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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Toure could leave Manchester City in the summer, claims his agent
transfers
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
News
media
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Senior C++ Developer

£350 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Senior C++ Developer – L...

Part Time SEN Teacher

£120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you looking for a Part Time S...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Client Services Associate (MS Office, Analysis, Graduate)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client Services Associate (Microsoft Office, Ana...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz