The/The Forties/The Fifties Thirties Critical Essays

Edmund Wilson


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1794 words.)