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.)