Posted: October 6, 2008
he Library of America has honored Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) by publishing two volumes of his literary criticism from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. The edition comprises the collections The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties, Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930, The Triple Thinkers, The Wound and the Bow, Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties, and a dozen previously uncollected reviews. These essays and reviews take in poets from Pope to Tennyson to Eliot to Edna St. Vincent Millay; novelists from Dickens to Flaubert to Proust to Hemingway; playwrights from Shakespeare to Eugene O'Neill to Thornton Wilder; critics from Samuel Johnson to H.L. Mencken; and miscellaneous subjects from Houdini to burlesque shows, books of etiquette, and horror novels.
And it is high time too that Wilson be included in the national literary roll of honor. The Library of America was Wilson's brainchild: in the 1968 essay "The Fruits of the MLA," collected in The Devils and Canon Barham, he printed a letter he had sent in 1962 to assorted literary eminences and President Kennedy in which he proposed "bringing out in a complete and compact form the principal American classics," after the French example of the Éditions de la Pléiade. Wilson wound up getting both less and more than he argued for. He envisioned an edition of Francis Parkman, for instance, that included "his novel and his book on rose culture"; the Library, which has published over 200 books since 1979, has brought out three handsome volumes of Parkman's histories, but the novel is not included and the subject of roses never comes up. Nor is the omission such a bad thing. What is not such a good thing is the Library's tasteless inclusion, in the name of postmodern expansiveness, of such trivia and grotesquery as the works of George S. Kaufman, H.P. Lovecraft, and James M. Cain, all of which Wilson dismissed as low, wretched stuff, bound to offend a palate of any discrimination.
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Discrimination used to be a critic's most valuable stock in trade, the touchstone of his own quality or lack thereof. Multiculturalist gourmandise, the eagerness to take in as much as the belly can hold—and the more alien the fare the better, however insipid or scorching it may be—has pretty well put an end to that. Wilson's own intellectual omnivorousness sadly contributed to the demise of the critical excellence he once represented; he spat out a lot of dubious matter after a taste, but he swallowed plenty. He wrote laudatory studies of Zuñi, Haitian, Iroquois, and Canadian culture, and burrowed like a bookworm through the vast literature of the American Civil War to produce Patriotic Gore(1962), fascinating on Lincoln and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., less so on Charlotte Forten and Hinton R. Helper. He couldn't help himself; he wanted to know everything, and once he launched into a subject he saw it through to the end.
In some of his best essays, however, Wilson is a master of fine distinctions, probing for weakness here, admiring a subtle strength there, sometimes reversing at the last moment, and with an unexpected bravura flourish, what appeared to be a sharp and definitive judgment against a writer. Walking slowly and carefully around the work of John Steinbeck, for instance, in the 1941 piece "The Boys in the Back Room," he identifies the essential flaw that keeps The Grapes of Wrathfrom really living:
The characters of The Grapes of Wrath are animated and put through their paces rather than brought to life; they are like excellent character actors giving very conscientious performances in a fairly well-written play. Their dialect is well managed, but they always sound a little stagy; and, in spite of Mr. Steinbeck's efforts to make them figure as heroic human symbols, one cannot help feeling that these Okies, too, do not exist for him quite seriously as people.
Then after some 4,000 well-chosen words of similar chastisement, Wilson rounds off the essay with a praiseful conclusion that mitigates the harsh judgment but does not commute the sentence: "Yet there remains behind the journalism, the theatricalism and the tricks of his other books a mind which does seem first-rate in its unpanicky scrutiny of life." Failures of artistry do not negate the fundamental quality of Steinbeck's intelligence, which looks upon the hard world with robust and virile fearlessness. Intellectual excellence and moral virtue are of a piece in the persons Wilson most esteems, and Steinbeck may not be a great writer but he is such a person of substance. Yet even so there remains a moral blot against Steinbeck in Wilson's assessment of his literary weakness: the characters Steinbeck creates are not quite real even to him, and that unreality is a transgression not only against literature but against life. To turn human beings into portentous symbols of the proletarian spirit buckled by capitalist oppression substitutes a political idea for living truth.
Steinbeck's guiding political idea was not much different from Wilson's, so it is a measure of Wilson's scrupulousness as a literary critic that he faults Steinbeck for bending reality to ideology. In the 1929 essay "Dos Passos and the Social Revolution," Wilson lights into a writer he regards far more highly than he does Steinbeck for allowing his politics, grounded in fatuous sentiment, to color his work the most garish red:
Might it not, we ask ourselves, be possible-have we not, in fact, seen it occur—for a writer to hold Dos Passos's political opinions and yet not depict our middle-class republic as a place where no birds sing, no flowers bloom and where the very air is almost unbreathable?
