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Amis, Kingsley

The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature

Scott Cohen

Amis, Kingsley 

Kingsley Amis (1922–1995) was one of the most accomplished British novelists of the 1950s. He authored more than two dozen novels, ranging from the satirical campus novel Lucky Jim (1954), to experiments with different generic forms, to the Booker Prize–winning The Old Devils (1986). To all these enterprises Amis brought his imposing wit and sometimes controversial sense of humor. His favorite themes were love and intellectual labor, and he delighted in showing the moral and almost always humorous consequences of their collision.

Kingsley AmisClick to view larger

Kingsley Amis Photograph by Ida Kar, 1950s National Portrait Gallery, London

Amis was the only child of solidly lower-middle-class parents, William and Rosa Lucas Amis. He recalls receiving from his “hopelessly unexotic” family an education in frugality, respectability, and comic effects. Amis's formal education eventually took him in 1941 from the south London suburbs to Oxford, where he studied English at St. John's College. At Oxford he immediately formed friendships with fellow writers Philip Larkin, John Wain, and Elizabeth Jennings. There Amis focused on his poetry and was soon politically active, becoming affiliated with the Communist Party—a fact that is often forgotten in light of his later strident conservatism. His close collaborations with Larkin and increasing fascination with music no doubt would have continued unabated had he not been called up for military service in 1942.

After the war Amis returned to Oxford, eventually receiving a degree in English and marrying Hilary (Hilly) Ann Bardwell. They had three children; they divorced in 1965. Shortly thereafter Amis married the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard; they too ultimately divorced, in 1983. Following his time at Oxford, Amis held a number of teaching and lecturing positions in Britain and America during the 1950s and 1960s, eventually leaving full-time teaching in order to focus on his writing. In June 1990 Amis was knighted, adding this distinction to the numerous awards he received over his five-decade writing career. He died on 22 October 1995.

Early Works and Lucky Jim

For those who know Amis primarily though his novels, it might come as some surprise that he was a talented but perhaps not gifted poet. In 1947 Amis published Bright November, his first volume of poetry. Another volume followed in 1953, and a collection entitled A Case of Samples in 1956. Amis's early verse reveals a clear, if uneven, voice of poetic stability. Elaborate precision marks his poetry, and poems such as “Radar,” “Bed and Breakfast,” “The Two Purses,” and “A Song of Experience” feature echoes of Larkin blending with those of W. H. Auden. Such influences and associations led to Amis's inclusion in the Movement, the loosely defined group of post–World War II poets including Wain, Larkin, Donald Davie, and Thom Gunn. Even though Amis would always question his affiliation with the group, his own tendencies toward the antiromantic and his poetry's emphasis on clarity and resistance to emotional superfluity lend credence to the designation.

The earnestness of Amis's poetry is particularly striking in light of the ironic and satiric tone that characterizes his fiction. In its funniest form, this mode is so dependent on mimicry that critics have never failed to suggest Amis's lower-middle-class origins made such observations possible. Much like George Orwell and many other authors emerging from the amorphous lower middle class, Amis was drawn to portrayals of class friction. Unlike Orwell, for whom social advancement was inextricably tied to the British Empire, Amis came of age during World War II and witnessed at first hand the subsequent expansion of higher education. The setting of the provincial university, with its newly served constituency and often uneven mixture of overwhelming bureaucratic dullness and vaguely encouraging intellectual potential, provided Amis with an ideal locus for his critical and humorous investigations.

Lucky Jim (1954), Amis's first published novel, tells the story of Jim Dixon, an untenured history lecturer struggling to keep afloat amid the academic flotsam that constitutes his department. In Jim Dixon, Amis inaugurates what would be called the “Amis hero,” an antiheroic figure he would develop in most of his fiction. In his mixed motives, sensitivity, and almost general inability to control himself, Dixon resembles many of the protagonists who would follow. Focusing on these characters' witty insubordination and often charming irreverence, critics suggested that Amis's early heroes share many similarities with the “angry young men” featured in the works of Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne. However, Amis would publicly disavow the “angry young men” assemblage, suggesting in his controversial essay “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right” that the category was merely “a phantom creation of literary journalists.”

