Leon Edel’s most recent edition of Edmund Wilson’s scattered journals and diaries brings forward the work he began with The Twenties (1975). For a reader unfamiliar with that volume, this caveat must apply: The Thirties is by no means a comprehensive, integrated social or literary history of the decade; instead, the book comprises a selection of Wilson’s unpublished notebooks, some of them quite spontaneous and idiosyncratic and others fairly “literary,” but none of them polished for publication. This is not to say that Wilson set low store by the manuscripts. He had always intended, according to Edel, that the journals might be edited as “trade” books but not as scholarly editions. To Edel, the writer’s diaries are “the notebooks of a chronicler, a way of tidying the mind for his craft of criticism: no meditations, no prayers, no invocation to the muse, no polished mirrors.”
Nevertheless, the journals in loose chronological order form a generally unified picture of the decade. Much of the unity derives explicitly from the historical circumstances. From 1929, when Wall Street was shaken by the stock market crash, until 1939, when in Europe the guns of August signaled the start of World War II, America suffered the great upheaval of depression. The Thirties chronicles, from an impressionistic and frankly Leftist viewpoint, the suffering of a nation during hard times. Compared to other impressionistic social histories of the decade, most notably Frederick Lewis Allen’s Since Yesterday (1939), Wilson’s journals are more subjective, far less comprehensive and reliable in terms of scholarship, and less acutely selective of meaningful data. Wilson’s reportage, however, often makes up in vigor for its lapses in depth. With unsentimental curiosity, he recorded for his own benefit precisely what he saw, felt, and understood. His observations provide focused, often memorable impressions of the decade marked, as always with this writer, by vividness, intelligence, and lucidity.
Wilson’s journals are unified, moreover, by the pattern of his life. The Thirties was a decade of intense, productive work. In 1931, he published his classic study of the Symbolist Movement in early twentieth century European literature, Axel’s Castle; and in 1940, as the culmination of his researches into the history of twentieth century Marxist-Leninism in the Soviet Union, he completed To the Finland Station, portions of which he had published late in the 1930’s. These two major works represent important polarities in Wilson’s interests, from a study of literary aestheticism to one of the history of socialism. Why did he change so dramatically the subject of his writing? As he witnessed the crushing weight of depression upon Americans in many walks of life, he determined to investigate the economic forces molding society. In 1929 and 1932, he visited scenes of labor strife and recorded in separate journals accounts of the suffering of workers in Michigan, Kentucky, and West Virginia. In 1935, thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship, he traveled to the Soviet Union to test on the basis of actual experiences his theories of socialism. As a result of his various travels—through the coal mines of impoverished Kentucky, the auto plants of Detroit, the grim scenes of Leningrad, Moscow, and Odessa—he brought to his economic studies an unusually thorough knowledge of practical human experience. For most of the decade Wilson was free to pursue these researches. Until 1939, he was a freelance journalist, not tied to academic assignments but sustained to work through the modest sale of his books and magazine pieces or by his inherited income. During the summers of 1930 and 1936, he resided comfortably at Provincetown, and periodically throughout the 1930’s, he had time to travel for pleasure, noting in his journals significant features of the landscape or particulars that would strike him.
From yet another dimension the decade presented a special unity for Wilson—the shape of his emotional life. In 1930, he married his second wife, Margaret Canby, in Washington D.C. She was apparently a lively, affectionate woman of generous instincts, not particularly an intellectual partner but one who suited a side of Wilson’s gregarious nature. As a couple, the Wilsons enjoyed parties, travel, and—in defiance of Prohibition—heavy drinking. Margaret’s sudden tragic death in 1932 (she accidentally fell from a flight of stairs and fractured her skull) shattered Wilson’s complacent existence. Frequently throughout the rest of the decade he was to think with regret about his wife, and to suffer recurrent nightmares. For Wilson the imprint of her death marked the 1930’s with a tragic stamp, not to diminish until 1938 with his marriage to Mary McCarthy (for which episode, unfortunately, Edel has no journal).
A single long piece, “The Death of Margaret,” is the most sustained, touching,...
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