John Cowper Powys (October 8, 1872 to June 17, 1963) ) the British writer, the most gifted perhaps of a gifted family, inspired exasperated praise in the best of cases. He was an "irresistible long winded bore" in one accounting. And the creator of a "dangerous" realm where " The reader may wander for years in this parallel universe, entrapped and bewitched..." according to Margaret Drabble.
The life of the man who claimed these extravagant phrases was in its
.... early part ... standard Victoriana. John Cowper Powys was ...[the] eldest son of the Rev. Charles Francis Powys, vicar of Shirley, Derbyshire, whose sprawling brood of eleven so epitomized the Victorian age it could have been written into existence by Trollope, a volume per child. The vicar’s wife, Mary Cowper Powys, was a gifted amateur pianist doomed to creative frustration, like so many Victorian wives; the reverend had a tin ear, alas, and no time for suffragists. Mary Cowper’s was a dreary life. But she was descended from the poets John Donne and William Cowper, so art ran in her blood and in that of her children, five of whom became artists of one kind or another, and three of whom, John Cowper, Theodore Francis (“T.F.”), and Llewellyn, went on to become writers. John Cowper became something more; I’m not quite sure what.
Like his father and brothers, he was educated at the ancient and prestigious Sherborne School in Dorset, where he succeeded in keeping bullies at bay by aggressively playing the fool, a skill he honed by practicing on his younger brothers. After Sherborne, still in the family footsteps, he went to Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. There he associated with few, bar one or two fellow misfits; he kept a revolver in his rooms as a deterrent to excessive socializing. After graduating with a second-class degree in History, he married and fathered a son, and—having failed dismally at various kinds of teaching—he signed on with the Oxford Extension public lecture program which, in 1904, sent him off on his first lecture tour of the new world. Although he never became in the slightest bit American, America was the making of him. He stayed for 25 years until, driven by financial necessity, homesickness, and the need to be near the graves of his ancestors, he returned to Britain. He died in the mountains of North Wales at age 90.
Perhaps there is a glimpse of his appeal in this feline description from A Glastonbury Romance (1932):
Out of the midst of a dazed condition of his senses, John stared down at the abominable despair in the hollow eye-sockets of that decomposed cat-head. A whitish-yellowish cabbage stalk lay buried in the mud near it....
What we have here, and it must explain some of his appeal, is originality.
(More bread and butter is consumed and more tea drunk in the novels of John Cowper Powys than in the whole of the rest of English literature.) He wrote poems, and essays, and gargantuan epic fictions, and manuals of self-help, and innumerable letters. Words poured from him, and he was famous for never rereading any of them. It is left to us, the readers, to lose ourselves in his creation, and to try to emerge from it and to make some sense of it. It is no wonder that mainstream literary critics have avoided him, and that a handful of scholars and addicts have clustered round his oeuvre. He is so far outside the canon that he defies the concept of a canon.