John (Barrington) Wain

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From: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography(Vol. 8: Contemporary Writers, 1960 to the Present. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 7,128 words

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About this Person
Born: March 14, 1925 in Stoke-on-Trent, United Kingdom
Died: May 24, 1994 in Oxford, United Kingdom
Nationality: British
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Wain, John Barrington


  • Mixed Feelings: Nineteen Poems (Reading, Berkshire: Reading University School of Art, 1951).
  • Hurry on Down (London: Secker & Warburg, 1953); republished as Born in Captivity (New York: Knopf, 1954).
  • Living in the Present (London: Secker & Warburg, 1955; New York: Putnam, 1960).
  • A Word Carved on a Sill (London: Routledge, 1956; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1956).
  • Preliminary Essays (London: Macmillan, 1957; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1957).
  • The Contenders (London: Macmillan, 1958; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1958).
  • A Travelling Woman (London: Macmillan, 1959; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1959).
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins: An Idiom of Desperation, British Academy Chatterton Lecture, 1959 (London: Oxford University Press, 1959; Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Editions, 1974).
  • Nuncle and Other Stories (London: Macmillan, 1960; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1961).
  • A Song about Major Eatherly (Iowa City: Quara Press, 1961).
  • Weep Before God: Poems (London: Macmillan, 1961; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1961).
  • Strike the Father Dead (London: Macmillan, 1962; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1962).
  • Sprightly Running: Part of an Autobiography (London: Macmillan, 1962; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1963).
  • Essays on Literature and Ideas (London: Macmillan, 1963; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1963).
  • The Living World of Shakespeare: A Playgoer's Guide (London: Macmillan, 1964; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964).
  • Wildtrack: A Poem (London: Macmillan, 1965; New York: Viking, 1965).
  • The Young Visitors (London: Macmillan, 1965; New York: Viking, 1965).
  • Death of the Hind Legs and Other Stories (London: Macmillan, 1966; New York: Viking, 1966).
  • The Smaller Sky (London: Macmillan, 1967).
  • Arnold Bennett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967).
  • Letters to Five Artists (London: Macmillan, 1969; New York: Viking, 1970).
  • A Winter in the Hills (London: Macmillan, 1970; New York: Viking, 1970).
  • The Life Guard (London: Macmillan, 1971).
  • The Shape of Feng (London: Covent Garden Press, 1972).
  • A House for the Truth: Critical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1972; New York: Viking, 1973).
  • Samuel Johnson (London: Macmillan, 1974; New York: Viking, 1975; revised edition, London: Papermac, 1988).
  • Feng (New York: Viking, 1975; London: Macmillan, 1975).
  • A John Wain Selection, edited by Geoffrey Halson (London: Longman, 1977).
  • Professing Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1977; abridged edition, New York: Viking, 1978).
  • The Pardoner's Tale (London: Macmillan, 1978; New York: Viking, 1979).
  • King Caliban and Other Stories (London: Macmillan, 1978).
  • Thinking about Mr. Person (Beckenham U.K.: Chimaera Press, 1980).
  • Lizzie's Floating Shop (London: Bodley Head, 1981).
  • The Twofold (Frome: Bran's Head, 1981).
  • Poems: 1949-1979 (London: Macmillan, 1982).
  • Young Shoulders (London: Macmillan, 1982); published as The Free Zone Starts Here (New York: Delacorte, 1982).
  • Mid-week Period Return: Home Thoughts of a Native (Stratford-upon-Avon: Celandine Press, 1982).
  • Frank (Oxford: Amber Lane Press, 1984).
  • Dear Shadows: Portraits from Memory (London: John Murray, 1986).
  • Open Country (London: Hutchinson, 1987).
  • Where the Rivers Meet (London: Hutchinson, 1988; Philadelphia: Coronet, 1989).
  • Comedies (London: Hutchinson, 1990; Philadelphia: Coronet, 1991).
  • Johnson Is Leaving: A Monodrama (London: Pisces, 1994).
  • Hungry Generations (London: Hutchinson, 1994).


