Wyndham Lewis

By: Mark Kingwell
November 18, 2012

Vorticist hero WYNDHAM LEWIS (Percy Wyndham Lewis, 1882–1957) was born on his father’s yacht off the coast of Nova Scotia. Which means he is a Canadian writer and artist in just the way that Elizabeth Bishop, Saul Bellow, and Malcolm Lowrie are — that is, hardly, But we Canadians should be wary of claiming Lewis anyway. In addition to his well-known paintings and drawings — the striking battle scenes of Ypres and Vimy, the swirling fractured portraits, the herky-jerky covers of BLAST magazine, which he edited —Lewis was a consistent anti-Semite and early supporter of Hitler. (He later recanted, but did not recover.) He wrote as much as he daubed, and the best of his 40 books is The Apes of God (1930), a satire of literary London. Lewis spent the 1940s in Toronto (a “sanctimonious icebox”) and the United States, which he labelled a “moronic inferno,” a phrase that would later pass to Saul Bellow and, in turn, to Martin Amis. In 1943, the young Marshall McLuhan met Lewis in St. Louis — ha! — and was smitten. McLuhan published his most satisfactory book, The Mechanical Bride, in 1951, the same year Lewis went blind, then co-wrote a post-Vorticist homage, Counterblast, three years later. Lewis himself, meanwhile, ended his life in England, living just long enough to witness, if not view, a major retrospective of his artwork at the Tate Gallery in London, where he was once more in favour.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Kirk Hammett and Bruce Conner.

READ MORE about members of the Psychonaut Generation (1874–83).

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Art, HiLo Heroes, Literature

What do you think?

  1. My birth year is 1951; besides Mechanical Bride, the photo portrait of Salvador Dali Involuptate Mors & Alistair Sims’ Christmas Carol were brought into being. I consider myself to be a Vortico-surrealist, naturally.

  2. My I respectfully suggest Prof. Kingwell check out Lewis’ Toronto novel “Self-Condemned” (1954) which is perhaps his greatest late work?

    http://www.gingkopress.com/09-lit/self-condemned.html

    Also, a lesser known collection of essays, “America And Cosmic Man” (1949) adds some unexpected complications to Lewis’ difficult politics–

    http://archive.org/details/americaandcosmic001148mbp

    which were deeply affected by his combat experience in the Great War, as in the memoir “Blasting And Bombardiering” (1937)– see “Our Home in a Pillbox” and “The ‘O.Pip’ on the Ridge” chapters especially– and elsewhere.

    http://www.amazon.com/Blasting-Bombardiering-Calderbook-Cb-225/dp/0714501301

    Best,

    STTG

  3. Thanks for the comment. I know the Gingko Press edition of “Self-Condemned.” It includes drawings Lewis did while living in Toronto, and has an afterword by my late colleague Rowland Smith.

    Rowland’s son, Russell Smith, is a very funny novelist who often writes about Toronto. Also a good friend of mine. I recommend his “Muriella Pent” and “Noise.”

    I still think “Apes” is better, but I may be biased because I like Toronto! “Self-Condemned” felt splenetic to me.

  4. Ah, excellent point on “Self-Condemned”; as an Australian who’s never been to Europe or the States, all those locales are equally exotic to me.

    Best,

    STTG

  5. Should also mention that Gingko Press has recently produced a facsimile edition of McLuhan’s “Counterblast,” which has long been out of print.

  6. It was not the United States that Lewis called a ‘moronic inferno’. Nor was he by any means a ‘consistent’ anti-semite, as his 1939 attack on anti-semitism shows. He considered US democracy an advance model of the ‘rootless elysium’ he favoured.

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