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The Accidental Avant-Garde: Lucas and Morrow's What A Life!

On August 17, 1911, Methuen published E. V. Lucas and George Morrow’s What A Life!: An Autobiography.[1] In spite of the title, What A Life! is not an autobiography, at least not in the literal sense. Instead, it is a brief collage novel illustrated with engravings from Whiteley’s General Catalogue, originally a mail order publication and, at the time, the largest British department store. Lucas tells the story of the novel’s origin:

George Morrow and I hit upon the device of forcing the blocks in a stores catalogue to illustrate a biography…We applied first to Harrod’s for permission and, being refused, went to Whiteley’s and were made welcome. The next thing was to get scissors and paste and let ourselves go; and the process of bending the material to our will was, I can assure you, very exhilarating.[2]

The “plot” of the novel is as cut-and-pasted as its illustrations. What A Life! never presents a sustained narrative, instead jumping between some of the most familiar clichés of Victorian and Edwardian literature. The novel begins by recounting an aristocratic childhood and an education at a public school that seems to parody Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), followed by a time as a young adult in London’s high society.

Fig. 1. First page of Lucas and Morrow’s What A Life!
Fig. 2. From Lucas and Morrow’s What A Life!
Fig. 3. From Lucas and Morrow’s What A Life!

Somewhat unpredictably, the unnamed narrator then switches genres and dedicates a chapter to a mystery involving the theft of diamonds. Finally, the narrator travels to Africa, Japan, and India, then returns home, marries, and is granted a barony.

Fig. 4. From Lucas and Morrow’s What A Life!

Lucas suggests that “[t]he book had very little popularity, but it won a few very faithful friends, and I know one house where a copy of it is chained to the side of the mantelpiece like a bible in Church” (Reading 253-54). But if What A Life! won only a few friends, those friends were both well-placed and more than willing to celebrate the book. In 1936, selections from it were included in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s now-famous “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” show. Raymond Queneau, one-time Surrealist and founder of the Oulipo Group praised the book, which perhaps is unsurprising since John Ashbery (who wrote an insightful introduction to the 1975 Dover reprint) argues that What A Life! constitutes a kind of proto-Surrealist text that anticipates the collage novels of Max Ernst, such as Une semaine de Bonté (1934).[3] (The Dover edition subtitles the book “The Humourous Dadaist Classic,” although it was published four and a half years before the first performance at the Cabaret Voltaire.) Ashbery indicates that the intersections with Surrealism and Dada are both accidental and anomalous, given the unapologetically bourgeois inclination of Morrow and, especially, Lucas. Both Lucas and Morrow worked for Punch, the British humor magazine, which was hardly on the cutting edge of art.

Ashbery suggests that Lucas’s critique of consumer culture was in part motivated by his simultaneous attraction and repulsion to that culture:

[Lucas] wrote compulsively and continually, using the proceeds to live well in the manner suggested by the frock-coated gentlemen and aigretted ladies who stare from the pages of Whiteley’s catalogue, surrounded by those solemn and superfluous luxury goods which sometimes seem so essential to life. Yet he is constantly ridiculing the upper classes or rather the ambition to belong to them which the catalogue meant to insinuate into its readers (viii).

That might be what makes What A Life! so compelling: Lucas’s parody and critique of consumer culture is powerful precisely because he understood the appeal of that ambition, becoming a relentless consumer of luxury goods he could barely afford.

The Afterlife of Ephemera

Lucas clearly saw his novel as a bit of ephemera, and in that context, the word novel seems appropriate: What A Life! relies on its newness, just as Whiteley’s catalogue did. Interestingly, Lucas later believed his book had become as obsolete as the outdated catalogue upon which he had based it. He noted in Reading, Writing, and Remembering, his memoir published in 1932, that “[i]t would be amusing to give the joke a second chance [i.e., to republish What A Life!]  but the illustrated shilling book is dead, killed by the rise in the prices of production which set in during the War; and to ask more would be foolish” (254) That understanding is depicted in the image that appears on the cover of the Dover reprint:

Fig. 5. From Lucas and Morrow’s What A Life!

