The prolific authorship of the late Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013) began with the publication in 1956 of The Outsider, a phenomenological study of the alienation theme in the modern novel, and continued unto the year of his death, and even beyond, thanks to the activity of his literary executors. With Stuart Holroyd and Bill Hopkins, Wilson constituted a peculiar hiccough in the British literary and cultural scene of the 1950s. The three writers thought of themselves as having established a right-leaning English school of Existentialism that rejected the materialist orientation and politicized cynicism of the French school. Although critics tended to lump the trio together with the distinctly leftwing coterie dubbed the Angry Young Men, Wilson and his two fellow writers could hardly have differentiated themselves more from such as John Osborne, Kenneth Tynan, Kingsley Amis, and the other “Angries.” Wilson and the two others were decidedly intellectual, their early fiction and non-fiction alike rightly deserving the label philosophical. The “Angries” by contrast revolted, in an all-too-contrived manner, against any disciplined phronesis. Finding himself suddenly a celebrity on the basis of The Outsider, Wilson followed up with Religion and the Rebel (1957), The Age of Defeat (1958), and three other titles that would eventually add up to a coherent “Outsider Cycle.” Wilson also produced a steady stream of occasional work for a wide variety of journals and reviews. Some of these found their way in Wilson’s lifetime into single-author anthologies – Eagle and Earwig in 1965 and The Essential Colin Wilson in 1985, among others. The former was for a long time the most elusive of Wilson’s titles; the latter constituted one of the best introductions to Wilson’s thought, as he, himself, had selected the contents.
Colin Stanley and Gary Lachman, both of them scholars of Wilsoniana, have collaborated to bring Eagle and Earwig back into print, but under the name that Wilson originally gave it before his publisher made an alteration: Eagles and Earwigs, in the plural. The book carries the subtitle Essays on Books and Writers. Lachman, author of a critical biography of Wilson (Beyond the Robot ), supplies a new Preface, which supplements Wilson’s original Introduction to the volume. Lachman writes that he first encountered Eagle and Earwig in the library of the British Museum in the mid-1980s – and that it impressed him vividly. Commenting on the book’s fugitive quality, Lachman remarks that “there is something about finding a much-sought after book in a second-hand book-shop that carries its own magic, as rare as that is these days”; nevertheless, as he adds, in forty-two years of inveterate bibliophile questing, no copy of it ever came into his hands. Lachman puts his finger on the appeal of Wilson’s literary essays, especially for a contemporary reader of the Twenty-First Century. Wilson’s “existential criticism” concerns itself, in Lachman’s words, “with how a writer sees the world, his actual perception of it, and with his or her qualifications for making general assessments about that mysterious thing, life.” Existential criticism exercises the primary criterion of visionary quality in establishing its hierarchy of writers and books. It has little patience with ideological tendencies and rejects hackneyed formulas.