BORN: 1922, London, England
DIED: 1995, London, England
GENRE: Fiction; poetry; criticism
Lucky Jim (1954)
The James Bond Dossier (1965)
The Anti-Death League (1966)
The Old Devils (1985)
Although an eclectic man of letters, Kingsley Amis was best known as a prolific novelist who, in the words of Blake Morrison in the Times Literary Supplement, had the “ability to go on surprising us.” He won critical acclaim in 1954 with the publication of his first novel, Lucky Jim. After producing three other humorous works, Amis was quickly characterized as a comic novelist writing in the tradition of P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Critics ranked him among the foremost of the “Angry Young Men,” a school of British writers who disdained post-orld War II British society throughout the 1950s.
William D. Montalbano of the Los Angeles Times stated that “Amis rejected the label as ‘a very boring journalistic phrase.’” Following his early works, however, Amis produced a spate of novels that differed radically in genre and seriousness of theme. He kept “experimenting with ways of confounding the reader who hopes for a single focus,” claimed William Hutchings in the Critical Quarterly, though Clancy Sigal suggested in the National Review that Amis simply had “the virtue, rare in England, of refusing to accept an imposed definition of what a Serious Writer ought to write about.” His place in British literature was recognized in 1986, when his seventeenth novel, The Old Devils, won the Booker Prize, Britain's highest literary award. In 1990, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Middle-Class Boy to Oxford Man An only child, Amis enjoyed a comfortable but dull relationship with his Baptist, Conservative, lower-middle-class parents, William Robert and Rosa Lucas Amis. Recalling his father, an office worker, as “the most English human being I have ever known,” Amis added that boredom rather than hostility was his chief response to his father's company.
School was more rewarding than family life. Amis attended Norbury College, where at the age of eleven he had his first story, “The Sacred Rhino of Uganda,” published in the school magazine. He then entered the City of London School, where he remained until 1941 as a scholarship student. Amis writes enthusiastically about his years at this excellent day school, recalling the broad range of social strata from which its students were drawn and its humane spirit of tolerance: “I have never in my life known a community where factions of any kind were less in evidence, where differences of class, upbringing, income group and religion counted for so little.” Academic standards were high, and Amis, specializing first in classics and then in English, maintained a level that earned him a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford. Although Amis became acquainted with members of the upper class, his middle-class roots instilled in him a skepticism of the pretense found among the wealthy and well-heeled; this clash of classes later became the fodder for some of his most popular works.
While Amis was in school, England entered World War II as one of the Allied nations battling against Nazi Germany's advance across western Europe. Amis was called for military service when he was twenty and served three years in the army (in France, Belgium, and West Germany), having been commissioned because, he says, “an Oxford man was likely to be enough of a ‘gentleman’ to do all right as an officer.” Late in 1945, at the age of twenty-three, he returned to St. John's where he earned a first-class degree in 1947 but failed to win a research degree when his thesis (“Poets and Their Public, 1850–1900”) was rejected. He married Hilary A. Bardwell in 1948 and took a post as lecturer in English at the University College of Swansea in Wales.
Teacher, Husband, Father, Writer During the next half-dozen years, Amis labored to clarify his roles as teacher, husband, father (two of his three children were born during this time), and writer. His traditionally structured, colloquial, and wittily antiromantic poems began to appear in anthologies, and he occasionally read his works on John Wain's distinguished BBC poetry program, First Reading. A collection of his poems, A Frame of Mind (1953), helped to associate him in the public mind with Wain, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, and Robert Conquest as part of a concerted dissent from tradition known as The Movement, a label whose validity each of them denied.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Amis's famous contemporaries include:
Robertson Davies (1913–1995): A preeminent Canadian novelist whose work often deals with religion and metaphysics while interweaving theatrical elements with traditional novel forms.
Richard Nixon (1913–1994): This U.S. president's time in office was marred by the Watergate scandal, which eventually forced Nixon to resign to avoid being impeached.