  • Contemporary Reviews of Romantic Poetry, edited by Wain (London: Harrap, 1953; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1953).
  • Interpretations: Essays on Twelve English Poems, edited by Wain (London: Routledge, 1955; New York: Hillary House, 1957).
  • Fanny Burney, Fanny Burney's Diary, edited, with an introduction, by Wain (London: Folio Society, 1961).
  • Samuel Johnson, Johnson as Critic, edited by Wain (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973).
  • Johnson, The Lives of English Poets: A Selection, edited, with an introduction, by Wain (London: Dent, 1975; New York: Dutton, 1976).
  • Johnson, Johnson on Johnson: A Selection of the Personal and Autobiographical Writings of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), selected, with an introduction and commentary, by Wain (London: Dent, 1976).
  • An Edmund Wilson Celebration, edited by Wain (Oxford: Phaidon, 1978).
  • Personal Choice: A Poetry Anthology, edited by Wain (Newton Abbey: David Charles, 1978).
  • Thomas Hardy, The New Wessex Selection of Thomas Hardy's Poetry, edited by Wain and Eirian Wain (London: Macmillan, 1978).
  • Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Post-War to the Present, edited by Wain (London: Hutchinson, 1979).
  • The Seafarer, translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Wain (Warwick: Grenville Press, 1980).
  • Everyman's Book of English Verse, edited by Wain (London: Dent, 1981).
  • Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives' Tale, introduction and notes by Wain (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983).
  • The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry, chosen and edited by Wain (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
  • The Oxford Library of English Poetry, chosen and edited by Wain (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
  • James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, edited and introduced by Wain (Harmondsworth & New York: Penguin, 1986).
  • Bennett, Buried Alive, with an introduction by Wain (Oxford: Inky Parrot Press, 1987).
  • Jane Austen, Emma, edited by Wain (London: Macmillan, 1990).
  • The Oxford Library of Short Novels, chosen and introduced by Wain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
  • James Boswell, The Journals of James Boswell 1760-1795, selected and introduced by Wain (London: Heinemann, 1991; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books, with an introduction by Wain (London: Folio Society, 1991).
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, translated by Neville Coghill, foreword by Melvyn Bragg, introduction by Wain (London: Cresset Press, 1992).


[This entry was updated by Dean Baldwin (Pennsylvania State University--Erie) from the entry by Augustus M. Kolich (Pennsylvania State University) in DLB 15: British Novelists, 1930-1959, the entry by A. T. Tolley (Carleton University) in DLB 27: Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, 1945-1960, the entry by Baldwin in DLB 139: British Short Fiction Writers, 1945-1980, and the entry by Emily A. Hipchen (University of Georgia) in DLB 155: Twentieth-Century British Literary Biographers.]

John Wain achieved fame as a novelist, poet, critic, biographer, and short-story writer--in short, as a modern man of letters. Like his contemporaries Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and John Braine , Wain came of age just before World War II and published his first works in the years just following--a time when Britain was recovering from the devastation of the war and when young writers were reacting against the orthodoxies of modernism. Wain, though sometimes regarded primarily as a social critic, might better be characterized as a liberal humanist. Over the years his novels became less comically boisterous and more pessimistic, as his thematic concerns shifted from the repressions of society to "the effects of loneliness and the remoteness of love," according to Dale Salwak in John Wain (1981). Wain's short stories show similar concerns, but, particularly in the more successful ones, he examines evil, self-destruction, and interior corrosiveness. He treats these issues philosophically, even religiously, not as case studies in social or psychological "causes" but as mysteries of human nature to be explored but never fully understood.

John Barrington Wain was born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, to a dentist, Arnold A. Wain, and his wife, Anne. After attending high school in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Wain went on to St. John's College, Oxford, where he received a B.A. in 1946. Staying on as Fereday Fellow at Oxford (1946-1949), Wain was granted an M.A. in 1950 and served as an instructor at his alma mater. Wain's first marriage, to Marianne Urmstrom in 1947, ended in 1956, and he married Eirian James in 1960. They had three children. Eirian James died in 1987, and Wain married Patricia Dunn in 1988.

In his autobiography, Sprightly Running (1962), Wain recounts several childhood episodes of fear and anxiety involving boys who terrorized him. The stories sound real enough, painful enough, and familiar enough, but more than this, they help explain what may be Wain's central, thematic preoccupation in his writing: the survival of the individual with dignity and purpose in a world that is always conspiring to bully and dominate. Wain describes, with some remorse and shame, the "combination of protective colouring, lackeying, and sheer evasiveness" that he had to assume in order to avoid the terrible punishments of rougher boys, and he concludes that these lessons in "manhood" left their mark on him: "my childhood taught me very effectively to understand the nature of totalitarianism. I felt able to enter imaginatively into the world of any modern dictatorship.... But the atmosphere of treacheries and loyalities, the same feeling that power, the naked lust to dominate, is the mainspring of life." If "naked lust to dominate" forms the instinctual "mainspring of life," then the individual must either adapt to and be seduced into a meaningless conformity by the pressures from society and his own obedient superego, or he may fight and be driven into conflicts that will probably prove to be dangerous and destructive. Wain's heroes usually fight, and this is why, early in the 1950s, Wain was branded one of the "angry young men" of English letters, along with Braine and Amis. Although Wain never liked the title, or any reductive title for that matter, anger and defiance seem to be just descriptions for the satirical, social attacks to which Wain seemed so committed. His reputation as a literary maverick was enhanced in 1953 when he introduced new writers such as Larkin and Amis in a BBC production called First Reading.

