On The Meaning of Culture by John Cowper Powys

John Cowper Powys always intended his two-part The Meaning of Culture as the starting point for a wider discussion, or as he put it:

The aim of this book is to narrow down a vague and somewhat evasive conception, which hitherto, like “aristocracy” or “liberty”, has come to imply a number of contradictory and even paradoxical elements, and to give it, not, of course, a purely logical form, but a concrete, particular, recognizable form, malleable and yielding enough and relative enough, but with a definite and quite unambiguous temper, tone, quality, atmosphere, of its own.

It was first published in 1929 and became a bestseller. Eighty years on, it remains as relevant and important as ever, as Morine Krissdottir, Powys’ biographer (Descents of Memory) and author and editor of numerous books, tells us below.


Morine Krissdottir writes …

For many years Powys was an immensely successful freelance lecturer in America. His agent favoured summer schools in small-town colleges, lectures to ladies clubs, and they had another ready market in the Chautaugua Movement. This popular form of adult education, begun in 1873 in New York State, attracted thousands who attended the eight-week summer program which offered courses in the humanities, arts and sciences. Other communities formed local Chautauguas, buying in authors, explorers, musicians, political leaders, and lecturers like Powys on a contractual basis. The Movement started out as a Methodist camp meeting, and always retained something of spirit of the revival meeting. Powys, the son of an Evangelical minister, felt right at home and they in turn loved him.

The Meaning of Culture
The Meaning of Culture

However, by the mid-1920s, advancements in film and radio provided new alternatives for cultural enrichment and entertainment, and circuit managers encountered increasing difficulties in getting bookings for lecture tours. Summer schools were also drying up. By the end of 1926 Powys’s total income had declined drastically from £1,600 to less than £600. In desperation, he and his companion, Phyllis Playter, dreamt up the idea of a book of essays which would serve a two-fold purpose: ‘something that would be circulated widely and by discussion bring back my lost audiences.

Powys occasionally lectured at New York’s famous Cooper Union and knew Everett Martin, who in 1917 became the assistant director of the People’s Institute, the adult education division of the Union. Utilizing the resources of New York’s intellectual community, Martin organized lecture series, small group discussions, and study groups on a wide variety of topics. He was best known for taking often abstruse material and making it available to a heterogeneous audience, and for understanding the need to write for adults striving to move beyond the boredom of their work and their everyday lives.

In 1923 Warder and Peggy Norton founded the publishing firm W. W. Norton and began publishing lectures delivered at the People’s Institute. They called the series ‘The People’s Institute Lectures-In-Print Series.’ They had a huge success with Everett Martin’s book on education, The Meaning of a Liberal Education, selling 15,000 copies, and they wanted a ‘companion volume on culture.’ They approached Powys who had been giving lectures on the Art of Self-Culture for many years. He had also written a little-known pamphlet for Haldemann-Julius in 1926 entitled The Secret of Self-Development, which contains many of the ideas to be found in The Meaning of Culture, albeit in truncated form.

Self-culture is man’s retort to the hard realities of the universe. True self-culture has as much iron and cunning and sagacity in it as is possessed by the most unscrupulous worldly ambition. Only it is used for a different purpose. It is used to squeeze out of this difficult and tough universe such celestial-tasting drops of the magic of beauty as may redeem all our miseries.

Under the circumstances Powys felt he could fairly quickly and easily write a culture book for Norton similar in form to Martin’s book on education. He signed the contract for The Meaning of Culture in May 1928 but almost immediately began to worry that he was not up to it. ‘I almost feel as if I were not a cultivated enough person to deal with it! How can I write a chapter on Painting? How on Sculpture? Obviously music anyhow must be missed out and Science even more so! Well – what kind of book could I write with such limitations?’

However, he was getting into the swing of it by the end of July, although characteristically ‘Culture seems to have a tendency to take some queer by-paths as I drive it along like a goose with outstretched neck.’ He continued to work on it, despite a particularly heavy lecturing schedule in the ensuing months and had a large proportion of it done when he left for his customary English trip ‘home’ the end of May 1929. He continued to work on it there and handed it over to the Nortons, who came to collect it, in July 1929. He wrote in his diary:

Normal Sunday 21 July, 1929: Sat under a shed with the Nortons working at my MS. on Fordington Great Field in view of Max Gate & Maiden Castle near those tumuli which I used as a child to call ‘the Humps’. I recall how when I first went as a youth to see Hardy here I made a vow to write a good book – & here was I bringing my publisher to read my MS. under a hawthorn hedge and a shed with thistles & nettles.

Norton published The Meaning of Culture in September 1929. It was an immediate bestseller, and went through eleven impressions before the end of the year. The following year Jonathan Cape published it for the English market. Powys had the idea that ‘this sort of book ought to have a good academic sale over here if no better than that.’ In fact, it had little academic sale but it proved hugely popular with ‘the common reader’ and was one of the few books of his that remained in print for many years.

The Meaning of Culture is not easily summarized, but like the books that followed it In Defence of Sensuality and A Philosophy of Solitude – it expounds Powys’s heartfelt belief that the reading of literature or philosophy can help to keep ‘the integrity of the ego intact amid the rough-and-tumble of life.’ For other individuals, it will be from painting or music that ‘he will draw his power to deal with life.’

He wanted it to be a ‘condensed culture-breviary for Main Street Libraries,’ but more than anything, as he told an English friend in a letter, he wanted it to be ‘a sort of hand-book of self-culture for the young boys and girls of my adopted land.’

The look in the eyes of Mr Owsley of the Kentucky Mountains is what most of all I shall convey away from here. Like an infinitely sad faun who has had a glimpse of some dryad who can never be found again.

He had always been immensely generous with his time when the young summer school students in small-town America would come up to him after a lecture ‘dumb’, ‘nervous’ and ‘silent’.

Soon after its publication, Powys left the lecture circuit to write his famous West Country novels. The Meaning of Culture was a kind of hail and farewell to the thirsting youngsters who craved the cultured life his lectures so vividly communicated and who would soon be further parched by the prairie dust-storms and the depression of the thirties. Eighty years later, in this time of recession, the book is just as relevant. Not just to the young man or woman on the dole or in a dead-end job, but to everyone who struggles to find some way of dealing with a world they did not make.

What it behoves culture to do is to save the individual in the midst of this industrial hubbub and endow him with enough peace of mind to breathe, to look round, to look forward and backward, to take stock of his emotional and intellectual resources and to see where a calm happiness can still be found. And such an individual man or woman, carrying to a comfortless job through clanging streets the cheapest of old school-editions of some immortal book, can mount the stairs of his secret psychic watch-tower and think the whole antheap into invisibility.


Morine Krissdottir’s Descents of Memory: The Life of John Cowper Powys is available now, published by Duckworth.

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