The Outsider (1956) by Colin Wilson, is the first part of the Outsider Cycle, a trilogy of works which includes both Religion and the Rebel (1957) and The Age of Defeat (1959). First published by Victor Gollancz on the 28th May 1956, The Outsider was an immediate publishing sensation with its entire print run of 5,000 being sold on the day of publication, with a further 20,000 copies disappearing off the shelves in the following six months; an achievement all the more remarkable given that it was a work of philosophy.

In many ways Colin Wilson was an unlikely philosopher. Born in Leicester to working class parents, he left school at sixteen and went through a series of menial jobs, visited France a couple of times, and became convinced of his own genius. By the year 1955 he was engaged in writing a supernatural thriller based on the Whitechapel Murders, whilst sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath and working on his novel at the British Museum during the day. There he made the acquaintance of Angus Wilson (no relation) who encouraged him to submit his manuscript to the publisher Victor Gollancz. Wilson however delivered quite a different manuscript entitled The Pain Threshold, which Gollancz retitled as 'The Outsider' no doubt inspired by Albert Camus's L’Étranger (1942) the English editions of which appeared under the title of 'The Outsider' rather than 'The Stranger'.

In addition to Albert Camus, Wilson's book drew on various sources such as the Kabbalah, and the works of John Paul Sartre, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Blake etc and introduced the concept of New Existentialism which, according to Wilson himself, addressed the "central question" as to "whether we would all be more sensible to commit suicide".

Even before the book was published Gollancz had persuaded the Evening News to run a piece on Wilson which proclaimed 'HE’S A MAJOR WRITER AND HE’S ONLY 24', whilst the book itself appeared to ecstatic reviews. Cyril Connolly writing in The Sunday Times pronounced it "one of the most remarkable first books I have read for a long time", whilst Philip Toynbee for The Observer decided that it was "truly outstanding" and an "exhaustive and luminously intelligent study". Wilson thus became an instant celebrity, and feted as an emerging genius.

Colin Wilson and The Movement

To understand why the reception given to The Outsider was so favourable and why Colin Wilson became so famous so quickly, it is necessary to refer to the emergence in the early 1950s of The Movement, a literary group whose members included the novelist Kingsley Amis and the poet Philip Larkin. The Movement were a group of writers who were essentially anti-Modernist in outlook, they celebrated the suburban, preferred Jazz to Classical Music, beer to wine, and deeply offended much of the decidedly Modernist London literary establishment who regarded them as a bunch of lower middle class oiks out to destroy all that was decent and good. They were particularly offended with the good reception given to Amis's novel Lucky Jim which appeared in 1954.

Prominent amongst the members of this literary establishment were Messrs Connolly and Toynbee and the reason why they celebrated Colin Wilson was simply that he was "a self consciously intellectual rival to set up against the bluff pragmatism of Amis and The Movement". Here at last was a literary hero with the right highbrow credentials to challenge the Movement. This much was blindingly obvious as Cyril Connolly's review of The Outsider even appeared under the title 'Unlucky Jim'.

Of course as far as Amis was concerned Wilson was a prime exponent of the pretentious intellectualism he despised, and duly said so in the Spectator. This inspired Wilson to write to Amis asserting that he represented "a new trend in English literature" and that it was his intention to knock Amis off his pedestal. For his part Amis predicted that paranoia would bring down Wilson within a couple of years, although as it happened it didn't take that long.

The fall of Colin Wilson

As Cyril Connolly later admitted, despite heaping praising The Outsider he never actually read the book. He probably should have done. One disgruntled reader wrote in to the Times Literary Supplement to point out that he'd found 82 major and 203 minor mistakes on just one page of The Outsider, an average of one mistake per line of text. It soon became apparent that whilst Wilson might well have read all the 'right' books, he didn't necessarily understand any of them.

Celebrity also rather went to Wilson's head, and led to him making a number of rather bizarre pronouncements. In one interview for The Daily Express on the 14th September 1956 he argued that death was entirely avoidable (it was all simply a matter of will apparently), in another he condemned William Shakespeare for possessing "a second rate mind". All of which caused a certain amount of uncomfortable shifting of bums on seats. However the actual cause of Colin Wilson's downfall began with a rather comic incident involving the author and his wife's parents which, somewhat ironically, might well have come straight from the pages of Lucky Jim.

By this time Wilson was married to a Joy Stewart, and her father came across his diaries, and was rather shocked by what he saw as its pornographic content. On the 19th February 1957 Mr Stewart broke into Wilson's flat brandishing a horsewhip, shouting "Aha, Wilson, the game is up! We know what is in your filthy diary". The story duly appeared in The Daily Mail under the headline "Horsewhip threat to 'Outsider' Wilson", with Stewart alleging that Wilson's diaries were full of "sadism and murder". In order to clear himself of the charge Wilson handed his diaries over to the press and so the public became aware that Wilson was of the opinion that "the day must come when I am hailed as a major prophet" and that "I am the major literary genius of our century". As Wilson was to soon find out, the British public will forgive most crimes with the exception of intellectual arrogance.

When Religion and the Rebel, the second installment of the Outsider Cycle, was published in October 1957 it was mercilessly trashed by all and sundry, including many of those who had hailed his previous work as evidence of his staggering genius. Philip Toynbee now condemned Religion and the Rebel as a "vulgarising rubbish bin", The Manchester Guardian called him "a ridiculous figure" whilst his picture appeared in Time magazine under the caption "egghead, scrambled".

Colin Wilson subsequently escaped to Cornwall with his wife, whilst the third part of the Outsider cycle, The Age of Defeat appeared to a stony silence in 1959. Since sliding out of public view he has continued to write, and at the last count had written 110 books, most of which are concerned with subjects relating to the paranormal and occult or crime and criminals. He has since made occasional forays into the mainstream media generally linked to major anniversaries of the publication of The Outsider. In 1996 he appeared to announce his belief that The Outsider remained "a turning point in intellectual history", although these days he would be hard pressed to find anyone else who shared that opinion.


SOURCES

  • Dominic Sandford, Never Had It So Good (Abacus, 2006)
  • Lisa Gee, Where the outsider went next, The Guardian February 16, 2002
    http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,6000,650679,00.html
  • Colin Wilson: biography, bibliography, filmography, links
    http://www.popsubculture.com/pop/bio_project/colin_wilson.html

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