Penguin New Writing 1940-1950 edited by John Lehmann

Last week the reading group discussed The Penguin New Writing series, edited by John Lehmann.

We’ve got a full run of this series, from number 1 in 1940, to number 40 in 1950. (See Penguin First Editions for cover images.)  At the reading group we looked at the first 8. They are, in my opinion, absolutely fascinating as both social and literary history.

The founder of Penguin New Writing, John Lehmann (1907-1987), brother of novelist Rosamond Lehmann, worked at the Hogarth Press after leaving Cambridge. He wrote poetry, and in the 1930s as Nazism rose in Germany he went to live as a poet in Vienna, monitoring the city as Christopher Isherwood did Berlin. In 1935 he founded the magazine New Writing, which in 1940 became the Penguin New Writing.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes the magazine as abruptly losing its ‘left-wing elitism’ with the move to Penguin, but it is certainly still left-wing, and contains experimental writing and dense literary criticism. The magazine is an eclectic combination of accessible journalistic pieces; contemporary poetry; short stories in translation from international writers; working-class writing in dialect that could occasionally do with some translation; and that aforementioned literary criticism.

There are famous names: Cecil Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, Rosamond Lehmann, George Orwell, W. H. Auden, and many more that are unfamiliar. It is notable that it is the working-class writers that have been forgotten. A particular pleasure is the two-line biographies of the contributors placed at the end of each issue:

SAM ROSS is twenty-eight years old, and has worked as a journalist in New York and Chicago, He is a first-class swimmer, and has been a life-guard for nine years.

ROSAMOND LEHMANN is the well-known novelist, whose works include Dusty Answer and The Weather in the Streets, which have been translated into many European languages. She is married, has two children, and lives in the country near Wallingford.

(Rosamond is the only woman in this issue. And, annoyingly, hers is the only biography that tells us how many children the writer has.)

I looked at issue 3, from 1940. It started with an accessible journalistic article by ‘Willy Goldman’ called ‘The Way We live Now’ which places the reader back in to the moment when notions such as ‘the people can take it’ when first being aired, and new terms such as the ‘Blitz’ were being coined. It makes you look afresh at that time as the writer tries to make sense of the present moment.

It is followed by an entirely different mode of writing, an experimental first-person narrative, ‘Shaving Through the Blitz’ by ‘Fanfarlo’. There are several short stories, a couple translated from French, one in translation from the Russian which tells the story of a father who kills two of his own sons in order to protect the rest of his children from reprisals from the Cossacks. It is very dark and very strange.

An opinion piece by Robert Pagan considers the ‘Happy Days’ of the Edwardian period:

‘the fact remains that, so far as England was concerned, the two decades preceding the war of 1914 were of an extraordinary spiritual sterility. Poets like Kipling, novelists like Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy, painting like – no, let’s forget it. A fantastic efflorescence of material comfort, a vulgar extravagance, for those who could afford it, and poverty gnawing like a gaunt rat at the case of a wedding-cake: nationalism boiling up, laissez faire boiling over, and ‘the Revolution has happened.’ But had it? No, it had only just begun, and it was the very Revolution we are living through now – for everybody who has thought twice about it knows that the present war is part of a revolution.’ p. 51.

The usual literary suspects get the boot! These comments remind me of Paul Fussell and The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). I wonder if he read the Penguin New Writing?

There is poetry. This is the first publication of Cecil Day Lewis’s poem ‘Where are the War Poets?’

They who in panic or mere greed
Enslaved religion, markets, laws,
Borrow our language now and bid
Us to speak up in freedom’s cause.

It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse,
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.

The final piece in issue 3 is the second installment of a long essay of literary criticism by Stephen Spender, ‘Books and the War’.

In the reading group many of us admitted to skimming through this essay, and we speculated on the readership of this magazine. Despite its lively variety the magazine is a challenging read that does not immediately appear to have mass appeal, yet according to the ONDB the four or six issues a year during World War Two ‘all sold out their 75,000 or more copies within days’.

Did the reading public agree with John Lehmann on the importance of defending international culture in wartime? In his introduction to issue 3 Lehmann suggests that before the war the contribution of European writers to his New Writing

‘were a constant proof of the fact that frontiers – in a world at peace – were becoming more and more irrelevant. Since those volumes were published, that basis which seemed gradually to be emerging for a unity in thought and art, has been violently shattered by reactionary forces denying all that is most human and creative in the European tradition.’ p. 7.

Now the ‘storm’ – the war – has come, European culture ‘because it is real, always begins again after every storm’. p. 8.

Some members of the reading group found Penguin New Writing to be dull, worthy, and a chore to read. Others thought it had a freshness and immediacy that immersed them in a young man’s view of the world at that time (almost all the contributors are young men). I noticed a theme of death in the short stories in my issue, even in those that were not about war.

Has anyone else read issues of the Penguin New Writing? Though they were printed in large numbers, I don’t know if many survive today. They are cheaply produced little books, under war-time economy measures, and they are fragile and crumbling. They would make a very worth-while digitisation project. One pleasure of the hard copy would be lost, however, the wonderful adverts! (Linovent is  flooring underlay. Who knew that underlay was such an important product?)

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Source: David Hughes, ‘Lehmann,  (Rudolph) John Frederick  (1907–1987)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [, accessed 17 Feb 2014]

9 thoughts on “Penguin New Writing 1940-1950 edited by John Lehmann

  1. Wonderful! I often see copies of these coming up on auction sites and get tempted. Just shows how important Penguin were (and still are) in bringing culture to the masses (amongst which I include myself!)

  2. I bought myself a copy of The Penguin New Writing 1940 – 1950 anthology, so I’m very jealous you have the whole set! It was through the anthology that I came across the historian C.V.Wedgewood. This is the decade of my parents when the future must have seemed filled with possibilities. I’m sure the war played no small part in forming that sense of anticipation. Another useful anthology is The Golden Horizon, edited by Cyril Connolly from the literary magazine that he edited in the same period.

  3. Yes, I’ve a copy that I bought solely for the Maclaren-Ross story. Meanwhile I can add that if anyone wants hard copies, the Amnesty International Bookshop at Hammersmith (where I am a volunteer) has a set of fifteen slightly tatty copies at a real bargain price; these arrived yesterday… Tel 0208 736 3172

  4. I posted a comment here earlier, but it seems to have disappeared. I was amazed to discover this weblog that, presumably, has now ceased, by the synchronous search on Google for Shaving Through the Blitz by Fanfarlo that I read assiduously during the war, when I purchased every copy of Penguin New Writing, several copies of which I still have in my library. It was the faint recollection of that series of articles that had pricked my memory when I recently ran a series of blogs called Living Through the Lockdown. So gratifying to have my memory pricked in this way. I was totally influenced in my youth by those left wing authors who were 10 or 20 years older than me: Spender, Day Lewis, Auden, Connolly, Isherwood, Orwell, etc.

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