It’s said that Art Tatum’s technique persuaded a great many aspiring young pianists to become insurance salesmen. Edmund Wilson’s chops were equally phenomenal; not as sheerly, immediately dazzling, perhaps, but in range, erudition, penetration, clarity and unfussy elegance, no less jaw-dropping. And just as Tatum’s multivolume The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces is one of the summits of piano jazz, the Library of America’s new two-volume issue of Wilson’s essays and reviews from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s is one of the summits of twentieth-century literary criticism.
Edmund Wilson’s life story is well-known from his many published journals (The Twenties through The Sixties), memoirs (“The Author at Sixty” and Upstate) and letters (a superb collection, Letters on Literature and Politics, edited by Elena Wilson, his fourth wife), other people’s remembrances and two good biographies by Jeffrey Meyers and Lewis Dabney. He was born in 1895–with difficulty, because he already had an unusually large head. His father was a reforming lawyer and Attorney General of New Jersey but was disabled for much of his later life by hypochondria and depression. Young Edmund got an extraordinary education at the Hill School in Pennsylvania and a decent one at Princeton, especially after he encountered the literary scholar and peerless teacher Christian Gauss. At Princeton he also (like Dwight Macdonald at Yale) began several lifelong literary friendships, notably with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the poet John Peale Bishop.
During World War I, Wilson served as a hospital orderly in France. Afterward he was managing editor for Vanity Fair and freelanced for The Dial, and in 1925 he became an editor of The New Republic until 1931, then traveled around Depression-era America as a correspondent. (His reporting is available in a marvelous collection, The American Earthquake.) In 1935 he spent some months in the Soviet Union, about which he was ambivalent. The second half of the decade he researched and wrote To the Finland Station, his brilliantly idiosyncratic history of revolutionary socialism. In 1940 he rejoined The New Republic, though not for long. Like Randolph Bourne before him and others more recently, Wilson fell afoul of that magazine’s recurring enthusiasm for American military intervention.
In 1944 he began writing regularly for The New Yorker, where most of his subsequent work first appeared, except for Memoirs of Hecate County, a collection of stories and novellas, and Patriotic Gore, a study of American writing around the time of the Civil War. Besides literary criticism, Wilson produced a great deal of travel writing (much of it, as Dabney notes, “verging on cultural anthropology”) about Europe, Russia, Israel, the Caribbean and the American Southwest, as well as a widely read and admired book about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was present at the creation of The New York Review of Books and first proposed the Library of America.
Wilson’s love life was as busy as his writing life. He was married four times, most spectacularly to Mary McCarthy, and had (or attempted) romantic liaisons with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bogan, Anaïs Nin, Mamaine Koestler and other celebrated women, most of whom remained good friends, as did Dawn Powell and Janet Flanner, who escaped his amorous attentions but keenly appreciated his encouragement and help with their careers.
T.S. Eliot wrote that in literary criticism, “the only method is to be very intelligent.” This was Wilson’s method. He made use of Marx and Freud, but pragmatically, as though their importance was not as system builders or scientific innovators but as astute fellow critics who had extended our limited perennial understanding of economic and psychological motives. These new approaches took their place in the critic’s traditional repertory alongside the biographical, formal, impressionistic and others; and the choice of approach was dictated by the character of the work or author. The notion of literature as a body of evidence, a corpus over which to fit a conceptual grid, rather than a field for judgments about artistic merit, would have seemed to him perverse–a queer idea of theory.
His characteristic approach was biographical, comparative, historical. In “The Literary Worker’s Polonius,” a witty and trenchant “brief guide for authors and editors,” he is apparently describing himself when he writes:
A reviewer should be more or less familiar, or be ready to familiarize himself, with the past work of every important writer he deals with and be able to write about an author’s new book in the light of his general development and intention. He should also be able to see the author in relation to the national literature as a whole and the national literature in relation to other literatures.
“But this,” he adds dryly, “means a great deal of work.” Wilson was famously indefatigable, vacuuming up new authors and even languages at a rate apparently unimpaired by his sexual and alcoholic indulgences. Mary McCarthy related wonderingly to one of his biographers that “after drinking in his study late into the night, he emerged ‘in his snowy-white BVDs in the morning,’ freshly bathed and ready to go back to work.”
