Wilson, Edmund (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilson, Edmund 1895–1972

Wilson, one of America's most prominent men of letters, was a critic, novelist, and playwright. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The most distinguished member of [his] generation of patrician intellectuals was Edmund Wilson…. Wilson's work cannot be fully understood unless we remember that his voice has always been the voice of the old Anglo-Saxon America, even when it was insisting on the greatness of Joyce and Proust and Valéry, and even when it was declaring its intense admiration of Marx and Lenin. In Wilson, as in no other writer of the past fifty years, we can see how the old American mind, having recovered itself from the first shock of the post-Civil War days, went on to cope with an America that it passionately felt to be its very own but which became more and more alien to it with the passage of the years….

Wilson's early journalistic pieces breathe a natural and easy relation not only to the "fine arts" but to the whole cultural life of his age. He will deal with everything from literature, music, painting, and theater to movies, burlesque shows, vaudeville, murder trials, the character of New York neighborhoods; and whatever the subject, he brings to it the same active intelligence, the same learned interest, the same degree of intellectual seriousness—in short, the same personal identity….

[Wilson] spent six years writing To the Finland Station, his most ambitious work and the only one, apart from Axel's Castle, that really constitutes an organic whole rather than a collection of more or less closely related pieces. Wilson's talents as a biographer, his extraordinary skill at summing up the contents of a book, his ability to digest an immense volume of material, his gift of elucidation, and his keen critical powers are all brought into play in this account of the development of socialism from the Utopians through Marx and Engels and finally to the implementation of Marxism by Lenin and Trotsky in the Russian Revolution….

From about 1941 on, we have to deal with a new Wilson, a Wilson whose estrangement from the intellectual world around him was aggravated by the passage of the years until he finally washed his hands of it altogether and retreated into a special "pocket of the past."… The cultural sterility of the early 40's bothered him as much as the political atmosphere, and he went so far as to draw a connection between the two, blaming the loss of creative energy on the fact that writers had given themselves over whole hog to the war….

One guesses that Wilson's self-image is of an American who has combined the "internationalist" ideal of Henry James with the "republican patriotism" of Lincoln; and indeed, we have seen how hard he has worked to assimilate the symbolists, Marx and Lenin, Freud, and finally the Jews (whom he calls the founders of "international thinking") to the concept of Americanism to which he has always been loyal: the readiness to explore new possibilities of human development, the refusal to accept individual frustration or social misery as given in the nature of things, the faith in the human imagination as the source of all values and in the human will as the agent of progress.

Norman Podhoretz, "The Last Patrician" (1958), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 30-50.

The first thing that strikes you in reading Edmund Wilson's … book, Patriotic Gore, is amazement at the size and scope of it, the labor and patience that must have gone into it, the energy of mind and spirit that infuses it—in short, the immense intellectual vitality that Wilson [commanded] at the age of sixty-seven and after a career that has already earned him a secure place as one of the greatest men of letters this country has ever produced….

Like [Oliver Wendell] Holmes,… Wilson has retained the ability to function as a first-rate intellect in a period when so many others have been discouraged or broken. Unlike Holmes, however, Wilson was always able to operate at the top of his bent without having to cut himself off and without leaning on the crutch of an arbitrary skepticism about human nature and history. If the energy and vitality of Patriotic Gore show that Wilson is still functioning as a first-rate intellect, the book also unfortunately indicates that he is no longer able to do so without the help of isolation and pessimism. From now on, it seems, we shall have to look elsewhere for the kind of guidance that it was once his particular glory to give.

Norman Podhoretz, "Mr. Wilson and the Kingdom of Heaven" (1962), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 50-8.

