Authors: Wilson Harris

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Author

March 24, 1921

New Amsterdam, British Guiana (now Guyana)

Biography

Using the richly varied landscape and the diverse cultural traditions of his homeland, Theodore Wilson Harris is a prolific and complex novelist. He was born in British Guiana (later Guyana), the son of middle-class parents. His father was Theodore Wilson, an insurer and underwriter, and his mother was Millicent Josephine (née Glasford) Harris. Harris attended both Catholic and Protestant schools in Georgetown, the capital, before attending Queen’s College from 1934 to 1939. Queen’s College was one of the best schools for boys in the Caribbean, and Harris studied under English schoolmasters who taught the canonical British texts and classical literature. Of mixed racial origin himself, Harris was to combine his education with his own lifelong development of a cross-cultural, symbolic imagination. After leaving school, he studied to be a land surveyor, qualifying to practice in 1942.

{$S[A]Waruk, Kona;Harris, Wilson}

As a government surveyor until 1958, Harris led expeditions to coastal areas and into the rough interior of the country. Spending long periods of time with men of different races and classes and encountering the Amerindians of the interior had a profound effect upon his imagination and provided a metaphor for his later explorations of the unity and diversity in nature and culture. The surveyor became a principal recurring character in his fiction. In 1945, he married Cecily Carew, and about the same time he began publishing short stories, poems, reviews, and critical essays in the literary journal Kyk-over-al, which was edited by the Guyanese poet Arthur Seymour from 1945 to 1961. His long apprenticeship resulted in two small books of poetry, the first published under the pseudonym Kona Waruk. In 1950, he visited England and Europe, particularly France, for the first time. By the late 1950s, his first marriage had ended in divorce, and Harris had decided to become a professional writer. He immigrated to England, where in 1959 he met and married the Scottish lyricist and writer Margaret Nimmo Burns, settled in London, and abandoned poetry for the novel.

His first novel, Palace of the Peacock, began a series of novels, at one a year, which Harris himself described as the Guyana Quartet. They were set in Guyana and explored the natural and cultural history of Guyana, but they did so in such an unconventional mode that many readers found themselves utterly lost, as if in a Guyanese wilderness. Rejecting the chronological realism of conventional stories, Harris allied himself with modernistic stylists but retained the essential, universal issues from classical mythology. He sought to force his readers into an initial bewilderment that would erode their preconceptions about race, culture, power, tradition, and nature. He hoped to provoke his readers into shedding these preconceptions in order to learn new ways of seeing the world and its peoples. While Harris did not wish to downplay the gritty potential of humans to harm others of their kind, he did sense deeply that humanity could imagine its own redemption. Many of the themes and devices that Harris employed in his first novel continued in the rest of his fiction but with ever-increasing depth and complexity. As the Guyana Quartet progressed through The Far Journey of Oudin, The Whole Armour, and The Secret Ladder, Harris developed an elaborate mythology on the interrelationship of the races. Technical devices, too, were well established in his early works and created great difficulties for those readers who were unwilling to work hard merely to stay with his texts. Rapidly juxtaposed images of paradox, philosophical asides, frequent allusions, a fluid narrative consciousness, and various points of view (though one would usually dominate) kept readers attentive. His fifth novel, Heartland, seemed much closer to the first phase in his work—a phase in which the major themes and devices are rehearsed with confidence.

