Form and Content

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These three books consist chiefly of Edmund Wilson’s notes to himself about his life during the decades between 1930 and 1960. Less formal than his critical works or his studies in culture, they are not the day-by-day records of a diary, even though he sometimes recorded specific events: a party, a visit to New York, an argument with one of his wives, the death of a friend.

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For the most part, however, Wilson’s journals chronicle the events of a period of time, for example a two-month stay at his house in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, or a summer spent in the family home he inherited in Talcottville, New York. Extensive entries in The Thirties detail his trips to various economically depressed areas of the United States and reflect his political commitment during that troubled decade; these observations formed the basis for his book The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump (1932; revised in 1958 as The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties). A series of long entries in The Forties provides his impressions of Europe just after World War II, when he was sent abroad by The New Yorker to do a series of articles. These impressions were eventually formalized in his book Europe Without Baedeker: Sketches Among the Ruins of Italy, Greece, and England (1947). These are extended notes for novels which were never written, but also detailed entries in The Thirties about a working-class woman with whom Wilson had an affair that is the basis for an important segment of Memoirs of Hecate County (1946).

These journals are not random jottings. Like everything else Wilson wrote, they are for the most part formal and highly literate in style. Also like everything else he wrote, they were intended for publication; Wilson selected Leon Edel for the task of editing the journals long before his death. Edel, known chiefly for his five-volume biography of Henry James, was one of the few academic scholars Wilson respected, and he wanted his journals edited by a scholar. Edel performed his task conscientiously, providing explanatory notes for the many people mentioned in the journals (there is, however, a major omission in the absence of any index entry for Elena Mumm Thornton Wilson, Edmund Wilson’s fourth wife, in The Fifties).

While they are carefully written, the journals are less formal in content and approach than any of Wilson’s other writings. They are detailed, frank, and casual, for example, about his marriages and other sexual involvements, including his affair with and marriage to Elena Mumm Thornton, descendant of a once-wealthy German family. He records their sojourn in Reno, where he was getting a divorce from the writer Mary McCarthy and Thornton was obtaining one from her first husband; he is interested equally in Thornton’s sexuality and the scenes and scenery of the West. Their wedding, late in 1946, is mentioned only casually. There is a strong contrast between the cool, measured cadences of Wilson’s deliberate prose style and the explicit nature of some of his descriptions. This contrast grows more pronounced as he grows older, reaching a high point in The Fifties, when he speculates somewhat ponderously on whether his attraction to a lesbian friend shows a homosexual side to his own nature.

In the earlier volume, many of the entries are brief, dealing with scenes he observed, cities he visited, people he met, or gossip he heard. As time went on, he seems to have become more conscious of the likelihood that the journals would someday be published, and The Fifties is therefore less informal than The Thirties, more speculative and more coherent.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 172

American Literature. LV, October, 1983, p. 494.

The Atlantic. CCLI, April, 1983, p. 126.

Book World. XVIII, April 17, 1983, p. 3.

Choice. XXI, October, 1983, p. 284.

Christian Science Monitor. June 24, 1983, p. B6.

Contemporary Review. CCXLIII, October, 1983, p. 218.

Costa, Richard Hauer. “Edmund Wilson: The Forties,” in Modern Fiction Studies. XXI (Winter, 1985), pp. 751-753.

DePietro, Thomas. “Edmund Wilson, American,” in The Sewanee Review. XCIV (Winter, 1986), pp. 160-166.

Epstein, Joseph. Review of The Fifties in The New York Times Book Review. XCI (August 31, 1986), p. 3.

Holloway, John. “Varieties of Dialogue: Wilson, Trilling, Leavis,” in Encounter. LVI (February/March, 1981), pp. 67-77.

Kazin, Alfred. Review of The Forties in The Atlantic Monthly. CCLI (April, 1983), p. 126.

Kirkus Reviews. LI, March 1, 1983, p. 301.

Levin, Harry. Review of The Thirties in Saturday Review. VII (August, 1980), p. 58.

Library Journal. CVIII, April 1, 1983, p. 737.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, May 22, 1983, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LIX, May 23, 1983, p. 121.

Pritchett, V.S. Review of The Fifties in The New Yorker. LXII (January 5, 1987), pp. 83-85.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, February 25, 1983, p. 77.

Time. CXXI, May 2, 1983, p. 73.

Vidal, Gore. The Second American Revolution and Other Essays, 1982.

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