On Edmund Wilson

Four years before his death in 1972, Edmund Wilson had more or less abandoned literary criticism. And literary criticism returned the favor: the academy had turned literary studies into one more area of specialization, and Wilson’s type of writing — clear and concise explanations and evaluations of poems, plays, and novels — was in decline. The age of theory, with its deliberate obfuscations and prolixity, was approaching. In his last two decades, Wilson devoted himself to learning more languages, adding Hebrew and Hungarian to an already impressive list, and to writing essays and books of historical and autobiographical interest — from his study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and his masterpiece on the Civil War, Patriotic Gore (1962), to his numerous volumes of memoirs. One essay on literary matters, from 1968, stands out among his later work: “The Fruits of the MLA,” a diatribe directed against the Modern Language Association, the professional organization of the literary professorate, that was published in The New York Review of Books. There is good reason to mention this polemic, even though it’s not included in the two collections of Wilson’s work under review here, the contents of which are limited to his literary criticism of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. For in this often sarcastic piece from the 1960s are the origins of the monumental publishing project — the Library of America — that delivers Wilson’s writing to us in these welcome and elegant volumes.

Throughout his career as America’s greatest man of letters, Wilson witnessed the development of the American canon, the process by which readers and critics determine which books deserve to become an integral part of our common heritage. He contributed his own expert reconsiderations of Poe, Twain, Whitman, and Henry James, among others. More important, he trumpeted the new masters: Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. What the nation lacked, he lamented in the ’60s (in the MLA piece and elsewhere), were inexpensive, compact editions of these important writers, a series, in other words, like the French Pl?iade. His complaint, motivating others, was the catalyst that led to the launch of the Library of America. So of course it’s about time that Wilson joins its ranks; and right and just that he’s the first writer in the Library of America whose main pursuit was literary comment. But that’s not the only reason to look back to “The Fruits of the MLA.”

In that cantankerous challenge to the scholarship industry, Wilson makes clear what not to do. He mocks the bloated, unwieldy academic editions of writers such as Hawthorne and Melville that were being produced under the seal of the MLA. Scholars of no aesthetic sensitivity seemed determined to bury works under mounds of textual notes and variants, many of no serious consequence. But what really annoyed Wilson was that these heavy and expensive volumes addressed a tiny audience — other professors. For Wilson, this represented the defeat of everything he stood for as a critic. His aim, we see in these volumes, was true: to engage works of art and make them intelligible to a wide audience of educated readers, a goal admittedly naive by contemporary standards of obscurity, transgression, and a balkanized readership. One of the results, for readers picking up these volumes today, is an introduction to the pleasures of exploring recondite or even outdated work. Contemporary readers thumbing through Wilson’s decades-old criticism should not be turned off by the unfamiliar subjects — the art of Peggy Bacon and Art Young, or the politics of Hebert Croly and Joseph de Maistre. In these particular pieces we can test Wilson’s views without the filter of received opinion Here, also, we witness one of his most valuable characteristics: he assumed that intelligent readers would care about the same things he did, whether it was a new edition of Byron’s letters or a biography of John Barrymore. Read straight through, or dipped into, these chronicles expose us to a capacious mind on a singular journey through the world of art and ideas, and every page is an invitation. It’s a trip worth joining, however long you plan to stay.

These two collections bring together three kinds of Wilson’s literary criticism: book reviews, long essays, and one book-length study. For the dabbler, the book reviews are enough to display al of his fine qualities as a critic. In these pieces, assembled by Wilson in later years as his chronicles The Shores of Light (reviews from the 20s and 30s) and Classics and Commercials (pieces from the ’30s and ’40s), there is the sense of literary history being made — the discovery of writers outside the genteel tradition: T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, John Dos Passos, D. H. Lawrence, and, of course, Wilson’s Princeton classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald. Just as important, Wilson makes these sometimes difficult artists accessible to his readers, not by dumbing down their artistic achievements but by educating his audience in plain language. Unlike previous belletrists, Wilson did not arbitrarily impose his aesthetic on writers under discussion. Instead, he made every effort to understand first and to judge later. Judgments about whether a writer succeeds or fails according to his own intentions have of course fallen out of favor in our time; in Wilson’s day, there was a different challenge, which he suggests in the essential piece, “The Critic Who Does Not Exist” (1927). The problem with the best American critics before Wilson — H. L. Mencken preeminent among them, about whom Wilson writes frequently — is that they measured works by their own pinched political and artistic notions. Wilson, for his part, and despite his radical politics, looks beyond immediate concerns, and writes with the great tradition of Western letters at his fingertips.

