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 than Wyndham Lewis. His oeuvre is huge—and impossibly scattered. He published some forty books: visionary novels, satires, naturalistic novels, a body of short fiction, a book-length poem, art criticism, literary criticism, philosophy, social commentary, political polemics, travel writing, and autobiography. He made roughly one thousand paintings and drawings in styles that range from semi-abstraction to straightforward figuration. In addition to all this, he filled his writings with hundreds of contradictory pronouncements about himself, his beliefs, and his intentions.

No one did more to create confusion about himself than Wyndham Lewis.

In his day, Lewis was widely respected. He is one of the “Men of 1914” who fathered modernism in English literature. Pound, Eliot, and James Joyce were the others. Eliot, who knew Lewis for more than forty years, once declared that he “was the only one among my contemporaries to create a new, an original prose style.” Pound, who was Lewis’s closest colleague before 1920, wrote that “a man with [Lewis’s] kind of intelligence is bound to be always crashing and opposing and breaking. You cannot be intelligent in that way without being prey to the furies.”

All true—Lewis had extraordinary gifts and uncommon creative energy. But for every fresh, exciting page of fiction that he wrote, there are ten others which range from mediocre to execrable. He produced wildly uneven criticism—essays which begin with a flourish, slowly fall to pieces, and end without reaching a conclusion. Formidable when on the attack, he was unable to formulate prescriptive views except in a fitful and fragmentary way.

Lewis never fulfilled his promise because he did not know who he was. He spent his life in flight from identity confusion, trying one role after another without ever finding one that seemed to fit. He never quite believed in himself, and he developed self-destructive habits which vitiated much of what was best in his work and made his existence far more complicated than it had to be. Lewis failed because he lacked the will and the self-control that are requisite to success.

Very early in his career, Lewis created a self-defensive “outsider” persona and hid behind it. During his early years, when he had done no work to speak of, he cultivated an odd appearance and made a great mystery of himself. As he matured and began to produce work, he created a whole succession of selves.

A fresh persona usually emerged when Lewis was seriously challenged to expose his work to disinterested critical judgment or to articulate prescriptive views and be held accountable for them. He would abandon the field, transform himself into a new kind of outsider, and start over. Lewis’s many reinventions of himself resulted in an oeuvre of grand beginnings that lead nowhere. His career was peculiarly episodic.

In 1927, Lewis began to call himself “The Enemy.” As he told it, “The Enemy” was a ferociously independent critic who stood ready to strike out at anyone who fell short of his high standards. Forever embattled and on the attack, “The Enemy” loved to explain and justify himself, and to blast away at the foe-of-the-moment.

When he was not at war with the world, “The Enemy” demanded its sympathy.

When he was not at war with the world, “The Enemy” demanded its sympathy. He insisted that he had been persecuted economically and victimized by a press boycott for his vigorous criticism and principled refusal to conform. He declared that he had a special need for financial assistance to get his work done and begged money from anyone who had it. But the record shows that Lewis’s books and art received adequate, generally favorable notice. He earned enough from them to live in a modest way, but wasted much through carelessness and bad management.

Since “The Enemy” died a generation ago—and is no longer able to carry out self-serving publicity campaigns—he is largely forgotten today. None of his books is widely read; some have been out of print for decades. No museum outside of Britain has ever held a major exhibition of his art. He has little standing in the academy and is rarely taught.

Some believe that Lewis should not suffer such neglect. Over the past thirty years, many book-length studies and anthologies have appeared. Since 1981, the Black Sparrow Press of Santa Rosa, California, has republished fourteen Lewis books: six novels; two volumes of short fiction; three critical works; a memoir; an essay anthology; and a travel narrative.1 BLAST, the art journal that Lewis edited, is available as a photoreplicate with an introduction. Attractively designed and provided with critical commentaries, annotations, tables of variants, and supplementary materials, the Black Sparrow editions superbly present Lewis’s texts. In scope and quality, this series amounts to a variorum Lewis.

To know Lewis, we must first understand his origins. Then we can follow him through the major roles that he played and the key works he produced during each period in his life. His American-born father, Charles Edward Lewis (1843-1918), served courageously with the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War and was decorated in 1865 with a Brevet Captaincy. Returning home to Buffalo, New York, he began to read law, but somehow disgraced himself and was sent traveling by his well-to-do family.

This remittance man was living near London in 1876 when he married Annie Stewart Preckett (1860-1920), the pretty sixteen-year-old daughter of a boarding-house keeper. Soon after their wedding, the couple moved to Canada, where Charles became a traveling salesman. Annie, who had expectations of a comfortable, genteel existence, discovered that her husband was a womanizer and a heavy drinker. The Lewis marriage had been in trouble for some time when (Percy) Wyndham, the only child of Charles and Annie, was born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, on November 18, 1882.

In 1888, the Lewises moved to the Isle of Wight, off England’s south coast. Charles spent little time with his wife and child, preferring to travel, hunt, sail, and write essays. In 1893, he ran off with the family maid. He asked Annie for a divorce, but she adamantly refused. Soon, she took her boy and moved into her mother’s house near London.

From that day forward, Annie Lewis—married, but without a husband—had no social position and no prospects for romance or remarriage. Restless, unhappy, and untrained for any profession, she mismanaged her finances and let a small inheritance slip through her fingers. Charles eventually ceased hoping for a divorce. He bigamously married his woman companion (they had already started a family) and took her to the United States to live. Now and then, in response to determined pressure from Annie, he would send money for his son. As Annie sank into poverty, she began to take in washing. She would be a laundress for the rest of her life.

