The Centrality of Edmund Wilson

Bookforum, Oct/Nov 2005

By Phillip Lopate

When Edmund Wilson died in 1972, he was eulogized by Isaiah Berlin as the most important critic of the twentieth century. (518) His New Yorker editor, William Shawn, called his prose “one of the half-dozen best expository and critical styles in the history of English.” (351) James Baldwin and Joan Didion claimed him as a major influence. Now, thirty-three years later, Lewis M. Dabney’s Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), the first full-scale biography of the man to appear, ends with the assertion that “If future conditions allow the half-century in which he wrote to survive as a subject of study, Wilson may well be perceived, like Dr. Johnson, at the center of his age.” (522) There’s something to the Dr. Johnson comparison, physiologically and learnedly if not politically (Wilson was no Tory); still, the fact that over three decades have had to pass before such a presumably key figure could receive a proper biography (the first, by Jeffrey Meyers, was skimpy and sensationalist), raises the question: How central was Edmund Wilson, how central is he for us today, and how central should he be?

The way you answer those questions may determine what you will think of Dabney’s biography. I found it fascinating, admirably ample, intelligent and balanced. Then again, I freely admit that Edmund Wilson is one of my intellectual heroes, so I was especially grateful to Dabney for his fair-mindedness, crediting his subject’s achievement while pointing out, without vindictiveness or rivalry, where Wilson nodded as a critic or acted badly as a man—in short, without destroying my affection for an idol. What I love about Wilson is his combination of indefatigability and honesty, his erudition and common humanity. That astonishing range, which took him from subject to subject—literary modernism (Axel’s Castle), revolutionary socialism (To the Finland Station), Dickens, tax laws, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Canada, the Civil War (Patriotic Gore)—and that capacity for hard work, making him swallow whole libraries in an effort to clarify complex ideas for the common reader, via a casually elegant, conversationally direct style, moves me, and will continue to move me, all my days.

So count me a partisan. But I perceive I have an uphill struggle here, because it is my impression that he is not much read today, especially by the young, who seem to regard him as a patriarchal bore. In spite of his championing Marxism, refusing to pay taxes and even writing a work of fiction that got banned for its sexual content (Memoirs of Hecate County), the aura of a discredited old Establishment clings to him. I think it has less to do with his politics than with his Augustan authority. He recreated a kind of non-academic chair for himself as our “man of letters” and filled it by force of conviction. Lionel Trilling, his closest competitor, remarked that when they first met, Wilson “seemed in his own person, and young as he was, to propose and to realize the idea of the literary life….One got from him a whiff of Lessing at Hamburg, of Saint Beuve in Paris.” (134) Indeed, we have only to compare Wilson’s secure use of the first-person plural with Trilling’s more diffident, questioning one to see the former’s almost archaic sense of self-worth. Still, Wilson never gave you the feeling he was speaking for society, ex cathedra: it was always his personal opinion, which you were free to take or leave. As Isaiah Berlin put it, “everything Wilson wrote was filled with some kind of personal content.”

Lewis M. Dabney, who had earlier edited The Edmund Wilson Reader and Wilson’s last journal, knows his subject cold, and he has drawn a realistic, poignant portrait of Wilson that conveys the personal experiences feeding the work, and vice versa. Born in1895, raised by a remote lawyer-father and a critical mother, Wilson became a man who flourished in the company of books and was made uncomfortable by daily life; who needed sexual intimacy from, but was often baffled, by women, and served them better as friend than lover. Margaret Canby, his vastly affecting second wife, used to tell him, “Say that you love me—lie to me!” (103) When she died by accident, tripping on a balcony, he blamed himself for her death, wondering if it was a suicide, and discovered, of course, directly after her death that he really did love her. Wilson comes across as a man who, knowing his emotional limitations and inveterate detachment, tried hard to do the right, the kind thing. The poet Leonie Adams, with whom he had a brief affair, decided he was “on the whole, the best person I have known.” (139) But his goodness was twice-born, guilt-ridden. Edna St-Vincent Millay, his first lover, teased him, “As you say, you were never meant to be human.” (100)

Wilson, who looked up to Freud as a “hero of reason,” (229) had a healthy respect for the connections between neurosis and creativity (the thesis of his Wound and the Bow), and consequently less confidence that he could alter his psychology than his class. He attempted to surmount the narrowness of his patrician-Princeton background by volunteering as a hospital orderly in World War I. The army, where he dressed burn victims’ wounds, convinced him he could get along with ordinary people, and helped rid him of class snobbishness and self-consciousness. This egalitarian streak in Wilson would subsequently take all sorts of political, literary and romantic turns. In 1927 he met Frances, a Ukrainian taxi dancer and waitress, with whom he would find an idyll of sexual happiness. Their long, off-and-on affair formed the core of Wilson’s novella, “The Princess with the Golden Hair,” which takes up more than half of Memoirs of Hecate County (1959). This novella, Wilson’s best stab at fiction, is continuously engrossing and honest, especially as regards the narrator-character’s analysis of his own rather creepy behavior, and touching in its tender portrait of Frances (he calls her “Anna” here), who brought him closer to the stark life-problems of the immigrant poor.