Such an extravagant animus toward the ordinary life of a decent society has its hidden springs, Wilson suggests, in some psychic darkness,
some deeply buried streak of hysteria of which his misapplied resentments represent the aggressive side. And from the moment we suspect the processes by which he has arrived at his political ideas, the ideas themselves become suspect.
This is a penetrating strike at the vitals of socialist ideology—although the insight is transferable to any blinkered political zealotry—and it is rare to see from a man of the Left so stark and unflattering an analysis of the origins of class hatred.
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If neurotic blindness, morbid loathing, and ferocious adherence to an idea are the symptoms of intellectual swamp fever, common sense and disinterested pellucidity are the marks of a healthy intelligence. The 19th-century English comic novelist Thomas Love Peacock, who lampooned the fashionable exorbitant ideas of his time, represents for Wilson a species of moral heroism. In the 1947 essay "The Musical Glasses of Peacock," Wilson writes,
It was a godsend that in the early nineteenth century, with its seraphic utopianisms, its attitudinizing anti-social romanticisms and its cannibalistic materialisms, one man who had the intelligence to understand and the aesthetic sensibility to appreciate the new movements and the new techniques that were going to people's heads, should have been able to apply to their extravagances a kind of classical common sense; and Peacock's value...should by no means be less today, at a time when extreme ideas are being violently put into practice.
It would likely have given Peacock a good laugh to be thus promoted as antidote to the Red Army, but he would not have disavowed the compliment.
Wilson's admiration for the man who stands apart from the hell-bent passions of his time reaches its apex in his visit to the aged George Santayana, who had lived through the Second World War in a convent cell in Rome. Santayana is the philosopher who has virtually removed himself from history, the storm of blood that overwhelms ordinary men and seems to them the very essence of life. In the post-war travel book Europe Without Baedeker (1947), Wilson honors the wizened sage:
It was at the same time respect-inspiring and disturbing to one's wartime preoccupations to find this little husk of a man, at once so ascetic and so cheerful, sustaining at eighty-one so steady an intellectual energy, inhabiting a convent cell, among the layers of historical debris that composed the substance of Rome, intact and unmoved by the tides of invasion and revolution that had been brawling back and forth around him; and when he talked about these outside occurrences, it was as if he attached them to history: the war was an event like another which would presently belong to the past.
Although Santayana has no idea who Wilson is—an American soldier had coaxed the philosopher into signing some copies of his books, and the soldier had sent a signed copy to Wilson, who thought it came from Santayana and thereupon looked him up—when he sees Wilson is interested he speaks readily about the matters that concern him, after the manner of "the sage who has made it his business to meet and to reflect on all kinds of men and who will talk about the purpose and practice of life with anyone who likes to discuss them." Wilson's tribute to the reclusive thinker is one of the finest passages in his work.
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When it comes to Wilson's own reflections on the purpose and practice of life, however, something essential is wanting. Wilson's is a fundamentally political intelligence with no real use for metaphysical or religious questions, which he settled to his everlasting satisfaction when he was a prep school student. In the memorial to a beloved schoolmaster, "Mr. Rolfe," collected in The Triple Thinkers, he summons up the moment when he lost for good what little faith he had, as he was riding the train from his New Jersey home to the Hill School in Pennsylvania and reading George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, where he came upon the sentence, "At present there is not a single credible established religion in the world." That was all it took to convert him to defiant lifelong atheism. "I have never thought of religion since save as a delusion entertained by other people which one has to try to allow for and understand." There is more than a little intellectual vanity, not to mention spiritual deadwood, in a man who allows such a callow adolescent presumption to stand unexamined for a lifetime that is supposedly devoted to the most serious thought.
Yet he does not always seem callow or smug about his unbelief. Against the pervasive spiritual desolation of his time he cleaves to a tough-minded common sense, as in the 1929 essay "T.S. Eliot and the Church of England":
The answer to Mr. Eliot's assertion that "it is doubtful whether civilization can endure without religion" is that we have got to make it endure. Nobody will pretend that this is going to be easy; but it can hardly be more difficult than persuading oneself that the leadership of the future will be supplied by the Church of England or by the Roman Catholic Church or by any church whatsoever.
In that same essay Wilson steamrolls the several quasi-religious fantasies of leading American intellectuals and artists, from H.L. Mencken's taste for Nietzsche and good German beer to the Southern Agrarians' fondness for kindly slavemasters and obliging darkies to Dos Passos's hope of the great proletarian uprising.