In Wain's criticism of contemporary English society, his target is clearly the totalitarian consciousness which has as its object the manipulation and domination of the small child in all of us--that part of our self-concept that naturally sees through folly and pretense and always expects to be left uncontrolled and free. Hence, Wain's fiction is above all morally pledged to a set of values that aim at offending the status quo, when it seems either silly, absurd, or oppressive, and championing commonsense individualism, whenever it can be championed in a world of antiheroes.

At the same time, Wain was not a political ideologue, and his great dislike for the "Beat industry" of the 1950s reflected his conservative intellectual tendencies. Finding poets like Allen Ginsberg to be New Left "ad men" for the "journalistic machine," Wain continually attacked didactic or politically motivated literature that tries to create a cause or define a social movement. The meshing of journalism and contemporary fiction was for him an abhorrence that has worked to undermine the universality of literary significance; neither fiction nor poetry can be too tightly tied to transient political problems for Wain if these genres are to flourish perennially. In his essay, "Forms in Contemporary Literature," Wain outlines his ideal novelist:

The pure novelist, to come back to our thread, writes fiction that is intended to be taken as fiction; its relevance to actual life is not less, but more, than that of documentary fiction, since its engagement with experience is at a much deeper level. Both author and reader step back from the limelight; the relationship between them is no longer a matter of simple give-and-take; this is life, and they are sharing in the experience of contemplating it.
The magic of literature itself must be revered, and in Wain's canon of literary propriety there is no room for the celebrity author who wants the "limelight" on himself rather than the excellence of his art. Wain seems to long for the time in literary history when "the fast-talking, self-boosting fake" was scorned, for an age such as Samuel Johnson's, when there existed "a literary conscience; to gain a reputation that passed in current London, it was at least necessary to do something" (Wain's italics). In a complicated way, Wain praises the existence of universities, as Saul Bellow does in America, because they provide "the pure novelist" a place where he can go about the business of establishing the truth about humanity, undisturbed and unbothered by the demands of a public market. As an Oxford don, Wain felt free to live out the dream of many of his heroes, never to surrender to the prevailing cultural trends that threaten to subvert individual liberty.

Wain's iconoclasm was thus derived from a privately felt moral sense of self-determination, a concept that he hoped could be shared by a community of equals, scholars and artists, working toward "the establishment of a hierarchy of quality." But part of the problem of establishing any hierarchy is first establishing standards for judgment that can be agreed upon by equals. Obviously, Wain ascribed to F. R. Leavis 's notion of the Great Tradition and to the idea that in the best literature "certain human potentialities are nobly celebrated." And a prerequisite for this celebration is Leavis's belief that good men of honor and reason, morally cultivated by a proper upbringing and education, can come to a shared consensus on both the meaning and value of literature: "Literary criticism is the discussion, between equals, of works of literature, with a view to establishing common ground on which judgments of value can be based."

Wain may always have wanted to be a critical equal to such men as his mentor, William Empson , about whom Wain wrote: "He has never used his critical powers to attack any great writer. On the contrary, every work he has discussed has been effectually upgraded by his treatment, even where he makes no overt judgment of value. The reader has been left with an enhanced feeling for its beauty and significance." In his preface to Essays on Literature and Ideas (1963), Wain continues on this tack of professing faith in reverential readings of the masters by describing his own critical aspirations and satisfactions with the words of another of his critical heroes, John Middleton Murry , who praised the "mystery" of reading great literature and feeling the "moment when, as though unconsciously and out of my control, the deeper rhythm of a poet's work, the rise and fall of the great moods which determined what he was and what he wrote, enter into me also." The basis of Wain's critical judgments thus resided in his devotion to the idea that the study of the best literature that has been written can provide the criteria for the best judgments. Although he was not a theorist advocating a specific approach to literature, Wain did seem adamantly committed to the mystery of literary truths that can advance the universal human experience; he was an iconoclast who was uncompromising in his dedication to the belief that in a world where "destruction and disintegration" are the norm, only the artist's creative language can clear the ruins and establish a foundation for heroic individualism.

This stress on individual sensibility and heroism is the mainstay of Wain's fiction. Many of his stories concern the plight of the social misanthrope, usually a well-educated but disillusioned young man, who must struggle against his parents and friends and their demands that he conform to the recognizable standards of social behavior. Charles Lumley in Hurry on Down (1953) is running away from "the strait-jacket of his upbringing," always fearful that he might become "a parasite on the world he detested." Nevertheless, Lumley must make moral sacrifices, even while attempting to break the mold of the class-conscious British society, and his efforts as hero (or antihero) often end in disaster and irony. Hurry on Down established Wain's reputation as a member of the "angry decade," as he came to be identified with his hero. Walter Allen believed that this novel made Wain "the satirist of this period of social change."

