The Letters of Wyndham Lewis
edited by W.K. Rose
New Directions, 580 pp., $8.50
There has been no period in this century so rich in works of imagination as the first thirty years; the outburst succumbed from natural exhaustion and our wars, and criticism has eaten like a frost into us ever since. It was a harsh time, whether one thinks of it as a revolutionary dawn or as a delinquent sunset. The cult of art was aggressive and given to autocratic laughter. To revisit the scene is like going over the ruins of some battle-field where grass and creepers have now grown; yet not over everything. Here and there a piece of grotesque and inconceivable iron-mongery survives in stubborn crudity—a chunk of Wyndham Lewis, perhaps. Do these old shell cases mark the site where the self-appointed Enemy’s battery blasted away? We look around at his works—Tarr, The Wild Body, The Childermass, Time and Western Man, the prolific engines of polemic, created by this energetic artilleryman. No kind mosses cover them. Unassimilated, they stick out like old blockbusting guns and abandoned tanks, fantastic without their thunder. They were built to discharge laughing anger. Why on such a scale (we ask) when the target was, as it now seems to us, so small?
“Human energy,” says Mr. Rose in his Introduction to Wyndham Lewis’s Letters, “radiates from him in awesome quantities.” That was part of Wyndham Lewis’s difficulty. The amount of awe we can stand is always limited and the Letters, though useful to the biographers, the insatiable white ants of the mass universities, and the gossips, who will pick out what was said to Augustus John Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Roy Campbell, and so on, are not much help. As a letter-writer Wyndham Lewis is generally at the highest, rather monotonous pitch of an egotist’s exhilaration in his rights and wrongs. They nail Lewis down as a brilliant, touchy Welshman with a splendid power of invective and insulting laughter—in a throw-away line he called Canada “a nationetle”—an ingenious quarreler, a disarrayed commentator on public affairs—of which, portentously, he knew nothing; and give us a blurred view of his originality as an artist and of his glamour as a conspiratorial figure in literary and painting circles. He is clearly a man to beware of; he did not stab in the back. He simply mowed you down to your face with a Sten gun. In London, fortunately, this passes for eccentricity. The Letters cover his lifetime and begin very pleasantly with his childish aggressions and affections, those to his mother showing a relationship of delightful candor which is rare in Anglo-Saxon families. We move on to his period of prolific vitality as a painter, novelist, critic, and controversialist, in which he split himself deliberately into two, as the public leader of a “movement”—hostile to all comers, and into a private person who concealed himself, with famous secretiveness, from even those closest to him. He wandered about with all the air of a man blatantly spying …