It is not hard to understand why John Cowper Powys has never had the recognition he deserves as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable novelists. Until he was nearly sixty he earned his living as an itinerant lecturer, much of the time in America, where he thrilled his audiences by his seeming ability to transmit, medium-like, the inmost thoughts of the writers he loved. For a time Powys’s electrifying performance as a kind of literary magus attracted a considerable following. His admirers included some of America’s best-known writers – Theodore Dreiser was a notable supporter, for example – but Powys’s method of ‘dithyrambic analysis’ never caught on. An idiosyncratic exercise that he described as ‘hollowing himself out’ so he could become the writer he was interpreting, it was too obviously adapted to the needs of the lecture circuit and the quirks of Powys’s personality to have any lasting influence. Powys removed himself further from any kind of critical acceptance when, in an effort to generate an income that would enable him to give up lecturing, he published a series of self-help manuals. With titles like The Art of Forgetting the Unpleasant and In Defence of Sensuality, these forays into popular psychology were refreshingly unorthodox in their prescriptions for personal happiness; but they reinforced the perception of Powys as an eccentric figure flailing about on the outer margins of literary and academic respectability.
In fact, respectability was never one of Powys’s goals. Both in his writing and his life he scorned conventional standards of success and followed his own, frequently conflicting inclinations. Easily moved by sympathy and always recklessly generous with money, he could at the same time be extremely cunning in satisfying