This aristocratic woman who finds herself in the dustbin (of history, perhaps?) could be a parody of Lucas’s own desires, since the aristocratic life to which he aspired was already fading away due to the social, economic, and political changes at the beginning of the twentieth century. Lucas and Morrow must have known how rapidly the images in What A Life! would age, since new catalogues were released every year. Now, however, the rise of internet consumerism has made What A Life! seem strangely contemporary again. The mail-order catalogue greatly expanded the scope of consumption in two ways. First, it allowed anyone with money, a stamp, and an envelope to purchase goods from stores hundreds of miles away. Shopping, then, became an often solitary activity, one that took place not in the store but in the home, and that kind of exchange has increased exponentially in our own time. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the catalogue transformed the goods for sale into two-dimensional images of desire that were often more powerful and appealing than the goods themselves.

Jean Baudrillard may provide the best definition of the way that appeal works in both Whiteley’s catalogue and What A Life! He defines consumption as

neither a material practice, nor a phenomenology of ‘affluence.’ It is not defined by the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the car we drive, nor by the visual and oral substance of images and messages, but in the organization of all this as signifying substance. Consumption is the virtual totality of all objects and messages constituted in a more or less coherent discourse. Consumption, in so far as it is meaningful, is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs.[4]

In other words, consumption is not merely the process of buying, using, discarding, and buying again. Instead, it is the structure of meaning that arises from the desires for those objects, whether or not they’re actually purchased; the individual consumer is always shaped by the larger narrative of consumption. In What A Life!, Lucas seems to play on this blurring of the distinction between personal and collective:

As adventures are to the adventurous, so is romance to the romantic. One man searching the pages of Whiteley’s General Catalogue will find only facts and prices; another will find what we think we have found—a deeply-moving human drama (5).

Lucas offers a double meaning to “deeply-moving.” The obvious and more conventional meaning is “that which is capable of evoking a deep emotional response,” which is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek: on the surface, What A Life! is a fairly gentle satire of both consumerism and the narratives of popular novels of the time, such as the bildungsroman and detective story. However, the second and more important meaning undermines the first: it is that which already moves deeply within us, i.e., the discourse of consumption. In the notes that have been compiled into the “Materials for the Exposé of 1935,” Walter Benjamin describes the Paris arcades as “dream- and wish-image of the collective,” and that works as an excellent description of the mail order catalogue as well.[5] There are obvious similarities between the windows of the arcades, which offered images of goods that were available for purchase and yet beyond the means of the vast majority of consumers. Both the windows of the arcades and the images in mail order catalogues are perhaps the earliest examples of Guy Debord’s notion of the spectacle as “capital accumulated to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.”[6] In the catalogue and the arcades, material goods become images in a larger narrative of consumption—a narrative that has intensified dramatically in the age of global capital.

What A Life! as Proto-Pop

That infatuation with consumption suggests an important point: What A Life! is less proto-Dada or proto-Surrealist than proto-Pop. The Bretonian emphasis on chance, the marvelous, and amour fou have an unmistakably spiritual component; as Walter Benjamin noted, surrealism’s attempt to move beyond (or, perhaps, to merely repackage) religious illumination took the form of a “profane illumination,” and its very profanity constituted a kind of spirituality, a way to transcend the quotidian world by entering the quasi-divine realm of the unconscious.[7] By contrast, What A Life! shuns any claim to a higher reality, as the found object of the Surrealists is replaced with images from a catalogue of objects for sale. While the objects themselves may be available for purchase, the fantasies and longings the images of those objects evoke remain so elusive it might be accurate to call them unfindable objects. Instead of the marvelous, What A Life! offers an irony so casual it approaches the disinterested “cool” that characterized, for example, Warhol’s soup cans or Roy Lichtenstein’s large scale reproductions from comic books. At the same time, Raymond Queneau’s praise for the “disinterested ends” (quoted in Lucas and Morrow, vi) of What A Life! seems to ignore the very powerful motivation behind the text: it simultaneously mocks and affirms the power of the unsated (and insatiable) pleasures of consumer culture. In this it bears an interesting resemblance to Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage “Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?,” which seems to note the fascination of American popular culture even as it parodies it.

The satire of consumer culture is obvious in the muscle-bound man with the hyperbolically phallic lollipop at waist level, the Ford logo on the lampshade, and the canned ham perched atop the coffee table. However, as comically banal as these objects seem, they also would have suggested a life of opulence that was almost unimaginable in Britain after the deprivations of the Second World War and the Great Depression. Adam Gopnik and Kirk Varnedoe, writing about the cover of the Young Romance comic book on the wall, suggest that for Hamilton “the comic book was tantalizing not for the style it offered but for the abundance it symbolized. The romance comic that appears on the wall . . . is an exotic orchid from a real paradise of innocent plenty, potently artificial.”[8] Gopnik and Varnedoe’s modifiers highlight the ambivalences of Pop: the orchid is “exotic” and from a “real” paradise, but that paradise nonetheless remains “potently artificial.”

