Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1794
The different emphases of the three sets of journals reflect the changing interests in Wilson’s career. During the early thirties, as one of the editors of The New Republic, he was deeply engaged in left-wing politics and in reporting the ongoing labor struggles of the decade. He writes movingly of the long and bloody strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, and of Detroit in the early 1930’s. Later in the decade he made a visit to the Soviet Union. He had completed much of the writing for his study of the evolution of French Socialism into Soviet Communism, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (1940), but he considered that direct observation of the Soviet system at work was necessary to his book. He went as a detached observer; he liked many of the people he met but was aware of the flaws that were beginning to show in the system. During this decade he never turned his back on literature, always his consuming interest, but there are more references to writers with a political commitment and to political activists than to noninvolved writers. He is, for example, more interested in Upton Sinclair than in William Faulkner; the index to The Thirties contains no references to Faulkner, who published five major novels during the decade.
In many ways, The Thirties is the most lively and exciting of these three volumes. Wilson had served his apprenticeship in the literary world during the 1920’s; by 1930, he had written much of his groundbreaking critical book on literary modernism, Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931), and his reputation was firmly established. Divorced from his first wife, the actress Mary Blair, he embarked on a hectic and passionate (and brief) marriage to Margaret Canby. The Great Depression was under way, and with it the unemployment and social unrest that would last through the decade.
Wilson became more a reporter of politics than a literary critic. For him, as for many intellectuals, the emerging industrial labor unions and the politics of the Left seemed to hold the keys to needed changes, and they attracted his deep interest. He maintained his independence, however, never committing himself to a particular party or faction. His sympathy for the downtrodden was always to some degree tempered by his analytical nature. When others were becoming Communists or fellow travelers, Wilson made the origins and history of communism the subject of one of his finest historical studies, To the Finland Station.
Few journal entries or notes remain from the first half of the following decade, and The Forties is therefore the shortest and least informative of these volumes. His bibliography shows that he was highly active; between 1940 and 1943, he published To the Finland Station; worked at editing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up: With Other Uncollected Pieces, Note-Books, and Unpublished Letters (1945); and published critical studies titled The Boys in the Back Room: Notes on California Novelists (1941) and The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature (1941), a collection of poems titled Note-Books of Night (1942), and a pioneering anthology of American literature, The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the United States Recorded by the Men Who Made It (1943). Nevertheless, by 1940, Wilson was middle-aged; Fitzgerald, who died in 1940, had been one of his best friends since they were at Princeton University together. In 1944, an even closer friend, the poet John Peale Bishop, also died. Canby had died in an accident in 1932, and he had been married to the novelist McCarthy, but by 1945 that marriage had deteriorated and he was deeply involved with Thornton, whom he would wed in the following year.
There were also financial problems. After living in New York City for twenty years, in 1941 he bought a house at Wellfleet on Cape Cod, which would continue to be one of his homes for the rest of his life, but he worried that he could hardly afford the purchase. His books were widely admired but were not widely sold, and he had no steady source of income until 1943, when he agreed to write regularly for The New Yorker, a commitment which paid him an annual salary and expense money to provide book reviews and extended articles on social subjects. His journal for this decade comes to life when he embarks on his postwar European voyage for The New Yorker.
The end of World War II marked a kind of watershed in Wilson’s life and a time of renewal. His European trip confirmed his lifelong distrust of the British, but it also gave him an opportunity to be an early witness to the devastation wrought by the war. He traveled to Italy, to Greece, and to Crete, and learned at first hand about the atrocities committed by the German conquerors of Greece. The New Yorker gave his literary criticism a wide audience. At the age of fifty, he experienced with Thornton one of the most passionate episodes of his life; their marriage produced a daughter, Helen, in 1948. His second work of fiction, Memoirs of Hecate County, published in 1946, created a scandal because in one chapter, “The Princess with the Golden Hair,” he included a number of sexual descriptions that were unusually explicit for the time. It also made him a considerable amount of money.
