Edmund Wilson Wilson, Edmund (Vol. 2) - Essay

Wilson, Edmund (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilson, Edmund 1895–1972

Wilson, one of America's most prominent men of letters, was a learned critic, as well as a novelist and playwright. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 37-40.)

Properly speaking, Edmund Wilson is a nineteenth-century Jamesean sensibility adrift in the world of Scott Fitzgerald and John O'Hara. All his instincts and interests compel him toward the novel of political and esthetic speculation, a Princess Casamassima or a l'Education sentimentale. All his experience compels him toward the shoddy material of a Butterfield-8. All his imagination can make out of the split is I Thought of Daisy and Memoirs of Hecate County.

The material of I Thought of Daisy is drawn from the impoverished manners of Greenwich Village in the twenties. The theme is a dramatization of one of Wilson's favorite ideas: that the common life of a country can be entered through the formulation of the proper intellectual attitude toward it. For the young narrator of the novel, it is American life that must be entered; and it is Daisy, a chorus girl, who represents that life to him. Daisy is seen in a different perspective—so that she is constantly appearing as a new person—each time the narrator tries to fit her into one of a series of different intellectual systems—successively, social revolution, romanticism, animalism, materialism, metaphysical idealism, and, finally, democratic realism, at which stage the common life is attained. The story thus arranges itself into the traditional pattern of the novel of the developing consciousness or Bildungsroman….

Perhaps because he sensed Daisy's inadequacy as a character, Wilson unconsciously inflated the terms in which he describes her. The result is some of the most embarrassingly bad writing he has ever done, reminding us that even as a young man he had a defective ear and no sense of humor, and that the peculiarly frigid passion one feels behind the language of Memoirs of Hecate County was no mere defect of old age.

John W. Aldridge, "I Thought of Daisy" (1953), in his Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay, 1966, pp. 222-25.

Writing has been [Edmund Wilson's] form of action, and everything he has written has been part of his search for the intellectual attitude that would permit him to save himself and the America he loves so much that he has hardly had a good word to say for the country since his America went underground somewhere around Talcottville, New York, during his boyhood. Like some Puritan Matthew Arnold, he has always thought of the intellectual as a prophet on whose uses of intelligence depend both the quality of our society and its freedom from the dangerous fanaticism of uncontrolled passions. How powerful are the passions he himself has to control is evident in Memoirs of Hecate County, where the devils that pursue him and his society squeak and gibber and that pitiful doppelganger, Ducky (Bunny) Flick, practices his purposeless magic. He is like the Dr. Johnson he is often compared to…. Like Johnson's, his dogmatism is a product of moral passion, not of ego, and he produces on every subject he touches what Mary McCarthy once called "the authorized version," not from a will to dominate but from a need to save by giving rational order to his own and his society's impulses. He argues like a neo-classic critic or a psychoanalyst or a student of comparative literature, but his motive is always a deeply felt moral purpose.

Arthur Mizener, "Edmund Wilson's New Republic," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), May 9, 1970, pp. 28-30.

From the time I first read Axel's Castle, I loved Wilson's writing passionately and knew that he was not only a remarkable critic because he put you directly in touch with any work he discussed, but also an original, an extraordinary literary artist who wove his essays out of the most intense involvement with his materials….

He could turn any literary subject back into the personal drama it had been for the writer. He could bring out all the implications of a book in his portrait of the writer as a creative consciousness. Literature became an experience of the writer's mind, for Wilson's greatest gift was a peculiar openness to every detail about a writer as model for his own experience; his famous lifelong diaries were invisible, but it was obvious that he carefully noted everything about his own experiences as his mystical bond to literature. Despite Wilson's scorn for Emerson and Thoreau as romantic isolatoes sentimentally seeking God in nature, Wilson's mind in its hypnotized fidelity to minute details of experience was just like theirs. He, too, was trying to turn his life into a work of art. Like them, he had a passion for journals and memoirs, for the biographical context of literature and history, for the personal setting, that explained the charm of his writing and the gripping tension behind it. He had exposed himself to literature as the maximum experience of his life; I felt that he lived in literature as he did not anywhere else. It was exactly the communicated depth of this experience that I missed in other American radicals—this absorption in the actual work in hand, this visible pressure on him of every fresh thought, that made him so absorbed and cranky, unselfconscious and a "character."

