Wyndham Lewis Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111207096-Lewis.jpg Wyndham Lewis Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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 entire section is 667 words.)

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 898 words.)