Among Wyndham Lewis’ nearly 50 books are found such classics as Time and Western Man (1927) and the novels Tarr (1918), The Apes of God (1930), and The Revenge For Love (1937). But at the time of his death in 1957, Lewis was probably better known for his persona than for his writings or the brilliant paintings and drawings that he also produced for more than four decades. In fact, for too many students of modern literature, the name Wyndham Lewis continues to evoke little more than the image of the sneer-and-sombrero wearing “Enemy” who allegedly backed Hitler and smeared Jews and who—according to anecdotes left behind by Ernest Hemingway and others—enjoyed nothing more than getting into brawls on street corners and at literary teas.
An older and wiser Lewis recognized that he was personally responsible for much of the growth of his unsavory reputation. In the 1920’s and early 30’s—when he was far edgier, less secure—Lewis put on a tough-guy pose and, in essays and conversations, didn’t hesitate to bludgeon his opponents whenever his pistol failed to fire. During this period he also wrote appreciatively of those movements hatched by the Mssrs. Hider, Mosely, and Mussolini. Apparently convinced that such fellows would not only ward off the Russians but grant a privileged role to such men of genius as himself, Lewis announced—in The Art of Being Ruled (1926)—that “the disciplined fascist party in Italy can be taken as representing the new and healthy type of ‘freedom'”; that, moreover, “for anglosaxon countries as they are constituted today some form of fascism would probably be best.”
Like Ezra Pound—or like T.S. Eliot or H.L. Mencken, for that matter—Lewis was never able to express unqualified praise for democracy in its 20th-century form. But quite unlike the increasingly unstable Pound, Lewis frequently and vigorously condemned fascism as it became clear that Germany and Italy were engulfed in insanity and careening toward national suicide. Lewis savaged Der Fuehrer in The Hitler Cult (1939); he exposed some of the dangers and absurdities of anti-Semitism in the ironically titled The Jews: Are They Human? (1939).
After the war, Lewis went after “the present archaic division into ‘nations'” of what “are really competing businesses, each with increasingly devastating weapons.” Aligning himself with the likes of Henry Wallace, Lewis propagandized for the establishment of something like a one-world government—”not a Utopia,” he made clear, “just somewhere in which armed groups are not incessantly menacing each other, and throwing all ordered society back into primitive savagery every few years.”
Despite his suspicion of democracy and his disdain for “the horrors of Hollywood,” Lewis was thoroughly convinced that the United States was the perfect model for his “novel cosmopolis.” The U.S.—writes Lewis in America and Cosmic Man—is “a place where those conditions of fraternisation and free intercourse, irrespective of race, class, or religion, already prevail, or enough at least for a start.”
As he became a booster of both the U.S. and of what Clare Booth Luce described as “globaloney,” Lewis also grew steadily more skeptical of politicians and theorists who looked at collective schemes as a means of assuring economic salvation and social calm.
The meditations and short stories in Rotting Hill (1951) express Lewis’ fear that, in Britain, well-intentioned followers of Bevin, Attlee et al. were doing little but setting up “an assembly-line world” and a vast governmental apparatus that could easily be abused. “The danger,” notes Lewis in Rotting Hill, is that “in its hour of triumph socialism will forget, ignore, or violently discard the ethics by means of which it was able to gain acceptance and mount to power: indeed that it may strip away all our civilized Christian freedoms and thrust back into a system of villainy and worse. Socialism without ethics is a terrible thing.”
In fact, quite unlike Pound, Lewis as he aged became increasingly interested in orthodox Christianity. In several pieces in Rotting Hill, he frets about the collapse of Christian belief in postwar Britain; in The Red Priest (1956), a novel, he unsympathetically portrays an egomaniacal Anglican clergyman who is far more interested in fame and power than in the humble performance of his priestly obligations. Monstre Gai (1955) and Malign Fiesta (1955)—the final volumes of Lewis’ The Human Age trilogy—take place in a brilliantly rendered afterlife and focus on a once-famous satirist named James Pullman, whose arrogance and contempt for common humanity cause him to become an associate of the Devil and a prime candidate for eternal roasting. Indeed, when he set out to complete The Human Age, Lewis observed in a letter to a friend that “as a theologian I am inferior to what Eliot is supposed to be.” “That,” he explained, “must be remedied.”
Lewis and Pound met in London in 1909. Lewis was 27, Pound 24; both were energetic, combative, and eager to rid the arts of lingering standards and practices established in the days of Macaulay and Millais. Lewis thus completed the Nietzschean Tarr; Pound produced Imagist verse and worked overtime promoting the work of Lewis, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and countless other writers, painters, and sculptors whose work he admired. Together Lewis and Pound launched Vorticism—a literary and artistic movement which drew some inspiration from both Futurism and Cubism, and which stated its tenets in Lewis’ short-lived, puce-jacketed journal, Blast.
Lewis and Pound never again worked as closely as they did in the years just before the First World War. Eventually, they found themselves separated by a great many miles, and by conflicting biases on a wide range of issues. Hence we find Lewis in 1946 reminding Pound that “what appeals to you—the historical—leaves me cold”; that “I enjoy many things that have not the same appeal to you: the wonderful landscapes met with everywhere in America: and simple pleasant people (butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers) whom you would despise.”
Still, the two remained friends and off-and-on correspondents. In Pound/ Lewis, Timothy Materer has collected in chronological order more than 200 notes and letters that were passed between these controversial figures between the year of their meeting and the late 50’s, when Pound signed off as “Ez” and Lewis as “Old VORT.” Most appear in print for the first time; many are detailed, revealing, and quite amusing. All are carefully glossed and introduced by Materer, whose characteristic intelligence and lucidity combine to make Pound/Lewis a splendid contribution to literary scholarship and a very good read.
[Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, edited by Timothy Materer (New York: New Directions) $37.50]