British and Irish Literature Anthony Burgess
Jim Clarke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0133


John Anthony Burgess Wilson (b. 1917–d. 1993) was a prominent British-born novelist, composer, critic, essayist, journalist, playwright, poet, and librettist of the post–World War II period. His best-known work remains A Clockwork Orange (first published in 1962; see Burgess 2010 and Burgess 2012, cited under Critical Editions), a violent morality-tale novella that he later repeatedly disavowed. However, in the 21st century critics have also turned attention to other parts of his extensive output, identifying, in particular, his Malayan Trilogy (1956–1959) as an early example of postcolonial fiction written from the colonial perspective. His reputation also rests upon his longest novel, Earthly Powers, a satire of the airport blockbuster of the 1970s, and his novels about the Elizabethan playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, entitled Nothing like the Sun and A Dead Man in Deptford, respectively. He was the author of thirty-two novels, two verse novels, two children’s books, two volumes of autobiography, at least ten major translations, nine book-length literary studies, two studies of popular linguistics, a volume of short stories, multiple libretti, thousands of pieces of journalism, numerous film and TV scripts, and hundreds of pieces of original musical composition. Despite an upturn in critical attention toward his work, much of his nonfiction remains uncollected and many of his novels are currently out of print, though a critical edition of his collected fiction is under way. His major theme, according to both himself and his early critics, was the limitations of human free will. He derived this concept from his upbringing as a Lancastrian Catholic, an influence that shaped much of his thinking for the rest of his life and writing career. Many of his major works feature artists and writers as protagonists, indicating a fixation on aesthetics and the artistic process. Additionally, he often fictionalized the lives of historical personages, from Shakespeare to Napoleon to Jesus Christ. Critics have identified his fiction as particularly significant in relation to the boundary of colonial and postcolonial literature, and that between modernism and postmodernism.

Single-Author Studies on Burgess’s Fiction

Burgess was initially well served by critics eager to appraise his fiction while it was still contemporary. He featured briefly in surveys of contemporary literature in Britain in the late 1960s, but the first wave of significant critical attention commenced around the time that Burgess moved to work in America in the early 1970s. This confluence explains the thematic similarities among Morris 1971, DeVitis 1972, and Mathews 1978. The slightly later texts Aggeler 1979 and Coale 1981 are more comprehensive, but Stinson 1991 is by far the most authoritative of Burgess’s first wave of critics. The limitations of Dix 1971 indicate the paucity of first-wave Burgessian criticism in Britain and Europe. This lack began to be corrected by Ghosh-Schellhorn 1986, which is a somewhat programmatic text at odds with most Burgessian scholarship. Almost all of the existing monographs on Burgess’s fiction deal with an incomplete canon in that they were written while Burgess was still himself writing. As such, though they are often insightful and provide useful critical frameworks, with the exception of Farkas 2002 and Clarke 2017, they do not address all of Burgess’s work, most importantly his late novels.

  • Aggeler, Geoffrey. Anthony Burgess: The Artist as Novelist. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1979.

    Aggeler’s text pursues and enlarges issues raised in DeVitis 1972, and offers much useful analysis of some core issues in Burgess studies, such as the debate between the Pelagian and Augustinian impulses and Burgess’s treatment of artist-protagonists.

  • Clarke, Jim. The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess: Fire of Words. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-66411-8

    Clarke attempts to create a grand narrative of Burgess’s eclectic fictional output by focusing primarily on the role of artistic creativity in Burgess’s novels. Borrowing a critical framework from Nietzsche that substitutes the German’s Apollo-Dionysus binary for Burgess’s own eccentric Pelagius-Augustine one, Clarke divides Burgess’s career into three distinct artistic phases, and he isolates Burgess’s encounter with Structuralism as a significant point of change in the early 1970s.

  • Coale, Samuel. Anthony Burgess. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

    Follows the by now well-trodden path of a chronological division of the oeuvre defined by theme. However, Coale’s treatment of Burgess’s use of language and mythology is a valuable resource, as is the substantial volume of interview material he includes. His chapter-length treatment of Burgess’s Manicheism has proven seminal to later critics.

  • DeVitis, A. A. Anthony Burgess. New York: Twayne, 1972.

    DeVitis’s text divides itself into chronological periods, within which he makes a case for thematic continuity. Texts as diverse as A Vision of Battlements and Devil of a State are considered alongside The Malayan Trilogy, because they share an expatriate milieu. These chronological groupings soon show their strain when dealing with Burgess’s diverse late-1960s novels.

  • Dix, Carol M. Anthony Burgess. Writers and Their Work. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1971.

    Dix’s brief text, the first dedicated to Burgess in his country of birth, is all too brief and error strewn.

  • Farkas, Á. I. Will’s Son and Jake’s Peer: Anthony Burgess’s Joycean Negotiations. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2002.

    The first monograph on Burgess’s literature to have examined the totality of his writing career. Farkas, like Harold Bloom, views Burgess primarily through the prism of an agon with James Joyce and William Shakespeare, but this work is an early example of problematizing Burgess in relation to modernism and postmodernism, as well as highlighting the influence of other authors, such as T. S. Eliot and Somerset Maugham.

  • Ghosh-Schellhorn, Martina. Anthony Burgess: A Study in Character. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1986.

    Thinly adapted doctoral thesis is overly programmatic and interprets Burgess’s fiction in terms of archetypal “characters.” Ghosh-Schellhorn’s insights into Burgess’s Manicheism as a reaction to Existentialism, though brief, are useful.

  • Mathews, Richard. The Clockwork Universe of Anthony Burgess. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo, 1978.

    Richard Mathews’s monograph follows Burgess’s fictions in chronological order. He posits a “metaphor of the clockwork universe” as a method for considering the first ten Burgess novels that make up the focus of his text. Mathews’s remit does not extend past this set of novels, which were completed by the early 1960s, fifteen years before the emergence of his own critical work.

  • Morris, Robert K. The Consolations of Ambiguity. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1971.

    The earliest but still one of the most insightful of monographs on Anthony Burgess’s fiction. Morris’s slight but perceptive text presents itself as an analysis of how Burgess depicts the human condition, openly acknowledging the author’s partiality for Burgess’s works.

  • Stinson, John J. Anthony Burgess Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

    Stinson’s earliest Burgess-themed essays date from the mid-1970s, and this monograph is therefore the product of decades of critical consideration. Stinson is the only one of Burgess’s early critics to have drawn particular attention to factors such as his use of history as an “imagined past” and the Promethean lineage of Burgess’s artist-creators.

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