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973): This Spanish artist worked in a variety of media, including paint and ceramics. Although his work largely transcends barriers, he is often associated with the cubist art movement.
Graham Greene (1904–1991): This British novelist is known for the breadth of his work, which includes westerns, political thrillers, travelogues, and religious novels.
Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007): Prolific Swedish director, whose works include more than sixty films and more than one hundred plays.
Although Amis continued to write and edit collections of poetry, his most significant work was his prose fiction. Also during these years, he was beginning his first major work, Lucky Jim, a novel about a lower-middle-class man who becomes a professor of a subject he dislikes and finds himself surrounded by upper-class colleagues he despises. The germ of the novel was the result of a brief encounter with faculty in the Senior Common Room at Leicester University, which Amis attended in 1946. “Christ,” Amis recalls saying, “someone ought to do something about that lot.” In 1951, he began “to do
something”: he finished his manuscript a year later and saw it published at the outset of 1954.
A Mixed Bag At the outset of his career, Amis wrote, “We are in for a golden age of satire.” In his best fiction, Amis validates his prophecy, deftly deflating pretension while expressing a genial affection for humanity. Later, however, misanthropy darkened Amis's comic sense without deepening his moral or psychological insight. Often, he seemed unable to decide whether his hero is admirable or despicable, or whether to celebrate or mourn the descent of man and society.
Works in Literary Context
More than fifty years after the turbulence attending the publication of his overwhelmingly popular first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), Kingsley Amis remains a controversial figure in English letters. Many find him an affable and entertaining novelist whose heroes are engagingly antic mimes. Behind the mild lunacy and benign irreverence, others discern in Amis's fiction a profound concern with serious moral problems. Fellow novelists such as Anthony Burgess, Anthony Powell, V. S. Pritchett, and C. P. Snow have praised him. He has been lauded by critics as the successor to the satiric genius of Evelyn Waugh; as a dissenting realist in the tradition of Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding; as a diverting wit like P. G. Wodehouse or Peter DeVries; and has even been paradoxically labeled an “antiliberal, antigenteel, antimoralist … left conservative,” like Norman Mailer.
Angry Young Man? Early in his career, Amis became associated with a group of writers known as “Angry Young Men.” What linked these writers, who established a loose consortium, was less their anger (though all could pout and rage) than a shared class origin (lower or middle class, but not upper) and unsettled social and cultural values. They suffered the benefits of the post-World War II welfare state without grace or gratitude. Although the Labour Party government made possible their attendance at Oxford or Cambridge, they resisted what they identified as an obligation to embrace—in the name of culture and progress—what Richard Hoggart called the “shiny barbarism” of the middle class. Lucky Jim became the archetypal antihero of the Angry Young Men.
Nonetheless, in spite of all the journalistic declarations in the late 1950s about “Angry Young Men,” a rebellion Amis supposedly led, he never was or claimed to be iconoclastic about society. Rather, the novels, whatever the setting, demonstrated an acceptance, no matter how ironic or grudging, of the social status quo. As such, Amis's work must be considered a predecessor in tone of the entire body of Philip Roth's work. American novelist Roth often utilizes a young, angry narrator, but the source of this narrator's anger is not merely a desire to escape his past and upbringing but to come to terms with it in light of his own individual personality and its relationship to the culture and society in which he was raised. A similar theme is evident in the later writer Tobias Wolff. However, Wolff employs a far less emphatic and demonstrative tone—though no less a pained one—in order to portray the desire of his characters to achieve social mobility and to attain happiness despite their upbringing.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Amis's Jim Dixon has been deemed an antihero by author and critic Anthony Burgess. An antihero is a figure in a text who participates in shady dealings or immoral acts but who, due to the presentation of the author, appears to be a sympathetic—indeed, heroic—figure. Antiheroes became popular when the poet Lord Byron featured them in his poems. For instance, Don Juan describes the amorous flings of a sexually irresponsible man; yet the reader cannot help but root for Don Juan and against the husbands of his lovers. Since Byron, the antihero has been used to great effect in both literature and film. Here are some examples:
3:10 to Yuma (2007), a film directed by James Mangold. This adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story depicts Ben Wade, a thief and gang leader in the Old West. As the movie proceeds, the viewer comes to understand and appreciate Ben Wade, even though it is also clear that he is a hardened criminal.
