Few writers have tickets for the express train. Those that do ride smoothly on the rails of ‘great literature’ ever after, sitting back in the carriages of the canon club: Hardy, Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf, Tolkien - the names which a hundred years on have the redolence of luxury brands and some of the same hard coating of gloss. One of their contemporaries, John Cowper Powys, is an example of what can go wrong, what happens when a potential giant ends up trundling into the backwoods on a branch line.
There’s standing room only on Powys’s train, carriage after carriage of forgotten authors on their way to nowhere. Many will have had bestsellers or even been feted as creators of a masterpiece, but there’s no way back now. It matters in Powys’s case because his work is extraordinary and because he’s so relevant to our anxious 21st-century world. It’s lazy to say he was a genius. What does it mean? Calling Powys a genius only lumps him with Lionel Messi and Laurel and Hardy. It’s better to make it clear he’s the single most distinctive and interesting of English authors, the most exciting and addictive for anyone bookish.
John Cowper Powys changed lives: as a star turn on lecture tours across the USA (where his popularity attracted the attention of intelligence operatives looking for subversives); as a novelist described as the English Dostoevsky, the English Proust; and by helping people make sense of themselves in the modern world, to do more than just muddle through against all-consuming pressures of competition and conformity. Powys’s influence might be relatively limited, but wherever it appears it’s deeply-rooted. He was described as a magician and a sage by writers who made a pilgrimage to visit him before he died in 1963. And fans turn up in unusual places. Isadora Duncan, dancer and international sensation, was so entranced by Powys she filled his room with roses; maverick jazz pianist Glenn Gould was inspired by Powysian ideas; and more recently, Chris Woodhead (the controversial educationalist and Chief Inspector of Schools for England) and Howard Davies (former head of the London School of Economics) have both been active champions.
Then again Powys might have been a charlatan. Most guardians of literature thought so, claiming he was better off in the hinterland, the kinds of places where there’s always likely to be something nasty in the woodshed. In an age when review pages are part of a process of publicity, more cosy than critical, the response to Powys can be extreme. The first biography, published in 1983, covered John Cowper as well as his author brothers Theodore and Llewelyn. The Times’ review was run under the headline ‘A Bunch of Nutters’. In 2007 the only biography of John Cowper was written up by the Daily Telegraph with the conclusion he was a “monstrous man” and “remorselessly unattractive”.
Powys had a talent for manipulation. He said he would have liked to have been an actor, and his lectures were a performance where even the university gown he wore was a borrowed costume. He also knew how to thrill - Iris Murdoch thought Powys wrote about sex better than anyone. How genuine, then, were his ideas and his popularity? For all those American ladies attending his lectures, yearning for a dose of highbrow from the Old World, he was always going to be a pin-up.
One of the likeable aspects of Powys’s character is that he wasn’t offended by these kinds of criticisms. A charlatan? Yes! Why not? And it’s fair to say his novels are difficult in lots of ways. His philosophy is uncomfortably counter-cultural and there’s a need for a level of open-mindedness that goes well beyond what’s expected from reading authors in the canon. This is why he’ll never make it onto that express train and there’s no good in campaigning for it. Instead of being part of any system of required or even recognised reading, Powys has relied on being discovered independently. He is stumbled over by happy accident and it’ll probably always need to be that way.
This book isn’t a straight biography and doesn’t add anything to scholarship or make an attempt at literary criticism. Each has been done, with huge knowledge and good sense (as well as a drop of poison now and again). But much of the published writing on John Cowper Powys is for the few, produced with the aim of finding footholds of credibility within academia and the literary authorities. The small circles involved have sometimes led to a sense of enclosure, of deeper and darker excavation, and a tendency for morbid psychoanalysis.
Powys himself was rarely ever writing for an elite, academic or otherwise. He enjoyed lecturing in the public halls, packed with a hodgepodge of humanity, noisy, wide-eyed and sceptical, and there’s a real gusto to his ‘potboilers’ of self-help philosophy aimed at the masses. He said he was always prepared to stand up “fiercely” in defence of unscholarly and popular explorations of ‘high’ culture. Powys was suspicious of professionalised thought in general, and was always more interested in the ordinary reader, the kind with a personal rather than a worldly agenda. And so this is an attempt to throw open the windows, to let in some air by catching hold of the spirit of Powys and some of its giddy, wind-in-the-face defiance. There’s a need (in his words) to “scrape away the rubble of scholarship”, all the analysis of his literary credentials, and get to why he has mattered to people and continues to matter now: how he refused to fall in with the artificial rules of society, the narrowing of lives into a single prescribed route, with one worldview and one set of ambitions, and opened up other ways of seeing and thinking.
