John Cowper Powys

Biography of John Cowper Powys

John Cowper Powys (8 October 1872 – 17 June 1963) was a British novelist and lecturer.

Powys was born in Shirley, Derbyshire, in 1872, the son of the Reverend Charles Francis Powys (1843–1923), who was vicar of Montacute, Somerset for thirty-two years, and Mary Cowper Johnson, a descendent of the poet William Cowper. He came from a family of eleven children, many of whom were also talented. His two younger brothers Llewelyn Powys (1884–1939) and Theodore Francis Powys were well-known writers, while his sister Philippa published a novel and some poetry. Another sister Marian Powys was an authority on lace and lace-making and published a book on this subject. His brother A. R. Powys was Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and published a number of books on architectural subjects. John studied at Sherborne School and graduated from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, June 1894.

On 6 April 1896 he married Margaret Lyon. They had a son, Littleton Alfred, in 1902. The marriage was unsatisfactory and Powys eventually lived a large part of each year in the USA and had relationships with various women, before establishing a permanent common-law relationship with Phyllis Playter in the 1920s. However, he diligently supported Margaret and the education of their son. Another important woman in his life was the American poet Frances Gregg, whom he first met in Philadelphia in 1912. He was also a friend of the famous dancer Isadora Duncan. Another friend and an important supporter in America was the novelist Theodore Dreiser.

Powys's first employment was teaching in girls’ schools. He then worked as an Extension lecturer throughout England, for both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Then in 1905 he began lecturing in the USA for the American Society for the Extension of University Teaching. He worked as an itinerant lecturer until the early 1930s, gaining a reputation as a charismatic speaker. However, he usually spent the summer in England. During this time he travelled the length and breadth of the USA, as well as into Canada. He engaged in public debate with the philosopher Bertrand Russell on marriage, as well as with the philosopher and historian Will Durant; he was also a witness in the obscenity trial of James Joyce's novel Ulysses and was mentioned with approval in the autobiography of US feminist and anarchist, Emma Goldman. Powys would later share Goldman's support for the Spanish Revolution.

His first published works were highly derivative collections of poetry ("very Hardyesque" was Philip Larkin's opinion), published in the 1890s. His first novel Wood and Stone, dedicated to Thomas Hardy, was published in 1915. This was followed by a collection of literary essays Visions and Revisions in 1915 and his first full length work of popular philosophy, A Complex Vision, in 1920.

In 1921 he met Phyllis Playter, the twenty-six year old daughter of industrialist and business man Franklin Playter. Eventually they established a permanent relationship, though he was unable to divorce his wife Margaret, who was a Catholic. Margaret Powys died in 1947, and his son Littleton Alfred in 1954.

It was not until 1929, with Wolf Solent, that Powys achieved any real critical, and financial success. A Glastonbury Romance, one of Powys’s most admired novels, published in 1932, also sold well, though he made little if any money from it because of a libel lawsuit. Another important work, Autobiography, was published in 1934. In 1929 Powys and Phyllis had moved from Greenwich Village in New York City to rural, upstate New York. Then in June 1934 John Cowper Powys and Phyllis Playter left America and moved to England, living first in Dorchester, the setting for the final Wessex novel, Maiden Castle, before eventually moving to Corwen, North Wales, in July 1935, with the help of the novelist James Hanley, who lived nearby. Here Powys immersed himself in Welsh literature, mythology and culture, including learning to read Welsh. The move inspired two major novels with Welsh settings, Owen Glendower (1941) and Porius (1951). They later moved, a final time, in May 1955, to Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales. John Cowper Powys died in 1963 and Phyllis Playter in 1982.

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