Batman (1939–), a comic book series by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. At first glance, Batman might appear to be an unmitigated positive hero, but upon closer examination, one sees that the questions surrounding Batman and his dark and mysterious past suggest a shady side to his character.
Crime and Punishment (1866), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In this novel, the most sympathetic character is Raskolnikov, a young man who murders a pawnbroker for no good reason.
Works in Critical Context
Writing in the Christmas 1955 issue of the London Sunday Times, Somerset Maugham described Jim Dixon, the young academic hero of Lucky Jim (which had, ironically, just won the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction), and his ilk as “white collar proletariat [who] do not go to the university to acquire culture, but to get a job, and when they have got one, scamp it…. They are mean, malicious, envious…. Charity, kindliness, generosity are qualities which they hold in contempt. They are scum.” In 1970, Q. D. Leavis accused Amis of targeting as “the consistent objects of [his] animus,” the “only bastions against barbarism: the university lecturer, the librarian,
the grammar school master, the learned societies, the social worker.”
Despite the strong reaction of writers like Maugham, Lucky Jim received a largely positive response from critics. The same, however, cannot be said of much of Amis's later work, which was generally condemned as either inferior to or derivative of Amis's debut novel.
Lucky Jim Jim Dixon, the protagonist of Lucky Jim, is, according to Anthony Burgess in The Novel Now, “the most popular antihero of our time.” Though a junior lecturer at a provincial university, Jim has no desire to be an intellectual—or a “gentleman”—because of his profound, almost physical, hatred of the social and cultural affectations of university life. This characteristic of Jim's has led several critics to conclude that he is a philistine, and, moreover, that beneath the comic effects, Amis was really attacking culture and was himself a philistine. Brigid Brophy, for example, wrote in Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews that the “apex of philistinism” is reached “when Jim hears a tune by the composer whom either he or Mr. Amis … thinks of as ‘filthy Mozart.’”
Ralph Caplan, however, claimed in Charles Shapiro's Contemporary British Novelists that Lucky Jim “never [promises] anything more than unmitigated pleasure and insight, and these it keeps on delivering. The book [is] not promise but fulfillment, a commodity we confront too seldom to know how to behave when it is achieved. This seems to be true particularly when the achievement is comic. Have we forgotten how to take humor straight? Unable to exit laughing, the contemporary reader looks over his shoulder for Something More. The trouble is that by now he knows how to find it.”
More of the Same ? Critics generally saw the three novels that followed Lucky Jim as variations on the theme of appealing to common sense and denouncing affectation. Discussing Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling, I Like It Here, and Take a Girl Like You in the Hudson Review, James P. Degnan stated: “In the comically outraged voice of his angry young heroes—e.g., Jim Dixon of Lucky Jim and John Lewis of That Uncertain Feeling—Amis [lampoons] what C. P. Snow … labeled the ‘traditional culture,’ the ‘culture of the literary intellectuals,’ of the ‘gentleman's world.’”
The heroes in these four novels are in fact so much alike that Brigid Brophy charged Amis with “rewriting much the same novel under different titles and with different names for the characters.” Degnan, however, defends the similarity: “In place of the sensitive soul as hero, Amis creates in his early novels a hero radically new to serious contemporary fiction: a middle-class hero who is also an intellectual, an intellectual who is unabashedly middle-brow. He is a hero … whose chief virtues, as he expresses them, are: ‘politeness, friendly interest, ordinary concern and a good natured willingness to be imposed upon….’ Suspicious of all pretentiousness, of all heroic posturing, the Amis hero … voices all that is best of the ‘lower middle-class, of the non-gentlemanly’ conscience.”