Alfred Kazin, "Midtown and Village," in Harper's (copyright © 1970, by Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co., Inc.; reprinted from the January, 1971 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), January, 1971, pp. 82-9.

On the shelf of Edmund Wilson's work Upstate will stand closest, perhaps, to his oddly memorable books of fiction (or novels, or whatever they are). It may be just the strongest of the lot. The actualities of life in Lewis County turn out to be, if anything, denser and more richly emblematic than the imagined events of Hecate County in the 1940s or for the Greenwich Village-1920's scheme of I Thought of Daisy. The main part of Upstate, drawn from diary-notebooks of the past two decades, has an emotional shape and plot missing from A Prelude, the reconstruction of his early life which appeared four years ago…. What he has written, Wilson says, shows "the gradual but steady expiration" of the old order of local life as he knew it not only in childhood but in the first years of his return.

The mass of the book is by no means so elegiac as this may sound. It has in fact the fascination of a marvelous new archeological dig, delivering up treasures that reveal a whole civilization in the perspectives of time and change. (In this regard the work belongs with Apologies to the Iroquois and O Canada, as another by-product of the author's return upstate.) The house is a sort of historical museum by which the human life that has moved through it can be measured and understood….

The great theme of Upstate is the old American dream of a better life, rooted in a new civility, over against the spreading anarchy-tyranny of what has actually supervened. This theme is rendered with the greater force because it is lodged in the minute particulars of real lives closely known, because it is not simply apocalyptic but familiar and human … giving shape to a chronicle of the author's effort to plant himself in a place that will allow him, as he grows old, to unify his life.

Warner Berthoff, "Edmund Wilson as Provincial Plutarch," originally published in a slightly different version in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, August 28, 1971; used with permission), August 28, 1971, pp. 19-21, and revised for CLC by Warner Berthoff.

It is almost impossible by now to write about a new book by Edmund Wilson without feeling that one is writing about an incorruptible but distant public monument. I suppose this is as it should be. Longevity and consistency should grant a writer at least this much immunity from the kind of cultural Nielsen ratings we see around us. For Wilson has maintained himself as the very model of a writer whose allegiances are to intelligence and communication during a time in which so many of our nearer contemporaries seek to outgun each other with a rhetoric that becomes more and more hysterical as it makes less and less sense. If he has, over the past two decades, maintained a kind of Olympian distance from the problems of American life, his writing still represents one of the standards of sanity in this culture. Simply by having done his work, along, I suppose, with having out-lived most of his generation, he has become a literary showcase….

And even if he now chooses the life of the literary patrician, his allegiance to the values of literature remains firm. He never considered them unquestionable. One may quarrel with the manner in which Wilson has taken his leave of contemporary America, one may feel himself annoyed at the way in which he sometimes seems intent on creating his past at the expense of our present, one may even envy him that neurotically structured and yet unquestionably civilized past itself—but one is left, ultimately, with a vision of Edmund Wilson as the country's last true man of letters. And it is exactly this that stands between his books and his audience. It is difficult to be critical of a monument. Monuments are simply there, a part of the landscape….

As he says less and less that seems of immediate significance to us, we more and more envy his being able to say it at all. He belongs to the Nineteenth Century because his world is self-contained, for he speaks out of a consciousness in which past and self have been merged. And merged successfully.

Still, Wilson's best work seems to me to have been written during the Depression decade, which, for him, was marked at its opening by the publication of Axel's Castle in 1929—the book remains one of the truly seminal works of literary criticism published in our century—and which concluded with the publication of his study of the human drama of socialist development, To The Finland Station in 1940. He has never been able to capture the kind of vision that his involvement with Marxism gave to him. A great deal of his work over the past decades, even the much-praised study of the literature of the Civil War, Patriotic Gore, seems to me a kind of inverted Proustianism….

Perhaps books such as Upstate should not be published during a writer's lifetime. It takes a certain amount of presumption to assume that the reader is as interested in some of the intricacies of Wilson's personal life that are revealed here….

And yet, it seems to me one of the finest books I have read in years, a record that proves to be deeply and fundamentally moving even in what one first thinks of as inconsequential. There is a persistence about these observations, a willingness to accept one's own intellectual and literary stature, that is the very embodiment of what one means by the writer's life…. [What] Wilson has done is to make a single region in this America, upstate New York, available to us as a metaphor for something that has gone out of American life. He has written a book that Americans will be reading for generations to come. In preserving the past, the writer makes it usable. Once again, Edmund Wilson has done exactly that.