Wilson wears his learning lightly but authoritatively,
and he parses his negative remarks in measured tones. Not pugnacious like Mencken, he also avoids the slash-and-burn tactics of his later comrades among the New York critics, including the great put-down artists Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy (who was married to Wilson for six tumultuous years in the ’30s and ’40s). Wilson began reviewing for small magazines like the Dial but soon moved to wider venues, first The New Republic, then The New Yorker, from which he assembled the bulk of his chronicles. Among these pieces readers will recognize some touchstones: Wilson’s elegy for contemporary poetry (“Is Verse a Dying Technique?”) and his impatience with shlocky detective fiction (“Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”). But the real treasures here lie buried in reviews of writers now out of favor: Glenway Westcott, Ronald Firbank, Elinor Wylie, or Max Beerbohm. Each piece could inspire a revival.

Wilson’s numerous homages to belletrists such as George Saintsbury and Hippolyte Taine, along with his many favorable mentions of Saint-Beuve, remind us that his goal was also historical — to locate writers in their times, not in a narrow sense but in their relation to the ebb and flow of European and American culture. Wilson’s reviews, written as journalism, rise to history for a clear reason: he is so often correct in his assessments. Flipping through his chronicles, and seeing the recognizable names, you forget that it was Wilson himself who first explained to American readers what the great modernists were trying to achieve. Which brings us to a work — included in the first of these Library of America volumes — that deserves recognition for the masterpiece it is: Axel’s Castle (published in 1931, but reliant on many of Wilson’s earlier pieces). Years of academic scrutiny — piles of treatises on Yeats, Valery, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and Stein — should not blind us to the genius of Wilson’s early account of what these moderns were up to. Among Americans, Wilson saw it first, and he described it precisely and correctly. Without that combination of insight and expression, this pioneering study might be little more than a historic curiosity, a feat of good luck for introducing and promoting the writers we continue to value most.

Through the fog of all that’s come since — from the pseudo-science of the New Critics to the mystifications of the postmoderns — Wilson remains a beacon for readers and writers alike. He describes for us the modernist agenda, the artistic turn inward, and the effort to explore the inner self in language that breaks though consciousness. He sees through the difficulties, too, viewing Eliot’s allusiveness not as a barrier to meaning but as a new way of incorporating tradition into the present moment. The complex architecture of Proust and Joyce, he argues, embodies their genius for narrative design, opening the reader to new ways of thinking. Stein and company “wake us to the hope and exultation of the untried, unsuspected possibilities of human thought and art.” But Wilson never lost sight of the downside. As if predicting the entire postmodern mire we find ourselves in, Wilson saw the already apparent trouble: obscurity for its own sake (as he notes elsewhere in discussing Ezra Pound), the cultivation of madness and depravity as artistic styles, the pursuit of excess (as he witnessed so sadly in Fitzgerald).

The longer essays in the two collections from the ’40s, The Triple Thinkers (1937) and The Wound and the Bow (1941), display the same sensibility, sometimes stretched a bit with psychological insight. In the later book, Wilson teases out the importance of a psychic or physical wound underlying the work of some disparate writers. At the same time, he never favors such insight at the expense of the artistry of his subjects (Dickens, Kipling, Wharton, and four others). While Wilson has no theoretical ax to grind. he does not lack principles. “The Historical Interpretation of Literature,” a sort of coda to The Triple Thinkers, states plainly: “In my view, all our intellectual activity, in whatever field it takes place, is an attempt to give meaning to our experience…” As these two volumes demonstrate throughout, he took it for granted that it was his job to share that attempt with his readers. Wilson is not just a critic whose judgments have withstood the test of time. Nor is he merely a brilliant popularizer of difficult concepts. His knowledge of Western culture everywhere informs his work, but even that doesn’t guarantee him an afterlife. It is Wilson’s ability to give meaning to experience — to measure art against reality — that makes his a voice for the ages.