Responses to Literature
- Research the word cynic. Based on your experience with Amis's work, especially Lucky Jim, do you think that Amis can accurately be described as a cynic? Explain your thinking in a short essay.
- Compare Amis's representation of Jim Dixon with Dostoyevsky's representation of Raskolnikov. What do you see as some of the differences and similarities between these two antiheroes? Consider their backgrounds, social status, and motivations. Based on these readings, what do you make of antiheroes in novels? (What is appealing about them, what is not?)
- The concept of the antihero can be extended into other areas of the creative arts, such as in music and art itself. What could that type of antihero represent? What would the profile be like? Provide contemporary examples of the antihero in each area of the arts. Support your examples.
Allsop, Kenneth. The Angry Decade: A Survey of the Cultural Revolt of the Nineteen-Fifties. London: Owen, 1964.
Bradford, Richard. Kingsley Amis. London: Arnold, 1989.
Brophy, Brigid. Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews. New York: Holt, 1966.
Burgess, Anthony. The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction. New York: Norton, 1967.
Gardner, Philip. Kingsley Amis. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Lodge, David. Language of Fiction: Essays in Criticism and Verbal Analysis of the English Novel. London: Routledge & Paul, 1966.
O'Connor, William Van. The New University Wits and the End of Modernism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.
Rabinovitz, Rubin. The Reaction Against Experiment: A Study of the English Novel, 1950–1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.
Salwak, Dale, ed. Kingsley Amis in Life and Letters. London: Macmillan, 1990.
Vannatta, Denis, ed. The English Short Story, 1945–1980. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) became one of Britain's most daring and acclaimed new writers with the 1954 publication of his debut novel, Lucky Jim. Amis went on to write nearly two dozen more novels, as well as scores of other works, including discourses on science fiction, the detective novel, the English language, and even alcoholic beverages, for which he himself had a legendary and well-documented propensity. But it was his bitingly funny portrayal of a young but disillusioned college lecturer, Jim Dixon, that earned Amis enduring fame. Lucky Jim's scathing critique of English culture and society would land the title on most surveys of the best English-language novels of the twentieth century. With that stellar debut, asserted Adam Gopnik in a 2007 article in the New Yorker, Amis “more or less invented the modern English comic novel—the small-scale satiric inspection, flavored with sexual malice, that dominates English fiction.”
Kingsley William Amis was born on April 16, 1922, as the only child of William Amis, who worked in the London offices of Colman's, the mustard maker, and Rosa (Lucas) Amis. “It is a sad fate to be the child of the urban or suburban middle classes,” Amis once wrote, according to Zachary's Leader's biography The Life of Kingsley Amis. Both parents were reportedly talented mimics of their friends, neighbors, and radio personalities, a trait that was passed on to their son, whose prose would feature an unusually nuanced degree of characterization through dialogue. While growing up in the southwest London area of Norbury, the young Amis also apparently inherited some nervous tendencies from his mother, who worried about his health, diet, and safety. “I used to tell myself stories all the time,” he said in a 1988 London Sunday Times interview with John Mortimer, adding that he concocted the stories in part to quell his anxieties. “I was always nervous. Full of fear. I was afraid someone would come into my bedroom and murder me.”
Served in British Army
Amis entered the City of London School at the age of 12, a boys' school that provided a university track education. In 1941, with Britain in the midst of World War II, he entered St. John's College of Oxford University and took part in a British Army officer training program over the next year while beginning his studies. In July of 1942 he entered the Royal Signal Corps, where he attained the rank of lieutenant and served at several different sites in the European field of combat. Returning to civilian life and Oxford, he pursued an undergraduate degree in English, which he earned with first class honors in 1947, a year later receiving his master's degree. In between those two degrees, his first collection of poetry, Bright November, was published.
