Seek the whole truth and through the maze
of dangerous and delightful days
follow the thread that yet can save
and guide through the deceitful cave
where minotaurs, confronted, fail,
into bare light, which sets us free.
Jack Lindsay, ‘Again to my Daughter Helen’
Jack Lindsay was a prolific writer, who published in a range of forms and genres, including fiction and non-fiction – poetry, play-scripts, translations, and novels, as well as essays, biographies, histories – about a variety of fields of knowledge, including classical studies, literature, visual art, history, archaeology, anthropology, science, philosophy and politics.
As his Bibliography records, he published over 160 books, which in itself is an extraordinary achievement. He also wrote hundreds of poems, many reviews, and uncollected essays. And he worked as a publisher and editor for a number of journals of literature, art and politics, where he put into practice his ideas about the role of culture in society and the relationship between culture and politics.
This account also does not include his unpublished manuscript, The Fullness of Life: Autobiography of an Idea written in the 1970s. This intellectual autobiography or autoexegesis is an extended account by Lindsay of the development of his ideas as exemplified in his writing. The manuscript is reproduced on this site, along with an edited version of the work that I completed in 2017.
As his poem to his daughter Helen notes, for Jack Lindsay the search for the truth about life and human society and our relationship to the natural world would occupy his life and lead him through a complex maze of research and writing as well as personal struggles and joys and political activism. Jack Lindsay did not just write for a living; in many senses, he lived his life on the page.
KINDS OF WRITING
In order to understand the scope of Lindsay’s writing I have organized his books into categories. My aim is to get a sense of the scope of his work, as well as of the areas of specific interest he addressed. This is not an entirely accurate measure of his output as it doesn’t include the poems he wrote to fill spaces in journals he edited, reviews he wrote for newspapers or essays he wrote for journals or edited books. It also does not include books edited by Jack, such as his collections of the poetry of William Morris and J.M.W. Turner. However, it does give some insight into his areas of interest and expertise:
- autobiography, approx. 3% of books, comprises his three volume autobiography and its later publication as a single volume
- cultural criticism, approx.15% of books: includes period studies but mostly studies of specific writers and visual artists
- cultural history, approx. 18% of books: includes studies of specific societies, social practices, and historical actors
- historical biography, approx. 1% of books: biographies of major historical figures
- historical fiction, approx. 21% of books: mostly novels but also some short stories set in ancient Rome and Egypt
- modern fiction, approx. 10% of books: mostly novels of life in modern society
- political analysis, approx. 3% of books: political theory and analysis
- translations, approx. 17% of books: mostly classical translations, but some more contemporary work
- verse, approx. 12% of books: includes books of verse, verse-plays and verse-declamations
- miscellaneous, approx. 1%, comprises two books documenting the history and output of the Fanfrolico Press
WRITING BY CATEGORY
Jack Lindsay wrote a lively and engaging autobiography in three volumes that cover his life from birth in 1900 to the 1960s. The first volume, Life Rarely Tells (1958) covers his early life in Sydney and Brisbane, including his university years and early political activism. The Roaring Twenties (1960) recounts his life in Sydney in his early to mid-twenties when he turned his back on a possible academic career and moved from Brisbane to Sydney to join the Bohemian art world of which his father, Norman was a leading figure. The final volume, Fanfrolico and After (1960) describes his move from Sydney to London to set up Fanfrolico Press in the UK, his personal relationships, and his return to politics and membership of the Communist Party. The three books were later published in one volume as Life Rarely Tells (1981).
Lindsay wrote approx. 23 books of literary and art criticism. Included are critical studies of writers William Blake, John Bunyan, Mulk Raj Anand, Charles Dickens, George Meredith and William Morris, as well as studies of the post-1930s novel and of modern poetry. Visual artists on whom he wrote major studies include William Blake, William Morris, J.M.W. Turner, Paul Cezanne, Gustave Courbet, William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough. He also wrote a history of French painting from David to Delacroix. Though not impressed by academic forms of ‘detached’ literary criticism, Lindsay developed his own critical studies based on his readings in philosophy, psychology and politics, combined with a sensitivity to textual practice, both literary and visual.
Lindsay wrote approx. 28 studies of the social, political and cultural life of Britain; of ancient Rome, Roman Egypt, Greece and Byzantium. These studies explore the beliefs and values of a specific time and place as revealed not only through a narrative of nation-states and their politics, but through the everyday lives of its people as revealed in the institutions and social practices of that time, including assumptions and prejudices, hierarchies and roles. As for most historians, the past is fascinating not only in itself, but also for how it enables reflection on the present. In many of Lindsay’s studies, he enacts his own struggles with both capitalism and Marxism, and particularly with the clash of ideologies that he experienced in the mid twentieth century confrontation between the West and the Soviet bloc.