Where energy and the large view were requisite, Wilson was unfailing. Correcting Irving Babbitt about Sophocles, estimating the relative merits of English comic writers from W.S. Gilbert to Kingsley Amis, paying a well-informed tribute to Houdini (Wilson was an amateur magician), comparing Poe’s reception in Europe and America–each of these (and perhaps 150 others from The Shores of Light and Classics and Commercials), compact but spacious, authoritative but not bullying, was a week’s work (two at most) during the crowded decades these volumes cover.
Wilson was rarely starchy and sometimes quite funny, as in “The Delegate From Great Neck,” an imaginary dialogue between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Van Wyck Brooks; “A Letter to Elinor Wylie,” signed “Sam. Johnson” and perfectly pitched in the Doctor’s epistolary style; and his dead-on parody in Axel’s Castle of Eliot’s hypermagisterial critical prose:
“We find this quality occasionally in Wordsworth,” he will write, “but it is a quality which Wordsworth shares with Shenstone rather than with Collins and Gray. And for the right sort of enjoyment of Shenstone, we must read his prose as well as his verse. The ‘Essays on Men and Manners’ are in the tradition of the great French aphorists of the seventeenth century, and should be read with the full sense of their relation to Vauvenargues, La Rochefoucauld and (with his wider range) La Bruyere. We shall do well to read enough of Theophrastus to understand the kind of effect at which La Bruyere aimed. (Professor Somebody-or-other’s book on ‘Theophrastus and the Peripatetics’ gives us the clew to the intellectual atmosphere in which Theophrastus wrote and enables us to gauge the influences on his work–very different from each other–of Plato and Aristotle.” At this rate…we should have to read the whole of literature in order to appreciate a single book, and Eliot fails to supply us with a reason why we should go to the trouble of doing so.
Of course Wilson revered Eliot, and in the same essay he praised Eliot’s criticism, though in terms that throw light on their differences. Eliot “has undertaken a kind of scientific study of aesthetic values…. He compares works of literature coolly and tries to distinguish between different orders of artistic effects and the different degrees of satisfaction to be derived from them.” Despite his “occasional dogmatism” and the “meagreness of his production,” Eliot “has become for his generation a leader…because his career has been a progress, because he has evidently been on his way somewhere,” unlike “many of his contemporaries, more prolific and equally gifted.”
Unlike, for example, Wilson. “On his way somewhere” meant that Eliot had a critical program, a large view of how all of literature fit together; that he aimed to work out and propagate a comprehensive philosophy of culture. Wilson’s aims were nearly always more modest: to describe, to compare, to assess. It’s not that he lacked philosophical interests; but he was satisfied with the Enlightenment, with science, with the main current of secular modernity, as Eliot was not. Wilson was a temperamental pragmatist and positivist, comfortable enough in his own philosophical skin to be able to muster at least an undoctrinaire sympathy, if not always much enthusiasm, for romantic and metaphysical heterodoxies.
Besides, he was, he insisted, just a journalist, whose beat was literature (with frequent excursions into politics, popular culture and travel). He wrote to inform and edify contemporary readers and encourage (or, when necessary, discourage) contemporary writers, rather than, like Eliot, sub specie aeternitatis, or like Auden, to find out what he thought.
The closest Wilson came to a critical manifesto was “The Historical Interpretation of Literature” in The Triple Thinkers. There he distances himself respectfully not only from Eliot’s unhistorical aestheticism and from the impressionism of Edwardians like George Saintsbury (“his attitude toward literature…was that of the connoisseur. He tastes the authors and tells you about the vintages; he distinguishes the qualities of the various wines”) but also from the sociological, Marxist and Freudian approaches (“The problems of comparative artistic value still remain after we have given attention to the Freudian psychological factor just as they do after we have given attention to the Marxist economic factor and to the racial and geographical factors”).
Wilson was not one to shrink from confronting an implied question, however daunting. “And now how, in these matters of literary art, do we tell the good art from the bad?” Among the things named at one time or another as the defining characteristic of art are “unity, symmetry, universality, originality, vision, inspiration, strangeness, suggestiveness, improving morality, socialist realism.” All plausible enough, as a first approximation; but how is it possible to judge objectively of these qualities, and why are their effects so valuable? Wilson answers these questions very much as William James would have. Art, like all other intellectual activity,
is an attempt to give a meaning to our experience–that is, to make life more practicable…. The writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered. With each such victory of the human intellect, whether in history, in philosophy or in poetry, we experience a deep satisfaction: we have been cured of some ache of disorder, relieved of some oppressive burden of uncomprehended events…. This relief that brings the sense of power, and, with the sense of power, joy, is the positive emotion which tells us that we have encountered a first-rate piece of literature.