The theme of disillusioned hero was to remain a trademark of Wain's fiction. Jeremy Coleman in Strike the Father Dead (1962) becomes a jazz pianist in defiance of a father he hates, the professor of classics who embodies the generation of cultural expectations and values that Jeremy must angrily ignore. In the process of breaking away from the confines of economic and social success and the seductive powers of competitive capitalism, Wain's heroes still must face the unsettling business of reordering their lives outside the conventional set plans that either religion or business might offer. They still must satisfy the basic needs not only for food, shelter, and love but for personal fulfillment as well. Very often, though, they seem lost and unable to cope with the shifting emotional currents generated by those toward whom they feel drawn. Although in most of Wain's novels love seems to offer the only answer to the problem of cultural alienation, his women often appear to be incomprehensible and unattainable for Wain's heroes. In The Pardoner's Tale (1978), Giles Hermitage, a successful novelist, is spiritually shattered when his wife leaves him for another man. As a result, Giles writes a novel trying to create a vision of his perfect woman in a fictional romance, only to meet such a woman, Dinah, in actual life and eventually to lose her also to another man. Giles is humiliated and defeated when he realizes that he has frightened Dinah away by projecting his imagined fantasies of perfection on her; the only thing they seem to have in common is sex, which, like alcohol for Wain, provides escape but no deliverance from the problems of life.

Perhaps the most typical of Wain's novels in terms of themes and characters is A Winter in the Hills (1970). Roger Furnivall, a philologist, and by extension a member of the effete intellectual class, decides to move to North Wales to study Welsh, only to be enmeshed in a local struggle of small bus owners in conflict with the brutal forces of capitalistic exploitation. Dic Sharp, the capitalist bully and villain, is trying to buy out all the one-man bus companies in the district so that he can establish a monopoly in that service. Only one bus owner, Gareth, is left unbought, and Roger signs on as an unpaid fare collector in order to champion the cause. At first, the educated and well-bred Roger is not accepted by the working-class Welsh, who naturally see him as the ineffectual outsider who is not good for much--a situation that nearly all of Wain's heroes face. But slowly they warm to him when they understand the extent of his commitment. Dic Sharp sends his henchmen to brutalize Roger, which they do by first throwing red paint at his front door, then loosening a wheel on his car (causing an accident that nearly kills him and that he cannot afford), and finally beating him up. The problem for Sharp is that if he cannot add Gareth's bus to his collection, the larger transit company to which he plans to sell the local monopoly will default on the agreement altogether. So when Sharp finally gives up, as all bullies supposedly do at the first sign of real opposition, he sells all the buses back to their original owners, and the struggle for individual rights and freedom is won unequivocally.

In the end, truth and beauty do seem to have their rewards in Wain's novels, but what prevents these stories from falling into melodrama is Wain's careful handling of character and humor. For instance, Roger Furnivall is a man of obvious limitations, but he remains realistically admirable to the reader who comes to judge him in total, the good man in search of the morally just action that will produce the best in himself and his world. But mixed with this notion is the sense that "life is tragic, because humanity is made up of contradictions," and so Wain's characters grow all the more believable and empathetic as a result of their "contradictions."

Wain's short stories explore a wider variety of themes and situations than his novels. In the 1950s he published short stories in Harper's Bazaar, Everywoman, Lilliput, London Magazine, and Suspense, but the postwar collapse of the magazine market for short fiction was already evident. Five stories in his first collection, Nuncle and Other Stories (1960), appeared there for the first time. In a 1974 interview with Peter Firchow, Wain recalls, "One of my least unsatisfactory stories ["Nuncle"] is about 20,000 words, but in order to get it into print at all, I had to write a lot of other short stories to go with it." Wain's first volume of short fiction reflects his "angry" mood of these years but also shows concern for a wide range of topics and issues.

Wain has written that he has no patience with adults who forget what childhood is like. This conviction lies behind two of the most telling stories in the collection, which are presented through the eyes of children. In the strikingly original "Master Richard" the voice belongs to a thirty-five-year-old consciousness trapped in a five-year-old's body--Wain's way of indicating that a child's mind is not free of adult anxieties. Caught between two worlds Richard first finds release by writing of his anger and frustration. When a brother is born, he finds a new outlet: a diabolical plan to use his brother to destroy his parents and avenge himself on God. That plan, however, is foiled by the brother's unconditional love for him, leaving the narrator resolved on suicide.

Much of the fascination of the story comes from Richard's wholly convincing position as man/child. He sees through adults and children, yet his body and immature emotions betray him at every turn. His rage is both frightening and understandable; life has played him a dirty trick. The suggestion of religious allegory in the end is convincing, leaving readers in a perplexing, Manichaean universe of evil and love.