Wyndham Lewis showed precocious talents for drawing and writing, but little aptitude for study. From 1896 to 1897, he attended Rugby School, where he failed every subject but art. Reaching the obvious conclusion, Annie sent him in 1898 to the Slade School of Art at the University of London. He distinguished himself there by winning a drawing prize and a scholarship. At some point in 1901, however, the Slade expelled him for poor attendance and insubordination. He was only nineteen years old when his formal education ended.

Keeping London as his base, Lewis traveled often on the Continent between 1903 and 1908, and lived for months at a time in Paris. He worked at his art, but nothing jelled until he saw early Cubist paintings in exhibition. Picasso had an immediate and permanent influence on Lewis’s graphic style.

Lewis committed himself to London in 1909. The city was an artistic backwater then, dominated by sentimental academic painting and derivative Impressionism. Lewis, who was the first English painter to acknowledge Cubism, began to exhibit his work in group shows during 1911. In time, he found allies among London’s younger artists and became a leader of the avant-garde.

Futurism, an arts movement that celebrated speed, action, and modern technology, had a major influence upon Lewis’s painting and his public style. F. T. Marinetti, an Italian poet, founded this movement in 1909. For the next five years, Marinetti and several Futurist artists toured the capitals of Europe, visiting London three times. By applying political-propaganda techniques to the arts, Marinetti got a big press for his movement. He issued outrageous manifestos to stir up controversy, held tumultuous press conferences, and gave entertaining “noise-poem” recitals in music halls. Futurist art explored dynamism in modern life—race cars, riots, city streets filled with traffic, and the like.

Lewis met Marinetti, attended some of his soirées, and imitated his publicity techniques (“The Enemy” is a very Marinettian creation). He admired the hardness, energy, and up-to-dateness of Futurist art, but complained that Futurist painters emphasized action at the expense of formal coherence. Also, he saw Marinetti as a threat to his leadership of London’s avant-garde.

Also, he saw Marinetti as a threat to his leadership of London’s avant-garde.

Late in 1913, Lewis, Ezra Pound, and several young artists began to prepare a review of modern movements in the arts. In the aggressive spirit of Futurism (they were all fellow-travelers), they named this journal BLAST. (“Blast” was a vulgar expletive in those days.) By May 1914, most of BLAST had been set in type. Then, Marinetti brought a big show of Futurist art to London.

At that time, only one English painter, Christopher Nevinson, had unequivocally declared himself to be a Futurist. Hoping to force Lewis and his circle into their camp, Marinetti and Nevinson published a manifesto that implied that the Lewis group was Futurist.

Furious at such presumption—and delighted to quash a noisy foreigner whose publicity successes threatened to swamp them—the Lewis group publicly repudiated Marinetti and heckled him at a lecture. Then, they added new pages to BLAST, which announced the birth of Vorticism, a London-based arts movement that opposed Futurism. Since it was too late to rewrite and reset all of BLAST, the review contains praise for—and violent denunciations of—Futurism.

Vorticist painting sought to marry Cubist formality to Futurist flux. The vortex, which was the symbol of Vorticism (it decorates several pages in BLAST), is a clearly defined form that embodies dynamic movement yet has a still center. “At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated,” Lewis told a friend in 1914. “And there at the point of concentration is the Vorticist.” This was the closest that he ever came to defining Vorticism.

Lewis’s Vorticist art includes semi-abstract depictions of modern metropolitan architecture. His forms are still, yet charged with tremendous energy. Where figures appear, they are semi-abstracted to resemble robots. Lewis uses drab colors so as to avoid any suggestion of Romantic prettiness.

BLAST, which is both a literary and an artistic production, may well be the greatest work of Vorticist art. It is one of the best things that Lewis did, a unique creation of this artist-writer. Quarto-sized, it contains manifestos, fiction, poetry, essays, book reviews, a play, and twenty-three art reproductions.

The manifestos are BLAST’s most memorable feature. Written by Lewis in a curious, halting style, they are arranged on the page such that words and phrases seem to leap out at the reader. Here is a sample:

BLAST First (from politeness) england
curse its climate for its sins and

round our bodies,
of effeminate lout within.
the TOWN’S heart.
BODY OF WATER even, is pushed against us
from the Floridas, TO MAKE US MILD.

Such prose, which is simultaneously static and dynamic, fills many pages of BLAST. In these manifestos and also in essays, Lewis blasts England, France (“SENTIMENTAL GAL-LIC GUSH/ SENSATIONALISM/ FUSSINESS”), the British aesthete (“cream of THE SNOB-BISH EARTH . . . SNEAK AND SWOT OF THE SCHOOLROOM”), and much else besides.

He blesses England for “ITS SHIPS which switchback on Blue, Green and Red SEAS all around the PINK EARTH-BALL” and thanks the hairdresser “who trims aimless and retrograde growths into CLEAN, ARCHED SHAPES and ANGULAR PLOTS.” Votes for women win his approval, as does “the separating, ungregarious BRITISH GRIN.”