Edmund Wilson has maintained longer than anyone of his generation a distinguished position in American letters. Literary critic, social reporter, travel writer, poet, playwright, short story writer, novelist, chronicler, and historian—he is our pre-eminent man of letters, perhaps the last of the great professionals, the genuine littérateurs. (p. 1)

[Wilson's earliest] stories are dramatic but rigid, fixed by an intelligence too careful and analytical for fiction. (p. 17)

As we look back on all of [Wilson's] work, the articles he has gathered together as "chronicles" and the plays that he feels should interest us as attempts to "dramatize the mentality, the characteristic types and the various milieux of the twenties and the early thirties," we see that his work, even the "objective" portions of it, is a confession of a child of the century. This, in fact, is what has made him one of those necessary writers in whom we can discover the consciousness of the time. (p. 54)

The novel [I Thought of Daisy] is not entirely successful; as Wilson himself is aware, it is too schematic, or rather, the scheme is too obvious and the author too concerned with making us aware of its thematic unfolding. Besides, the scheme itself is at odds with the story…. [The] scheme … involves the creation of a different mood and point of view for each of the five sections of the book. But the point of view is never that of the character who is supposed to provide it; it is that of the narrator who assimilates all viewpoints to himself and tells the story throughout in the same prose rhythms and vocabulary. Events are remembered and described; they do not have independent dramatic existence. Because of the reminiscent quality, one feels that this fiction is a species of memoir and that the narrator is working out in several equations the calculus of his life. (p. 55)

Axel's Castle, the study of the Symbolists that established Wilson's reputation as a literary critic, is as profoundly personal, as much an attempt to resolve tangled commitments, as I Thought of Daisy. Having its origin in the malaise of the twenties, it is essentially a work of cultural diagnosis…. The "case" is Symbolism, and literary, historical, and philosophical analysis discovers its meaning for the contemporary writer.

It is a major work, as important as Eliot's The Sacred Wood. By showing the philosophical importance and methodological seriousness of the Symbolist movement, it vindicated contemporary letters. More than any other book of criticism, it established the writers of the avant garde in the consciousness of the general reader: not only did it place them in a significant historical development, it taught the uninitiated how to read them. Superbly written, clear, forceful, directed by a mind that tightly grasps ideas and serves what it tries to understand, the book remains, even after three decades of massive endeavor in the same territory, a brilliant landmark and stimulating point of departure. (p. 77)

To the Finland Station, Wilson's most substantial effort toward redirecting the bourgeois mind, is neither the systematic account of the writing of history that [Christian] Gauss, his mentor in matters of history, hoped it would be, nor, as Wilson himself knew and critics were quick to point out, an adequate account of the philosophical background of Marxism…. Finland Station is a revolutionist's Plutarch's Lives. Biography is the foundation of the book. The lives of men provide the perspective of events, and this is why, with Wilson, psychology accompanies history. The psychological approach is essential to one who believes, as Wilson does, that men make history as they make works of art—out of psychic travail; and it supports his philosophically idealistic notion of creativity as well as his insistence on the work of individuals. (pp. 125-27)

That Wilson confronted public and private demoralization in the mirror of Memoirs of Hecate County may explain why it is his favorite among his books. It is, to be sure, a more accomplished work of fiction than I Thought of Daisy…. Memoirs of Hecate County belongs with those works which Wilson calls night thoughts. It is the product of the dark depressing nightmarish world, the hades, usually kept from public view, in which he sometimes wanders and where his tightly reined emotions break loose in furious demonism. There are times when, like Ishmael, his splintered heart and maddened hand are turned against the wolfish world. His demonism, however, is not in its nature antisocial, as it is in those toward whom it is directed. It is best characterized by the destructive (and self-destructive) rage of the narrator of I Thought of Daisy, who, having found the fabric of human decency rent, is ready to slander humanity by satirizing it. It is the reflex of his idealism, and its personal and public use is purgative. (pp. 146-47)

Patriotic Gore is perhaps best read as … a personal encounter with history. As the critical response indicates, it is unsatisfactory if one turns to it for a systematic or balanced presentation of the history or literature of the period…. History in Patriotic Gore moves all at once, like an agitated sea, and casts up debris from which the mind eagerly takes the hope of some significance. (pp. 201-06)

"Old-fashioned" is the word Wilson himself most often uses in describing the values he conserves, and one can use it to describe him if it is remembered that to be old-fashioned is merely to be out-of-fashion, not out-of-use. (p. 220)

Sherman Paul, in his Edmund Wilson: A Study of Literary Vocation in Our Time, University of Illinois Press, 1965.