"A Message from the Pig-Man" is gentler in tone and more realistic in method. Six-year-old Eric is confused by adults and frightened by the Pig-Man, who in the boy's imagination is some monstrous combination of human and pig. But he is merely a farmer who collects table scraps from housewives to feed his pigs, as Eric discovers when he bravely faces up to his fear and confronts him. Applying this lesson to more complicated situations, however, leaves Eric as confused as ever, for neither his mother nor her live-in lover can explain why Daddy can no longer stay with them. Grown-ups, he concludes, are "mad and silly, and he hated them all, all, all."

Critical reception of the stories was predictably mixed. Gene Baro (Books, 10 September 1961) complained that "this short fiction, for the most part, lacks the insight of the poetry, the down-to-earth vigor of the essays, or the satirical point of the novels." Hallie Burnett (Saturday Review, 16 September 1961), however, was both more generous and more perceptive in noting the variety of stories in the collection and that "it is character with its inconsistencies--even its hallucinations--which holds the reader's attention."

The novella-length "Nuncle" provides an interesting example of the strengths and weaknesses of the volume as a whole. Its narrator is Tom Rogers, a fifty-year-old writer whose place in literary history is assured by his first two novels. Since writing them he has produced nothing. More to the point he must quit drinking. Rogers's solution is to find a wife, and he proposes to Daphne, an otherwise sensible and successful woman of twenty-five, who agrees to marry him, apparently to help him reform. They move into the country cottage already occupied by Daphne's retired father, Alex, but still Rogers cannot write. Ironically Alex can; in fact he is a genuine literary artist. However, he hates the publicity that writers attract, so he and Rogers strike a bargain: Alex will write, and Rogers will publish the stories under his name. Daphne acquiesces to this scheme, but before long she transfers her loyalties from Rogers to her father because those two, in effect, have exchanged roles. Rogers winds up leaving the cottage and returning to his former ways.

"Nuncle" illustrates many of Wain's finest qualities: his fertile invention, skill at characterization, unerring ear for dialogue, and ability to create an entirely convincing and individual voice for each story. The voice of Tom Rogers strikes just the right note of canny insight, humor, and self-deprecation. However, the plot twist that gives the story its individuality and unpredictable lifelike quality is hampered by the point of view, for the interesting change occurs in Daphne, and this the narrator can view only from the outside. In "Christmas at Rillingham's" and "Master Richard" the plot twists and character changes occur within the narrators. In "A Few Drinks with Alcock and Brown" and "The Quickest Way out of Manchester" the omniscient narrators can peer into the protagonists' thoughts. In "Nuncle" the inside view of change is lost.

Nuncle and Other Stories shows Wain's versatility and talents as a short-story writer. His techniques are traditional: a plain, economical style; a clear narrative line; and sharply etched characters. In the best stories there is also something of an edge, a grit in the psychological machinery that reveals the unpredictability, even cussedness, of the human psyche--the suggestion of inherent irrationality and mystery. In Death of the Hind Legs and Other Stories (1966) the fertility and inventiveness of Nuncle and Other Stories are still evident, but the tone is more mellow--the narrative voices have lost some of their edge.

"King Caliban" is the most successful of the collection, in part because of its narrator, Bert, who sounds like a moral adolescent attempting to explain why his "daft" brother, Fred, attacked a heckler at a wrestling match. By "daft" Bert means intellectually slow, emotionally childlike, and physically strong but gentle. Although younger, Bert has always been Fred's mentor, guide, and spokesman--a fast talker with a cocky attitude and an eye on material success. When Fred's wife, Doreen, asks Bert to help Fred make more money, Bert suggests professional wrestling. However, the gentle Fred dislikes the pseudoviolence of the sport and the evil persona, King Caliban, he must adopt. At his first bout he accidentally injures his opponent and cracks under the pressure of heckling. Hurdling from the ring he attacks the offending fan and must be subdued by police.

The story is a perfect vehicle for Wain's disgust at sham publicity and phoniness in art, as well as the love of violence and material possessions. Fred is almost a literary cliché--a gentle giant content with work and family. But Doreen wants all the modern appliances and conveniences, and Bert sees wrestling as a way to promote his own ambitions. Just before the first bout Doreen complains that she hardly knows Fred anymore. Bert replies, "When he's earning you eighty quid a week, you won't care whether you know him or not." Neither can understand Fred's simple moral outrage at the gratuitous violence and bloodthirsty taunting of the crowd. Bert walks away from the situation unscathed and uncomprehending, leaving his bewildered brother to face the consequences.

