- Preliminary Aside to the Reader; Regarding Gossip, and its Pitfalls
On 7 June 1936 Wyndham Lewis wrote to Geoffrey Grigson that the next day he would be handing in a “large book” to his publisher. That book was probably the novel The Revenge for Love, which appeared in May 1937. 1 Completing it left Lewis free to work on other things, which came to include his autobiography, Blasting and Bombardiering, finished in the summer of 1937 and published on 29 October 1937. 2 Despite bad health, since early 1935 Lewis had been working on several writing projects, paintings, and books. One of them may have been the autobiography, but no mention of it appears in his letters and manuscripts until February 1937, when Lewis signed a contract with William Morrow for an American edition of the book. 3
When did Lewis begin Blasting and Bombardiering? It seems not to have been on his mind in April 1936, when in a letter he mentions working on his “large novel” (The Revenge for Love), “a large political book” (Left Wings Over Europe), and a “short novel The Roaring Queen.” 4 In August of that year Lewis was in serious financial trouble; he owed money to his doctor for one of several operations to correct complications from gonorrhea. 5 By 16 October, his lack of money had grown urgent. Lewis told Oliver Brown, the dealer for his paintings, to arrange for a sitter: “One relatively well-paid portrait—or two ill-paid ones—would . . . settle all my illness-debts.” 6 Lewis was eager to compromise his artistic principles for ready cash. He wrote Brown, “To hell with these experimental ‘difficult’ contraptions, which only the Young and impecunious in [End Page 181] England, like [sic] and which are hard to sell—I will do no more for six months, or until I am solvent. I will really do dreams of beauty, which will sell themselves, as I am bringing them down to the Gallery. This I mean, in sober earnest.” 7 Just three days later, the London Times ran an article previewing the newspaper’s publication of letters by Prime Minister Gladstone. 8 In a preface, ultimately rejected, for the book that became Blasting and Bombardiering, Lewis refers to having seen this article “the other day” (183). When he wrote this preface in late October or early November 1936, he had probably not written much, if anything, of the autobiography, for the book he introduces to his readers is not the book he eventually published. The preface adumbrates a book of gossip about his fellow highbrow artists; in the autobiography, however, that material is relegated to the last section, part 5; the first four parts concern Lewis’s war experiences as a soldier and an artist. Lewis’s title for the preface to the book he then thought of as “The Men of 1914” was “Preliminary Aside to the Reader; regarding Gossip, and its pitfalls.” 9
It is likely, then, that the idea of writing an autobiography came to Lewis in the fall of 1936 as another way to relieve his extreme financial pressures. The rejected preface reveals Lewis’s anxieties about making his autobiography appeal to a public receptive to the novels of J. B. Priestley and war memoirs like Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929). It also shows Lewis struggling awkwardly to accommodate himself to middle-class readers who buy books at railway-station bookstalls. Despite his genial attempts to rouse their interest in himself and his artist friends, Lewis cannot hide his contempt for their anti-intellectuality.
Lewis continued to think of the book as a memoir of his relations with other writers and artists at least until February 1937, when he signed the contract for a book titled Blasting and Bombardiering with William Morrow. Lewis must have described the autobiography to his editor at Morrow, Charles Halliwell Duell, as a book of reminiscences primarily about other artists, for in the late summer when Duell received the first six chapters treating Lewis’s own experience of the onset of war, he balked, refusing to publish the book. Duell wrote Lewis, “I...