While What A Life! anticipates many of the developments in Pop, it also is very much a product of the consumer revolution that occurs in London at the end of the nineteenth century. William Whiteley was at the center of that revolution, since he opened the first department store in Britain, and by 1885 his store in Bayswater had a staff of 6,000. Whiteley called his store “The Universal Provider” (a tag that has both paternal and theological overtones) and claimed to sell “everything from a pin to an elephant.”[9] Whiteley’s store, like the department stores that were thriving in the West End, led to profound social changes that went well beyond the hundreds or thousands of small merchants put out of business by these much larger competitors. By drawing together disparate classes of people all of whom were gathered for an identical purpose—consumption—the department store effectively weakened or even erased some of the class and gender distinctions upon which British society had been structured. Stuart Ewen argues that “[t]he new consumer democracy,” which he suggests began in the early nineteenth century, and “which was propelled by the mass production and marketing of stylish goods, was founded on the idea that symbols and prerogatives of elites could now be made available on a mass scale. The values of elite culture were simultaneously upheld and undermined by this peculiar variant of democracy.”[10] Erika Rappaport has also suggested “[t]he mass market was not just a synonym for either a working class or bourgeois public. Rather, it implied heterogeneity.”[11] Not surprisingly, the department stores in general and Whiteley’s in particular were the target of loud and sustained protests: “Whiteley’s enemies charged that by selling an array of commodities, services, and pleasures to a mixed shopping crowd, he had disorganized class, gender, moral and aesthetic categories” (Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure, 30).

Much of What A Life! is predicated on this disordering of categories. For instance, the original cover featured a butler carrying a tray with a glue pot, a pair of scissors dangling from a rope or chain attached to his belt. In what would seem to be a clear violation of the protocol for domestic servants, he faces the reader with an astonished look on his face, as if he has been asked to fill a request that is unmistakably improper.

Fig. 6. Original cover of What A Life!

And for good reason: while the butler typically represents one of the central forces that binds the aristocratic house, and (by extension) the aristocracy as whole, the glue and scissors he carries in the illustration reflect the social cutting and pasting that Whiteley’s effected. Their stores scrambled the social classes, and the catalogue suggests that those who can’t actually afford the trappings of the aristocratic life as depicted in Whiteley’s can nonetheless consume them, in Baudrillard’s sense of the word: the viewer can manipulate them just as Lucas and Morrow did. The original title page also featured a reproduction of scissors and a glue brush, this time bearing the caption “union is strength.”

Fig. 7. Original title page of What A Life!

The irony works on multiple levels. Most literally, the expression “union is strength” is a wildly inappropriate description of the process of the cutting and pasting in the novel, which relied on decontextualized images often juxtaposed with the text for a comic and even jarring effect. Additionally, that phrase was often used in a nationalistic context, in which all of the disparate citizens of a country were urged to join for the good of the nation, but the novel suggests the ultimate unifying force is not patriotism but consumerism—an eerie anticipation of global capital in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries when brands such as McDonalds, Disney, Honda, Coca-Cola, Apple, etc., have become international icons. The word “union” also recalls the trade unions that were gaining power at this time, and in that context the phrase seems to both acknowledge the working class demand for the money to purchase some level of consumer goods and simultaneously highlight the enormous gap between the workers and the aristocracy.

The Cliché and/as Narrative

Ashbery, in his introduction, cites Marcel Jean’s observation that Max Ernst’s “point of departure is literally a cliché,” that is, the printer’s stereotype that produced these illustrations. “Lucas and Morrow’s work,” he adds, “is even more deeply rooted in the cliché [than the collage novels of Max Ernst]: in addition to the cliché reproductions of visual stereotypes from Whiteley’s catalogue, the story itself is a continuous literary cliché, deftly sabotaged on every page by the authors’ finely honed scissors and pen” (vii). I see two problems with this claim. First, the visual images cannot be dismissed as mere clichés. At the time the catalogue was printed, they would have had to present an image of contemporaneity and desirability that was too compelling (for some viewers, at least) to be dismissed as cliché. Now, the images have the opposite effect: they range between the antiquated and the puzzling, since many of them are simply unidentifiable.