Here he is then. A tall and rather elegant gentleman in a suit and tie. It’s a handsome face, well-sculpted. His hair’s a silky wave and he has the long upper lip and long fingers usually reserved for sensitive characters. Now we’ve got a bit closer, though, maybe that’s not all that needs saying. There’s a neanderthal look to the shape of his head and a gape to his mouth that’s not so refined. The eyes are Puckish, unworldly. Is that a butter stain on his trousers? His nose is beaky, and when he speaks that long lip droops, making him look chinless and peculiar.
Let’s get the history of the man out of the way. It’ll be easier to concentrate on trying to answer the bigger questions about him, and have a chance to wander without being pulled back by the demands of chronology. John Cowper Powys was born in 1872 in Shirley, Derbyshire, the first of eleven Powys children. His father was a clergyman. The family moved to Dorset and then Somerset where he spent his youth in comfortable upper-middle-class fashion and was the leader of the revels among his brothers and sisters in the vicarage and its rambling gardens in the village of Montacute. He attended the Sherborne prep and upper schools as a boarder, and as per the cliche of writers going to public schools, it was an ordeal. He was a lanky and cringing figure on the sports field; ridiculed for his way of eating in the dining hall (only using his front teeth like a hamster); a pompous, secretive, poetry-writing oddball. Powys went on to take a degree in History at the University of Cambridge, following his father and grandfather to Corpus Christi College, but turned out to be a very ordinary scholar. Powys was in a groove of respectable behaviour and was married at 23, again unremarkably, to Margaret Lyon, the sister of a friend from university. He worked as a tutor and lecturer at a number of schools in the Brighton area and rented a grand-looking farmhouse in the Sussex downs.
Beneath the surface, however, Powys was bubbling with revolt. Throughout his twenties Powys harboured plans for a future as a visionary, to write and lecture on the power and value of literature in ordinary people’s lives - out in the world, on a big stage rather than the classroom. He’d also become host to a mess of neuroses. His psychological instability led to severe stomach ulcers which meant spending the rest of his life on a dismal diet and routine of enemas.
Escape from social convention came through travel on the University Extension lecture circuit around the towns and cities of England. His obvious talents eventually got him a place with a US lecturing agency, far greater scope for freedom and much bigger fees. While he continued to make visits to his wife and Littleton, his new son, it was only ever for appearances, and they were never a real husband and wife again. From 1904 until his ‘retirement’ in 1930 (at the age of 58) his working life was dominated by train travel across the vast landscapes of North America, at each destination leaping into flights of rhetoric on Homer, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Wordsworth, Keats and many other movers and shakers of the literary imagination.
The cataclysms of early twentieth century history didn’t manage to catch-up with him. Despite being a nervy 46-year-old with a bowel problem, Powys tried to enlist to fight in the Great War - because he was patriotic when it came to his green and pleasant homeland, and because he wanted a taste of adventure before it was too late. He was turned down for health reasons (a scar on his lungs from tuberculosis) and instead he tried to bolster American public opinion against Germany with a tour of lectures on ‘War Aims’. He saw the effects of the Depression during his travels, but the freelance nature of his work and number of potential opportunities in a country the size of the US meant he was never brought to a state of poverty. That doesn’t mean he was ever well-off. He sent the great bulk of his income to Margaret and Littleton to pay for all the trappings of an upper-middle-class existence and lived frugally himself.