Meanwhile, Wilson was experiencing his own money problems. His father, dying in 1923, had left all his money to Wilson’s mother, who doled it out sparingly to Edmund, and the writer was reduced to a free-lance, hand-to-mouth existence, working as a literary journalist-editor, first for Vanity Fair, then The New Republic. At the height of the Depression he became increasingly radicalized, quitting the culture desk to do labor reporting, interviewing factory workers and striking miners, and filing sketches from the field that would later be collected in The American Earthquake.

These experiences sowed the seeds for Wilson’s masterpiece, To the Finland Station (1940). It began casually, almost like a lark: One day, on a walk through the East Side, he realized that nobody had ever presented the development of Marxism “in intelligible terms.” (188) Had you or I such a thought, we would just keep walking, but that was enough to get him started. His method was to read everything he could that had been written by and about a writer (a friend counted eighty-six volumes of the French historian Michelet lined up in his study), and then find a narrative design in the life, through its tensions and conflicts. (189) This was an essentially biographical approach to historical writing and literary criticism, the life-in-brief deriving from Samuel Johnson and St. Beuve, and relying on immense powers of synthesis, analysis and concision. The end result, To the Finland Station, was “the biography of an idea, the idea that society can be remade by man in accord with human aspirations,” paraphrases Dabney. (263) The chapters on the French historian Michelet, the utopians Babeuf and Robert Owen, and Karl Marx are especially magnificent: it is only when Wilson gets to Lenin that the book falters, succumbs to gullible hagiography. He needed to believe in the “good” Lenin as a fitting conclusion to the revolutionary speculations that had preceded him. But while Wilson was intent to demonstrate how thoughts can lead to action, it is not the revolutionary adventurers, like Lenin and Bakunin, but the heroes of the library—Michelet and Marx—whose zitsfleish inspires his deepest identification.

The Moscow show trials and a trip to Russia disabused him of his illusions about the Soviet system, but he never turned to the Right. (Hospitalized in Russia for six weeks with scarlet fever, he read Gibbon, finding his long view of history “both calming and stimulating.” (356) Wilson also clung to work as the great anodyne, life’s sole guarantee of dignity and self-esteem. To Louise Bogan, recuperating in a sanitarium after a breakdown, he wrote: “The only thing that we can really make is our work, and deliberate work of the mind, imagination and hand, done, as Nietzsche said, ‘notwithstanding,’ in the long run remakes the world.” When she was released, Wilson proposed that they study German together—and it helped! His Calvinist work ethic was probably what steadied him for the long haul, when so many of his glittering generation foundered, quit, or died in mid-career (including F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose posthumous manuscripts Wilson would be left to edit). Wilson, like most of them, drank; and alcoholism did have a ruinous effect on his marriages and, ultimately, his health, as well as causing him to act beastly at times (as his third wife, Mary McCarthy, was happy to attest); but he had enough of an iron constitution during his prime to remain productive.

The Wilson-McCarthy imbroglio is too juicy to skip over, and Dabney gives it due consideration, while taking the high road: “American letters has not seen another alliance so flawed and so distinguished.” (300) Regarding who hit whom, he follows the lead of Frances Kiernan’s invaluable Seeing Mary Plain, which cast doubt on McCarthy’s claims that Wilson had physically abused her. I must say, Mary comes off looking rather unpleasant in Dabney’s account, hectoring Wilson, cuckolding him, and disparaging his writing. Their son Reuel said, when he was nine, after Mary paid her ex-husband a rare compliment: “Mommy, you mean my father is a great critic?…I always thought he was just a two-bit book reviewer.” (296)

Wilson was to luck out when, at fifty, he found Elena Mumm Thornton, a Russian-German émigré who became his fourth wife: this glamorous and devoted woman loved him, made him a home on Wellfleet, and took good care of him. In his last years, however, he reverted to his bacheloric, priapic ways, living half the year away from Elena in Talcottville, and deteriorating into dyspepsic gloom, almost as if he could not bear to die happily domesticated.