Lindsay’s historical biographies include studies of Cleopatra and Helen of Troy. These two studies could be included in the category of CULTURAL HISTORY as they are not so much personal histories as studies of the critical role these two figures played in their own society. As Lindsay writes in his ‘Introduction’ to Cleopatra (1971), his aim was ‘to analyse and get inside the extremely involved web of propaganda that enveloped all the actors in this period of violent clashes, and to bring out the roles of religious and political ideas in that propaganda…’ (p.xv).
Lindsay’s historical novels and short stories follow the conventions of the genre: they are set in a past time and place and attempt to convey realistically the spirit, manners and social conditions of that location, often through a particular character or historical event. The most common settings for his books are Britain, ancient Rome and Roman-Egypt. One of his most innovative works is the novel, 1649: A Novel of a Year (1938) told as a series of voices that interweave to tell their particular account of that time.
Lindsay’s modern fiction includes a series of post-WWII novels that he called The British Way, beginning with Betrayed Spring (1953) and Rising Times (1953) and concluding with Choice of Times (1964). In the essay, ‘A Note on my Dialectic’ Lindsay described his writing practice: ‘… my method was simultaneously existential and historical, seeking to see the individual in all the immediacies of his reaction to the moment, while setting the moment in a definite historical situation – so that in the last resort the personal situation was dialectically linked with the social or historical.’ This might be applied to all of Lindsay’s fiction, but is particularly pertinent to these novels of contemporary post-WWII life in Britain.
Lindsay wrote two books of political analysis, both of which attempt to come to grips with Marxism: Marxism and Contemporary Science (1949) and Crisis in Marxism (1981). The former resulted in his indictment by doctrinaire Marxists in the Communist Party of Great Britain, forced to explain his audacity in publishing a book that challenged their reading of Marxism. The book is characterized by its interdisciplinarity as Lindsay attempts to map his ideas about Marxism through a range of different fields including biology, anthropology, art criticism, psychology and history. Lindsay would later acknowledge in The Fullness of Life that the book is flawed by its lack of expertise in a number of the fields it addresses. The latter book assesses the work of major Marxist theorists of the 20th century – Georg Lukacs, Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser – in an attempt to explain the failure of Marxism to provide a basis for a more humane society. Like his earlier study, this book was contentious.
Lindsay’s academic training as a classicist was the basis of his earliest publications, translations of classical works such as Lysistrata by Aristophanes (1925), Propertius in Love (1927), The complete works of Gaius Petronius (1927) and A homage to Sappho (1928). All were early publications from Fanfrolico Press and were illustrated by Norman Lindsay. Lindsay published classical translations every decade up to and including the 1960s and developed a substantial reputation as a classicist. Contemporary classicists, Henry Stead and Edith Hall (2013) conclude that ‘the towering figure amongst the communist classicists in Britain was undoubtedly the man from the British colony of Australia … Lindsay brought a fresh approach and an incredible energy to the task he set himself of making the Greeks and Romans speak to the modern world.’
In the 1960s Lindsay published a number of translations of works by Eastern bloc writers such as Adam Micklewicz, Alexander Blok and Vitezslav Nezval, as well as the anthology, Russian poetry: 1917- 1955 (1957). And in 1962 Lindsay also published his own translation of Cause, principle and unity by Giordano Bruno, a 16th century writer, scientist, cleric, philosopher and iconoclast whom he much admired.
Lindsay wrote verse throughout his life, a representative sample of which appears in the volume, Collected Poems (1981). Through his poetry Lindsay articulates his personal, political and intellectual history. In the late 1920s he wrote a number of verse plays for Fanfrolico Press including Marino Faliero, the story of the 55th Doge of Venice who led a failed coup against the ruling aristocrats and Hereward, about the Anglo-Saxon folk hero (recently identified as Danish) who led the resistance against the invading Normans from 1066-71. Lindsay also wrote verse declamations, a form of collective performance poetry on political issues, the most famous of which are Who Are the English? (1936) and On Guard for Spain (1937). These works were performed by left wing groups and theatre companies; the former, to argue the revolutionary working-class history of the English, the latter, to call for left wing solidarity against the fascist military coup in Spain.
The two books in this category are accounts of the Fanfrolico Press and its publications: First list of fine books published in limited editions by the Fanfrolico Press (1926) and A retrospect of the Fanfrolico Press (1931).