Leonard Kriegel, "Edmund Wilson: Still a Standard of Sanity in This Culture," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), November 5, 1971, pp. 135-36.

It was a sad irony that [Wilson] found himself increasingly a stranger in the America he had spent a lifetime making the acquaintance of and staking a substantial claim for in the world. Few writers have labored so hard to know a country and its people, and not alone from books. Despite a constitutional diffidence, he became a superb reporter, out in all weathers to observe and record at first hand the American jitters of the Depression years, the American experience in Europe during and after the Second World War, the American debacle at home that he saw as the consequence of our intervention in Vietnam. He was tireless in pursuit of facts, tireless in speculation. In middle age, he scrambled hot and breathless among the caves that had held the Dead Sea Scrolls, and his deductions about the possible meanings of the Scrolls caused many a conventional theologian's eyes to pop; in his seventies, he examined with relish the Bomarzo monsters, carved in stone in the thickets of Latium….

Wilson's eminence as a literary critic and literary historian overshadowed his distinction as a journalist. For his part, he would perhaps have liked more attention to be paid to his short stories, poems, and plays. In a recent laudatory piece, the London Times Literary Supplement described him as our foremost man of letters, and by his standards a man of letters was one who could accomplish any literary task that happened to come his way. His one novel, written in the twenties, continues to read well, and there are from his hand certain fugitive Christmas verses that will go on giving amusement for decades to come….

For a writer, the rarest privilege is not merely to describe his country and time but to help shape them. Wilson was among the fortunate handful of writers who have succeeded in doing this, with books that are like bold deeds and that will live a long time after him, keeping him with us against our need.

"Edmund Wilson," in The New Yorker, June 24, 1972, p. 96.

Edmund Wilson was a hard man to categorize (it must have been a satisfaction to him) because, in his time and place, there was no category for him. We have had scholars and critics, historians, novelists, poets and dramatists in some profusion and of considerable distinction; Wilson, at one time or another, was all of these, but he transcended his particular pursuits and gave them unity by being always a man of letters. And when you have called him that, you at once find that you cannot name a contemporary to place by his side.

From the start, he called himself a journalist, and it is true that the bulk of his great output appeared first in one or another journal. But it seems probable that Wilson was using the term in a deeper sense, as a way of calling attention to his unswerving preoccupation with the social background of whatever intellectual, creative or political episode had caught his imagination. He had also that supreme reporter's gift, a useful curiosity…. And he had the energy to master the subject his imagination found for him. Typically, he found his most suggestive clues in language itself, and if the tongue were one he did not know, he immediately set himself to learning it….

In one respect, Wilson was never a reporter—you could not give him an assignment. We tried, and so doubtless did many others, but it almost never happened that what interested the editor simultaneously interested him. He could not be diverted, and one awaited his proposal. For that reason, his journalistic works reflected a consistency of judgments and values unique in contemporary journalism; for that reason, also, he could bring them together into a series of books that constitute a deeply studied, openly opinionated but ultimately compassionate verdict on the half century in which he flourished.

"Edmund Wilson," in Nation, June 26, 1972, pp. 806-07.

The reason Wilson [in Upstate] has sought to identify himself with the community at Talcottville and with the old stone house is precisely because they symbolize for him something of the freedom and solitude of an earlier and more commodious America, an America where a man was not yet confined by rock-ribbed social habits or by the dictates of his profession, where one could have adopted a vocation like that of literary critic, for example, without being necessarily enslaved by its jargon and habit of thought. And this is the very reason why we esteem Wilson and his work so highly. He is, as Van Wyck Brooks once remarked, "a vanishing type, a free man of letters," so that even when we find his ideas eccentric, perverse, and opinionated, as at times all of his readers must, we cannot but admire his ability to think through all of his problems for himself, his ceaseless endeavor to understand the world that confronts him and bring some order to it through his own freedom of movement.

Upstate provides a remarkable reflection on Wilson's analytical mind at work. It is no mere exercise in topography, or description or local color. Rather it is Wilson once again struggling to get on paper the deep resources of his psyche as it interacts with the microcosm of Talcottville and, more importantly, with the larger American experience which is, and always has been, his prime subject matter.

George H. Douglas, "America in Focus," in Prairie Schooner (© 1972 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1972, pp. 174-75.

