by Sullivan, Robert
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John Middleton Murry 1899-1957
Murry, born into a lower-middle class family in the suburbs of London, may have followed in his father's footsteps and become a civil-servant, but instead re-invented himself as an ardent, if peripheral, figure in the history of modernism. It might be said of him that he is best known for knowing the people that he knew: most particularly, Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, but he was acquainted also with Picasso, Gaudier-Breszka, and Aldous Huxley, to name but a few. Such an appraisal would be unfair however, because Murry made a genuine contribution to the evolution of literary criticism in England, even if he failed at what was no doubt his primary desire, to be a creative artist in his own right. He was the shrewd editor of The Athenaeum and The Adelphi, two of the more important periodicals in England between the wars. He is also the author of many, some important, books of literary criticism. These include The Problem of Style (1922), Keats and Shakespeare (1925) and, late in his life, a biography of Swift (1954), in which he coined the phrase “the excremental vision.” The influential critic F.R. Leavis records his debt to Murry, as does the great Shakespearean scholar Wilson Knight. There is as well his own autobiography, Between Two Worlds (1935), and his editorship of his wife's letters and stories.
His career as a “man of letters” started at the age of 22 while still a student at Brasenose, Oxford, when he and a fellow undergraduate founded the avant-garde, if short-lived Rhythm, a magazine of the arts. The title was no doubt chosen for its suggestion of movement and fluidity in the new Bergsonian aesthetic that Murry hoped to promulgate. This new aesthetic did not meet with everyone's approval however, even among his fellow contributors to the New Age. See, for example, the remarks by Arnold Bennett (Tonson) in his column “Books and Persons” in 9.14 on the first issue of Rhythm.
During his stay in Paris and still a student, he, like many other young intellectuals, fell under the spell of Bergson as well as the post-impressionists and championed their cause in his magazine and in the pages of the New Age. (See, for example, his piece on “Bergson in Paris” in the form of a letter, 9.05, and his piece on Picasso, discussing the artist in terms of Plato's theory of Forms: 10.05.) It was through a fellow contributor to The New Age that Murry met Katherine Mansfield. At first her lodger, he became her lover, then eventually her husband and collaborator. She, herself a contributor to the New Age, joined him in editing Rhythm and later The Blue Review. When she died in 1923, Murry continued to commemorate his wife and attempted to elevate her reputation to that of a “great” writer, much to the annoyance of his oftentimes difficult “friend” D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence felt that Mansfield was a competent enough writer but not deserving of the towering pedestal on which her husband wished to place her, and this seems a fair estimate today.
The Lawrences and the Murrys had a rather tempestuous relationship, dating from their acquaintance in 1913, through the war years, and even after Mansfield's and Lawrence's death, when J.M.M. had a brief affair with Frieda Lawrence. It is probable that Murry saw in Lawrence the type of the “Symbolic Man” that so interested him, and that Lawrence saw in Murry the kind of apostle he desired. There is also the more personal reason of how the two men shared the vicissitudes of being involved with married women, that is before the advent of their own marriages to each of them. These complex relations between the couples are given, in part, a dramatic airing in Lawrence's Women in Love. Lawrence also wrote some stories in the 1920s that figured a barely disguised Murry in pathetic situations. In his turn, Murry reviewed Women in Love in his paper The Athenaeum, remarking on its “senseless mindless mysteries,” and after Lawrence's death, he extended his revenge by publishing his book on Lawrence entitled Son of Woman, which is less than flattering.
Despite the love-hate relationship between the two men—indeed maybe because of it—Lawrence may have best summed up Murry's predicament and the various displacements of what he saw as his “faith” in art. After the publication of Murry's first novel, Lawrence remarked that despite being “clever” Murry was a “non-creative individual.” It was perhaps the failure of his belief in his creativity as a kind of faith that led him into a form of criticism that engaged his subject's inner turmoil, a vicarious excursion into the creative spirit. His wife's biographer sums up—a little unkindly perhaps—his doomed creative bent: “…about this time [1910-11] Murry decided to become a poet and novelist. This was a serious mistake, for his gifts did not lie in that direction, and he wasted energy and paper for years on bad verse and flaccid novels, determinedly seeing himself as the heir to the English Romantics” (Tomalin: 98).
This romantic conception of himself underwent many metamorphoses, turning him in the direction of Christianity, a sort of pastoral communism, and eventually it led him to embrace Pacifism, making him a less than popular figure during the 2nd W.W. The standard biography is by F.A. Lea (1959).
- Gross, John, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. NY: Collier Books, 1969.
- Martin, Wallace, The New Age Under Orage. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1967.
- Tomalin, Claire, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1987.