Harris began a second phase in his fiction with his next four novels: The Eye of the Scarecrow, The Waiting Room, Tumatumari, and Ascent to Omai. Here, memory takes an essential role in moving the explorations inward through symbols of waterfalls, rapids, dense jungles, and vast savannas. Characters discover an emptiness, an unknown void within themselves that sustains the mood of loss in the individual or in the beleaguered community. Harris’s two collections of short fiction, The Sleepers of Roraima and The Age of the Rainmakers, are markedly different from his novels. In these stories, Harris concentrated on the lives of the indigenous Caribs and Arawaks, the aboriginal peoples of Guyana and the West Indies. Working primarily with myths, Harris permits the reader not only to understand the Caribs as victims of colonization but also to see them as victimizers of other peoples. The stories echo with allusions and patterns familiar in classical mythology, thus supporting Harris’s belief that humanity has a cross-cultural imagination that serves as a ground for the unity of the human experience. A third phase of Harris’s novels, initiated by Black Marsden in 1972, was centered on the metaphor of painting and resurrection. Characters recur in the novels, and the settings are such diverse places as Scotland, London, Mexico, and India rather than Guyana exclusively. As in earlier works, Harris employs a variety of technical devices, especially accentuating in this phase the autobiographical elements which seem almost to be transcendent bridges to his past. During this period and until well into the 1980s, Harris traveled widely, often lecturing at universities on Third World writers, the Caribbean, and the function of the imagination in the modern era. That Harris found a method in his fiction to include those experiences in different cultures suggests that his belief in the community of humanity, formed in the 1940s with surveying crews and Amerindians, deepened rather than dimmed over the years of his writing.

The Carnival Trilogy is, after the Guyana Quartet, Harris’s second great masterwork. Although the three books that compose it do not have the same set of characters, they possess common motifs that contribute to a structural unity. Carnival is set in London in 1982, though the action stretches back to the town of New Forest, Guyana, decades into the past. The Infinite Rehearsal revolves around one image: the drowning of a mother, son, and aunt in 1961 a short distance from a South American beach. The Four Banks of the River of Space, set deep within the rain forest of the Guyanese interior, is far more abstact than the first two books.

In Jonestown, Harris fictionalizes the event for which Guyana is best known in the outside world: the mass suicide in November 1978 of the People’s Temple cult led by Jim Jones, who is called Jonah Jones in the novel. Harris invents the rest of his major characters.

Harris took on another historical topic for his next novel, The Dark Jester (2001). In this work, he presents a fictionalized account of Spanish conquistador Pizarro's conquest of Peru and his interactions with the country's Inca king, Atahualpa. He then followed up The Mask of the Beggar (2003) with The Ghost of Memory (2006), which focuses on a man who is shot as a terrorist and subsequently falls into the world of a painting on display at a gallery, allowing for visionary and philosophical explorations customary to Harris's writing.

Given the difficulty of Harris’s aesthetic—Palace of the Peacock is narrated by the surveyor who may or may not be dead as the novel opens—and the prolific production of his fiction, one might suspect that critical opinion would be scant, but there exists quite a substantial body of criticism. Critics have sought to overcome the strangeness of his texts by trying approaches that range from close textual explication to psychological readings. Facing a lack of convention to which they might respond, several critics have attempted comparative strategies that examine Harris’s work alongside that of other innovative symbolists such as William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, Joseph Conrad, and T. S. Eliot. Despite such good company, some critics have dismissed Harris’s work as too arbitrary in its complex, sustained symbolism. Still other critics have focused on Harris as a black writer of West Indian origin who represents a powerful voice in the African diaspora of emerging postcolonial writers; they have concentrated on sketching the cultural and geographic dimensions in his symbolism. As readers discover Harris, they are likely to find a voice that, in seeking to resolve the questions of West Indian literature, has discovered that neither passivity in response to a dominant culture nor revolt against colonial legacies will suffice in the study of language and power: For Harris, the only absolute faith is in change through the human imagination.

Harris’s importance has been acknowledged by the many awards he has received from cultural and academic institutions, including the English Arts Council Award in 1968 and 1970, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1972, and many university visiting professorships and fellowships (in Denmark, India, Australia, Canada, and the United States). In 1984, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies and later the 1985–87 Guyana Prize for Literature for fiction. In 2002, he received the Guyana Prize for Literature's Special Award. After being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010, he was honored with an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for lifetime achievement in 2014.

