[Marxism] Colin Wilson, Author Lauded at 24 for ‘The Outsider,’ Dies at 82
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 12 16:45:49 MST 2013
("The Outsider" was must-reading for aspiring beatniks/bohemians in 1960
when I read it myself.)
NY Times December 12, 2013
Colin Wilson, Author Lauded at 24 for ‘The Outsider,’ Dies at 82
By MARGALIT FOX
Colin Wilson, a self-educated English writer who in 1956 shot to
international acclaim with his first book, “The Outsider,” an erudite
meditation on existentialism, alienation and creativity, but who
incurred critical disdain for a string of later books about murder,
sexual deviance and the occult, died on Dec. 5 in Cornwall, England. He
The cause was complications of pneumonia, his son Damon said.
The author of well over 100 volumes of fiction and nonfiction, Mr.
Wilson became a sensation at 24, when “The Outsider” was published and
instantly touched a deep nerve in postwar Britain.
Ranging over the voracious reading in literature, science, philosophy,
religion, biography and the arts that he had done since he was a boy,
“The Outsider” had an aim no less ambitious than its scope: to delineate
the meaning of human existence.
The book’s central thesis was that men of vision — among them
Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Nietzsche, H. G. Wells, T. E. Lawrence, George
Bernard Shaw, Hemingway, Van Gogh, William Blake, Nijinsky and the
19th-century mystic Ramakrishna — stood apart from society, repudiating
it as banal and disaffecting.
“The Outsider is not a freak, but is only more sensitive than the
average type of man,” Mr. Wilson wrote. He added: “The Outsider is
primarily a critic, and if a critic feels deeply enough about what he is
criticizing, he becomes a prophet.”
In years to come, actual critics would argue over whether Mr. Wilson was
a brilliant synthesist or merely an accomplished aphorist whose work
lacked methodological rigor. But on the book’s publication, most
reviewers, including the distinguished English men of letters Philip
Toynbee and Cyril Connolly, were lavish in their praise.
Though “The Outsider” was often described as a philosophical work, Mr.
Wilson saw it as fundamentally religious. Unlike existentialists whose
worldview, he felt, inclined toward a dour nihilism, he purveyed what he
called optimistic existentialism.
“Sartre’s feeling was that life is meaningless, that everything is pure
chance, that life is a useless passion,” Mr. Wilson told The Toronto
Star in 1998. “My basic feeling has always been the opposite, that
mankind is on the verge of an evolutionary leap to a higher stage.”
Mr. Wilson argued that it was possible for mankind to achieve this
exalted state through the kind of transcendent experience that comes,
for instance, in the presence of great works of art. Such transcendence,
he maintained, had been rendered largely inaccessible by the grind of
Despite his hopeful outlook, Mr. Wilson was labeled one of the original
Angry Young Men — the appellation, popularized by the British press,
that described a cohort of emerging writers, including John Osborne and
He deplored the designation, and in fact had little in common with those
writers. As the author of a work of nonfiction, Mr. Wilson was neither a
dramatist like Mr. Osborne nor a novelist like Mr. Amis. He did not like
them personally or artistically, nor they him. (Mr. Amis once tried to
push Mr. Wilson off a roof.)
The label derived largely from an accident of timing. “The Outsider”
appeared in May 1956, the same month that “Look Back in Anger,” Mr.
Osborne’s acclaimed drama of working-class disaffection, opened in
London. Like Mr. Osborne, Mr. Wilson came from a modest background in
which intellectual pursuits were anathema.
But if Mr. Wilson was no Angry Young Man, with his lush Romantic hair
and roll-neck sweaters he more than looked the part. The papers
delighted in the fact that to save on rent while writing “The Outsider,”
he had spent his nights on Hampstead Heath, the vast London park. They
took to photographing him there, posed with his sleeping bag.
Mr. Wilson’s disdain for the contemporary human condition, coupled with
his almost preternatural confidence in his own abilities, also played
well with the British news media — at least until the almost inevitable
literary backlash set in.
Colin Henry Wilson was born in Leicester, England, on June 26, 1931; his
father, Arthur, worked in a shoe factory. As a boy, Mr. Wilson later
said, he was aware that he differed greatly from the “vegetable
mediocrity” surrounding him.
“Ever since I was 9 or 10 years old, I had been convinced that I was a
genius and was destined for great things,” he wrote in an
autobiographical essay for the reference work Contemporary Authors.
A science prodigy, he planned a career in the field until he discovered
that his lifework had been usurped.
“My ambition was to develop the atomic bomb,” Mr. Wilson later said.
“When this was done in 1945, I lost interest in science.”
He vowed instead to become a writer. Leaving school at 16, he held a
series of low-level jobs: wool-factory worker, tax collector, laborer,
hospital porter. At about 20, he married Betty Troop, a nurse 10 years
his senior with whom he was expecting a child. The marriage lasted 18
On his own in London, Mr. Wilson worked in a cafe by night, spending his
days in the reading room of the British Museum, toiling over the
manuscript that would become “The Outsider.”
Published by Victor Gollancz in Britain and Houghton Mifflin Company in
the United States (where its reception was more measured but nonetheless
favorable), the book was translated into many languages.
For Mr. Wilson, the response seemed to augur a major career in world
letters. But his growing fascination with deviance — a form of
outsiderdom, after all — soon began to tar him.
In an incident reported in the British papers, the father of the young
woman who would become Mr. Wilson’s second wife once descended on a
dinner party in the couple’s London apartment, brandishing a horsewhip.
The man had come across what he thought were Mr. Wilson’s journals,
which detailed acts of sexual sadism, murderous fantasies and other
“’You’re a homosexual with six mistresses,” Mr. Wilson’s future
father-in-law cried somewhat illogically. The journals in question were
actually notes for Mr. Wilson’s first novel, “Ritual in the Dark,”
published in 1960.
Attempting to salvage his reputation, Mr. Wilson released his actual
journals to the newspapers. But what he had written in those pages (“The
day must come when I am hailed as a major prophet”) did him no favors
with press and public.
By the end of 1956, some reviewers of “The Outsider” had openly revised
their early, rapturous positions. Mr. Wilson’s next nonfiction book,
“Religion and the Rebel,” a sequel to “The Outsider” published in 1957,
was far less well received.
With his second wife, the former Joy Stewart, he retreated to Cornwall
to read and write away from the London literary whirl. He lived for many
years in Gorran Haven, a fishing village there.
Volumes in Mr. Wilson’s prodigious output met with occasional success —
among them were a nonfiction book, “The Occult,” and a science fiction
novel, “The Mind Parasites” — but for the most part he was ignored, if
not outright derided, by reviewers.
By his own account, Mr. Wilson was a firm believer in the paranormal
phenomena that increasingly occupied his pen; his fascination with
murder, he said, stemmed from his vision of the killer as the archetypal
All in all, this subject matter seemed to ordain him to be misunderstood.
“The police called on me during their investigations into the Yorkshire
Ripper murders,” Mr. Wilson said in a 1993 interview, referring to the
brutal serial killings in the north of England in the 1970s and early
’80s. “I assumed they wanted my advice. In fact, I was a suspect.”
Mr. Wilson’s survivors include his wife, Joy; their two sons, Damon and
Rowan, and daughter, Sally Dyer; a son, Roderick, from his first
marriage; and nine grandchildren.
His other books include the novels “The Schoolgirl Murder Case,” “The
Space Vampires” and “The Sex Diary of a Metaphysician”; two volumes of
memoir, “Voyage to a Beginning” and “Dreaming to Some Purpose”; and the
nonfiction works “Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs,” “A Criminal
History of Mankind,” “Beyond the Occult: A Twenty-Year Investigation
Into the Paranormal,” “Alien Dawn: An Investigation Into the Contact
Experience” and “The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders.”
However much he was neglected by the critics in later years, Mr. Wilson
remained certain of his literary import.
“I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century,”
he told The Guardian, the British newspaper, in 2006. “In 500 years’
time, they’ll say, ‘Wilson was a genius,’ because I’m a turning point in
Brad Spurgeon contributed reporting.
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