The/The Forties/The Fifties Thirties Critical Context
by Edmund Wilson

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Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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The journal form is one that relatively few writers have chosen, and the most famous of those who have (such as Andre Gide and the Goncourt brothers) have been French. Writers who choose to record their most intimate actions and thoughts ordinarily use diaries for the purpose, using journals, if at all, to note impressions and ideas they might use in more formal writings. Wilson’s journals combine the two functions to an unusual degree.

In his own career, Wilson’s journals fill a special role. He was a prolific, almost a compulsive, writer; thirty-one books of his writings have been published, testimony to the fact that he wrote about everything that interested him, and he found few things in the world that did not. Most of his other works, however, are relatively formal both in style and in content. They are also impersonal, in the sense that Wilson believed that the job of the literary and social critic was to act as an objective observer, commenting on what he saw in a detached fashion for the information and edification of his audience.

In the journals, Wilson was under no such constraints. He felt free to record gossip, to give vent to his dislikes, and to record his special passions. What is perhaps most impressive about these volumes is their confirmation of what the more formal studies imply: the amazing range of Wilson’s interests and of his knowledge. The indexes of all three volumes are highly impressive in the diversity of references to the people Wilson knew, the books he read, the ideas he considered. There was nothing casual about his interests; if something attracted his attention, he studied it, read about it, and if possible examined it at first hand. Almost no one in the United States, for example, has ever been interested in or informed about the literature of Haiti, but when Wilson went to that island he was as deeply involved with its literature, and the connections between that literature and the island nation’s Franco-African culture, as he had been with the Soviets he met in 1935 or the writers he knew on Cape Cod.

These volumes are important for several reasons. They will not add much to Wilson’s already assured reputation as a critic, but with Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York (1971) and The Twenties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period (1975) they provide a fascinating look at Wilson’s private life and experience which will be of great use to biographers and historians in the future, and which provide for all readers insights into elements of his character not evident in the more formal writings. They provide rich evidence of the inquisitiveness as well as the occasional crankiness of Wilson’s mind. Like other writers’ journals and some biographies (for example, Richard Ellman’s James Joyce, 1959, 1982), they show how the raw materials of experience are transformed by the writer’s imagination into the stuff of literature. Finally, they provide a wide range of insights into the literary world—not only in the United States but in Great Britain and France as well—during much of the twentieth century.