Foster, John Wilson 1944-

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FOSTER, John Wilson 1944-


Born 1944, in Belfast, Northern Ireland; married. Education: University of Oregon, Ph.D., 1970.


Office—Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages, Aberfoyle House, University of Ulster, Magee Campus, Northland Road, Londonderry BT48 7JL, Northern Ireland.


University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, beginning in 1974, began as assistant professor, became full professor of English; University of Ulster, Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Leverhulme Visiting Professor, 2004—.


Fulbright scholarship, 1972.


Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction, Rowman & Littlefield (Totowa, NJ), 1974.

Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival: A Changeling Art, Syracuse University Press (Syracuse, NY), 1987.

Colonial Consequences: Essays in Irish Literature and Culture, Lilliput Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1991.

(Editor, with Gerald Dawe) The Poet's Place: Ulster Literature and Society; Essays in Honor of John Hewitt, 1907-87, Institute of Irish Studies (Belfast, Northern Ireland), 1991.

(Editor) The Idea of the Union: Statements and Critiques in Support of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Belcouver Press (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 1995.

The Achievement of Seamus Heaney, Lilliput Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1995.

The Titanic Complex: A Cultural Manifest, Belcouver Press (Portaferry, Northern Ireland), 1996.

(Senior editor, with associate editor Helena C. G. Chesney) Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History, Lilliput Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1997.

(Editor) Titanic Reader, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 2000.

Recoveries: Neglected Episodes in Irish Cultural History, 1860-1912, University College Dublin Press (Dublin, Ireland), 2002.

The Age of Titanic: Cross-Currents in Anglo-American Culture, Merlin Publications (Dublin, Ireland), 2002.


A renowned literary critic, Belfast-born John Wilson Foster "may prove to be the major critical transmitter of the Irish Protestant tradition," according to Oxford Don and Irish poet Bernard O'Donoghue in the Times Literary Supplement. In addition to his strong interest in Irish literature and culture, Foster has written a number of studies of the Titanic, whose origin in a Belfast shipyard is often forgotten or downplayed.

In Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction, "the first modern book-length study of Northern Irish fiction," as Library Journal contributor Matthew Hartman reported, describes the common themes of the "Ulster Experience," including famine and the blighted countryside, the civil conflict between unionists and nationalists, and the impact of emigration from Ireland. Focusing primarily on twentieth-century writers, including Benedict Kiely, Joyce Cary, and Brian Moore, Foster's "selections are given the careful, close, and scrupulously detailed critical attention that has marked his previously published essays," observed a Choice reviewer. While faulting the author for neglecting some authors and stories, Times Literary Supplement reviewer Roy Foster found that "what remains is none the less engrossing. Crippled sexuality, manic depression, the illusions of changelessness, violence: all the bleaknesses of the Northern landscape are delineated and pursued through a welter of distinguished and undistinguished writing."

Foster focuses on the period from 1880 to 1930 in Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival: A Changeling Art, a "superb work," according to Library Journal reviewer Ann C. Fallon. After looking at the revival—and reshaping—of ancient sagas and folklore by Irish nationalists, Foster considers the satirical and irreverent mimicry of writers such as Flann O'Brien and James Stephens. In addition to the fabulist nature of much of the writing, Foster considers the streak of realism, including those instances where mythmaking led to a kind of faux realism in the service of nationalism or an imagined authenticity. All in all, "Foster puts his finger on a number of paradoxes connected with the literary renaissance, and among them is the paradox of Dubliners, in which various states of inertia—the pass Dublin has come to—are evoked with the utmost vigor," concluded Patricia Craig in the London Review of Books. Throughout, Foster explores the various religious and ideological allegiances of the poets and novelists in his study.

