Hanley, James (1901–85), writer, was reputedly born 3 September 1901 in Dublin, second among eight children of Edward Hanley, merchant seaman, and Brigid Hanley (née Roche). His father had forsaken an established family printing business and legal studies to go to sea; his mother hailed from a long line of seafarers. The family moved to Liverpool when he was young. Emulating both his father and elder brother, Hanley ran off to sea at age 13 (1915), voyaging round the world. Jumping ship in New Brunswick (1917), he falsified his age and enlisted in the Black Watch battalion of the Canadian expeditionary force. Seeing combat in France near Bapaume (summer 1918), he was gassed and hospitalised. Demobilised at war's end, he returned to sea as a deckhand (1919–24). With a keen interest from boyhood in literature, he moved back to his family's Liverpool home, found work as a railway porter – the first of a series of manual jobs – and wrote short stories and novels. He read Russian fiction and studied the piano (damage to his fingers from deck work inhibited his proficiency); critics subsequently identified a pronounced musical quality to the rhythms of his prose. Failing in every effort to publish his work, he considered returning to sea. In 1929 he began correspondence, which blossomed into an intimate and lengthy friendship, with Welsh writer John Cowper Powys (1872–1963), who encouraged him at a critical juncture. After rejection by seventeen publishers, his first novel, Drift (1930), was accepted by philologist-turned-publisher Eric Partridge. A portrayal of a young man's efforts to break free from paternal tyranny and maternal piety, it received good reviews but earned him little money.
For the ensuing decade Hanley wrote profusely, publishing several titles privately and the remainder under eight imprints. Despite consistently mediocre sales and faint public recognition, he worked as a full-time writer and journalist for the rest of his career. He married (1931) Dorothy Enid (‘Timothy’) Heathcote and moved with her to a remote cottage outside Corwen, a north Wales village; they had one son. His most important early novel, Boy (1931) – written in ten days in a rage of indignation against the romanticisation of life at sea – is a grim narrative of a 12-year-old ship's boy who is ill-treated and sexually assaulted by the crew, contracts syphilis in an Alexandria brothel, and is ‘put down’ by the ship's captain. The book was printed in full in Paris and in an expurgated London edition; a cheap 1934 British edition drew scandalised attention largely for its irrelevant and provocatively titillating cover, resulting in criminal prosecution and conviction of the publishers on a charge of obscene libel. Withdrawn from publication (reissued by André Deutsch only in 1990), the book became a cause célèbre in battles against British censorship, but earned Hanley a reputation for obscenity that plagued his public image and blighted his attitude toward publishers and the press.
The dominant subjects of Hanley's work are threefold: war, the sea, and the lives of the poor and marginal. Often portraying characters gripped by unusual obsessions, his work is always psychologically complex, attuned to the power of the unconscious and subconscious on human behaviour. His sea novels and stories have been compared to Conrad's, but are more thoroughly modernist in style and temper. Hollow sea (1938) is an account of a troopship bound for the Dardanelles landing. The ocean (1941) deals with a ship's boat adrift after a torpedoing. His most ambitious project was a five-volume series composed over twenty-three years (1935–58) chronicling a poor Liverpool-Irish family, the Furys. During the second world war Hanley moved his family to London (1939–46). The writing of his middle period is marked by modernist adventures with structure and language. Sailor's song (1943), a tale of four seamen adrift on a raft, focuses on their delirious and shifting memories. No directions (1943), recounting a single night in a London tenement during the blitz, is a cacophony of merging streams of consciousness, capturing with harrowing effect the textural experience of civilians under aerial bombardment.
In 1946 Hanley resettled in north Wales, in the tiny village of Llanfechain, near Welshpool. The Welsh sonata (1954), a prose poem with affinities to Dylan Thomas's Under milk wood, was praised for its lyricism. The closed harbour (1952) and Levine (1956) treat the psychological aftermath of war, while Say nothing (1962) is a sombre, Dostoevskian treatment of the despairing inhabitants of a boarding house. Moving to London, for ten years (1962–72) he abandoned fiction to concentrate on drama for radio, television, and the stage. A stage adaptation of Say nothing, produced in London (1962), New York, and Helsinki, was compared for its minimalist understatement to the work of Samuel Beckett (qv) and Harold Pinter; a subsequent BBC production was described as ‘British television's finest play of the sixties’ (Seymour-Smith, 301). Also noteworthy were the television play ‘A walk in the sea’ (1966) and the stage drama ‘Leave us alone’ (1972). Hanley's four late novels, written after returning to Wales, are akin to plays, consisting of dialogue linked by plain descriptive prose; the most notable is Dream journey (1976).
Through a career of critical acclaim and popular neglect, Hanley was furiously prolific: published titles include twenty-seven novels, seventeen collections of short stories, an autobiography (Broken waters, 1937), plays, and literary, musical, and social criticism. ‘Uncompromising, stark, too truthful to be comfortable’ (Burgess, xi), he held aloof from the literary establishment, disdaining publicity and easy acceptance by middlebrow taste. While his vision was bleak and disturbing, his voice was compassionate; never cruel or patronising to his characters, he felt and gave voice to their pain. Very much a ‘writer's writer’, he was enthusiastically championed by such diverse writers as E. M. Forster, T. E. Lawrence, W. H. Auden, Sean O'Faolain (qv), William Faulkner, Henry Miller, and Anthony Burgess.
His wife, Timothy Hanley, took up writing and illustration, publishing three novels (1950s). After her sudden death (1980) he produced little. He returned to London, where he died of pneumonia 11 November 1985. He is buried in Llanfechain churchyard. The Annual Obituary (1985) includes a comprehensive bibliography of his published volumes, and a list of stage, radio, and television productions.