[The] most obvious and persistent fact about Wilson's career is that the one thing that occupied him from beginning to end was his ceaseless struggle to understand who and what we are in America. Even the excursions to other lands, even the studies of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were undertaken not because they were ends in themselves but because they all somehow dovetailed with Wilson's quest for knowledge and understanding of America. They all aimed to tell us something about ourselves in the middle of the 20th century….

Edmund Wilson … was a historical critic, which means that he found the locus of criticism at the transfusion point between art and experience. In order to know something about literature, you have to know something of the conditions that give rise to it. And by "know" we mean knowledge of intimate particularities, not knowledge of lifeless abstractions. If you have no knowledge of the richness and diversity of the world of immediate experience, then you have no way of understanding (much less interpreting for another person) the literature that comes out of experience….

[Part] of Wilson's genius is that he was one of our most sensitive barometers of the various erosions of freedom we have had to endure in the 20th century.

Of course, it is precisely in his role as spokesman for American democratic traditions that Wilson was most often misunderstood. In the 1920s and 1930s Wilson was very much a part of the liberal movement, and like a great many of the younger writers of the time, flirted with Marxism. In the 1960s, Wilson was often called a conservative—a reprobate Tory, so they said—especially after it became known that he fáiled to pay his income tax, slandered the workings of the government and attacked our pursuit of the cold war. But it is obvious that Wilson was no more a conservative in the 1960s than he was a Marxist in the 1930s. For in its most common contemporary usage in America, conservatism is the view that the powers of big government should be reduced so that business, or "free enterprise," has more room to bustle in. But Wilson had not one jot more faith in big business than he had in big government; indeed, like many who were brought up in the Progressive era, he believed that it was the ethics of Wall Street that had destroyed the old Republican America….

By and large,… Edmund Wilson was an independent thinker over the years. But he always retained his strong faith in our American democratic traditions, even though he found the original dream of the founding fathers foundering in a sea of commercial ethics and impersonal, insensate government. What is important, though, was that this faith pervaded all his work and was not simply a political creed. What Wilson learned from America was that the virtues that abounded in Old New York State—geniality, gentlemanliness, commodiousness, familiarity with one's neighbors and ease of communication—are the only ones on which we can really rely….

Wilson's distaste for academic criticism had a long history, and is expressed most pointedly in "Mr. More and the Mithraic Bull," one of the most beautiful and polished American essays, and in his later, "'Miss Buttle' and 'Mr. Eliot,'" in which he explains the insidious attraction of the poetry of T. S. Eliot for English professors….

Wilson's views on the nature and obligations of literary criticism, expressed in numerous books and articles, are both peculiarly American and peculiarly democratic in character. For Wilson much recent criticism has a strong aristocratic tendency (in the worst American sense), a hankering after exclusiveness, a strong desire to hoard the private subject matter, and these leanings are no less reprehensible in the intellectual realm than in the political or economic realms. Writing, to be worth anything, must be a free and open offering to society. And even if it is obvious that not all members of society can appreciate the fruits of literary scholarship, one must write as if they could….

The true critic is one who can talk with his fellow man. Which is another way of saying that the heart of criticism is art—poetry in the broadest sense. He who has the gift of tongues, who can speak to his fellow man because he has taken the full breadth of humanity as his subject matter, will alone have an honest and democratic outlet for his writings.

Edmund Wilson was such a man. He was not only an imaginative writer of the first rank but a great democratic idealist, and a spokesman for liberal learning in the best old sense. And the combination of these virtues produced for us a remarkable body of work which is sure to remain one of the great contributions to American literature of the 20th century.

George H. Douglas, "Edmund Wilson, Great Democrat of Letters," in Nation, August 7, 1972, pp. 86-9.

Before he was done Wilson tried his hand at all the literary tasks—novels, stories, poems, plays, history, literary anthropology, social reportage, and political pamphleteering. He was, of course, best known as a literary critic, though he seems never to have been quite comfortable to be thought that alone, and instead styled himself a "journalist," meaning the term in the quite literal sense of someone who writes for journals. And he was, in fact, more than a critic.

