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Wyndham Lewis (Percy Wyndham Lewis) Biography

(1882–1957), (Percy Wyndham Lewis), The English Review, Blast, The Review of the Great English Vortex, Tarr

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British artist, novelist, and critic, the son of an American father and an English mother; he was born on his father's yacht off the coast of Nova Scotia and spent his early childhood in New England. In 1888 his parents, who separated when he was 11, moved to England. Lewis was educated at a succession of schools, and later studied at the Slade School of Art. Between 1902 and 1908 he travelled extensively in Spain, Germany, and France, where he established himself as a painter. His early short stories were published in The English Review. In 1914, after a celebrated falling-out with Marinetti, the leader of the Futurists, Lewis edited Blast: The Review of the Great English Vortex, a satirical analysis of the state of contemporary art and letters, which was the manifesto for his Vorticist movement. A second, ‘War Number’, was published shortly before Lewis's departure for the Western Front. His first novel, Tarr (1918), was admired by Pound who described it as ‘the most vigorous and volcanic English novel of our time’. The Wild Body (1927; short stories) was followed by The Childermass (1928), the first volume of a proposed tetralogy entitled The Human Age, which was set in the Afterlife and included a sustained parody of Joyce's work in progress (later published as Finnegans Wake). Lewis first met Joyce in 1920 (the occasion is described in his memoir, Blasting and Bombardiering, 1937) and was also associated, through Pound, with T. S. Eliot. Both Joyce and Eliot are amongst the figures satirized in Lewis's notorious roman-à-clef, The Apes of God (1930). Bloomsbury never forgave him for his satirical portrayal of its foibles, and during the 1930s and afterwards he was increasingly ostracized by the literary establishment; his isolation was compounded when, in 1931, he published a book expressing his admiration for Hitler. Auden described him as ‘that lonely old volcano of the Right’, but in spite of his damaged reputation Lewis produced some of his best work during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The Revenge for Love (1937), an intricately plotted thriller set at the time of the Spanish Civil War, and The Vulgar Streak (1941), set in Italy on the eve of the Munich crisis, show Lewis's incisive style at its best. Lewis spent the war years in self-imposed exile in Canada, a period chronicled in his novel Self Condemned (1954), which describes the gradual alienation from society of Dr Rene Harding, a historian whose brand of anti-democratic élitism parallels Lewis's own. The Human Age, his projected four-part reworking of The Divine Comedy, remained unfinished, although the surreal narrative begun in The Childermass was developed in Monstre Gai (1955), which follows its protagonists Pullman and Sattersthwaite to Purgatory and, in Malign Fiesta (1955), to Hell. Critical and polemical works include The Art of Being Ruled (1926); Time and Western Man (1927), which contains his celebrated attack on Joyce's Ulysses; The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare (1927); Men Without Art (1934); and The Writer and the Absolute (1952). In Rude Assignment (1950) he attempted to set the record straight concerning some of the exigencies of his career. His extreme and aggressively proclaimed views, together with his own propensity for the role of the ‘Enemy’ (the title of one of the little magazines he started in the late 1920s), contributed towards his isolation at the end of his life. ‘The Enemy’ is also the title of a biography of Lewis, by Jeffrey Meyers (1980).

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