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Events were to impose upon Wilson's sensible liberalism, however, and the Great Depression saw him turn to Communism as the curative for civilization's despair. He never joined the Party, but his writing took on some of the hysterical, radicalized flavor he had derided in Dos Passos earlier. The American Earthquake collects his political reporting from the 1930s, and therein he declares himself the sworn enemy of bourgeois temporizing in the face of rampant misery. In "Hull-House in 1932" he blisters "the deadened civilization of industry, where people are kept just alive enough to see that the machines are running." In "Foster and Fish," about the confrontation between American Communist Party leader William Z. Foster and Hamilton Fish, chairman of a House committee investigating Communism, he extols the Communists' superiority to the typical liberals in will, discipline, integrity, and courage. In "The Jumping-off Place," about San Diego as the nation's suicide capital, epitome of native anguish and exhaustion, he concludes with a black parody of the all-American Whitmaniacal catalogue:
they stuff up the cracks of their doors and quietly turn on the gas; they go into their back sheds or back kitchens and eat ant-paste or swallow Lysol; they drive their cars into dark alleys, get into the back seat and shoot themselves; they hang themselves in hotel bedrooms, take overdoses of sulphonal or barbital; they slip off to the municipal golf-links and there stab themselves with carving-knives; or they throw themselves into the bay, blue and placid, where gray battleships and cruisers guard the limits of their broad-belting nation-already reaching out in the eighties for the sugar plantations of Honolulu.
It is without apparent irony, then, that in To the Finland Station (1940) Wilson quotes Maxim Gorky's encomium to Lenin's "burning faith that suffering was not an essential and unavoidable part of life, but an abomination that people should and could sweep away." Wilson's history of socialist thought and action to the beginnings of the Russian Revolution is one of his finest works, impressive even to a reader who finds the author's heroes to be some of history's most nefarious villains. What ignites Wilson at least as much as economic justice for the proletariat is the vision of humanity attaining its full glory, in the style of his many-sided cultural magnificos:
And Marx and Engels had always before them—something which the later Marxists have sometimes quite lost sight of—the ideal man of the Renaissance of the type of Leonardo or Machiavelli, who had a head for both the sciences and the arts, who was both thinker and man of action. It was, in fact, one of their chief objections to the stratified industrial society that it specialized people in occupations in such a way as to make it impossible for them to develop more than a single aptitude; and it was one of their great arguments for communism that it would produce "complete" men again.
To produce shining generations of complete men, however, tens of millions of lesser specimens would have to be shattered, and Wilson is clear-sighted about Marx's unsparing murderousness:
And if he exposes the dark depths of the industrial system, it is less to move us to fellow-feeling with the workers than to destroy the human aspect of their masters. The bourgeoisie, in Karl Marx's writings, are created mainly in caricature; and the proletariat figure mainly as their crimes. There is in Marx an irreducible discrepancy between the good which he proposes for humanity and the ruthlessness and hatred he inculcates as a means of arriving at this—a discrepancy which, in the history of Marxism, has given rise to much moral confusion.
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Wilson's own moral confusion is patent. By the time he completed his book, Stalinist enormities had disillusioned him with the Soviet Union, but he continued to revere Lenin and what Lenin's wife Krupskaya called "the grand solemn beauty" of the Revolution; Wilson seemed pathetically blind to the fact that Lenin was the founding father of the Stalinist terror regime. Perhaps the best one can say about Wilson's infatuation with Communism is that he was not as stupid about it as many of his comrades were.
The poet Delmore Schwartz paid tribute in a 1942 essay to Wilson's "fundamental decency," a phrase that would "do very well if it reminds the reader of the heroes of Henry James," and a quality that was "a living remnant perhaps of Christianity." Both Henry James and Jesus Christ would frown at the comparison. Wilson was an alcoholic and a serial adulterer who betrayed every one of his four wives and who brawled with the third, the writer Mary McCarthy (although McCarthy was such a brute and an inveterate liar that it is hard to know if he really beat her or was just warding off her blows). The fundamental indecency of Wilson's personal life does not nullify the quality of his intellectual life, but the flaws in Wilson's career—the willful dismissal of metaphysical questioning, the political follies—do suggest the limitations of fundamental decency, which is not much more than a spirited and compassionate gentlemanliness, as the foundation of a truly rich mental life. Voracious curiosity and indefatigable industry make up for a lot; there is no critic writing today with Wilson's range of mastery. (George Steiner and Harold Bloom, both men of rhetorical flair and stunning erudition, might have surpassed Wilson had they not become parodies of themselves.) Yet his gifts and accomplishments also point up what is lacking. In 1928 Wilson wrote an essay called "The Critic Who Does Not Exist," about the need in American letters for a critic of the highest seriousness. He was of course offering himself as a candidate. At his best he became that critic; yet there is a good deal in his work that shames his best. Edmund Wilson remains the finest critic American literature has produced; we can only hope for a better.