by Edmund Wilson Edited by Lewis M Dabney The Library of America, 958 pp, $40
Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1940s & 50s
by Edmund Wilson Edited by Lewis M. Dabney The Library of America, 979 pp, $40
"You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings," was how Edmund Wilson defined the task and the trick of critical journalism.
With his first publication under the imprimatur of the Library of America - the durable, affordable line of native classics he conceived and founded - we see again how solid was Wilson's matter, how true and continuous his sense of the worthy in art and life. These volumes flex and expand like living things, like lungs, and it's Wilson the intellectual journalist, more than Wilson the accessible academic, that fills them with breath and vigour.
The academic is represented by three famed works, each an established classic of its kind: Axel's Castle (1930), about the French Symbolist poets and the modernists they influenced; The Triple Thinkers (1938), a collection of deep textual and character studies; and The Wound and the Bow (1941), comprising psychobiographical inquiries into Dickens, Kipling, Casanova, and others. But the needed resurrection is given to two long out-of-print anthologies of reviews, essays, reports and pastiches: The Shores of Light (1952), Wilson's collage of the 1920s and 30s; and Classics and Commercials (1950), which collects his literary work from the 1940s.
These books give us Wilson the journalist, covering everything from Harry Houdini to Emily Post, anatomising Kafka's alienation and Faulkner's response to civil rights. They present criticism not as an egghead effusion but as a potent, constructive, and necessary act in a very real, very daunting world. Without compare in scope and curiosity, they are great American crypto-novels composed of dispatches from the frontlines of art and politics, the exercises of a mind working to absorb the essence of its time.
That time was the 20th century. Born at the interregum between the gilded and progressive ages - New Jersey, 1895 - Wilson felt he had arrived at "perhaps the most provincial and uninspired moment in the history of American society".
His stint as an attendant in French hospitals in the first world war deepened his alienation. Back in America, feeling all bourgeois values were moot and all artistic bets off, he became an agent in the intellectual conspiracy that created the literary 1920s - a burst of creative experiment in the novel, verse and theatre, a time defined by its artists and agitators.
Heralded by F Scott Fitzgerald's first novel and ended by the stock market crash, that decade was, Wilson wrote later, "a recklessly unspecialised era, when minds and imaginations were exploring in all directions" - an exploration commenced and consummated by "the lost generation" in response to the moribund world it had inherited, and the war whose innovative savageries it had survived. Wilson's singular intelligence and superhuman stamina were set free: and even now his writing from those years is charged with a focused energy, a mania to see, capture and understand it all.
Able to divine the lasting from the fashionable, Wilson perceived at once the magnitude of Joyce's novels, Eliot's poetry, Hemingway's stories - their modernist synthesis of dream and biology, the mythic and the pathetic.
On nothing but intuition, he forged first hand appraisals of these and other key artists which remain unsurpassed. (He predicted, for instance, every overblown plaudit and revanchist barb ever aimed at Hemingway, while doing fuller justice to that writer's greatness than anyone since.) Wilson had his beat down cold: writing presciently on Ulysses, The Waste Land and In Our Time, he is our man on the scene, critiquing and comprehending these formative documents of the 20th century mindset when the ink is still fresh, the attitudes ablaze with novelty.
"A change of tone and of point of view will be noted in my articles of the early 30s," Wilson prefaces an omnibus piece called The Literary Consequences of the Crash. Indeed, the tone is angrier from 1930 on, the point of view that of someone whose feet are still in capitalist society but whose fingers grip the speeding trolley pole of what looked at the time like historical inevitability.
Pulled by idealism and angered by the gaping split between haves and have-nots, many American writers of vision and feeling were drawn during the Depression into an unprecedented mass resistance to the dominant socioeconomic presumptions of their culture - into, that is, an infatuation with Communism. Wilson spoke for many when in 1930, he described capitalism as "a precarious economic system the condition for whose success is that [its members] must profit by swindling their customers and cutting one another's throats".
Here was a chance at a new kind of freedom - not just economic but ethical-historical, a broad recognition of "the futility of attempting to identify 'Americanism' with the interests and ideas of the Anglo-Saxon element in the United States". Like most American liberals, Wilson looked to the Soviet Union for a practical trying-out of theories that might be applied to the US.
Throughout the 30s, his chief extra-literary preoccupation was the fate of the post-Revolutionary experiment: he lived in Russia for almost half of 1935 to study how the Leninist revision was faring under Stalin. It was a move of great professional bravery and physical courage - Wilson caught scarlet fever and nearly died in an Odessa hospital - and, in the end, harshly instructive. Partly because of the disappearance or persecution of writers he'd met in Russia, Wilson saw, and stated, that Stalin was a dictator, the Soviet Union, a deadly sham.