"Down Our Way" is the shortest and, perhaps for that reason, one of the most effective stories in the collection. The Robinson family, which rents its spare rooms to lodgers, has learned that a newspaper reporter has blackened his face and set out to test the racial climate by attempting to rent accommodations. The outraged Mrs. Robinson is prepared to defeat him by cheerfully renting him her room. When an authentic West Indian inquires about her vacancy, she agrees to accommodate him. Her family is horrified, but, even after discovering her error, she is not worried. She will find an excuse to get rid of him. At this moment Mr. Robinson sees his wife as if for the first time. The ending is perhaps a bit forced, and the story takes too-easy swipes at Christianity, but its humor is refreshing. The characterizations, especially of the smart-aleck Robinson children, are zesty, and the dialogue is masterful.

Wain's third collection, The Life Guard (1971), includes only six stories, but four are vintage Wain. His tone has lost the harsh edge and comic bite of the first collection, but the overall view has darkened, which is also true of his later novels. Among some reviewers this shift has been regarded as merely reactionary, but that is a misrepresentation and oversimplification.

The title story of The Life Guard is among Wain's most effective and memorable. In it, a young life guard (Jimmy) who wants to prove his worth arranges to have a friend pretend to drown so he can "save" him. The scheme goes awry and the friend dies. Moreover, the sister of the victim has overheard the scheme and threatens to tell the authorities, bringing out the worst in Jimmy, who threatens to kill her if she breathes a word.

Fallen innocence and discovery of the evil within are the subjects of "I Love You, Ricky." Hilda has betrayed her friend by pretending to lose the cuff link Elizabeth tore from the shirt of Ricky, a pop star. Her brother's accidental discovery of the cuff link and deliberate disclosure of Hilda's lie mean the end of the girls' friendship and Hilda's love for Ricky: "To cheat and steal for Ricky was fine. But to cheat and steal and be found out--that was failure. And there was no place for failure in his young and shining face."

The incidents in "I Love You, Ricky" seem trivial but are layered with significance. Rivalry, revenge, hatred, and the joys of self-delusion and self-righteousness are all part of this simple story. Deeper than the rivalry between Hilda and Elizabeth is the conflict between Hilda and her brother, Rodney, who lives to inflict pain on his sister. Hilda hopes that "one day, one day, she would find some way of hurting him as much." This is a story of original sin, as elemental in its motives as the stories from Genesis and as refreshingly clear of irrelevant psychologizing. Wain is not afraid to confront evil as a simple fact of human nature, needing nothing more than its own delights as its reason for being.

In Sprightly Running Wain wrote that he "would be a short-story writer if it weren't so impossible to make a living by it." His short stories, like his novels, are in the realistic mode, rather than in the modernist or postmodernist vein. Their virtues lie in their vivid characters, sharp observation, and straightforward style, not in technical invention or experimentation.

Wain expressed his preference for writing poetry, and his career as a poet shows considerable changes of style and aesthetic principles over time. His first published works were poems that appeared in 1945 in the Oxford periodical Mandrake, of which he was earlier the founding editor. The mid-1940s were not a propitious time for beginning poets, unless they could accept the "new Romanticism" of the period. Equally defeating to the young writer at that time were the achievements of the great modernists such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound , who appeared to have preempted the major possibilities for innovation in poetry. Wain preferred Empson, about whom he wrote the essay "Ambiguous Gifts," which appeared in the last issue of Penguin New Writing (1950), one of the most influential periodicals of the 1940s.

In 1953 Wain was asked by the BBC to take over from John Lehmann (the former editor of New Writing and Penguin New Writing) a radio program on new creative work. Under Wain's direction, First Reading featured the work of younger poets and other "people whose view of what should be attempted was roughly the same" as Wain's. This program might be regarded as the public appearance of what came to be called The Movement, a group of poets who reacted against the vagueness and grandiosity they felt typified the poetry of the 1940s.

Wain's first book of poems, Mixed Feelings, published in 1951 in an edition of 120 copies by the School of Art at the University of Reading, was in many respects a prototypical Movement production, as was its successor, A Word Carved on a Sill (1956), into which the poems from the first book were incorporated. A Word Carved on a Sill includes poems of an aggressively deflationary stance such as "Reasons for Not Writing Orthodox Nature Poetry" or "On Reading Love Poetry in the Dentist's Waiting Room." Wain uses complex rhyming forms such as the villanelle or terza rima to expose the formlessness of the romantic school.

Weep Before God: Poems (1961) is a transitional volume. Particularly noteworthy is "A Song about Major Eatherly," which was written slowly through a New England fall and had been published separately in 1960. Eatherly, the pilot who dropped the atom bomb on Nagasaki, later came to regard his pension "as a premium for murder" and took to petty theft. As Wain portrays it, the dropping of the bomb was for Eatherly a dehumanizing experience: "His orders told him he was not a man:/An instrument, fine-tempered, clear of stain." By refusing the pension "he fought to win his manhood back." The poem marks a turning away from the lowered sights of Wain's earlier poetry toward the longer philosophical reach associated with modernist poetry.

