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Lucky Jim remains the primary accomplishment of Kingsley Amis, whose work extended over five decades to include poetry, literary criticism, journalism, television plays, short stories, science fiction, and a James Bond novel. As Amis's first published novel, Lucky Jim set the tone for Amis's lifelong preoccupation with the role of higher learning in Britain. Lucky Jim was also the first in a long line of British campus satires that shifted the object of ridicule from the students to the faculty.
Kingsley Amis was born on April 16, 1922. The Amises lived a lower-middle class existence in Norbury, a suburb just south of London. Kingsley attended the City of London private school on scholarship, and enrolled in the spring of 1941 at St. John's College, Oxford, to study English Literature. At St. John's, Amis met Philip Larkin, who shared Amis's love of jazz and admired Amis's talent for mimicry. Larkin would become a life-long friend, as well as a renowned poet and novelist in his own right. World War II soon interrupted Amis's college career, and he served in the British Army between the years 1942 through 1945.
After the war, Amis resumed his studies at St. John's and took on several literary side projects. He began writing a novel, a critical study of Graham Greene, and his first volume of poetry, Bright November. In 1948, Amis married Hilary Ann Bardwell. Awarded a first-class degree in English Literature, Amis took up a position in 1949 as Lecturer in English at University College of Swansea in Wales. Amis taught at Swansea, then at Cambridge, until 1963, when he retired to write full time.
Amis began work on Lucky Jim in 1951. According to Amis himself, a 1948 visit to Leicester University, where his friend Philip Larkin held a teaching post, inspired the novel. Lucky Jim was published in 1954 to tremendous popularity, although some critics accused Amis of vulgarity because of the coarse language and immature behavior of Jim Dixon. In spite of these negative reviews, Lucky Jim won the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award the following year.
The controversy over the literary merit of Lucky Jim is indicative of the tense climate of post-World War II Britain, when the hierarchies of culture and class were subjected to scrutiny and even some upheaval. The Education Act of 1944 raised the age of minimum schooling for British children and created a system of subsidized secondary education for students of all social backgrounds. Considered a practical success, the Act also created a disoriented subset of students who felt alienated both from their lower-class origins and from academic institutions still run by upper-class Oxford professors. Jim Dixon's resentment of Professor Welch, who holds power over him but also seems incapable of doing his own work, is a good indication of the sentiments of the newly educated post-War generation.
Journalists quickly classified Amis as a member of the Angry Young Men, a label that continues to stick, despite Amis's own protests. The Angry Young Men refers to a group of 1950s British writers, including John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, and Colin Wilson, whose work concentrated on the oppression of lower-class, male protagonists under the British class system. Amis has also been associated with The Movement, another group of 1950s British writers who shared a common concern with straightforward prose style. The group adopted this form in reaction to the Modernist prose writing of the twenties and Thirties that seemed to them overly romantic and experimental. While Amis renounced association with The Movement as well, this designation still highlights the similarities between Amis's prose style and a tradition of British comedy that predates Modernism. By linking Amis to The Movement, critics also unwittingly placed him in the same pantheon as comic writers such as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson, and early 20th-century writers such as Evelyn Waugh and Rudyard Kipling.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Lucky Jim!