In Colonial Consequences: Essays in Irish Literature and Culture, "Foster volunteers his own 'tribal allegiances' to a background of 'lower middle-class loyalism and nonconformism in east Belfast' in his sympathetic explanation of the identities of modern Irish, and particularly 'Ulster,' writers," as University of Toronto Quarterly reviewer John Lavery put it. Moving through various themes, such as "improvement" images and symbols of "revival," Foster explores fictions of identity, delusions of transcendence, and the curious Catholic hierarchism of many Protestant Irish intellectuals. "Readers will find much to contest and approve in Foster's engagement with Irish literature and culture," concluded Lavery in his review.

Foster shifted gears somewhat in Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History, which brings together essays from highly respected scientists, mostly Irish, to describe the natural history of the island. "What [the contributors] have in common, aside from their knowledge, is their gift for lively, readable prose and their sense of humor," commented Kildare Dobbs in Books in Canada. Starting with an essay by geologist John Feehan, the collection covers the natural and human impact on the landscape. It then moves into the history of natural history, including pieces on the development of botany, zoology, and other disciplines; biographies of great Irish scientists such as Admiral Beaufort and Edward Sabine; and a look at the nationalist implications of the sciences. "It is rare to have all chapters in a committee-crafted book achieve such a consistently high level of readability," commented Choice reviewer K. B. Sterling. For Kildare Dobbs, the result is "a book that every library should possess, and that every Irish reader, native or sea-divided Gael, can enjoy and return to over and over again."

Some of those "sea-divided Gaels" never quite made it to another land, going down with the Titanic, a ship that still haunts the imagination of Foster, among many others. In The Titanic Complex: A Cultural Manifest, Foster covers all aspects of the voyage, the sinking, and the subsequent controversies over what to do with the famous wreck and the artifacts it contained. At the same time, as Patricia Craig explained in the Times Literary Supplement, "Titanic's place of origin, often overlooked by commentators, is reinstalled … at the centre of the drama."

Recoveries: Neglected Episodes in Irish Cultural History, 1860-1912, consisting of three lectures originally delivered at the National University of Ireland, brings together all of Foster's primary interests. Once again, explained Craig in a review for the Times Literary Supplement, this book "has the [Titanic] at its centre … with the emphasis falling on perceived connections between science, industry, capitalism and the 'shipyard' culture of Belfast around the turn of the twentieth century, with all its mettlesome and progressive elements." Foster covers the agitating impact of Darwinism on Ireland's creeds, the almost obsessive interest in natural science in the late nineteenth century, and the phenomenal industrial growth of Belfast, including the rise of the shipyards that built the Titanic. Craig concluded that the essays "show a remarkable critical agility and discursive expertise. They contain much to relish and much to ponder."



Books in Canada, September, 1998, Kildare Dobbs, review of Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History, p. 27.

Choice, March, 1975, review of Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction, p. 72; December, 1987, review of Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival: A Changeling Art, p. 620; June, 1998, review of Nature in Ireland, p. 1730.

Contemporary Review, March, 2000, review of Titanic Reader, p. 164.

Library Journal, November 15, 1974, Matthew Hartman, review of Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction, p. 2965; September 1, 1987, Ann C. Fallon, review of Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival, p. 182; March 1, 1998, review of Nature in Ireland, p. 103.

London Review of Books, March 2, 1989, Patricia Craig, review of Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival, p. 23; June 5, 1997, Jenny Diski, review of The Titanic Complex: A Cultural Manifest, pp. 12-13.

Times Literary Supplement, December 20, 1974, Roy Foster, "The Context of Ulster," p. 1443; December 16, 1994, Bernard O'Donoghue, "Mercier's Legacy," pp. 7-8; July 18, 1997, Patricia Craig, review of The Titanic Complex, p. 8; January 31, 2003, Craig, review of Recoveries: Neglected Episodes in Irish Cultural History, 1860-1912, p. 27.

University of Toronto Quarterly, winter, 1994, John Lavery, review of review of Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival and Colonial Consequences: Essays in Irish Literature and Culture, pp. 172-74.


Princess Grace Irish Library Web site, (July 12, 2004), "John Wilson Foster."

University of Ulster Web site, (June 10, 2004), "Distinguished Literary Critic Takes Post at UU."*

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Foster, John Wilson 1944-

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