In Lucky Jim readers were introduced to what would become Amis's two major contributions to fiction: his comic voice and his version of the antihero. Amis's style is much indebted to Henry Fielding, Max Beerbohm, P. G. Wodehouse, and Evelyn Waugh. But perhaps less obvious is his recasting of the technique of delayed decoding mastered by Joseph Conrad. In Amis's hands, the careful representation of the onslaught of perceptions lends itself to perfect comic timing. Through his playful treatment of perception, Amis allows the ridiculous to emerge through the everyday misapprehensions of his equally ordinary protagonist. Despite his self-destructive tendencies, Jim Dixon is a sympathetic character who ultimately finds the right girl and pursues a more appropriate profession.

After Jim

Amis found it difficult to duplicate the success of Lucky Jim. Even though his subsequent novels repeat a number of the same scenarios and introduce similar protagonists, many of them fall flat. That Uncertain Feeling (1955) is a prime example. In the process of sorting out his own marriage and career, the hero-narrator, John Lewis, engages in an affair with a married woman. Despite the rendering of sexual and social folly, the comic element is diminished by Lewis's vaguely self-loathing narration. Similarly, Amis's next novel, I Like It Here (1958), presents a hero whose work as a journalist and novelist leads him to Portugal, where he studies the authenticity of a manuscript. In this novel of the Englishman abroad, Amis makes great use of the foreign setting and a highly concentrated set of literary allusions to position the novel's hero, Garnet Bowen, as a man of letters in search of literary value.

If Garnet Bowen's ostensible journey for the truth of the writer (in more ways than one) is an intellectual and emotional enterprise, then Patrick Standish, the hero of Take a Girl Like You (1960) finds similar challenges in the wooing and ultimate sexual conquest of a young teacher, Jenny Bunn. The novel casts the typical trappings of a seduction plot in the “Swinging Sixties,” attending to the dark and humiliating aspects of sexual relations. Readers have been tempted to find Standish's predatory seduction of Jenny—a modern and thus thorny revision of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa—more repugnant than revealing. This more caustic turn girds the reader for the unwieldy protagonist of One Fat Englishman (1963). Roger Micheldene, the irredeemable and angry misanthrope at the center of Amis's least admired novel, is a literary editor who comes to America, where he finds more than enough material upon which to exercise his spleen.

If Roger reflects Amis's frustration with the American scene, then it only makes sense that while a visiting fellow at Princeton, Amis turned his attention to the farther reaches of science fiction as a refuge. At Princeton Amis participated in the Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism (1958–1959), delivering a series of lectures on science fiction later collected in New Maps of Hell (1960). He sought to introduce “critical standards” to a field he considered dominated by “a provincialism of thought.” The result is a rigorous and admirable critical tour de force that unearths the formal elegance and psychological nuance of the popular parallel universe of science fiction writing.

As his scholarly appreciation for science fiction indicates, Amis was an astute observer of popular culture. He was also an accomplished and fluent practitioner of a variety of popular literary forms, penning the crime fictions The Riverside Villas Murder (1973) and The Crime of the Century (1987), the ghost story The Green Man (1969), the spy story The Anti-Death League (1966), and the James Bond adventure Colonel Sun (1968). In addition to editing the British science fiction series Spectrum with his friend and occasional collaborator Robert Conquest, Amis wrote two noteworthy science fiction novels of his own, The Alteration (1976) and Russian Hide-and-Seek (1980).

Following these often virtuoso generic renditions, Amis returned to a more comedic tone—what V. S. Pritchett accurately termed “comic diatribe”—with Jake's Thing (1978), a humorous novel about physical and psychic impotence and the pervasive cultural fascination with resolution. When embedded with the comedic and pitiful, the misogyny of Jake's Thing might be excused. On the other hand, few critics defend the more combative Stanley and the Women (1984) and the melancholic Difficulties with Girls (1988).