But this is a subjective reaction; what about objective judgment? Not everyone will feel the same “ache,” the same “joy”; and “crude and limited people [will] feel some such emotion in connection with work that is limited and crude.” True, but “the man who is more highly organized and has a wider intellectual range will feel it in connection with work that is wider and more complex.” And if you ask
how…can we identify this elite who know what they are talking about? Well, it can only be said of them that they are self-appointed and self-perpetuating, and that they will compel you to accept their authority. Impostors may try to put themselves over, but these quacks will not last. The implied position of the people who know about literature (as is also the case in every other art) is simply that they know what they know, and that they are determined to impose their opinions by main force of eloquence or assertion on the people who do not know.
The pragmatist’s answer is the same for art as for science and philosophy: truth is enduring consensus. That is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.
This conclusion–that all criticism is practical criticism–is persuasive, to me at least. And how good a critic, practically speaking, was Wilson? James Wood’s brilliant 2005 New Republic essay on Wilson, tactful but unsparing, is the best assessment. With all respect for Wilson’s “glinting, pugnacious clarity,” his “comprehensive and solitary scholarship” and his “beautifully restrained and classically elegant expository prose,” Wood nevertheless finds that he is “sometimes, in the major essays, a disappointing literary critic.” The meaning, background and comparative worth of works and authors are reliably propounded, but “it is hard to find any sustained analysis of deep literary beauty”–the kind of analysis Wood excels at–“in his work.”
Wilson’s literary criticism, with its introductory relish, its recourse to biographical speculation and its swerve away from aesthetic questions, now looks more journalistic than it once did. Pritchett seems to me to have had a more literary sensibility and a more natural understanding of how fiction works its effects; Empson explains poetry with a far richer respect for ambiguity; Trilling imbricates ideas and aesthetics with greater skill; and Jarrell accounts for beauty with more devoted vivacity.
It is a fair enough judgment, even if it only means that Wilson didn’t do everything equally well.
One thing he did extremely well was make political judgments. This is not, however, the conventional view. His political books are widely praised for their literary qualities. Everyone acknowledges Wilson’s superb Depression-era reporting in The American Earthquake, his incomparable dramatization of intellectual history in To the Finland Station and his far-ranging scholarship in Patriotic Gore. But everyone, it seems, has an unkind word for his political views, or what they take to be his views.
The principal charge is that Wilson idealized Lenin in To the Finland Station. James Wood refers to Wilson’s “willful romanticizing of Lenin…who is seen as the gentlest and most selfless of men.” David Remnick too refers to Wilson’s “romanticized portrait of Lenin” and complains that “to turn Lenin into an author, and to see him almost solely as an author or artist instead of an architect of power, with incredible talent for grasping that power, is a great problem and a self-deception.” Paul Berman finds an “enormous enthusiasm for Lenin” and claims that, in Wilson’s view, “the reason that Russia had indeed turned out quite badly…was the mystical element in Marx. It was not because of Lenin–Lenin was the good guy, Marx the bad guy.” Louis Menand concurs, seeing a “lack of enthusiasm for Marx” and “enthusiasm for Lenin.”
This consensus will probably endure, alas. But I found, along with a vivid portrait of Lenin’s many genuinely remarkable personal qualities (and flaws), plenty of lack of enthusiasm for Lenin as a political leader in To the Finland Station and no failure to notice Lenin’s disastrous “grasping” for power. “Marxism at the End of the Thirties,” originally the last chapter of Finland Station but later moved to The Shores of Light, contains these two forthright condemnations of Lenin’s politics:
The takeover by the state of the means of production and the dictatorship in the interests of the proletariat can by themselves never guarantee the happiness of anybody but the dictators themselves. Marx and Engels, coming out of authoritarian Germany, tended to imagine socialism in authoritarian terms; and Lenin and Trotsky after them, forced as they were to make a beginning among a people who had known nothing but autocracy, also emphasized this side of socialism and founded a dictatorship which perpetuated itself as an autocracy.
