Books May 2009

The Captive Mind

Edward Upward was one of the only writers of the ’30s to deal with Britain’s elephant in the room—fascism—but his career was forever warped by his communism.

Illustration by Alex Williamson

Early in the 1930s, when he was managing the Hogarth Press for Leonard and Virginia Woolf and preparing the anthology—New Signatures—that would be received as a species of generational manifesto, John Lehmann wrote that he had

heard with the tremor of excitement that an entomologist feels at the news of an unknown butterfly sighted in the depths of the forest, that behind Auden and Spender and Isherwood stood the even more legendary figure of … Edward Upward.

In that reference to the literary-political celebrities of the ’30s, Upward received his due. In a once-famous attempt to get the whole set into one portmanteau term, which was Roy Campbell’s coinage of MacSpaunday to comprehend the names of Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, and Cecil Day-Lewis, Upward was omitted altogether (as was his friend and closest collaborator, Christopher Isherwood). On the eve of Valentine’s Day this year, at the age of 105, the last British author to have been born in the Edwardian epoch died. If Upward is not better known than perhaps he ought to be, it is probably because he helped instill the Communist faith in his more notorious friends, and then not only outlived them and their various apostasies but continued to practice a version of that faith himself. (For purposes of comparison, MacNeice died in 1963, Day-Lewis in 1972, Auden in 1973, Isherwood in 1986, and Spender in 1995, so with Upward’s death, the last link to that era is truly snapped.)

His traces and spoor and fingerprints are to be found all over the work of those whom he so strongly mentored. Auden dedicated “The Exiles”—one of the Odes in The Orators—to Upward, and made him an executor of his will when he set off to take part in the Spanish Civil War. Upward also makes an appearance as a character in Auden’s charade, Paid on Both Sides, published in T. S. Eliot’s Criterion in 1930. In the same year, Auden sent Upward a copy of his Poems and wrote, “I shall never know how much in these poems is filched from you via Christopher.” With Isherwood, who fictionalized him in Lions and Shadows under the name of Allen Chalmers, Upward co-invented the weird dystopia of Mortmere, and co-authored the fantastic gothic tales—surreal medievalism was Upward’s term for the genre—that became grouped under that name. Isherwood dedicated All the Conspirators to him. Spender, in his 1935 study, The Destructive Element, presented Upward as an English Kafka. In 1938, the Hogarth Press published Upward’s novel Journey to the Border, which was thought of by many as the only English effort at Marxist fiction that was likely to outlast the era in which it was written. And then … silence. There was some rumor of a “nervous breakdown.” Nothing was heard from Upward until the early 1960s, when he abruptly produced a trilogy of didactic and autobiographical novels, each illustrating in different ways what a commitment to a Communist life could do to an aspiring author. (When I read them, I was put in mind of something Doris Lessing once said to me about the Communist Party’s “Writers’ Group,” of which she had once been a member: everybody liked to talk about the “problems” of being a writer, and most of the “problems” came from being in the Communist Party in the first place.)

A decade or so ago, becoming aware that Upward was still alive and still writing—and bethinking myself that if I wanted to interview this soon-to-be centenarian and last survivor of his generation, I had better hurry up—I made a voyage to the Isle of Wight, that little diamond-shaped island off the southern coast of England that helps form the natural harbors of Portsmouth and Southampton. In this almost parodic picture-postcard miniature of deep England, Upward had chosen to literally “isolate” himself. The Isle of Wight is where Tennyson came to write Crossing the Bar. It is where Queen Victoria kept her favorite home, Osborne House, and it is where she died in 1901, two years before Upward was born.

In a vicarage-style house not far from the railway station in the small town of Sandown, Upward received me and led me to a side room. He explained without loss of time that the main rooms of the little home were out of bounds because his wife, Hilda, was in the process of dying there. “I shall miss Hilda,” he said with the brisk matter-of-factness of the materialist, “but I have promised her that I shall go on writing.” Attired in gray flannel trousers, a corduroy jacket, and a V-neck jersey, he reminded me of something so obvious that I didn’t immediately recognize it. On a table lay the Morning Star, the daily newspaper of the Stalinist rump organization that survived the British Communist Party’s decision to dissolve itself after the implosion of the Soviet Union. It is entirely possible that Upward was the paper’s sole subscriber on this islet of thatched cottages and stained glass and theme-park rural Englishness. Seeing me notice the old rag, he said, rather defensively, “Yes I still take it, though there doesn’t seem much hope these days.” When I asked him if there was anyone on the left he still admired, he cited Arthur Scargill, the coal miners’ thuggish leader, who was known to connoisseurs as the most ouvriériste and sectarian and demagogic of the anti-Blair forces in the Labour movement. Yet to this alarming opinion he appended the shy and disarming news that the last review he had had in the Morning Star had been a good one, precisely because it stressed that not all his work was strictly political. “It particularly mentioned my story ‘The White-Pinafored Black Cat.’” I inquired if he was working on a story at that moment. “Yes I am.” “And may one know the title?” “It’s to be called ‘The World Revolution.’” At this point and in this context, I began to find the word surreal recurring to my mind.

Presented by

Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In