The blasts and blessings follow a rough overall pattern. Lewis damns Victorian sentimentality, English cultural backwardness, and amateurism in art. He applauds the tough, venturesome sailor, the hairdresser who brings order, and the un-Romantic coolness of Shakespeare and Swift. BLAST contains numerous jokes and provocations too. Lewis blesses the Pope to annoy stuffy Anglicans and commends French pornography to outrage prudes. For fun, he blasts cod-liver oil and blesses castor oil.

BLAST’s irresistible exuberance can blind a reader to its serious intentions.

BLAST’s irresistible exuberance can blind a reader to its serious intentions. Lewis’s goal was to wake London up and to introduce the modern habit of mind into a city whose artists and art public lagged a full generation behind the rest of Europe. BLAST introduced a new kind of modern art and a prose that Lewis invented to go with it. For the moment, the editor of BLAST was one of the most creative men in Europe.

BLAST was unfortunately timed. Two weeks after it appeared, war broke out and England lost interest in art. Though the Vorticists exhibited together in June 1915 and published a second and final BLAST a month later, the public scarcely noticed. Soon, the Vorticists were absorbed into the war effort. Lewis became an artillery officer and fought in the Battle of the Somme. Late in 1917, he was commissioned a “war artist” and was released from combat duty to paint military scenes. He spent much of 1918 in his London studio.

For the next four years, Lewis was primarily an artist. Retreating from Vorticism, he developed a figurative, quasi-Cubistic style. He had three solo shows in London, made gallery contacts in Holland and Berlin, and seemed well on his way toward becoming a prominent painter.

Early in 1922, the big chance came. Léonce Rosenberg, owner-director of the Galerie l’Effort Moderne in Paris, offered Lewis a one-man show. (Sidney Schiff, a friend of both parties, had made the initial contact with Rosenberg, showing him Lewis’s drawings.) Rosenberg represented several French modernists including Fernand Léger. A solo show with him would have put Lewis at the center of the international art world, giving his work a stature it had never had before.

Instead of seizing the moment, Lewis waffled, reluctantly agreed to the show, and then sat on his hands. He did not exhibit at the Galerie l’Effort Moderne or in any other Continental gallery. In Blasting and Bombardiering (1937), his memoir of those years, he devotes a few lines to Rosenberg, but does not explain why he never showed with him.

Lewis was afraid to have Paris judge his work. In 1922, he was established in London—a big frog in a very little pond. But if he were to show with Rosenberg, Parisian critics would make no allowances for his English reputation. They would evaluate his work according to international standards. He would be completely exposed.

Lewis was a hasty, careless artist. “I never really finished a painting till six months before the War,” he confesses in Blasting and Bombardiering, “and then it was not really more than a sketch.” Elsewhere in the same volume, he admits: “Before [1920], I had accomplished nothing [in art]—all I had done had a promise, or was, at the most, a spirited sketch or plan. .  . .” In 1922, he delivered a commissioned portrait to a buyer in a semi-finished state. “The face, for example, is sketched rather than painted,” he stated. “[T]he left hand must in any case at some time be worked on and explained more.”

When an artist behaves like this, it is hard to take him seriously.

When an artist behaves like this, it is hard to take him seriously. Lewis’s failure with Rosenberg was a watershed event that marked the end, for all intents and purposes, of his art career. Though he painted after 1922 and showed in London, he was an artist with a past rather than a future.

Lewis belongs to art history as a forerunner. Vorticism anticipates much that the Russian avant-garde did in the Twenties. But while Lewis barely got started with Vorticism, the Russians fully developed their visual ideas. It was Henry Moore’s generation during the Thirties that brought English modernism to international prominence.

Well-read in literature and art, Lewis spoke French fluently, and knew German and Spanish. At some point after the war ended, he began to read political theory, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. His goal was to learn why wars occur and how they can be prevented.

These studies inspired him to begin writing an ambitious critique of postwar society in Europe, which he called The Man of the World. Over time, his manuscript grew to several hundred pages; he added in passages of satire and experimental fiction. In May 1924, he submitted The Man of the World to a London publisher, who rejected it.

A few months later, Lewis divided The Man of the World into parts, which were pub- lished as The Art of Being Ruled (1926: polit- ical theory), The Lion and the Fox (1927: a study of Shakespeare and Machiavelli), Time and Western Man (1927: literary criticism and philosophy), The Childermass (1928: a visionary novel), and The Apes of God (1930: a satire). Amounting to almost twenty-two hundred pages of text and incorporating as much serious reading and thinking as many educated people do in a lifetime, these five volumes are a remarkable achievement.

Of the three nonfiction books that came out of The Man of the World, The Art of Being Ruled is considered the most important. So-named because the author sees most citizens as “puppets” who are controlled by a tiny minority of self-directed people called “natures,” The Art of Being Ruled is essentially a journal in which Lewis comments upon the books he has read and records his observations of contemporary society.

At some length, he reviews the ideas of five late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century French socialist philosophers: Edouard Berth, François Fourier, Charles Péguy, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Georges Sorel. He traces the influence of scientific and technological thinking upon the public mind and describes the struggle for political power between rich and poor, young and old, and men and women. He reports on society’s celebration of the child-mind, traces the changing role of the family, and notes the growing cultural power of homosexuals. Because these issues are very much with us today, The Art of Being Ruled, at its best, remains perceptive, prophetic, and very timely.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that The Art of Being Ruled is no better organized than the average diary.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that The Art of Being Ruled is no better organized than the average diary. It collects between two covers the speculations of a brilliant man, but it argues no case and reaches no conclusion. Any of the thirteen parts into which it is divided could be excised or moved to a different place in the text without compromising continuity.

