Colin Wilson: Author

Writer and philosopher whose work, beginning with ‘The Outsider’, searched for the meaning of man’s existence

Colin Wilson was one of the most prolific and eclectic writers of the 20th century. In more than 150 books and countless articles and contributions to other works, published over 50 years, he covered subjects as diverse as existentialism, esotericism and the occult, religion, biography and several volumes of autobiography. It is his groundbreaking work on existentialism and creative thinking, The Outsider, published to wide critical acclaim in 1956, that remains his best known work.

Wilson was born in Leicester in 1931, the son of a shoemaker. He left school aged 16 and over the next eight years took on a variety of unskilled jobs while writing. “I kept a voluminous journal, which was several million words long by the time I was 24,” he recalled. Since the age of 12 he had been preoccupied with asking the meaning of human existence and at 14 had read George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, from which he realised that “I was not the first human being to ask the question.”

Living rough on Hampstead Heath, working at a café and spending his days at the Reading Room of the British Museum, he had been trying to write a novel when the outline of The Outsider came to him. Photographs from the time show the handsome bohemian figure sitting alone, leant against a tree, wrapped in a sleeping bag and with a book in hand.

Inspired by the title and content of Camus’ novel l’Etranger (The Outsider, 1942), he sought to rationalise the psychological dislocation associated with Western creative thinking. Wilson took the outline and sample pages to the publisher Victor Gollancz, who immediately accepted the book. Published on 26 May 1956, The Outsider sold out of its initial print run of 5,000 copies in one day.

Cyril Connolly said it was “one of the most remarkable first books I have read for a long time” while Philip Toynbee called it “a real contribution to our understanding of our deepest predicament”. It shows how artists and writers such as Van Gogh, Kafka and Hemingway are affected by society and how they in turn, as “outsiders”, impact on society. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had just opened at the Royal Court and the term “Angry Young Men”, invented by JB Priestley, was first used in the New Statesman the following week and stuck. Although Wilson said it was not a group with which he identified, his later work The Angry Years (2007), recalls the period and the characters of Osborne, Kingsley Amis and others.

The Outsider made Wilson £20,000 (equivalent to £430,000 today) in its first year. He said later that he had not been surprised by the positive reaction but had not anticipated what followed – “the tremendous backlash, and the attacks on me which I found pretty hard going.” Referring to Religion and the Rebel (1957), his novel Ritual in the Dark (1959) and other works over the coming decade, he noted, “I’d produce some book which I knew to be brilliant and I’d get lousy reviews.” Evidently, the literary Establishment was not pleased at an uneducated, working class writer getting so much attention and praise, despite their initial enthusiasm. With media attention now focused on Wilson’s domestic affairs, his publisher suggested he leave London for Cornwall, where he remained for the rest of his life. 

Wilson’s book Strength to Dream (1962), a study of imagination in literature, had a title he later said he should have used for his autobiography, based on a phrase by George Bernard Shaw: “Every dream can become a reality in the womb of time for those who have the strength to dream.” Wilson was one who had that strength to dream and to see his dreams become reality in print.

In his Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966), Wilson revisited the themes of The Outsider, suggesting that the “old” existentialism “was a philosophy of man without an organised religion... Man stood alone.” He believed the challenge the “new existentialism” has to face is this: “Can it again point to a clear, open road along which thought can advance with the optimism of the early romantics?” He goes on to demonstrate that it indeed can. Elsewhere he speaks of those “curious moments of inner freedom” or (in his memoir Voyage to a Beginning) “visionary intensity”,  which hint at a purpose in an otherwise meaningless world.

Towards the end of the 1960s an American publisher commissioned Wilson to write a book on the occult. This took him in a new direction, towards the realms of the esoteric and alternative history, at a time of considerable interest in New Age subjects. The Occult: A History (1971), revived Wilson’s critical reputation. “The reviews had a serious and respectful tone that I hadn’t heard since The Outsider,” he wrote. “With a kind of dazed incredulity, I realised that I’d finally become an establishment figure.” He developed an interest in crime, particularly the psychology of murder; his later works continued in the dual veins of existentialism and mysticism, but all touching in some way on what he called the “curious power of the mind that we hardly understand”.

Wilson had suffered a stroke in June 2012 and was no longer able to speak. He died in hospital with his wife Joy and daughter Sally at his side.

Colin Henry Wilson, philosopher and writer: born Leicester 26 June 1931; married firstly Betty Troop (one son), secondly Joy Stewart (two sons, one daughter); died St Austell, Cornwall 5 December 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links