August 14: John Galsworthy

John Galsworthy (1867)

John Galsworthy

It was on this date, August 14, 1867, that British novelist and dramatist John Galsworthy was born into a prosperous family in Kingston Hill, Surrey. He was educated at Harrow and studied law at New College, Oxford. Galsworthy took to travel and, in 1893 met the novelist Joseph Conrad – afterward deciding on writing as a career.

Galsworthy is known today for his Forsyte Saga. The first novel of this harsh criticism of the upper middle classes appeared in 1906: The Man of Property.[1] It was little known while Galsworthy lived that, as the British Annual Register said in its obituary notice, Galsworthy had “an almost prophetic passion for social justice.” His 20 novels and 27 plays were tireless defenders of legal equity between the classes (The Silver Box, 1906), prison reform (Justice, 1910), economic justice (Strife, 1909), and world peace (The Mob, 1914).

Only after his death was it revealed that he had quietly fed 500 Hungarian children for many months, among other charities which remained secret, and gave away half of his income in humanitarian causes. Galsworthy chose to refuse knighthood in 1917 because he believed that writers should not accept titles. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932, he gave away the prize money.

Shortly before his death, on 31 January 1933, Galsworthy had written a poem refusing the ceremonial interment of his own body and strongly attacking church burials, saying, “Scatter my ashes.” He definitively disdains Christianity in his Moods, Songs, and Doggerels (1912). When the Society of Authors asked that he be buried in Westminster Abbey, the Dean refused because of Galsworthy’s irreligion. Instead, only a memorial service was allowed.[2]

It was John Galsworthy who said, “Humanism is the creed of those who believe that in the circle of enwrapping mystery, men’s fates are in their own hands – a faith that for modern man is becoming the only possible faith.”[3]

[1] The Forsyte Saga has, as it happens, been serialized on Masterpiece Theater; see Russell Baker below.
[2] Harold Vincent Marrot, Life and Letters of John Galsworthy, 1935.
[3] Quoted by Corliss Lamont in The Philosophy of Humanism, 1988, p. 71.

Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

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Posted in Famous Freethinkers, Writer

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