The Art of Being Ruled wobbles unpredictably between foolishness and acuteness. In the chapter on the “sex war,” for example, Lewis declares that when

feminism first assumed the proportions of a universal movement, it was popularly regarded as . . . directed to the righting of a little series of political wrongs. Woman had been unjustly treated . . . A thousand chivalrous gentlemen leapt to arms and rushed to the assistance of this matron in distress. With great gestures of christian magnanimity, they divested themselves of all traditional masculine authority or masculine advantage of any sort. Tearfully they laid them at the feet of the dishonoured matron, who dried her burning tears, and with a dark glance of withering indignation picked them up and hurried away. The general herd of men smiled with indulgent superiority. So it was all settled; it was a bloodless revolution.

Had Lewis forgotten, the reader wonders, how the suffragettes demonstrated for the vote in prewar London, how they fought with the police, and went to jail? He knew this, of course, for he was personally acquainted with many suffragettes and had praised them in BLAST. But in this pointless passage, he simply clowns for the reader.

In the very next paragraph, Lewis declares that feminism “was recognized by the average man as a conflict in which . . . [there] were spectacular ‘wrongs’ that had, ‘in all decency,’ to be righted. The issue was put to him, of course, in a one-sided way . . . Ever since it has continued one-sided, in the sense that, although the ‘wrong’ has been ‘righted,’ the man is still in the ashamed position of the brutal usurper or tyrant.” Here he neatly identifies the “victim” mentality, which is so much a part of our present-day political rhetoric.

Lewis attempted too much in The Art of Being Ruled. It is folly to suppose that any man—especially one with no university education—can absorb as much new and challenging material as Lewis did in a few years, think it through, and write an original book about it. Lewis’s correspondence suggests that he started out with only the sketchiest sort of plan in mind and proceeded quite haphazardly. He ran out of steam partway through the project and left posterity a first draft instead of a finished book.

Time and Western Man is the companion volume to The Art of Being Ruled. On the final page of this work, Lewis promises soon to publish a book which presents “the particular beliefs that are explicit in my criticism.” But no such prescriptive statement appeared. He wrote no more philosophy. Instead, in 1930, he published The Apes of God. He had metamorphosed into a satirist.

Set in London just before the General Strike of 1926, The Apes of God ridicules wealthy poseurs who associate with artists and seek to place themselves on an equal footing with them by making “a little art themselves” (they ape the god-like artists). Such people wish to be taken seriously, says the author, but all they produce is malicious gossip and bad art.

In this picaresque, Horace Zagreus, a middle-aged man of shallow intellectual pretensions, takes a moronic young protegé (a “genius,” who has written one poem) to visit the Apes of God in their dwellings. The Apes are caricatures of men and women who were active in London literary circles during the early Twenties.

Some of these people (Lytton Strachey, the Sitwells) are still known today.

Some of these people (Lytton Strachey, the Sitwells) are still known today. Others (John Rodker, Edgell Rickword) are forgotten writers or (Sidney Schiff) sometime patrons of Lewis. Contemporary readers got some wicked fun from this roman à clef. The Apes of God became a succès de scandale and went into extra printings.

Characters in The Apes of God are described from the outside; that is, in terms of their social surfaces. Lewis was later to write that this “classical” narrative method relies upon “the evidence of the eye rather than the more emotional organs of sense.” Telling from the outside, he would declare, makes good satire. The interior monologue in Ulysses—a telling from the inside—is no way to depict normal adults, he believed. We are all very much alike inside, subject to similar primitive drives. It is only our surfaces that make us different. The Apes of God was Lewis’s reply to Ulysses, a rival effort.

So far, so good. Lewis began with enough—a promising theme, a large cast of characters, and an innovative approach to narration—to make a lively 250-page satire. He instead produced a grossly bloated, vindictively personal work that few finished at the time of its publication and virtually no one reads today.

Lewis was so determined to outdo Ulysses that he made The Apes of God 625 pages long. (The first limited edition, a telephone-book-sized tome, weighs five pounds.) To create the requisite bulk, he spun each scene and conversation out to prodigious length, drowning some excellent patches of writing in a torrent of words. He not only lampooned the Apes, but seemed to wish to obliterate them.

So dogmatically does Lewis tell “from the outside” that he never takes the reader past surfaces and never suggests why his characters act as they do. The Apes are the grotesque products of his theory instead of living fictional creations. It is impossible to believe in them, to hate them as much as Lewis does, or to sustain interest in them.

Lewis settles old scores in The Apes of God and often places himself at the center of the narrative in a manner that suggests wish-fulfillment. One example of this is the chapter on Sidney Schiff (1868-1944), who was his patron from about 1920 until 1925. An independently wealthy man with interests in the arts, Schiff pseudonymously published semi-autobiographical novels and translated Proust into English. Some admire Schiff’s fiction. Lewis disliked it.

Sidney Schiff and his wife, Violet, appear in The Apes of God as Lionel and Isabel Kein. In a 79-page scene at the Kein home, Horace Zagreus, as Lewis’s surrogate, delivers opinions on the nature of satire and condemns Kein’s (i.e., Schiff’s) behavior toward Lewis. Zagreus characterizes Kein as a “pseudo-Proust,” an “idle . . . pretentious . . . old busybody of a succubus” who feeds on the vitality of artists and bullies them with his money.

