Edmund Wilson Wilson, Edmund (Vol. 3) - Essay

Wilson, Edmund (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilson, Edmund 1895–1972

One of America's foremost men of letters, Wilson was a critic, novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, and essayist. He is best known for his brilliantly original literary and cultural histories. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Edmund Wilson is not only a superb literary critic; he is also an extremely gifted writer; and there are ways in which his book about the American Civil War, Patriotic Gore, is a masterpiece. As an evocation of the literary and intellectual figures whose experience was shaped by the Civil War, the book is Plutarchian in its vividness. It displays to full advantage Wilson's gifts for historical narrative and critical description; it moves from writer to writer, topic to topic, with an ease that is astonishing; it vibrates with the passions of a supreme national crisis….

Edmund Wilson is not at home in the modern world. He dislikes its cheap-jack commercialism, its frantic vulgarity, its ingrained deceit. He detests American chauvinism, and looks with a cold eye upon our claims to moral superiority in the Cold War. He fears the centralization of the bureaucratic state, and takes toward it an attitude of hostility such as, he implies, might have won the approval of nineteenth-century American intellectuals like Oliver Wendell Holmes in the North and Alexander Stephens in the South, men who were their own masters and lived by standards of public service and stoic virtue. Whether the attitudes expressed by Wilson can be called radical is less important than that they convey a criticism of modern society with which many radicals sympathize.

Irving Howe, "Edmund Wilson and the Sea Slugs," in his A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics (© 1963; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1963, pp. 300-07.

T. S. Eliot said that Dr. Johnson was 'a dangerous person to disagree with'. Of only three literary critics of our time may this also be said—Eliot himself, F. R. Leavis and Edmund Wilson. I must, in the instance of Mr. Wilson, make it quite clear that his near-infallibility applies only to literary judgments…. But, from Axel's Castle on, no man has done more to show how exciting literary criticism can be, and no man has had a profounder influence on the capacity of a couple of generations (including my own) to form its own judgments on a very large and important sector of European literature—that one in which France meets and modifies the Anglo-American tradition….

Wilson has, if anything, gone further than Eliot in calling for wider reading and even deeper linguistic study: he has seen, for instance, how the examination of the phenomenon of languages can stimulate purely literary inquiry, and he takes it for granted that we can argue about no book unless we know it in the original….

[One] always seems to be learning new facts from Edmund Wilson, as well as being drubbed intellectually and enlightened with conclusions that, so well are they stated and so logically arrived at, appear inevitable and hence obvious. The range of his … years of explorations is very wide, and nothing is dull. The Wilsonic image is still frightening, though there is great good humour, simple warmth, grumpiness, largeness of heart, and something very like school-boyish ludibundance.

Anthony Burgess, "The Triple Thinker," in his Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1968, pp. 200-02.

From soon after 1920, when he began contributing critical articles to various New York journals, Edmund Wilson has been a conspicuous and influential figure in American letters. When some years ago he took the risk of reprinting in two fat volumes close to two hundred periodical essays written between the early 1920's and late 1940's, and written each time with the steadfast journalistic purpose of producing something readable and plainly interesting, the result confirmed a rough sense that had been gathering in the minds of readers for a quarter of a century: that for nearly every important development in contemporary writing Edmund Wilson was in some way a spokesman—an arbiter of taste, a supplier of perspective, at the least (to adapt his own phrase for Hemingway) a gauge of intellectual morale. Time and again, reading Classics and Commercials (1950) and especially The Shores of Light (1952), one would find that judgments formulated under pressure of the weekly deadline had proved to be both just and durable; that they somehow contained that sense of the matter which academic historians of literature, with all the advantages of hindsight, were still groping after….

Almost never did Edmund Wilson repeat himself, in the tiresome manner of the special pleader, the critic with one string to his bow. In fact, this diversity became established as one of the principal merits of Wilson's writing; this, and his evident willingness to do the spadework necessary for dealing intelligently with each new subject. His constant virtue was to write as if literature and the discussion of literature were not a bit less important; that is to say, not less worthy the full attention of that ideal civil intelligence to which no actual phenomenon appears without significance, deserving to be looked into with the appropriate concern.

In so operating Edmund Wilson never bothered much to disguise his prejudices and the play of personal taste and distaste in his reactions. More than once he was led to assert unfashionable judgments which he could not carry off in the argumentative detail. Actually he made a strength of this defect, if such it was; in the long run it seemed a further guarantee of that personal engagement with his subjects which gave weight to his opinions even among those who might find them finally unsatisfactory….