By the end of the decade, he had rejected fully the great literary myth and avant-political clique of the 1930s. "One of the worst drawbacks of being a Stalinist at the present time," he wrote in 1937, "is that you have to defend so many falsehoods".
Wilson spent the latter half of the 40s reviewing books for The New Yorker. There he seemed to draw fresh air - we feel the lungs re-expanding. Relatively free from political angst, these pieces are nonetheless intent on reading a country through its books, a race through its evolving history. As a reviewer, Wilson treated the "low" bestselling genres of horror, mystery and historical epic with the same rigour and lack of prejudice he applied to the masters of earlier eras (Thackeray, Austen, James).
Weekly reviewing was a typically exhausting regimen, but it kept Wilson at the intersection of art and life, literature and politics, reading the signs along the American highway.
If Wilson was the sole critic of the last century who deserves a spot on Parnassus next to the contemporary giants of the novel, verse and theatre, it's because his body of work expressed a vitality and reach that matched and, in the end, exceeded many of theirs.
These qualities of mind were combined with a prose that is readable yet challenging, swift yet dense, that seeks to surround its subject, not to contain it but to know it. Wilson writes moving obituaries of mentors and friends, from the famous (the poet Edna St Vincent Millay, a one-time lover) to the forgotten (Paul Rosenberg, critic of American classical music); several pieces written with satiric intent and in borrowed voices, show him to have been a master of pastiche.
He is effortless with simile and imagery, and produces from within modest tones sudden reserves of violent language: "The dramatic poet today," he writes in 1922, "has to take a naturalistic subject and try to knock poetry into it - just as the modern painter has to take a conventional still life and by main force hack it to pieces and shuffle up the fragments in a novel pattern." That is the creative and intellectual tendency of the 20th century in a phrase.
But it was Wilson's journalistic instinct that drove him to become, more than just a student of global literatures, a critic-explorer of the societies around them. He valued classicism in art - formal grace, psychic coherence, the striving for perfection; but his concern with the real world as real people experienced it gave him an equal need for the spice of human chaos. The critic of integrity, he felt, is always caught between resisting the messier reality outside literature and acceding to its greater claim; he perceived "the cost of detaching books from all the other affairs of human life," and saw that "without the impulse from reality, neither criticism nor poetry nor any other human work can be valid".
It's that fight to stay in touch with and to express "the impulse from reality" in all its visitations that ennobles Wilson's literary journalism, and lets it ring down the decades. The two Library of America volumes constitute only a part of his whole achievement - beyond them lie such monumental works as To the Finland Station (1940) and Patriotic Gore (1961), historical criticisms that in themselves take years to appreciate, let alone exhaust - but they offer an essential reintroduction to a key American critic-artist: one of those figures who by the very untouchability of their achievement provide their descendants with a model to grasp at, an exemplar to tangle with, a reason to care.
We can use that reason right now. The Columbia Journalism Review recently carried an essay by Steve Wasserman, ex-editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, titled Goodbye to All That: A Book Reviewer's Lament. Its survey of the current state and impending demise of newspaper book pages was not heartening.
"Whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question," Wasserman wrote, detailing the commercial factors presently dissolving the literary pages of one American newspaper after another. Almost incidentally, he observed that "Book coverage is not only meagre but shockingly mediocre."
If mediocrity is a refusal or inability to reach beyond the limits of the tangible and obvious, greatness understands that that is the only reach worth making. "Art has its origin," Wilson wrote, "in the need to pretend that human life is something other than it is, and, in a sense, by pretending this, it succeeds to some extent in transforming it." The critical act at its finest, he might have said, argues that life is something more than we presume it to be; and in the arguing succeeds, to some extent, in making that "more" a real thing, a thing worth believing in.
Compassion, acumen, engagement, the coursing analytical circuits of a rare mind at work - these are found on any page of Edmund Wilson's journalistic criticism. We can say goodbye to all that or we can open one of these volumes at random, and say hello.
Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) is widely regarded as the preeminent American man of letters of the twentieth century. Over his long career, he wrote for Vanity Fair, helped edit The New Republic, served as chief book critic for The New Yorker, and was a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. Wilson was the author of more than twenty books, including Axel’s Castle, Patriotic Gore, and a work of fiction, Memoirs of Hecate County.