During a dinner scene involving many people, Zagreus suggests that Eddie Keith (i.e., Edwin Muir, the Scots poet and critic) shamelessly boomed Kein’s novels: “Keithie is a journalist, you must know, and develops a great deal of scottish earnestness with traditional facility upon the slightest provocation. He is a ‘critic’ you must know, too. Now the latest book vamped up by the Old Lionel’s foetid dotage, is published: it is in due course dispatched . . . to Keith to review—Li-ing self-portraiture, of course—on this occasion about Li’s school-days . . . ‘Ha!’ says Keith ‘a new writer!’ So (incredible as that may sound) he discovers old Lionel! Ha ha ha! in the innocence of his heart and thanks to the deep critical insight that distinguishes him—he unearths that Old Li!” This baby-talk narrative fills more than four pages.

Later, Zagreus attacks Isabel Kein, declaring that she has had nineteen facelifts and paraffin injections under her skin.

Later, Zagreus attacks Isabel Kein, declaring that she has had nineteen facelifts and paraffin injections under her skin. He calls her fat and claims that she gives her husband the material for his novels. Isabel loses her temper, the dinner breaks up, and Zagreus is ejected from the Kein household.

In real life, Sidney Schiff was an idle, pretentious bore. He pressed himself socially upon Lewis, writing him endless letters and inviting him to tea and to dinner. He gossiped about Lewis behind his back and even managed to involve a very exasperated Eliot in one of their squabbles.

But if Schiff and the other Apes were so insufferable, why did Lewis spend long hours in their company and attack them with such ferocity five years after that time in his life had ended? He did not have to socialize constantly with these people in order to live. Inheritances from both parents sustained him through the early period of work on The Man of the World. He sold art from his studio and through galleries. Pound and Eliot encouraged him to do journalism. He could have found a job of some sort.

The Apes of God is Lewis’s revenge upon his father. Its true subject is money and the power it confers upon those who have it. Lewis loathed his father for abandoning him, hurting his mother, and then dominating their household from a distance with his money. He saw his father when he saw the rich, older, and manipulative Sidney Schiff. But this time he could strike back.

The Apes of God is dedicated to Sir Nicholas and Lady Waterhouse, who became Lewis’s patrons during the Twenties and contributed to his support for more than thirty years. Sir Nicholas, a wealthy man with no artistic pretensions, declared that Lewis was a great genius and a fine fellow. Correspondence between the two men suggests that they had a parent-and-child relationship. Lewis was the calculating and exasperating, yet lovable boy, while Sir Nicholas played the long-suffering, affectionate, and ever-forgiving father.

An uproar in literary London followed publication of The Apes of God in June 1930. As Lewis told it, the victims of his satire were enraged. His life, he claimed cheerily, had been threatened by an airman! He reported that a “certain poetess [presumably Edith Sitwell], who supposed herself an ‘ape’, had a seizure as she caught sight of Mr. Lewis’s advancing sombrero in a Bayswater street, and had to be led into a chemist’s shop—where the old-fashioned remedy of Arquebuscade Water was applied with marked success.”

To defend his book and capitalize upon the controversy he had created, Lewis issued Satire and Fiction, a thirty-two-page “Enemy pamphlet,” in September. Here he published congratulatory letters from friends and extracts from many reviews. He told how a laudatory account of his book was rejected by a London newspaper as “too favorable.” Satire and Fiction concluded with a lively presentation of Lewis’s theory of satire—that it must be cool, told from the outside, and free of moralizing (the Apes are not wicked, just dull).

In 1934, Lewis reworked his essay on satire and republished it in Men without Art, a volume which combines new material with several essays that had previously appeared in print. By 1934, Lewis had ceased producing satire. Literary criticism was a major activity.

Men without Art, whose title parodies Hemingway’s Men without Women, defends literature against “every sort of antagonist”—the moralist, nationalist, Marxist, and mystic. It inquires into the “ethical or political status” of serious writing and painting, and argues for their importance. These issues are very much alive today.

The best material in Men without Art appears in the first half of the book. It includes the remarks on satire and destructive attacks on Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot. Acknowledging Hemingway’s prodigious gifts, Lewis declares that his protagonists are dull, passive individuals to whom things are done and demonstrates that Hemingway’s “undistinguished” prose is stylistically indebted to Gertrude Stein.

Lewis calls Faulkner “The Moralist with the Corn-Cob,” a Calvinist who wallows in rustic sex and sadism. He provides a devastating account of faked-up atmospherics and contrived melodrama in Faulkner’s fiction. Reviewing Virginia Woolf’s work, he characterizes her as an old-maidish, peeping prude.

T. S. Eliot gets star billing—and rather ambivalent treatment—in Men without Art.

T. S. Eliot gets star billing—and rather ambivalent treatment—in Men without Art. Lewis quotes him throughout the book, appraises his work at length, and argues with him. “The Pseudo-Believer,” an ambitious essay on Eliot’s notions of personality and belief, starts out very well, but collapses about halfway through. Lewis lazily tacks his afterthoughts onto the end of this piece instead of integrating them into the text.