What Edmund Wilson's writing has always served—and here we may think of all he has done besides criticism: travel books and social reportage, a novel, a collection of stories, several plays, parodies and topical verse in abundance, editorial introductions, reminiscence, personal opinion, educational theory, studies of culture survivals like the Zuni and Iroquois, and chronicles of quite unclassifiable matters such as the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls or his own discoveries as a student of Hebrew—is nothing less than Literature itself, in the broadest, the proper, sense of the term. He believes in literature as a humane activity, an index to civilization. Or, if "belief" seems the wrong sort of word, he trusts it to the point of choosing to live by it…. Edmund Wilson does not limit "literature," in the manner of university assignments and publishers' anthologies, to prize performances in standard genres. He spreads his net to anything written in such a way as to convey some measure of accurate knowledge and foster some sort of useful understanding; in such a way, too, as to maintain the serviceability of ordinary language to both ends. He is genuinely interested in what is being done and whether it is being done well….

[It] is very much a type of mind that Wilson's writing gives voice to, a distinctly American type perhaps, at least a familiar and important one in both American literature and American public life. An otherwise excellent study of his career written some years ago by Norman Podhoretz labeled him "the last patrician," which is of course inaccurate; whoever our American patricians may be, they have not had a great deal to do with our serious literature. His mold is rather his father's—the mold of the independent, freethinking professional man, in this case of the type of the town or small-city lawyer …; the man of broad but not particularly fine taste, with a strong and confident habit of mind and with pride in his judgment, who is skillful at dossiers, presentations of essential evidence, summings-up; something of a dissenter but according to no easily predictable pattern; conservatively radical, out of an unshakable assurance as to his own position; a leader of opinion used to making himself listened to, but not likely to be aware that among those who know him well, as opposed to the general public, a kind of silent resistance is steadily building up; a champion not so much of the lost cause as of the accidentally unpopular or unfashionable one, whom we visualize finally as Edmund Wilson portrays his father: "explaining at length, but with an expert lucidity, some basic point of law or government."…

[His] comparisons and definitions in books like To the Finland Station and Patriotic Gore are nearly always in terms of other books and that he is most effective in comparing minor instances to guaranteed classics…. When such comparisons do not turn up, he seems at a loss to know what to think. And we may begin to feel that perhaps Wilson's praiseworthy belief in the efficacy and validity of literature (which I began by calling his great virtue as a practical critic) is damagingly related to a profound distrust of life and all its disconcerting profusion of appearances; a distrust of the mind's freedom to act among them; a binding insecurity that issues in the countermeasures of aggressive annoyance and chronic irritability. It may well be sound tactics for a peripatetic journalist to write from defensive annoyance and irritation; it can guarantee directness and authenticity of relation; but it is a handicap to the prosecution of serious historical and moral argument.

Yet to say such things may be to say something a good deal stronger than the case requires or deserves. The point may rather be, simply, that Edmund Wilson has been a journalist and remains a journalist. It would be churlish not to add that he has been an extraordinarily valuable one. All who have to do with literature have played parasite to his writings, his discoveries and revaluations, and are too much in his debt to allow much complaining. He has been one of his time's indispensable teachers and transmitters of important news. His work reminds us how much we depend on these jobs being done and done well, how impoverished we are when they do not get done.

Warner Berthoff, "Edmund Wilson and His Civil War," in his Fictions and Events: Essays in Criticism and Literary History (copyright © 1971 by Warner Berthoff; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), Dutton, 1971, pp. 264-87.

What does Wilson's effort amount to? Is there an atom of truth in his dispirited suggestion that his books have dated? Supposing—as seems likely—that Wilson belongs with the great, copious critical minds like Saintsbury, Sainte-Beuve, Croce, Taine: is he doomed to survive like them only as an emblem of the qualities a mind can have, Saintsbury for gusto, Sainte-Beuve for diligence, Croce for rigour, Taine for drama? Wilson makes Van Wyck Brooks's output look normal, Eliot's look slim, Empson's, Trilling's and Leavis's look famished. Just how is all this avoirdupois to be moved forward? We need to decide whether critical work which has plainly done so much to influence its time vanishes with its time or continues. To continue, it must have done something beyond maintaining standards or correcting taste, important as those functions are: it must have embodied, not just recommended, a permanent literary value. And we do not have to re-read much of Wilson's criticism—although it would be a year of perfect pleasure to re-read all of it—to see that it does embody a value, and embodies it in a way and to a degree that no other corpus of twentieth-century work has approached. But this value, so easily sensed, is very difficult to define, since it must perforce reside in whatever is left after opposing high estimations of Wilson have cancelled each other out. Lionel Trilling (in "Edmund Wilson: A Background Glance", collected in A Gathering of Fugitives) says that an interest in ideas is the very essence of Wilson's criticism. Alfred Kazin, on the other hand, says that ideas are things Wilson is not at home with. If both these men admire the same thing in Wilson, what is it?

