The subtitle of this volume, which has by now become a minor classic in American criticism, explains the author’s purpose: to write a “study in the imaginative literature of 1870-1930”; and the dedicatory note, addressed to Christian Gauss of Princeton, explains the author’s conception of “what literary criticism ought to be,” that is, “a history of man’s ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them.” The book is, however, more limited than the subtitle might seem to indicate; it is actually a history of the Symbolist movement that began in France and spread to England and finally to America. The writers to whom Wilson directs his attention are Yeats, Valery, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Rimbaud, although dozens of others are dealt with in greater or lesser detail.
The importance of the book becomes more apparent if the date of publication, 1931, is kept in mind, for we then realize to what an extent it was a pioneer work. In 1931, Proust, though certainly known in this country, was read by only a few, and most of the critical articles dealing with his novel were in French. Maurois’ A LA RECHERCHE DE MARCEL PROUST did not appear until 1949. Joyce’s ULYSSES was still unprocurable in the United States, for the famous decision of Judge Woolsey that permitted its publication was two years in the future. Matthiessen’s THE ACHIEVEMENT OF T. S. ELIOT was still further off—1935. Rimbaud and Valery were not, and still are not, much read in America. At the time Wilson was introducing a group of writers who were, for most readers, merely names, the exception being Yeats, and he was associated chiefly with THE LAND OF HEART’S DESIRE and a few early poems.
Wilson begins his history with a discussion of Neoclassicism in the eighteenth century, the era of the “geometrical plays of Racine and the balanced couplets of Pope.” When this “conception of a fixed mathematical order” came to be considered as a constraint on the human spirit, we find ourselves in the Romantic period, at which time the poet, looking into his own soul, saw “fantasy, conflict, confusion,” and yet considered this vision as a truth superior to the mechanistic view held in the eighteenth century. Then came the scientific discoveries of the middle years of the nineteenth century (the most famous of which Darwin described in ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES), which reduced man from the heroic being constructed by the Romantic imagination to a mere animal among other animals. From this point of view arose the literary movement known as Naturalism, associated...
(The entire section is 1083 words.)