There is an unbecoming touch of envy in Lewis’s attitude toward Eliot. His criticism often becomes too personal and sounds like a schoolboy hooting at his teacher. Men without Art was published when Lewis and Eliot had been friends for about twenty years. Starting from far behind in career terms, Eliot had completely surpassed Lewis, acquiring an international reputation and wide influence.

Any who doubt that Lewis suffered from identity confusion and egomania should read Men without Art. On page 13, he declares “I am a performer;” that is, a creative artist. On page 15, he is the only significant “fictionist deliberately dealing in satire” that he knows of. And on page 179, Lewis is again an “artist.” “[T]wo or three, we are a small band,” he sighs.

Lewis explains on page 191 that he views political institutions “from the standpoint of genius.” On page 216, we learn that “you have in me a person who is as nearly impartial as it is humanly possible to be.” But five pages after that, he prefers Roman Catholic belief to Marxism. And on page 226, he has “a much higher opinion of many of the dogmas of Russian Communism than . . . of its spokesmen.” Elsewhere he predicts that schoolchildren in a Communist utopia will read passages from his fiction to learn “how repulsive unbridled egotism can be.”

Men without Art contains some wonderful howlers. “Anybody who has travelled by train from New York to Boston,” Lewis writes on page 123, “or from New York to Washington, will realize . . . that this part of the United States is a sort of desert. The tundra, or the dune, dotted with the eternal fir tree, comes right up to the back door of the last house in almost any Pennsylvanian or New England townlet.” Later, Lewis supplies another amazing fact about the United States. “America,” he explains on page 211, “is already half-oriental. It is almost as bandit-ridden and corrupt as China. (And now it is going to have the great flocks of beggars apparently, as well, which are such a great feature of the life of the East.)”

Lewis could reason—and express himself—quite cogently when he wanted to.

Lewis could reason—and express himself—quite cogently when he wanted to. The first half of Men without Art especially attests to this. But he did not write in the traditional way. As he focused on a subject, ideas came to him and he committed them to paper. His essays—amusing, digressive, and bursting with inventive energy—are essentially talk in print.

Many who knew Lewis in life have said that he was a wonderful conversationalist. One of these was Cecil Gray, a music critic who joined in late-evening sessions of talk chez Lewis during the Thirties. In attendance at various times were Stephen Spender; W. H. Auden; Julian Symons; William Gaunt, the art critic and historian; Constant Lambert, the composer; and others.

Gray writes in Musical Chairs (1948), his autobiography: “I have known many admirable talkers in my time, but I can say without hesitation that Wyndham Lewis was the most brilliant, witty and profound of them all . . . his power of developing a line of thought and returning to it logically, however far afield he might seem to have strayed, was . . . the object of my constant admiration and astonishment.” Gray adds that “there was always a complete identity between Lewis the talker and Lewis the writer. In both he was essentially the improvvisatore with all the virtues and faults that go with it: the wealth of invention and imagery, coupled with a complete lack of shape or form.”

It is the voice of “The Enemy” that we hear in Men without Art. We join this rough-and-ready rebel in his lair, where he expatiates to us about art, literature, and the state of the world. Since “The Enemy” is talking the evening away—and we all have drinks in our hands—it does not really matter that he meanders, thumps his chest, and goes off half-cocked from time to time. Those who fancy Lewis’s distinctive brand of intellectual pyrotechnics cum jolly good fellowship—and are willing to live with his faults—should read Men without Art. Others can find his best work in anthologies.

As the Thirties progressed, Lewis became an increasingly isolated figure. He had made art and written books for almost three decades, but had precious little to show for years of work. His income was small and his influence limited. Portrait commissions, lectures, and anthology opportunities rarely came his way.

Lewis had brought much of this upon his own head. Notoriously unreliable in professional dealings, he had treated editors and dealers cavalierly, burning many bridges behind him. The Apes of God permanently antagonized many acquaintances and put others on their guard.

In addition to this, Lewis was a public supporter of Hitler and Mussolini. He casually endorsed fascism in The Art of Being Ruled and published an admiring account of Hitler in 1931. Until his recantation in 1938, he campaigned in print for the fascist cause, producing some dreadful books and articles. During this period, he visited Sir Oswald Mosley from time to time and associated with William Joyce (“Lord Haw-Haw”), the British Nazi. (Joyce was to make English language propaganda broadcasts from Berlin during the war. Afterward, he was tried for treason, convicted, and hanged.)

In his eagerness to prevent a second world war, Lewis misread fascist intentions. There can be no doubt of this.

In his eagerness to prevent a second world war, Lewis misread fascist intentions. There can be no doubt of this. But he supported Hitler and Mussolini far more enthusiastically and far, far longer than common sense or decency should have allowed. Lewis was not an evil man, but an arrogant naïf who blundered into politics and made a complete fool of himself.

At any rate, Lewis took stock of his life during the late Thirties and, for the first time in his fiction, directly confronted his feelings about the shabby-genteel household in which he was raised, and the way he dealt with other people. He did this in his two most humane novels: The Vulgar Streak (1941) and Self-Condemned (1954).

Though he wrote fiction throughout his career and won a degree of réclame for his vivid style, Lewis was a cold, dry, and rather cruel novelist. In his luridly misanthropic fictional world, everyone is stupid, human relationships are impossible, and women are calculating sex kittens who drag men down.

