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Lewis, Wyndham

Entry updated 13 February 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1882-1957) US- or Canadian-born painter and author, primarily in the UK from 1893 (the story of his birth on an American yacht in Canadian waters has been challenged), serving in World War One first as a bombardier, then as a war artist. For the first part of his career, beginning around 1900, he was primarily active as a painter; he is best known in this capacity as a member of the Camden Town Group and the instigator of Vorticism in 1914 – which he promoted vigorously in a Modernist manifesto, The Caliph's Design: Architects! Where Is Your Vortex? (1919 chap) – and as a significant abstract artist (and portraitist) of the 1920s and 1930s. His theories and works influenced such artists as Aubrey Hammond and E McKnight Kauffer. Of his copious nonfiction, of greatest indirect but telling influence on the historiographic substrates of sf is Time and Western Man (1927), which contains a sustained assault on the concept of cyclical history as exemplified in the works of Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), which he deemed to be flatulently Decadent. His illustrations for Naomi Mitchison's Beyond This Limit (1935 chap) constitute a co-creation of the book, which she acknowledged.

Lewis began to publish fiction, much of it very far from "realistic", around 1909, early work being assembled The Wild Body: A Soldier of Humour and Other Stories (coll 1927) and Unlucky for Pringle: Unpublished and Other Stories (coll 1973). His most famous novel is The Apes of God (1930), a proleptic Satire on the Emperor's-Clothes vacancy of twentieth-century life, with representative figures limned solely through incantatory revelations of the externally seeable, who are meant (as Lewis's cover demonstrates) to be perceived in Apes as Human terms. The exorbitant fictionalized political flytings that make up the bulk of Count Your Dead – They Are Alive!; Or, a New War in the Making (1937) are presented from within an ironizing Club Story frame that similarly showcases its revelations as being uttered not by introspective humans but by puppets of the Zeitgeist, a significant number of them avidly anticipating World War Two.

Of particular sf interest is The Human Age sequence, comprising The Childermass: Section 1 (1928; rev vt The Human Age: Book One: Childermass 1956) and The Human Age: Book Two: Monstre Gai; Book Three: Malign Fiesta (coll 1955; vt in 2vols as Monstre Gai 1965 and Malign Fiesta 1966). Book One was broadcast on the BBC as a Radio drama in 1951; Books Two and Three – under a BBC commission that financed the composition of both drama and novel versions – were broadcast in 1955 prior to book publication. Like Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series, though with greater impact, The Human Age depicts the afterlife existence of various characters [for distinctions between Afterlife fantasy and Posthumous Fantasy see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] who must come to understand their condition in an apocalyptic landscape riven by Time Distortions. Pullman and Sattersthwaite, the two freshly deceased protagonists of The Childermass: Section 1, observe and join in the jousting, linguistic and intellectual, that surrounds the Bailiff, a sort of doorkeeper (and exemplar of the bellowing hollowness of modern man) who decides the eligibility of applicants to the Magnetic City (which should be Heaven), but who, in Monstre Gai, leads them into what turns out to be the Third City, a Dystopia based on post-World War Two UK and its Welfare State. Finding life impossible there, they all make an extraterrestrial journey through "monstrous starlight" to Matapolis in Malign Fiesta, in a clear Parody of the Fantastic Voyage, but Matapolis is Hell, where Sammael rules; as Pullman, realizes: "I, Pullman, am acting in a valueless vacuum called Sammael. He looked at his apartment. It was a momentary resting place in a vacuum". As an early rendering of Horror's most profound take on the amnesiac hollowness of the modern world (see Horror in SF), this passage suggests that The Human Age could well be revisited from a twenty-first-century context, especially given the focus throughout the text on technique, for the long tale can be read as a kind of instruction manual for prospective inhabitants of the world to come; it is a supposition consistent with Fredric Jameson's earlier contention, in Fables of Aggression (1979), that Lewis's all-exteriors style should be read as exposing "discontinuity, allegory, the mechanical, the gap between signifier and signified, the lapse in meaning, the syncope in the experience of the subject." This shaming of the engines of the modern may seem significantly more telling in a contemporary context..

The arduousness of The Childermass: Section 1, a major twentieth-century Modernist novel, may have kept some readers from its much more clear-cut sequels. A fourth volume, «The Trial of Man», in which the two protagonists were to be transported to Heaven, remained unwritten. Lewis remains much less read than read about, a situation to be deplored. He should not be confused with his less well known but more companionable contemporary, D B Wyndham Lewis. [JC]

Percy Wyndham Lewis

born New York State: 18 November 1882

died London: 7 March 1957

works (highly selected)


The Human Age

individual titles



about the author (selected from a substantial critical bibliography)


previous versions of this entry

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