The years 1947 and 1948 were significant in Amis's life for another reason: he became romantically involved with a student from the Ruskin College of Art, Hilary “Hilly” Bardwell, whose middle class but eccentric family would become the model for the one so mercilessly skewered in Lucky Jim. In a letter he wrote to Philip Larkin (1922-1985)—a fellow Oxford student who became Amis's lifelong friend as well as an acclaimed writer in his own right—he described meeting Hilly's family, whose “dog smells of corpses …. And the father does folk dancing.” Near the end of 1947 Hilly became pregnant, and the two wed in January of 1948. Their first child, whom they named Philip in honor of their friend Larkin, was born that August. At the end of 1948, Amis was hired by the University College of Swansea, Wales, as an assistant lecturer in English, and the family moved there in December. In August of 1949, a second son, Martin, was born.
Amis spent the next 12 years teaching at Swansea, and in the early 1950s began to work on his first novel, after working out some of Lucky Jim's structure with Larkin. The novel was accepted for publication by the London publisher Gollancz in May of 1953, a prestigious house with whom he would remain for the first decade of his career. The novel's publication the following January prompted the Times of London to assert that “Mr. Amis could have afforded to give it a further polish, but he writes with such energy and enjoyment that it matters little.”
Hailed as Voice of Generation
Lucky Jim recounts a few weeks in the life of Jim Dixon, a junior lecturer in history at a lesser university in northern England. He dislikes the job, finds his colleagues pretentious, and fears that he will be released from his contract at the end of the term when his probationary period ends. His success hinges upon Professor Welch, the department chair, though he secretly despises both his mentor and the man's family. “The novel's real comedy, and its originality, comes from its bracing contempt for culture and higher education—for madrigal singing, and lectures on ‘organic’ village life, and people who make a big deal of the difference between recorders and flutes,” noted Gopnik. Dixon also finds himself romantically involved with two women, one pretty, the other plain, and is halfheartedly attempting to write his first serious treatise, an examination of medieval shipbuilding. In a February 12, 1954, review in the Times Literary Supplement, contributor Alan Ross compared the debut novel with the work of other up-and-coming writers who had come of age after the war. He commented that Amis's “dialogue and characterization are pointed and observant, and not the least of the genuinely funny things come from the imaginative gusto of Dixon's thoughts about what he would like to do with those around him.”
Amis's debut novel was a tremendous success in Britain, and he was hailed as his generation's newest literary star. Lucky Jim seemed to touch a nerve in postwar Britain, with many of the once-mighty imperial nation's longcherished notions giving way to a new, suddenly more mobile middle class. Amis was deemed one of Britain's new “Angry Young Men,” a catchall phrase denoting a group of young novelists and playwrights who were unafraid to challenge and even mock long-held British traditions and beliefs. They included Larkin as well as playwrights Harold Pinter (born 1930) and John Osborne (1929-1994). Not surprisingly, Amis's novel and the whole movement also prompted some pointed backlash, including an essay by W. Somerset Maugham in December of 1955 in a yearly roundup of notable books in the Sunday Times, as quoted in The Life of Kingsley Amis. Maugham praised Amis and Lucky Jim but went on to discuss the larger issue of a new postwar Britain and its disappearing class boundaries. Noting that more than half of university graduates were by then earning their degrees thanks to new government grants, Maugham fumed that these youth “do not go to university to acquire culture, but to get a job.” Maugham went on to remark that “they have no manners, and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament …. Charity, kindness, generosity, are qualities which they hold in contempt.”