Second, the literary genres presented in the book are less than clichés: they’re so insubstantial that they don’t bear elaborating. For instance, in the chapter “Childhood,” the narrator states “I pass over other ordinary occurrences incidental to childhood, such as being kidnapped by gipsies [sic], and my first visit to the dentist, and come to my life at the preparatory school, to which I went to discover whether I was to serve my country in the Navy or the Army” (Lucas and Morrow, 23). In fact, he joins neither the Navy nor the Army, although while traveling in India he volunteers to fight against “the insurgent Gherkins” in “the Paticaka Guerilla War” (100). The closest the book gets to a sustained plot is in the chapter dedicated to the theft of diamonds at a country estate. The thief is caught, although it’s not clear how. The texts presents a series of details common to detective stories—a bloody handprint, a broken lamp that serves as a sign that a struggle has occurred, a mysterious bag—yet those details are never presented as evidence: they remain as decontextualized as the images in the novel. In fact, while the burglar is caught, he is never named nor is a motive specified. While Lucas and Morrow employ many of the clichéd details of detective fiction, such as the novels and short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, those details never support a coherent narrative. If anything, Lucas and Morrow work to undermine the cliché of the detective narrative.

That sabotaging of narrative is indicated in the final chapter, ironically entitled “Apotheosis.” The year is specified as 1911, the narrator’s “annus mirabilis,” as he says, as the Prime Minister makes him a peer and he becomes Baron Dropmore of Corfe. “Dropmore” offers an ironic contrast to the acquisitive nature of consumer culture, and “Corfe” is a ruined castle destroyed in the English Civil War and located on the Isle of Purbeck—which, appropriately enough, is actually a peninsula. Additionally, the “chapter” is only two sentences long, and offers no reason why the narrator might have received a peerage. This seems to parody the deus ex machina of classical tragedy, especially since the narrative is not resolved by a god from a machine, but instead suggests the narrator is made a god by a machine, or (in this case) the images in a catalogue.

If narrative sometimes aspires to teleology, What a Life! is in some ways closer to an eschatology, since both the catalogue and text itself were destined to fade away into irrelevancy. That has certainly happened to the Whiteley’s catalogue, since I’ve been unable to find a copy in any archive or museum. Additionally, in the intervening century, Whiteley’s has gone out of business, the mail order catalogue has become an anachronism, and even department stores themselves seem poised to become a thing of the past. And yet What A Life! remains, available for free and in its entirety at http://scruss.com/wal/index.html.


[1] E. V. Lucas and George Morrow, What A Life! An Autobiography (1911; rpt. New York: Dover, 1975).

[2] E. V. Lucas, Reading, Writing, and Remembering (London: Methuen, 1933), 253­–54.

[3] Oulipo, an acronym for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), used a variety of formulae and constraints to shape their texts, the most famous of which might be the s+7 method. This consists of replacing each noun in a given text with the word found seven entries later than it in a dictionary.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), 22. Emphasis in original.

[5] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999), 905. The attraction of the mail order catalogue can be seen in the example of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue in the US. In 1911, the year What A Life! was published, Sears had over 7,000 employees and sold 5.5 million catalogues. David Cohn, a former Sears Roebuck employee, claimed that it was the best-known book in America It had a variety of nicknames, including “The Farmer’s Bible” and “The Nation’s Wishbook.” During World War I, Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, distributed catalogues to wounded American soldiers in France. While part of his intent was no doubt to create loyal customers when these soldiers returned home, Rosenwald also recognized the elements of fantasy and nostalgia which underlay any reading of the catalogue, suggesting that the sight of the shotguns, fishing rods, and baseball bats that these soldiers owned at home would instantly transport them back to America. See David L. Cohn, Good Old Days: A History of American Morals and Manners as Seen Through the Sears Roebuck Catalogue (New York: Arno Press, 1940).

[6] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red, 2000), 34. Emphasis in original.

[7] Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol 2, 1927-1934 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 210.

[8] Adam Gopnik and Kirk Vardenoe, High and Low (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999), 185.

[9] For an overview of Whiteley’s, see Linda Stratman, Whiteley’s Folly (Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing, 2004).

[10] Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1990), 32. Emphasis in original.

[11] Erika Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London's West End (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 18.