Marketing Insults: Wyndham Lewis and the Arthur Press

Article excerpt

Many of the modernist writers had to resort to unusual measures to publish and distribute their work. While the publishing history of the works that came to dominate the academic canon of twentieth-century English literature is fairly well known, that of the failures is not. Probably the strangest case of modernist independent publishing, and the most spectacular failure in comparison to its ambitions, is Wyndham Lewis's 1930 satire The Apes of God. The publication and publicity campaign of this novel make an especially interesting study of the role of private patronage and self-promotion in the modernist movement because the novel's subject is these very phenomena and Lewis's handling of the affair recapitulated the issues that the novel explores. Like much experimental writing, the book was too dense and idiosyncratic for a wide audience; its satiric venom also made it unpalatable for many capable of understanding it. Its additional liability was that it denounced the literary world from which it needed support, and this handicap led Lewis into some unusual publicity tactics. His marketing strategy included making very economical use of the satiric victims of this roman clef, some of whom were his former patrons. He sold them an expensive "collector's edition," used them to promote it, and, during the novel's scandalized reception, blamed them publicly for unfavorable reactions, always maintaining that he had not written about them. In addition, he impersonated his fictitious publisher to assemble a record of the scandal, the pamphlet Satire & Fiction, in order to prove that it was really he who was being maligned; and in its title essay he formulated a theory of "scientific" satire, based on an "external method" opposed to modernist impressionism, that would absolve him from charges of personal malice. In this ploy he re-enacted the roles of two of Apes's main characters and surreptitiously confirmed the contradictions of "Apery" that the novel unmasks. The outcome, like the failure of his hero's confidence game, typified the unhappy fate of the reputation of modernism's self-proclaimed internal "Enemy."

Although this episode presents a striking instance of satiric paranoia, it is more than a study in psychopathology. Apes is Lewis's most controversial work of fiction; it exemplifies the factors that have consigned the writer whom T. S. Eliot called "the greatest prose master of style of my generation" (526) to a secondary place in the movement that he had helped to create. Although most of Lewis's critics concede that the novel contains some of his most brilliant writing, few consider it among his best work overall; most follow Hugh Kenner's view of it as a dead end, the unreadable extremity of his puppet-fiction" (97), and also discount its topicality and strident antihumanism. It is true that it is an uneven, daunting work, a wild ream of sarcasm; but it is less "unreadable" than some modernist classics, and the subtlety of its design has not been appreciated. It was a dead end for Lewis partly because it was a relative failure commercially, and it was a failure partly because in his overzealous promotion he actually hindered its distribution and directed the critical discussion toward narrow aspects of it as well. But Apes is of great aesthetic as well as historical interest; indeed, its artistic achievement cannot be separated from its sociopolitical critique of the modernist movement. Lewis turned Joyce's and Eliot's "mythic method" upon the contemporary avant-garde itself and produced a prophecy of mass culture. The marketing of the book adds another paradoxical layer onto an already complex tale. Lewis intended Apes to rival both Ulysses and Proust's Recherche; he staked his career on it, and he was the sorest of losers. This essay concerns the peculiar way in which his promotion elaborated the novel's drama, and it demonstrates how Lewis's own diabolical cleverness and pride contributed to his marginalization in literary history. …