue, and literary criticism). Along with Saul Bellow, he praises Lewis as “a brilliant, thoughtful and original observer” of contemporary society.

Pritchard, William. Wyndham Lewis. New York: Twayne, 1968. Pritchard examines Lewis’s canon by exploring his various roles: as satiric humorist, sage and mocker, dystopic social critic, literary critic, vulgarian, and self-appraiser. He calls Rotting Hill Lewis’s “greyist and least artistic” fictive work.

Schenker, Daniel. Wyndham Lewis: Religion and Modernism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992. Compare chapter 1, “Wyndham Lewis in the Modernist Canon: Dissent, Division, and Displacement,” to Foshay’s study. Includes detailed notes and extensive bibliography.

Sherry, Vincent. Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Examines Pound’s and Lewis’s claim that aesthetic principles could apply to politics; traces the source of this claim in European history.

Stockton, Sharon. “Aesthetics, Politics, and the Staging of the World: Wyndham Lewis and the Renaissance.” Twentieth Century Literature 42 (Winter, 1996): 494-515. Discovers the origin of Lewis’s combination of aesthetics with politics in an obscure work Lewis did on the English Renaissance; claims that in his work on William Shakespeare, Lewis constructs a way to validate a binary model of oppression and opposition that extends other modernist binary models to their full political potential.

Wagner, Geoffrey. Wyndham Lewis: A Portrait of the Artist as Enemy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957. Wagner discusses Lewis’s interest in group rhythms and herd instinct, his elitism, and his attack on “time.” He labels his antagonism toward women partly French and partly antiromanticism. Wagner is puzzled “that a man so sensitive to words could use them so wildly and irresponsibly” in his political writings, finds his satire lacking in universality and his later works indicative of artistic decline, but he praises The Apes of God as Lewis’s best book: its ideas honest, its every page functional. This study contains a large bibliography but its mine of information about Lewis itself overwhelms the critique.

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