Adultery and Alcohol
Lucky Jim was made into a film in 1957, as was Amis's second novel, That Uncertain Feeling. Published to great fanfare in 1955, the story centers on John Lewis, an adulterous librarian in a small town in Wales. It was made into a 1962 Peter Sellers film titled Only Two Can Play. In September of 1958, Amis took a year-long position as a lecturer and fellow in creative writing at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he also gave a series of lectures on science fiction. The entire family—which now included daughter Sally, born the same week Lucky Jim was published—went with him, and their rented house soon became the site of raucous, alcohol-fueled soirees. Amis had long dallied extramaritally, and years later his son Martin famously described his father as “a man who used to LIVE for adultery,” according to New York Times writer A. O. Scott, in his review of Zachary Leader's book. During this reckless American period, Hilly reportedly conducted her own affairs as well.
Echoes of his affairs often found their way into Amis's fiction, such as descriptions of the vicious sexual games played by the male villain in his fourth novel, 1960's Take a Girl Like You. These affairs decimated Amis's marriage, which began a precipitous decline in early 1963 during his affair with novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard (born 1923), a former actress and model whose first marriage had been to the son of the noted Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912). By the time they met, Howard was an acclaimed writer in her own right and, like Amis, rather unconventional and uncommitted in her romantic exploits. In somewhat uncharacteristic fashion, however, Amis seems to have fallen quite hard for her. The divorce from Hilly became final in June of 1965, and he wed Howard in London at the end of the month.
The union with Howard also served as a catalyst for severing ties with Gollancz, and he signed with his new wife's publisher, Jonathan Cape. His first title for them was written under the pseudonym Robert Markham, and was one of the James Bond adventure tales that continued on after the death of the original author, Ian Fleming (1908-1964). Amis's more serious literary efforts from this period include I Want It Now, published in 1968, followed by The Green Man, a tale of an alcohol-abusing, adulterous middle-aged proprietor of an English country inn who fears that the property is haunted. Subsequent titles published during the 1970s include Girl, 20, Ending Up, The Alteration, and Jake's Thing. These are the works “that most deeply divide Amis's admirers and his detractors,” according to Gopnik. “To their fans, they are models of a disabused, cleanly written, and unsparingly Swiftian satire of mostly bad modern manners. To their nonfans, they seem like exhausting, increasingly alcoholic, rightwing rants.”
Won Booker Prize
Amis had been a member of the Communist Party during his Oxford days, but his political ideals had traversed the full range from left to right by the 1980s, as he went from being a supporter of the Labour Party to admitting to a minor crush on prime minister Margaret Thatcher (born 1925), leader of Britain's Conservative (Tory) Party. He even wrote that Thatcher was “one of the best-looking women I have ever met,” according to Scott, and he confessed that at times he seemed to find himself momentarily tricked “into thinking I am looking at a science-fiction illustration of some time ago showing the beautiful girl who has become President of the Solar Federation in the year 2220.”
Amis's 1986 novel The Old Devils, about a novelist who returns to his Welsh hometown after many years and then dies in the middle of an evening of drinking with his longtime pals, won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction. By then Amis's marriage to Howard had ended, and in his later years he lived in a rather unorthodox arrangement in the posh London neighborhood of Primrose Hill with Hilly and her third husband, Lord Kilmarnock. In 1991 Amis's autobiography, Memoirs, was published, followed by the novel The Russian Girl in 1994. In August of 1995 he fell and injured his back, which seemed to set off a rapid decline, and he died in London, England, on October 22, 1995. His twenty-third and final novel, The Biographer's Moustache, was published that year. “From young Turk to old Devil, he maintained an amazingly high standard, as well as that unerring ability to infuriate,” noted Harry Ritchie, the writer of Amis's London Guardian obituary. Ritchie went on to quote Amis's own summation of his literary career: “I just enjoy annoying people.”
Leader, Zachary, The Life of Kingsley Amis, Pantheon, 2007.
Atlantic Monthly, May 2002.
Economist, March 9, 1991.
Guardian (London, England), October 24, 1995.
New Statesman, March 21, 1997.
New York Times, June 3, 2007.
New Yorker, April 23, 2007.
Sunday Times (London, England), September 18, 1988.
Times (London, England), January 27, 1954.
Times Literary Supplement, February 12, 1954.