Author Works Long Fiction: Palace of the Peacock, 1960 The Far Journey of Oudin, 1961 The Whole Armour, 1962 The Secret Ladder, 1963 Heartland, 1964 The Eye of the Scarecrow, 1965 The Waiting Room, 1967 Tumatumari, 1968 Ascent to Omai, 1970 Black Marsden, 1972 Companions of the Day and Night, 1975 Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns, 1977 The Three of the Sun, 1978 The Angel at the Gate, 1982 Carnival, 1985 The Guyana Quartet, 1985 (includes Palace of the Peacock, The Far Journey of Oudin, The Whole Armour, and The Secret Ladder) The Infinite Rehearsal, 1987 The Four Banks of the River of Space, 1990 The Carnival Trilogy, 1993 (includes Carnival, The Infinite Rehearsal, and The Four Banks of the River of Space) Resurrection at Sorrow Hill, 1993 Jonestown, 1996 The Dark Jester, 2001 The Mask of the Beggar, 2003 The Ghost of Memory, 2006 Short Fiction: The Sleepers of Roraima, 1970 The Age of the Rainmakers, 1971 Poetry: Fetish, 1951 (as Kona Waruk) Eternity to Season, 1954 Nonfiction: Tradition, the Writer, and Society, 1967 History, Fable, and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas, 1970 Fossil and Psyche, 1974 Explorations: A Selection of Tales and Articles, 1981 The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination, 1983 The Radical Imagination: Lectures and Talks, 1992 Selected Essays of Wilson Harris: The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination, 1999 Bibliography Cribb, Tim. “T. W. Harris, Sworn Surveyor.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 28, no. 1 (1993): 33–46. A biographically oriented essay that discusses the relevance of Harris’s early experience as a surveyor in the Guyanese interior to his fictional oeuvre; especially relevant to The Four Banks of the River of Space. Drake, Sandra. Wilson Harris and the Modern Tradition: A New Architecture of the World. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Places Harris in the modernist tradition and shows how his fiction comprises a “third-world modernism.” The reading of four novels—Palace of the Peacock, Tumatumari, Ascent to Omai, and Genesis of the Clowns—in this light rounds out the discussion. The accompanying bibliographical essay provides a valuable survey of the critical response to Harris’s work. Ferguson, James. "Wilson Harris—into the Interior." Caribbean Beat, May/June 2016, caribbean-beat.com/issue-139/into-interior-wilson-harris#axzz4ig1NfzeM. Accessed 31 May 2017. Discusses the continued impact of Harris's home country on his writing. Gilkes, Michael, ed. The Literate Imagination: Essays on the Novels of Wilson Harris. London: Macmillan, 1989. This collection, edited by a well-known scholar of Caribbean literature, includes Harris’s discussion of “Literacy and the Imagination,” as well as eleven essays by international critics whose work is divided into three sections: “Phenomenal Space,” “Language and Perception,” and “The Dialectical Imagination.” Howard, W. J. “Wilson Harris’s Guyana Quartet: From Personal Myth to National Identity.” Ariel 1 (1970): 46–60. Placing the novels that compose the Guyana Quartet into the symbolist tradition, the essay links Harris’s work with the poetry of William Blake and W. B. Yeats. Concludes that, like these poets, Harris transforms history into myth. Maes-Jelinek, Hena. Wilson Harris. Boston: Twayne, 1982. An excellent introduction to a complex body of fiction. Provides biographical materials and traces the progress of Harris’s fiction through detailed analyses of theme and technique. Includes extensive primary and secondary bibliographies and a chronology. Overall, a good book for the beginning reader of Harris’s work. The Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (Summer, 1997). A special issue devoted to Harris. Contains essays and interviews by Harris and literary peers such as Zulfikar Ghose and Kathleen Raine, as well as a selection of critical essays by international contributors, ranging from the analytical to the theoretical. Riach, Alan, and Mark Williams. “Reading Wilson Harris.” In Wilson Harris: The Uncompromising Imagination, edited by Hena Maes-Jelinek. Sydney: Dangaroo Press, 1991. Two New Zealand critics provide one of the most insightful practical guides to Harris’s work. Sharrad, Paul. “The Art of Memory and the Liberation of History: Wilson Harris’s Witnessing of Time.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 27, no. 1 (1992): 110–127. A well-known commentator reflects on whether Harris is a mythical or historical novelist. Slemon, Stephen. “Carnival and the Canon.” Ariel 19, no. 3 (1988): 47–56. A prominent Canadian critic and theorist situates the first part of the Carnival trilogy within and against the Western tradition.

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