Lenin’s ultimate aims were of course humanitarian, democratic, and anti-bureaucratic; but the logic of the situation was too strong for Lenin’s aims. His trained band of revolutionists, the Party, turned into a tyrannical machine which perpetuated, as heads of a government, the intolerance, the deviousness, the secrecy, the ruthlessness with political dissidents, which they had had to learn as hunted outlaws. Instead of getting a classless society out of the old illiterate feudal Russia, they encouraged the rise and the domination of a new controlling and privileged class, who were soon exploiting the workers almost as callously as the Tsarist industrialists had done, and subjecting them to an espionage that was probably worse than anything under the Tsar.
When Trotsky, jeering at Martov, coins the phrase “the dustbin of history,” Wilson rejoins that Martov was right after all:
Today…[Martov’s] croakings over the course [the Bolsheviks] had adopted seem to us full of far-sighted intelligence. He pointed out that proclaiming a socialist regime in conditions different from those contemplated by Marx would not realize the results that Marx expected; that Marx and Engels had usually described the dictatorship of the proletariat as having the form, for the new dominant class, of a democratic republic, with universal suffrage and the popular recall of officials; that the slogan “All power to the Soviets” had never really meant what it said and that it had soon been exchanged by Lenin for “All power to the Bolshevik Party.” There sometimes turn out to be valuable objects cast away in the dustbin of history.
And in the chapter on “Lenin at the Finland Station,” Wilson gives the last word to the anti-Bolshevik revolutionary Bogdanov, who, revolted by Lenin’s authoritarian declarations, “furiously scolded the audience: ‘You ought to be ashamed to applaud this nonsense–you cover yourselves with shame! And you call yourselves Marxists!'” It seems to me that, notwithstanding his later self-criticism about To the Finland Station, Wilson was as clearsighted about the evils of Leninism as his critics.
The other usual occasion for condescending to Wilson is his introduction to Patriotic Gore, with its rejection of belligerent nationalism, which prompted Hilton Kramer to sniff that Wilson “was not really a political thinker” (unlike, say, Norman Podhoretz). True, Wilson oversimplifies a little in the introduction:
In a recent Walt Disney film showing life at the bottom of the sea, a primitive organism called a sea slug is seen gobbling up smaller organisms through a large orifice at one end of its body; confronted with another sea slug of an only slightly lesser size, it ingurgitates that, too. Now, the wars fought by human beings are stimulated as a rule primarily by the same instincts as the voracity of the sea slug…. The difference in this respect between man and other forms of life is that man has succeeded in cultivating enough of what he calls “morality” and “reason” to justify what he is doing in terms of what he calls “virtue” and “civilization.” Hence the self-assertive sounds he utters when he is fighting and swallowing others: the songs about glory and God, the speeches about national ideals, the demonstrations of logical ideologies…. This prevents us from recognizing today, in our relation to our cold-war opponent, that our panicky pugnacity as we challenge him is not virtue but at bottom the irrational instinct of an active power organism in the presence of another such organism, of a sea slug of vigorous voracity in the presence of another such sea slug.
This requires a slight qualification. The aim of American foreign policy is not to “ingurgitate” (i.e., conquer and occupy) other countries but to drain their vital fluids (i.e., to insure unrestricted inflow of American goods and investments and outflow of profits). Once this small correction is made, Wilson’s view is far superior to those of his critics, who upbraid him for insufficient appreciation of American virtue or of Niebuhrian tragic irony. (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an admirer of Niebuhr, also opined that Wilson “wasn’t really a man of politics.” But Wilson’s great, and still relevant, 1931 essay “An Appeal to Progressives”–included in The Shores of Light–is a more useful contribution to American politics than all of Schlesinger’s loyal service in the corridors of the White House and at the dinner tables of Manhattan and Georgetown.)
Will there be another Wilson? Not for a while, certainly. There’s too much to master and too many electronic distractions. Reading Greek and Latin for pleasure is practically unheard of now. The very ideal of cultural authority is, rightly or wrongly, suspect. Most important, the freelance life is less and less possible in an economically rationalized, hypermanagerial society. Investors want 20 percent returns; we know what that means for literary journalism. Tenure committees are not impressed by “comprehensive and solitary,” idiosyncratic scholarship of Wilson’s sort. And where can a freelancer live? Even Hackensack will soon be gentrified. On the web? Yes, but one wants, if not to be at the center of things, at least to know where it is. Or that it is.
Oh well, let’s hope that, even in a decentered world, Wilson’s temperament and critical method–curious, energetic, humane and, of course, very intelligent–will keep their appeal.