The Vulgar Streak breaks sharply with the past. For the first time, Lewis integrates stylistics into his overall authorial design. He presents convincing characters and creates moving scenes. His satire rings true. The Vulgar Streak succeeds because it is written from the heart. Lewis was ashamed of the way his mother lived; angry that society so valued “gentlemanly” origins; and bitter because poverty limited him. He came to terms with these feelings by projecting them onto Vincent Penhale, his fictional protagonist.

Penhale, a handsome English actor, has the manners and accent of the upper class, and—it would seem—an independent income. As The Vulgar Streak opens, he is on holiday in Venice during autumn of 1938. He meets and romances April Mallow, a wealthy young woman who is visiting the city with her mother.

As the Mallow affair proceeds, Vincent confesses to his closest male friend that he is not the son of a prosperous solicitor as everyone believes, but the son of a common laborer. He has taught himself how to speak and behave like a gentleman. “In my composition there is a great deal of the actor,” he avows. “I am a sham person from head to foot. I feel empty sometimes, as if there were nothing inside me.”

When April Mallow becomes pregnant, Vincent marries her and they set up housekeeping in London. His class-masquerade is exposed when the police arrest him as a counterfeiter’s associate—that’s where his money was coming from—and an accessory to murder. Devastated when Vincent tells all, April miscarries, hemorrhages, and dies. Realizing that his lies have destroyed the woman he loves, and that he soon will go to prison, Vincent hangs himself.

Though Vincent Penhale is a completely fictional character, his circumstances and his response to them parallel Lewis’s own.

Though Vincent Penhale is a completely fictional character, his circumstances and his response to them parallel Lewis’s own. At some point in youth, perhaps while he lived at Rugby School with the sons of Empire, Lewis became mortifyingly aware that he had a disgrace for a father and a mother with a low-class occupation. While he was still in his teens, he developed secretive habits and rigidly compartmentalized his life. No London friend or acquaintance ever met his mother or was told anything about her. He presented himself to the world as a flamboyantly theatrical enigma.

According to the painter William Rothenstein, the eighteen-year-old Lewis “liked to shroud himself in mystery” and to fabulize about his travels and amorous adventures. Augustus John, an artist who saw much of Lewis in Paris, remembered him as “heavily self-conscious.” Ford Madox Ford, who published Lewis’s first fiction in The English Review during 1909, has recorded that Lewis was totally silent during their first meeting. “[E]xtraordinary in appearance,” Lewis wore “an immense steeple-crowned hat,” a “Russian-looking” coat, and “an ample black cape of the type that villains in transpontine melodrama throw over their shoulders when they say ‘Ha-ha!’”

During the BLAST period, Lewis was briefly a celebrity who dined with countesses in Mayfair. A few miles away, in a far less fashionable quarter of London, his mother cared for two illegitimate children that he had fathered. As he shuttled between his mother’s household and the homes of his wealthy friends, Lewis—like Vincent Penhale—felt like a fraud, wondered who he really was, and feared exposure.

Throughout his career, Lewis systematically concealed his exceedingly messy personal life—five illegitimate children, several bouts of venereal disease, numerous lawsuits, and other scandalous episodes. Even when he married quite respectably in 1930, he hid his wife from visitors and did not introduce her to his London friends until 1946.

For all its importance to Lewis, The Vulgar Streak is not a great novel. Numerous, extremely convenient encounters among his fictional characters advance the story, but place great strain upon the reader’s ability to believe. The romantic relationship of Vincent and April is developed so sketchily that we are never convinced that he truly loves her. Thus it is difficult to accept her death as a motivation for his suicide. Still, The Vulgar Streak is one of Lewis’s most truthful, heartfelt works of fiction. He was to do better.

In 1939, Lewis obtained a substantial portrait commission in the United States and sailed there with his wife. He hoped this job would lead to others, and to lectures and articles as well. But little work materialized in the U.S., and when the war broke out, currency restrictions kept him from expatriating funds he had in England. Trapped in North America because he could not pay his return fare, Lewis, who was a British citizen, had to move to Canada when his U.S. visitor’s permit expired in November 1940.

For the next two and a half years, Lewis and his wife lived in a dilapidated apartment-hotel in Toronto.

For the next two and a half years, Lewis and his wife lived in a dilapidated apartment-hotel in Toronto. Completely cut off from all that was familiar to him, he desperately sought ways to make a living. Finally, in June 1943, he was hired to deliver two lectures a week at Assumption College, a small Roman Catholic institution in Windsor, Ontario, near Detroit. Later, the Lewises spent about a year in Saint Louis, Missouri. But they both missed England acutely and returned home on the first available ship at the end of the war.

The years in Canada were the worst of Lewis’s adult life, but they taught him to value people and made him a better human being. His work improved and he enjoyed unprecedented public recognition. The BBC adapted and broadcast some of his novels and the University of Leeds gave him an honorary doctorate. In 1956, the Tate Gallery mounted a retrospective of his art. Wyndham Lewis died in London on March 3, 1957.

Self-Condemned, the most important book of Lewis’s final years, fictionalizes his Canadian experiences. René Harding, the protagonist of this novel, is a prominent British historian and the author of The Secret History of World War II, a scholarly best-seller. Harding believes that the academy is hopelessly corrupt, and that he cannot remain there and teach the truth. So he resigns his university chair and sails for Canada with his wife Hester just days before World War II breaks out. The Hardings bring some borrowed funds. René has no serious prospect of employment in Canada.