Later in the 1940’s, he made other long trips. He traveled to the pueblo of Zuni in New Mexico to observe the traditional shalako ceremony, an experience which was to provide much material for Red, Black, Blond, and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations: Zuni, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel (1956). His account of his stay in Zuni in 1947 is interesting in its descriptions of the pueblo itself, the Indian ceremonials, the masks, and the rituals. Additionally, it is acutely observant in Wilson’s analysis of his hosts, anthropologists who were studying the Indians and who seemed to Wilson to be too far distanced from the people they studied. Two years later, he would make a trip to Haiti, where he was interested in another primitive society, but a very different one, on the verge of major changes.
The Fifties is the most poignant and magisterial of these three volumes. Early in the decade, Wilson was deeply depressed by another series of deaths among those closest to him. His great love from the 1920’s, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, died in 1950; he had visited her last in 1948, and had been saddened to find her old. Her death was a stark reminder of his own advancing age and his mortality. His formal memoir of Millay is the concluding section of The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties (1952); what he recorded in his journal was more open and intimate, less concerned to remind a later generation of what she had meant to him and to the 1920’s. Early in 1951, Wilson’s mother died, and later that year the great Princeton professor and dean Christian Gauss, Wilson’s early mentor and lifelong inspiration, collapsed and died at Pennsylvania Station in New York.
As the decade progressed, however, Wilson’s life became more and more satisfying. At his mother’s death he had inherited her family’s home at Talcottville, in upstate New York, and Wilson restored it and lived there for parts of the summers of the rest of his life. His wife disliked the old house and preferred to stay on Cape Cod; after several arguments, faithfully recorded in the journals, it was agreed that he would spend time at Talcottville by himself. The house and its furnishings gave him a strong sense of belonging to an old and valuable tradition, and its isolation provided him with time and solitude for undisturbed bouts of writing, away from the busy social round of Wellfleet.
By this time, Wilson was unquestionably the United States’ best-known and most respected critic and its only genuine man of letters. The widely admired early study of modernism Axel’s Castle had been followed by two wider-ranging studies, Triple Thinkers: Ten Essays on Literature (1938) and The Wound and the Bow, which had established even more clearly his preeminence among American literary critics. In addition to his criticism he had written novels, plays (such as The Little Blue Light, 1950, and The Room and This Gin and These Sandwiches, 1937), and poems (Night Thoughts, 1961). He was content in his marriage, although his sexual adventurings had not really ended, and he had achieved cordial relations with the children of his earlier marriages. The sales of his books and his occasional pieces in The New Yorker gave him financial security, despite careless bookkeeping which led to problems with the Internal Revenue Service; those problems dogged him throughout the decade and eventually gave him the subject for another book, The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest (1963).
He continued to be prolific. Early in the 1950’s, he edited for publication his essays from the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, which appeared in two popular volumes, Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (1950) and The Shores of Light. He became fascinated by the discoveries in the Middle Eastern Qumran caves of ancient scrolls dealing with the Essenes, traveled to Israel, and eventually wrote the controversial study The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955). He had learned several languages at preparatory school and at Princeton; he had learned Russian in the 1930’s in connection with his trip to the Soviet Union. Now, in 1952, he returned to Princeton to learn Hebrew, the better to read the scrolls and discuss them with experts.
He made further trips to Europe, finding himself profoundly uncomfortable with his wife’s German relatives but otherwise coming to a deeper appreciation of European culture. His interest in American Indians turned from the Zunis to the Iroquois of the Northeast, who were engaged in a struggle for their ancestral lands with state and federal governments. He made friends among the Iroquois, was introduced to some of their customs, and eventually wrote a book about their traditions and their difficulties, Apologies to the Iroquois (1960).
Perhaps most important, Wilson in the last years of the decade began planning and writing the essays on American history, culture, and literature which would become what many regard as his finest work, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962). While he had been fascinated by exotic cultures, political movements, and social developments, he had never abandoned his love of literature. Now, at the height of his powers, he began a new study of a crucial period in the literature and history of his own country. More than any other book, this study of the American Civil War displayed his fascination with the interactions between public events, social and economic changes, and literary expression.