Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972
Edmund Wilson’s Letters on Literature and Politics selects from the vast number of available letters those dealing with his close involvement with the cultural, literary, and, to a lesser extent, political life of America from the early twentieth century to his death in 1972. The book was edited by Wilson’s widow, Elena, and it includes an excellent index, judicial footnotes, a sympathetic Introduction by Daniel Aaron, and a Foreword by Leon Edel. The arrangement of the letters is also unusual and intelligent. It breaks the usual rigid chronological arrangement to focus on significant events or relationships. As a result, we retain a sense of overall development and change and a fuller understanding of Wilson’s involvement with the Dead Sea Scrolls, Russian politics, or his relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Peale Bishop. The apparatus is not only thoroughly professional but it is also accessible to the specialist and the common reader alike, an achievement that Wilson would have appreciated.
The reader may, however, wonder why such pains should be taken to present the letters of a man who was not an esteemed writer of imaginative literature, nor a wit, nor a person who led an exciting or adventurous life. Wilson was no Byron, Keats, or even a Lady Mary Wortley-Montague. Nor was he given to confessional outbursts or revelations of the heart. Indeed, we find him referring to his marriages in such casual sentences as these:I got married last February to a girl named Margaret Canby (she was formerly married to a cousin of Henry Seidel). I’m married to a girl named Mary McCarthy, who has done some writing for Partisan Review and The Nation.
However, if we find out little about the inner man in this volume, we do see the public Wilson, a man who was involved in nearly every new book, new idea, new movement of the twentieth century. And we do see him—or hear him—as his contemporaries did. Wilson had a commanding presence, and the letters are often harsh and tactless, but always confident in the midst of various cultural breakdowns.
The first letter in this collection is vintage Edmund Wilson, even though the author is a sixteen-year-old prep school student:In short, with the exception of two chapters which pleased me very much, The Naulakha seems to me to be only a tolerably interesting and fairly readable potboiler. Your enthusiasm about it surprises me.
The tone is positively majestical; it shows Wilson’s easy grasp of the problem, an easy dismissal of the offending book, and a typical blast at the deficient taste of a reader. These Wilsonian traits remained until his death sixty years later, as we can see in a 1969 letter about Wallace Stevens:Have you looked into his letters, which seem to me deadly? The idea of the Hartford insurance man who has never been abroad but fancies himself as a wistful Pierrot inhabiting the fin de siècle I have always found somewhat repellent. His early book Harmonium has some nice—purely verbal—writing, but his more pretentious stuff bores me . . .
As the style and sweeping judgments suggest, Wilson was a popular rather than a scholarly critic; he was very much in the mold of Matthew Arnold or Samuel Johnson. He performed a necessary function in introducing difficult, avant-garde writers, often from non-English nations and languages, to the American public. He championed the cause of Joyce, Eliot, the French Symbolist poets, and many others before it was fashionable to do so. He was not as close to these artists as Ezra Pound was and perhaps did not understand them as completely. But his reviews, his encouraging letters to readers and reviewers, and his books, especially Axel’s Castle, made many of the great moderns available to educated people of the day.
He had, it is true, some blind spots which marred his otherwise impressive record of correct judgments. For example, he could not tolerate Robert Frost: “Frost and Amy Lowell I never cared for at all, but I did like Spoon River Anthology.” He dismissed D. H. Lawrence in his later years: “I’ve always been meaning to read Lawrence’s novels—other than Lady C.—but have never got around to it. I met him once and thought him ill-bred and hysterical, and...
(The entire section is 1769 words.)