In the first portion of Self-Condemned, René and Hester pay parting visits to his three sisters and their husbands. The reader learns that René is a thoroughly disagreeable man who thinks he has no need of other people. He finds something to sneer at in everyone he meets, and repays kindness with ingratitude and insults. He even resents his susceptibility to his wife’s sexual attractions. The only person René likes is his favorite sister. During a conversation with her, he weeps on her shoulder and says that he expects to die in Canada.

The Hardings settle in Momaco, a big city. For three years, they vegetate in the wretched Hotel Blundell while René looks for work. Lewis writes: “Their never-ending disappointments, in the battle to get work—wild efforts to liberate themselves, ghastly repulses—had made of this hotel room . . . a museum of misery. There were drawers packed with letters, each of which once had represented a towering hope of escape. Each effort had resulted in their being thrown back with a bang into this futility.”

Memorably, Lewis describes Momaco, the Hotel Blundell, its drunken, concupiscent residents, and the endless Canadian winter. “Icicles six feet long and as thick as a man’s arm, hung from the eaves and gutters,” he writes. “Below zero temperatures started when the cold came down from Hudson’s Bay and higher, and the Polar Sea walked right through the walls of the hotel as if it had been a radio wave . . . At 50 below [the cold] was as impossible to keep . . . out as radium . . . It walked through your heart, it dissolved your kidney, it flashed down your marrow and made an icicle of your coccyx.”

Momaco is a hideously provincial place where life is dominated by dour Scots Methodists. René makes an acquaintance or two and earns small sums, but nothing really happens for him until the Hotel Blundell burns down one winter night. The Hardings, who are lucky to escape alive, suddenly become visible in Momaco.

Social contacts multiply and they are welcomed into the expatriate English community.

Social contacts multiply and they are welcomed into the expatriate English community. René is invited to write a newspaper column, the Harding finances improve, and they move into a pleasant apartment. The University of Momaco offers René a chair and he starts on a new book. Hester, who has hated Canada since the very first day and desperately longs for England, senses that René is settling in for good. She throws herself in front of a truck. He collapses when he sees her dead body at the police station.

After several months, René recovers to teach at the University of Momaco. But he is not the man that he was before the war: “The process of radical revaluation . . . which was responsible for the revolutionary character of his work . . . turned inwards (upon . . . the intimate structure of domestic life), this furious analysis began disintegrating many relationships and attitudes which only an exceptionally creative spirit, under very favourable conditions, can afford to dispense with.” But three years of isolation in Canada, the growing conflict between Hester’s urgent wish to leave and “the pressure of [René’s] own will-to-success, of the most vulgar type,” and the shock of Hester’s death together destroy René’s personality, leaving him “a half-crazed replica of his former self.”

None of this is apparent to anyone save René and a close friend. After winning academic distinction in Momaco, René is offered a better position in a leading U.S. university. When he arrives there, the faculty have no idea that “it was a glacial shell of a man who had come to live among them, mainly because they [are] themselves unfilled with anything more than a little academic stuffing.”

Lewis undercuts the power of Self-Condemned by padding more than fifty pages of it with sophomoric political harangues and discussions. He apparently believed that professors of history win academic renown for writing books which say that all politicians have criminal minds and that the Tories let England drift into World War II to advance their class interests. Despite such flaws, Self-Condemned is a very good novel that deserves a wider audience.

Wyndham Lewis had uncommon gifts and immense energy, but he attempted too much, constantly lost control, and left us a jumbled, uneven oeuvre. His work cannot possibly justify the extravagant claims that his admirers make for it, but the best that he did has permanent value. By bringing so much Lewis back into print—and doing such an admirable job of it—the Black Sparrow Press has performed a valuable service.

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  1.   For each book listed below, the first-edition date appears in parentheses, followed by the date of the Black Sparrow edition. NOVELS: Tarr (1918), edited by Paul O’Keeffe, 1990; The Apes of God (1930), with an afterword by Paul Edwards, 1981; Snooty Baronet (1932), edited by Bernard Lafourcade, 1984; The Revenge for Love (1936), edited with an afterword and notes by Reed Way Dasenbrock, 1991; The Vulgar Streak (1941), with an afterword and notes by Paul Edwards, 1985; Self-Condemned (1954), with an afterword by Rowland Smith, 1983. SHORT FICTION: The Complete Wild Body (a reprint of The Wild Body, 1927, with supplemental material), edited by Bernard Lafourcade, 1982; Rotting Hill (1951), edited with an afterword and notes by Paul Edwards, 1986. CRITICISM: The Caliph’s Design (1919), edited with an afterword and notes by Paul Edwards, 1986; The Art of Being Ruled (1926), edited by Reed Way Dasenbrock, 1989; Men without Art (1934), edited with an afterword and notes by Seamus Cooney, 1987. MEMOIR: Rude Assignment (1950), edited by Toby Foshay, 1984. ANTHOLOGY: Creatures of Habit and Creatures of Change: Essays on Art, Literature & Society 1914-1956, edited by Paul Edwards, 1989. TRAVEL: Journey Into Barbary (a reprint of Filibusters in Barbary, 1932, with supplemental material), edited by C. J. Fox, 1983. PERIODICAL: BLAST 1 & 2 (1914-15; all numbers published), with a foreword by Bradford Morrow, 1981. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 10, on page 26
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