The Forties

ph_0111206476-Wilson_E.jpg Edmund Wilson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Readers familiar with Edmund Wilson’s The Twenties (1975) and The Thirties (1980) are aware that this recent publication is not intended to chronicle the social history of the 1940’s. Rather, the volume comprises notebooks, some polished and others rather fragmentary, that Wilson kept for his own use. To be sure, the author recognized the high literary quality of his notebooks and appreciated as well their potential value for eventual publication. Their primary purpose for him, however, was to record impressions, facts, and autobiographical memoranda that might later be incorporated in various projects that he was considering. Some of the journals (or diaries) were quite complete, although all were written rapidly and without revisions; some were incomplete.

Before his death, Wilson prepared and partially edited transcripts of the journals which covered the two earlier decades. From these transcripts, Leon Edel skillfully reedited material and provided useful introductions. In editing The Forties, however, Edel had to examine the notebooks of that decade without the benefit of the author’s help; the volume, he writes, “... is a wholly posthumous book and lacks the retrospective passages Wilson would have written had he been able to put it together.” Nevertheless, The Forties, like the previous two volumes, is an extremely important work, helpful to social historians and scholars of literature, above all to readers interested in the ideas and impressions of perhaps the most influential of American critics writing between the two world wars.

Wilson’s notebooks from this decade cover a wide variety of subjects. From 1940 to 1945, he composed fourteen journals, which Edel has compiled mostly from loose pages and sporadic entries on the back covers of his notebooks. From 1946 to 1949, Wilson composed sixteen journals (the last, “Haiti, 1949,” Edel assembled “from almost illegible scrawled notes—put down on the spot in a kind of semi-shorthand, like a reporter’s notes”). Usually, however, Wilson “clear-copied” notes like these into his journals. Indeed, a few sections of the volume once existed in typed form. In several notebooks, Wilson treats ideas for books that he was presently writing or planning to write: “Notes for The Wound and the Bow” and “Notes for a Novel.” Other journals are true diaries, treating such topics as “Thoughts, 1943-1944” or “London, 1945.” In several journals he records primarily his impressions of place fixed at the moment: “Italy, 1945,” “Trip to Milan,” “Rome,” “Greece,” and so on. Other journals detail his meetings with distinguished personages or friends: “Visit to Santayana,” “Katy Dos Passos,” and “Visit to Edna Millay.” Still others are set pieces, notes designed for later inclusion in articles or books, such as “Trip to Zuñi.” Many of the journals did, in fact, serve as material for fuller development. The European notes, for example, were revised in the preparation of Europe Without Baedeker (1947), and the account of the Zuñi was amplified for Red, Black, Blond and Olive (1956).

For Wilson, the 1940’s were a time of reassessment. Edel suggests that when Wilson turned forty-five, at the end of 1940, he “suddenly found himself reckoning with his mortality.” Edel’s splendid introductory essay, “Edmund Wilson in Middle Age,” charts for the reader the high and low points of this “reckoning.” The essay is particularly illuminating because a reader might not—without Edel’s help—detect in the journals certain signs of the writer’s internal conflicts. As readers of The Twenties and The Thirties are already aware, Wilson was not a diarist to wear his heart on his sleeve. His journals are subjective and impressionistic, to be sure, but rarely introspective. Indeed, although Wilson effectively employed depth psychology in his criticism, he generally avoided any serious investigation of his own motives. Either he felt no need, in recording impressions for his journals, to examine closely these motives, or (curious to say) he was incapable of turning upon himself the same searching light that he had directed toward his literary subjects—then most recently in The Wound and the Bow (1941). At any rate, the journals lack a dimension of self-realization that is all the more surprising from a writer of Wilson’s acumen.

Four other surprises—or disappointments—await readers of The Forties. Wilson...

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