Wilson's poetry, though technically impeccable, for the most part never rose above the level of craft. His plays uniformly suffer from an excess of literary, and an insufficiency of dramatic, content. His fiction is of a higher order than either his poems or his plays; but it is "critic's fiction," careful and accomplished, yet lacking the deftness and the potential for flight into uncharted areas of the true artist. His book of stories, Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), however, never received the attention it deserves. Dealing with the chill and barren emotional terrain of the 1930s and their aftermath, it documents the political impoverishment and cultural exhaustion of American intellectuals of the time, and is, as Sherman Paul has pointed out, perhaps the closest thing in American writing to Flaubert's L'Education sentimentale. But the general weakness of Wilson's fiction is precisely the source of the strength of all his other prose—the presence of an authoritative voice, so unmistakably Wilson's own, setting standards and staking out a clear position among the chaos of intellectual alternatives offered by life in America.

Wilson's prose has always been a reward in itself. Without any special tics, quirks, idiosyncrasies, or any of the other mannerisms imposed on prose that often pass for style, Wilson nonetheless possessed a prose style distinctly his own. His prose was formally correct, clear, stately, and above all virile. It was his prose that made him worth reading as a critic even when his judgments were wrong; it is because of his prose that today, thirty or forty years after they were written, even the least of his book reviews remains readable. Prose was Wilson's métier, and he knew, as every real writer does, that a regard for the texture of language was to a writer every bit as important as brush strokes to a painter or melody to a composer: it was that upon which all else was built. If a man cared little for language, then in Wilson's view he wasn't really a writer at all.

Although Wilson wrote the best intellectual—as distinct from creative or imaginative—prose of any American in this century, carrying his considerable erudition lightly, dealing lucidly with complex matters, writing on an enormous range of subjects, his prose was notably deficient in one aspect—its nearly complete lack of wit. The stamp of Wilson's personality was on every sentence he wrote, yet nothing he wrote could by any stretch of the imagination be called "personable." He was perhaps as distant as one could get from the kind of writer, described by J. D. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye, whom, after one read something he had written, one would have liked to ring up on the telephone. He was, at least as he came across in his prose persona, too formidable, too intimidating, too forbidding. He was even something of a monster….

But … Edmund Wilson [was] a living embodiment of the belief in literature, not as some second-rate activity but as a guide to life, and a weapon—one of the few remaining to us—with which to bring some sort of order to an otherwise possibly quite senseless world.

Joseph Epstein, "On Losing Edmund Wilson," in World, August 15, 1972, pp. 47-50.

Time after time, in the twenty-eight years I've been reading Edmund Wilson, since I first discovered his criticism in the New Yorker in the fall of 1944. I've been tempted to write him a fan letter; several times, moved by the lucency and prescience of one of his judgments, I've started such a letter; always I've been forestalled by the seeming impudence of the gesture, given Wilson's magisterial eminence; and now it's too late.

Too late, anyway—though I confess I thought of it on hearing of his death—to apostrophize him posthumously with a public version of my letter in these pages. But not too late, perhaps, to memorialize him by making a point or two about his stance and scope that have been missed, so far at least, by his many eulogists.

It is taken as read—and I concur—that Edmund Wilson was the greatest of our critics of this century, and among the three or four greatest—along with T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—of our literary men. He has been widely and rightly praised for his long and almost obsessive study of many literatures, including, of course, our own, and for his ability to make enlightening connections between them; for his unsparing spirit of inquiry and the discoveries it led to; and for his destruction of the literary isolationism of this continent. It is not too much to say that he, almost single-handedly, replaced the dim, effete domestic idols of the late genteel tradition with the real giants of modern European literature….

I turn often to Wilson's collections of critical essays, to his incomplete memoirs, of which A Prelude seems the most satisfying, and to his political writings; less often to his flawed and idiosyncratic fiction and his decidedly quirky poetry. But one book I find myself rereading more often than any other of his twenty-odd titles is one that sheds a quite different light on its author and his times, The American Earthquake. It is composed of pieces of what the author calls "simple reporting," written between 1923 and 1934 and collected in 1958, and it is quite the best book about that period in America I have ever read. Looking back, it is hard to imagine the Jeffersonian aristocrat Wilson moving among people of all classes, conditions, and regions of the country as a humble reporter; but that is exactly what he did, and with results so telling and moving that they prefigure—and perhaps enable—the later work of a number of lesser writers who have reported firsthand on the situation of ordinary Americans.

L. E. Sissman, "Innocent Bystander: Edmund Wilson," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1972 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1972, pp. 30, 33.