About Swinburne, he wrote that the poet “had lived a life entirely for literature, in which nothing else is really important—and since literature is inexhaustible, a life that is immensely enjoyed.” (488) Wilson, too, tried to maximize his joy by disappearing into literature, and, not surprisingly, it was in his literary friendships that he felt most at ease; there he found corresponding sensibilities, such as John Dos Passos, W. H. Auden, and Vladimir Nabokov (before their famous falling-out), who made him feel less lonely. Auden once told him that “he wrote for Wilson alone.” (390) In the Fifties, when the critic was desponding about the state of America, Auden responded, according to Dabney: “’You must remember we depend on you,’ then specified ‘I do. You have to go on even if you die with everything just as bad.’ For once, Wilson had the good fortune to receive the kind of loyal advice that he gave others in full measure. When he informed the poet that he’d spent several weeks in a sanitarium after a breakdown, Auden said ‘That was very naughty: an Auden doesn’t do that, a Wilson doesn’t do that.’” (393)

For the most part, Wilson adhered to his public image as the voice of reason, measure and fortifying courage. Heir to the Enlightenment philosophes, Wilson was, at bottom, a moralist and a humanist. Many of his critical judgments were based on an insistence on sensible realism and moral hope, a pulling-away from the abyss. Seen from this perspective, even some of his most debatable opinions, like the reservations about Kafka (whose dark vision he found stifling) or his preference for Doctor Zhivago over Lolita (which he thought smirky and far-fetched), have an endearing consistency, and even a grain of validity. There is a beautiful passage Wilson wrote about Turgenev, who came to seem like his “personal friend” through constant re-reading, (398) which Dabney quotes, and which shows this Wilsonian pull toward decency, ease and proportion over baroque excess (one more reason he has fallen out of favor, perhaps). Turgenev, he says, “is steadily engaging” and “won’t betray our belief with extravagances” or “combine poetic vision with rubbish…he is perhaps the most satisfactory of the company to which he belongs, for he never oppresses, as Flaubert does, by his monotony and his flattening of human feeling, or fatigues, as Henry James sometimes does when his wheels of abstraction are grinding, or makes us nervous, as Conrad may do, through his effortfulness….” (397)

One of the themes Dabney develops convincingly is Wilson’s enduring faith in America. Mistrustful as he was of patriotic rhetoric (see the ironic title of his great biographical epic, Patriotic Gore), or “sickening propaganda” about “the American dream,” (393) he nevertheless, as he said about Oliver Wendell Holmes, “identified his own interests with those of the American republic.” He celebrated when American culture established itself on an equal footing with the Old World, and when the world’s cultural capital seemed to shift from Paris to New York City. He even credulously thought America was the only country where socialism could be established on a democratic basis. His affection for émigrés like his wife Elena and Auden was partly based on their unwillingness to talk down America, like the native-born intellectuals.

Wilson’s deep patriotism may finally be another reason he is rejected today by the young. But one of his most attractive aspects was a cosmopolitan empathy with foreign or neglected cultures, championing Russian literature, studying Hebrew and Hungarian, researching Haiti, the Zuni tribes, Canada. The older he got, the more he upheld “the rights of small nations and cultural minorities.” (376) His anti-imperialistic stance went so far as to accuse Lincoln, in Patriotic Gore, of using anti-slavery rhetoric to camouflage consolidation and expansion of empire, thereby setting a precedent for future moralistic military invasions.

How central was Edmund Wilson? It was a question he himself took up. When alienated from the bland consumerism of Life magazine, he said that he did not feel he lived in the country depicted there, and asked himself: “Am I then in a pocket of the past?” His answer was “I don’t necessarily believe it,” adding audaciously that “I may find myself in the center of things—since the center can be only in one’s head—and my feelings and thoughts may be shared by many.” (370) The irony is that this dedicated anti-imperialist continued to speak from “the Imperial Self” (to use Quentin Anderson’s phrase about Emerson). But if the imperial self is passionately literary, and if society has turned away from literary culture, then the center can no long be in the writer’s head—any writer’s. As even Dabney acknowledges, with mournful understatement, “Wilson’s theme of the man of letters as hero, most clearly articulated in The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow, is not of our time.” (522)

So, no, Edmund Wilson is no longer central to our culture, alas for us. It may be that there is no longer a culture sufficiently cohesive to be central to. Or we may require more gnostic and reclusive figures, such as Bob Dylan, Hunter Thompson or Thomas Pynchon, who invite us to make imaginary pilgrimages to their outlaw lairs. But Wilson was certainly central to his cultural era, and we would do well to immerse ourselves again in his adventurous, generous mind and his long view, for our own sanity’s sake. Read Edmund Wilson. Re-read Edmund Wilson.

[Note: all page numbers refer to quotes from the Dabney biography]

Books discussed in this review:
Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, by Lewis M. Dabney, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 624 pages.
To the Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson, New York Review Books Classic reprint, 507 pages.
Memoirs of Hecate County, by Edmund Wilson, New York Review Books Classic reprint, 447 pages.

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