He hoodwinked his lover Siegfried Sassoon into believing he was a Native American and convinced Virginia Woolf he would be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.
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Now, Canadian war poet Frank Prewett’s traumatic life – and the reasons he falsely claimed to be an Iroquois called Toronto – are to be laid bare in a new book.
Prewett was recovering from shell shock in a psychiatric hospital in 1918 when he was encouraged to “dress up” – and that is when he first began pretending to be an Iroquois, the book reveals.
“He had post-traumatic stress and that’s what caused him to ‘turn Indian’,” said Joy Porter, professor of indigenous history at the University of Hull and author of Trauma, Primitivism and the First World War: the Making of Frank ‘Toronto’ Prewett.
By then, she argues, Prewett was struggling to trust the “basis and fabric of reality”, after being first blown from his horse during one first world war battle, and then, separately, being buried alive and having to claw his way out of the earth. “He completely lost it after that. He was profoundly traumatised and that’s why he took on this completely fictitious identity.”
He appeals to the primitivist ideas of everyone around him. He goes around topless on a horse, looking gorgeous and fulfilling all their fantasies of being an indigenous personJoy Porter
Sassoon, the famous war poet, spent time in the same psychiatric hospital, Lennel House in Coldstream, Scotland, and promptly fell in love with Prewett. “He was extremely handsome, with these hot brown eyes … he looked like the Italian movie star Rudolph Valentino, and was also a talented poet,” says Porter.
Previously unpublished letters between Prewett and Sassoon, which hint at their sexual relationship and Sassoon’s passionate pursuit of Prewett, are analysed for the first time in the book, which is coming out in July next year. Other letters, from Woolf, war poet Robert Graves and the aristocrat Lady Ottoline Morrell, demonstrate how the British literary elite fetishised Prewett’s “primitive soul”.
After being taken to Garsington Manor, Morrell’s Oxfordshire home, by Sassoon and introduced to some of the Bloomsbury set, Prewett began “playing Native American” in earnest in 1919.
“He appeals to the primitivist ideas of everyone around him. He goes around topless on a horse, looking gorgeous and fulfilling all their fantasies of being a native indigenous person – and using that to get his poems published by Virginia Woolf. And he gets Sassoon and the Morrells to pay for him to go to Oxford to get a degree,” says Porter.
At the time, few members of the British upper classes had ever seen a Native American in the flesh. “He’s meeting the needs of the British elite, who were very into primitives of all sorts. And they believed in beauty, and he was gorgeous,” she adds.
Prewett had grown up in a repressive religious household on Iroquois land in Ontario and, Porter believes, probably modelled himself on the indigenous people he knew or had heard of. He was “as poor as a church mouse” after the war. Sassoon, by contrast, was from landed wealth and a member of the British literary elite. “There was a culture then of cultivating artistic people across the class divide. Rich women and men would cultivate the arts – and have sex with the artists they were cultivating.”
Prewett used his assumed identity to assert his own voice when arguing with Sassoon and Graves about poetry. Porter says: “He would refer to his primitive soul. When, for example, Graves is correcting his poems or Sassoon is talking to him about poetry, he says, ‘Well, these are my primitive deficiencies’.”
In fact, Prewett’s poems reflected the identity crisis and uncertain relationship with reality he was suffering as a result of the war. “It’s the poetry of trauma. When you’ve experienced death and fully thought you were dead, and then you survive, that veil between reality and the dreamed or ghostly self breaks down.”
Along with Sassoon and Graves, Woolf also greatly admired Prewett’s poems. “She hand-set his poetry and thought he was the next big thing. Everyone thought he was going to be the poetic voice of the 20th century. They felt that, because he was American Indian, he could express this inner primitive soul that they could not, because the modern world and technology prevented them.”
DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound and WB Yeats all knew or corresponded with Prewett and he also encountered TS Eliot, EM Forster and Walter de la Mare at Garsington, where he was sexually pursued by Lady Ottoline.
Eventually, however, he “cracked”, Porter said. “He starts doing things like deliberately taking Sassoon’s trousers, and stealing money from the Morrells before bragging about it in a postcard to Sassoon. Then he’s cast out.”
Prewett continued to believe his fantasy until the day he died. Only recently, William, Prewett’s son by his second wife Dorothy, took a DNA test that revealed he had absolutely no genetic connection to Iroquois: this is the first book about Prewett to be published since the discovery.
“He lost his sense of self by being blown up twice,” said Porter. “Adopting an invented personality was his means of coping with unspeakable trauma and the utter horror of being buried alive at the front. He was an extraordinary person who knew exceptional people at a remarkable time. And his poetry is deeply moving.”