Wildtrack (1965) was a new departure for Wain--his first attempt at a long, philosophical poem that marks an acceptance of the modernist heritage of Eliot and Pound. Wildtrack explores its themes of history and the individual, the will and the flux of time, creativity and homogeneity, through a series of images and incidents. It is a difficult poem, obscure in places, too explicit in others. Its mode is that of a suite of poems (or a continuous poem in a variety of metrical forms) rather than a narrative or an uninterrupted meditation.

Letters to Five Artists (1969), Wain's next long poem, consists of an introductory poem and five separate epistles, to the jazz trumpeter Bill Coleman; Victor Neep, an English artist; the poet Elizabeth Jennings ; Lee Lubbers, an American creator of junk sculpture; and Anthony Conran, an English poet living in Wales. As Wain explains, the introductory poem is an "archway" to the rest (a constructional device that recalls Hart Crane 's The Bridge, 1930), but, Wain says, "all these poems are intended to stand by themselves." However, "certain key-figures (Ovid, Villon) crop up." The loose structure is an attempt to solve one of the central problems of the modern long poem: that it should have unity, but that the unity should be discovered and in no way imposed. There is a strong concern with history--history seen as a product of individual lives and history seen as the past flowing into the future.

Feng (1975) is a sequence of poems dealing with the Hamlet story, six of which, along with a seventh later excluded from the sequence, had appeared in 1972 as The Shape of Feng. Once again, there is a concern with the relation of past and present in this story of "the very early Middle Ages in Northern Europe as recorded by Saxo Grammaticus and subsequently refracted through the imagination of Shakespeare and Laforgue." As Wain explains in his introductory note, his "version is concerned with Feng [Shakespeare's Claudius], the sick and hallucinated person who seizes power and then has to live with it. Since I have lived through an age in which raving madmen have had control of great and powerful nations, the theme naturally seems to me an important one."

Feng is Wain's most successful long poem to date, perhaps because the situation of the central character embodies the theme of isolation, one that Wain has always closely felt. It is central to his fable The Smaller Sky (1967) and is a submerged theme in Hurry on Down. In addition, because the poem has a story and a unifying central character, its symbols seem less willed than those of Wildtrack. A series of meditations by Feng, the poem accommodates, within the unity of his sensibility, the fact that, like so many modern poetic works, it is a sequence rather than a single poem. In developing the long poem as a continuation of the work of the early modernists, Wain made a break with the reaction against modernism that emerged in New Lines and that his friends Larkin and Amis continued to espouse.

Poems: 1949-1979 (1982) includes selections from all his earlier books except Feng, along with the first substantial printing of new shorter poems since Weep Before God: "Shorter Poems 1970-1978" and "New Poems 1978-1979" make up almost half the book. "New Poems 1978-1979" consists of five "medium length" poems: "Visiting an Old Poet," "Thinking About Mr. Person," "Enobarbus," "Poem for Kids," and a version of the Old English poem "Deor." These were followed, after the publication of Poems 1949-1979, by two further sequences, "Victor Neep: 1921-1979" (in the Antigonish Review) and the impressive and congenial "Twofold" (in the Hudson Review), which explores the relationship of a blind man and his dog. In these poems Wain aims at a more informal, discursive manner than that of his earlier shorter poems. His poems of the 1970s return frequently to one of Wain's abiding themes, present already in Hurry on Down--that of the nature of the self. Some of these poems must be counted among the best he has written; they have an authenticity of movement and an individual voice.

Wain has said, "My medium is not the novel, or the poem, or the play, or the short story: it is the vocabulary," and he is unsympathetic to rigid distinctions between the novel, the poem, and other genres. For him, nonetheless, "poetry is not a way of saying over again things that I am already saying in prose; it is a different kind of writing, approached in a different spirit." Yet the abiding themes in his poetry also appear repeatedly in his prose: isolation, the relationship of the individual to history, the contrast of the repression by society with the liberation afforded by nature.

Wain's nonfiction and critical writing are another important facet of his career. His first important foray into biography was Gerard Manley Hopkins: An Idiom of Desperation (1959). For Wain the details of Hopkins's life, and more exactly his attachment to the Society of Jesus, is fundamental to both the man and his poetry. Wain explores Hopkins's isolation, and in this biography his interest in the individual outside, and in some ways at war with, his society is as evident as his growing understanding of, and sensitivity toward, the contradictions inherent in human nature.