Time took its own toll on Amis's work, which suffered a slow but consistent decline over his prolific five-decade career. The Old Devils (1986) stands as a notable exception. It earned Amis the Booker-McConnell Prize, and its tone is as diverse as its cast of characters. The novel is marked by an admirable dedication to a melancholic study of return and aging, largely through Amis's detailed analysis of protagonist Alun Weaver's journey home.

It is neither the tidal forces of political correctness nor the shifting currents of taste that diminish these last novels. For the most part, witty satire and rambling comedy are overshadowed by Amis's discouragement and even disdain for the currents of contemporary society. In his later novels, even those most highly acclaimed such as The Old Devils, it is difficult—but not impossible—to find the disarming charm that is so clearly a part of the success of his early fiction, as well as the brute thuggish quality tempered by an ironic self-conscious naïveté that enables his poetry. Without these key ingredients, critics and readers were less eager to indulge.

See also Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn.

Selected Works

Bright November (1947)Find this resource:

    Lucky Jim (1954)Find this resource:

      That Uncertain Feeling (1955)Find this resource:

        A Case of Samples: Poems 1946–1956 (1956)Find this resource:

          I Like It Here (1958)Find this resource:

            New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960)Find this resource:

              Take a Girl Like You (1960)Find this resource:

                One Fat Englishman (1963)Find this resource:

                  The Egyptologists (1965) with Robert ConquestFind this resource:

                    The Anti-Death League (1966)Find this resource:

                      Colonel Sun: A James Bond Adventure (1968) under the pseudonym Robert MarkhamFind this resource:

                        I Want It Now (1968)Find this resource:

                          The Green Man (1969)Find this resource:

                            What Became of Jane Austen and Other Questions (1970)Find this resource:

                              Girl, 20 (1971)Find this resource:

                                The Riverside Villas Murder (1973)Find this resource:

                                  Rudyard Kipling and His World (1975)Find this resource:

                                    The Alteration (1976)Find this resource:

                                      Jake's Thing (1978)Find this resource:

                                        Collected Poems, 1944–1979 (1979)Find this resource:

                                          Russian Hide-and-Seek: A Melodrama (1980)Find this resource:

                                            Stanley and the Women (1984)Find this resource:

                                              The Old Devils (1986)Find this resource:

                                                Difficulties with Girls (1988)Find this resource:

                                                  The Amis Collection: Selected Non-Fiction, 1954–1990 (1990)Find this resource:

                                                    Memoirs (1991)Find this resource:

                                                      You Can't Do Both (1994)Find this resource:


                                                        Leader, Zachary, ed. The Letters of Kingsley Amis. London, 2000.Find this resource:

                                                          Further Reading

                                                          Bell, Robert H., ed. Critical Essays on Kingsley Amis. New York, 1998. A useful primer on Amis criticism with contributions by David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, James Wolcott, John Updike, V. S. Pritchett, and others.Find this resource:

                                                            Bradford, Richard. Lucky Him: The Life of Kingsley Amis. London, 2001. A personal and revealing biography with many important, lesser-known details underwriting some sound readings.Find this resource:

                                                              Fussell, Paul. The Anti-Egoist: Kingley Amis, Man of Letters. New York, 1994. A remarkably detailed study of the less known Amis the poet, critic, and reviewer.Find this resource:

                                                                Jacobs, Eric. Kingsley Amis: A Biography. London, 1995. A compassionate yet thorough authorized biography.Find this resource:

                                                                  Laskowski, William. Kingsley Amis. New York, 1998.Find this resource:

                                                                    Lodge, David. The Language of Fiction: Essays in Criticism and Verbal Analysis of the English Novel. New York, 1966.Find this resource:

                                                                      McDermott, John. Kingsley Amis: An English Moralist. New York, 1989.Find this resource:

                                                                        Salwak, Dale. Kingsley Amis: A Reference Guide. Boston, 1978.Find this resource:

                                                                          Scott Cohen