The answer is that Wilson has a mental style—a mental style which reveals itself in the way he writes. He is proof by nature against metaphysics of any kind (sometimes to the damaging extent that he cannot grasp why men should bother to hold to them), and this characteristic gives his work great clarity. He never has to strive towards perspicuity, since he is never tempted even momentarily to abandon it. And in more than fifty years of activity he has put up such a consistent show of knowing what he means—and of writing it down so that it may be readily understood—that he has invited underestimation…. If he could only have managed to dream up an objective correlative, or a few types of ambiguity, or if he had found it opportune to start lamenting the loss of an organic society, he would be much more fashionable now than he is. But we can search his work from end to end without finding any such conversation-piece. What we do find is a closely argued dramatic narrative in which good judgment and misjudgment both stand out plainly. The dangerous excitement of a tentatively formulated concept is absent from his work, and for most of us this is an excitement that is hard to forgo: the twentieth century has given us a palate for such pepper….

From the beginning, Wilson was a necessary writer, a chosen man. And it is this feeling of watching a man proving himself equal to an incontestably important task—explaining the world to America and explaining America to itself—which provides the constant excitement of Wilson's work.

"Edmund Wilson and the End of the American Dream," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), May 19, 1972, pp. 561-64.

Though minor Wilson, "The Devils and Canon Barham" illustrates all his virtues: the scope of his interests, from Mencken to oddities like the monsters of Bomarzo; the easy personal tone—neither flashy nor self-regarding—of his expertise; the love of literary curiosities like "The Ingoldsby Legends," as if he were an American reincarnation of Isaac D'Israeli; the scavenging in the dust heaps of literary history for neglected figures—Henry B. Fuller and Harold Frederick, American novelists of the 1890's, for example—who would fill out the middle ground of the cultural scene. Wilson had a weakness for bit players. He relished the raffish habits of amateurs and dilettantes like Maurice Baring, but he applied the same solidity of specification to them as to Lenin or Ezra Pound….

Wilson's style, at the service of his moral intelligence, is sturdy and plain-spoken rather than graceful; there are few curlicues or passages that startle by their eloquence. He balances contradictions: "Islands in the Stream" "gives us Hemingway as a concoctor of self-inflating fantasies at his most exhibitionistic" but also as an artist who makes an effort "to deal candidly with the discords of his own personality—his fears, which he has tried to suppress, his mistakes, which he has tried to justify, the pangs of bad conscience, which he has brazened out." We shall miss Wilson's fertile self-revising mind.

Herbert Leibowitz, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 29, 1973, p. 6.

Wilson was a keen amateur illusionist, an enthusiast for Punch and Judy shows, a lifelong student of showmanship, charlatanism and magic….

Wilson, who pursued the avocations of critic and scholar outside the formal confines of the academic community, was of more importance than he knew. Some years before he died he attempted an assessment of his own contribution to modern literature, and seemed content to stand on his achievements as an interpreter, explaining the characteristics of the literatures of other nations to readers in the United States. This was absurdly modest, and evaded any evaluation of To the Finland Station, which must be his finest book. What he could not see was that he had come to stand for the end of an era, and that his assumptions about the role of the critic and the nature of his audience, ordinary enough for his early years, looked increasingly odd when the function of literature began to be redefined in terms of the universities. The saddest statement of our time must be that "the criticism of literature should be the central discipline in our universities." It is sad not because the prominence given to literature is improper, but because the associated assumptions about universities are absurd. Wilson was never an enemy of the academies; his noble tribute to Christian Gauss is proof enough of that. But he did truly believe in the role of literature in society at large, and because he had faith in that ideal he reached an audience for whom the universities were an irrelevance. He was a man of letters' in the best sense, himself a true creator, unselfconsciously asserting, in everything he did, the interpenetration of life and art.

Richard Luckett, "Richard Luckett on the Strange Fate of Edmund Wilson," in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 17, 1973, pp. 640-41.