The autobiography Sprightly Running grew out of Wain's unhappiness during the last years of his marriage to Marianne Urmstrom and his four-year bachelorhood. The chapter on his first marriage is both the shortest and the most poignant in the book. The chapters on Oxford and "A Literary Chapter," which include on the one hand vibrant portraits of the people Wain knew at Oxford and on the other many of his philosophies about literature, are most informative. As David Gerard writes, "Portraits renderred with unsentimental clarity, yet with tolerance and acuity, this is the genre in which Wain shines; fraternal understanding of men and women is what counts for him," and the Oxford chapter is memorable for the exercise of just this talent.

It was the success of Samuel Johnson (1974) that undoubtedly granted Wain his reputation as a foremost literary biographer: it won both the James Tait Black Memorial Book Prize and the Heinemann Award in 1975. As Wain writes in his preface, his book "is addressed to the intelligent general reader," not the scholar. It is written, at least in part, to correct what Wain saw as popular bias against Johnson, especially among readers, who he says, "still think of Johnson, when they think of him at all, as a stupid old reactionary." And Wain felt that James Boswell was at the root of part of this bias, since "[t]he average reader's picture of Johnson is still very much the one he gets from Boswell." Wain gives the reader the human and humanitarian Johnson. If Boswell concentrates on Johnson's verbal acidity, roarings, and mental inflexibilities, Wain, while never ignoring these, refocuses on Johnson's benevolence.

Wain also takes another look at the physical Johnson: in Wain's hands the dirty, bumbling Johnson, whose scrofula-scarred face, imposing size, and nervous palsies Boswell and his contemporaries noted well, becomes the Johnson infected with scrofula as a helpless infant by careless parenting; dirty and badly clothed from grinding poverty coupled with the kind of pride that would cause him to refuse a pair of new shoes offered when his were worn through enough that his toes stuck out; large from both genetic disposition and hardy provincial upbringing; and nervous from both acute self-consciousness and early emotional suffering.

Wain's writing style is apparent through the book--his refrain, whenever he brings up the standard prejudices and stories about Johnson, is "everybody knows." It is "his good natured signal," writes Christopher Ricks in The New York Times Book Review (16 March 1975); "he reminds us of what we somewhat know, and then he [turns] it so that the old fact catches new light." After several repetitions it takes on the ironic flavor, the deep preceding sigh Wain seems to intend it to have. Wain's linguistic strengths are the strengths of many good poets: Samuel Johnson is full of startlingly good images and clever turns of phrase.

Dear Shadows: Portraits from Memory (1986) is less a strict biography (there are no birth dates, for instance, and little speculation about childhood experiences) than a lengthening of the vignettes typical of Wain's biographical style. They harken back to his treatment of characters in his autobiography, not only because both Neville Coghill and Marshall McLuhan (the two literary subjects in the book) are part of that period of Wain's life but because the vignettes retain the tonal sadness of Wain's memories of his friends and teachers at Oxford especially.

Wain died of a stroke on 24 May 1994 at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. He had suffered from diabetes and failing eyesight for many years, and writing his Oxford trilogy--Where the Rivers Meet (1988), Comedies (1990), and Hungry Generations (1994)--required "an act of unusual personal courage" given his increasing disability, observes Peter Levi in Wain's obituary for the Guardian (25 May 1994). Wain was a writer who, like Johnson, wrote across genres and wrote well. First acclaim came for his fiction and poetry, first prizes for his critical work; and the breadth of his mind and talents ensured him continued attention. He was, after all, in love with writing: "Being a writer," Wain believed, is not a profession; "It's a condition. And that's the condition that I'm in."




  • "International Symposium on the Short Story, Part II," Kenyon Review, 31, no. 1 (1969): 58--94.
  • Peter Firchow, "John Wain," in his The Writer's Place: Interviews on the Literary Situation in Contemporary Britain (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974), pp. 313--330.
  • Dale Salwak, Interviews with ... Britain's Angry Young Men, Literary Voices no. 2: The Mitford Series of Popular Writers of Today, volume 39 (San Bernardino, Cal.: Borgo Press, 1984).


  • Salwak, John Braine and John Wain: A Reference Guide (Boston, Twayne, 1980).
  • David Gerard, John Wain: A Bibliography (London: Mansell, 1987; Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1987).


  • Walter Allen, "War and Post War: British," in his Tradition and Dream: The English and American Novel from the Twenties to Our Time (London: Phoenix House, 1964).
  • Anthony Burgess, "A Sort of Rebels," in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (New York: Norton, 1967).
  • G. S. Fraser, The Modern Writer and His World (Baltimore: Penguin, 1964).
  • David Gerard, My Work as a Novelist: John Wain (Cardiff, U.K.: Drake Educational Associates, 1978).
  • James J. Gindin, Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California, 1962).
  • Jean Pickering, "The English Short Story in the Sixties," in The English Short Story, 1945--1960, edited by Dennis Vannatta (Boston: Twayne, 1985), pp. 75--119.
  • Salwak, John Wain (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981).


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200007700