Part of that time sitting on trains was spent writing poetry and his early novels. These sometimes look like a sideline activity, the inevitable by-product of a literary man - they oozed out of him - and the great period of writing really only comes when he puts away his travelling bag. Just as importantly, when Phyllis Playter stayed on to meet him after one of his lectures in Missouri. She didn’t become his muse as such, more the anti-muse, an intelligent reader who could curb his excesses. He trusted her taste and listened to her suggestions, and they lived together - discreetly, given that he was still married - for the rest of his life. The success of two books in particular, the novel Wolf Solent (1929) and The Meaning of Culture (1929), gave Powys the cash and the confidence to concentrate on writing, and for he and Phyllis to move to a little cottage close to the Catskill mountains, a hundred miles or so north of New York. Novels and books of everyday philosophy gushed like a torrent from the hills. A huge, spectacular, exhausting torrent, and he began to attract loyal publishers, new admirers, and that mix of confusion and dismay from the literary establishment.
After thirty years as a travelling exile, in 1934 he decided to go home for good, to England briefly, and then to what he saw as his spiritual home, Wales. Both in his books and his life, Powys worked his way closer to the source of myth and a particular elemental magic in the hills, rivers and ruins of the Welsh landscape. He continued to write and be published until his death at the age of 90.
Place was everything to Powys. Or, I should say, the relationship between people and the surrounding elements, the ever-changing look, feel and essence of places was everything. He was a writer in perpetual motion, moving through and responding to the world around him, both when travelling on all those trains and in his constant walking and mental adventures. As author Iain Sinclair said after visiting Powys’s former home in Wales in 1973: “Placement upon the earth is so crucial and Powys got it right from the start…He was a geomancer, seeing always the correct balance in the relationship between man and plant and animal”. I think a useful way of understanding the man is to get to know Powysland: England’s seashore, its lanes and wooded hills; the dusty back streets of American cities; the Welsh mountains. This book, then, is structured by places and some related themes, linked loosely to the chronological stages of his life. It starts with Weymouth and the birth of his philosophy; his remarkable family, the Powys tribe, in Montacute; the influence of Cambridge on his decision to become a very particular kind of writer; the Sussex downs and dealing with all those neuroses; the lecture circus in the US; and Wales and the making of a literary cult.
I’m using ‘Powysland’ as a shorthand. More accurately it would mean the Powys region of Wales, which was once its own kingdom (and home to a distant family line in John Cowper’s past). But that isn’t relevant here, and the original use of a literary Powysland was different. Before John Cowper got into his stride there had been a flutter of attention for younger brother Theodore, who’d lived in the Dorset downland village of East Chaldon at the heart of an artistic coterie. But over time ‘Powysland' was adopted more as a tag in essays and articles for the Wessex territory of many of John Cowper’s novels, the wider family history in the area and a particular atmosphere around it all, twilight in meadows, mossy stones and ways, the ancient and overlooked. These are places with more to them than scenery, more than resources, more than mud.
Powysland isn’t somewhere to escape to. The books aren’t a literature of fantasy but the opposite. They work with the particulars of troubled, grim and wondering experience at its most commonplace. John Cowper’s ideas aren’t meant only to be read about or kept in the libraries and chambers of learning. He relates everything, the most abstract philosophies and rhapsodic poetry, back to the personal, to what’s lived and felt, and what’s useful in it. He railed against the assumption that literature was only for study, prestige or just plain distraction. We make such a fuss, he said, about the importance of political events, our careers, our finances and all the material things to our happiness, but pay little or no attention to how we think about and feel the world around us. We fill our waking hours with a cacophony of duties and varieties of prescribed leisure and entertainment, and miss out on the many gifts of perception and response.
Rather than sitting back and passing judgment, I’ve tried to test his ideas with my own travels in Powysland, not detached from it, a sightseer, but because I wanted to, sometimes needed to for my own sanity. What difference can Powys make to the average, middle-aged, middle-class conformist, never expected to be anything other than an efficient employee strapped to a smartphone, doing the family thing, getting pissed at the weekends: the modern ‘adult’. How’s that going to work? Because it feels like we’ve gone past the point of no return when it comes to ideas, where it’s impossible to have a philosophy of life - not with a straight face anyhow - where it’s impossible to believe in anything other than work and shopping. There are pockets of resistance, like Tom Hodgkinson’s Idler Academy, Alain de Botton’s School of Life and Robert Wringham’s New Escapology, challenging the norms that can make lives so vapid and desperate. Once you’ve made your escape, and you're lucky (or mad) enough to have the strength to live on little, don't suffer from guilt at what this will do to partners and children, and can put up with the scorn of family and friends (and make no mistake, you’ll be seen as a miserable failure), how can you live?