Norman Douglas: Forgotten Author?

An article about writer Norman Douglas (noted pedophile) has been inspired by the flurry of activity stirred up by a recent HBO documentary about the posthumous reputation of the singer Michael Jackson. This is by the author of a forthcoming biography of Douglas, Rachel Hope Cleves, and was posted on the website theconversation.com.  It has been reposted by several other publications including the San Francisco Chronicle. It opens with this:

There’s no question that Michael Jackson changed music history. But how will history remember Michael Jackson? […]There are other alleged child abusers who have died and whose works, once considered great, have faded into obscurity, in no small part because it is almost impossible to memorialize them without creating the impression of condoning their behavior. The writer Norman Douglas is a prime example.

Cleves describes the literary debate that raged in the early 1950s after Douglas’s death. This was lead on one side by critic Richard Aldington who condemned Douglas to obscurity and on the other by Graham Greene, who defended Douglas as a writer. Cleves concludes that discussion with this:

In the decades that followed many would-be biographers tried their hand at writing Douglas’ story; time and again they failed. Douglas simply could not be remembered as a great writer in the face of the allegations against him. Only one comprehensive biography, titled “Norman Douglas,” has ever been published about him. It came out in 1976, during a rare moment of sexual openness; even so, the publisher almost nixed the manuscript after 10 years of work by its author, Mark Holloway. Today Douglas is a forgotten writer. When the truth about his sexual relations with children was fully exposed after his death he became an impossible figure to memorialize.

Cleves may be correct that Douglas was forgotten as a person. But his writings could not be said to have been forgotten since his death. Indeed, his major works are still in print, some in both digital and paper editions; South Wind, Siren Land, Old Calabria, Alone, Some Limericks. Even some of his lesser known works are being made available in print on demand editions.

Waugh wrote a 1928 review of one of these lesser works. This was In the Beginning which Waugh reviewed in Vogue, where he described it as a “book to be deeply thankful for.” That book has itself recently been republished (see link). In the same review Waugh described South Wind as having been written with “superb faciilty” and the “only great satirical novel of his generation.” (EAR, pp. 40-41) As evidence of Waugh’s favorable views, Cleves notes in her article that:

When the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” arrives at Oxford after World War I, he brings with him only two novels, “South Wind” and Compton Mackenzie’s “Sinister Street.” […] Graham Greene recalled how his generation “was brought up on South Wind.”

When Douglas died, Waugh wrote to Graham Greene that he “began to reread South Wind and to my horror found it very heavy going. I am very sorry indeed never to have met him.” (Letters, p. 370)

The fact that Douglas has been ignored by biographers may have more to do with the fact that he was an unpleasant or, in the end, uninteresting person. That does not necessarily mean that readers or critics find his works less interesting because of his personal habits. Indeed, Evelyn Waugh’s personal habits leave much to be desired. Speaking for myself, I have always found the Douglas works I read somewhat over-rated, but I read them as background for trips to Southern Italy and for that purpose they were worthwhile.

On the subject of Southern Italy, the Spectator has posted an article about the rising reputation of wines grown around the base of Mount Etna. The article opens with this:

Until recently, my only knowledge of Mount Etna was Evelyn Waugh’s parodic description of it, when he visited in the Twenties:

“I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountains almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as thought reflected, in a wisp of smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting.”

These days Etna tends to be more associated with potential eruptions, given that it is the largest active volcano in Europe, but there is another far more interesting trait of the region…it is Ground Zero for the most exciting new wine in Italy.

The quote comes from Waugh’s travel book Labels (1930, p. 169).

 

 

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