Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature
A review by James Wood
In the photograph by Irving Penn, he stares remorselessly at his fashionable
torturer. He is sixty-five, and looks every day of it. Two sparse claws of sandy
hair lie on the back of his head, leaving a large dense unencumbered brow. His
small eyes, alive with irritable clarity, look sore and weary: they are multiply
rimmed. The heavy jowls are at once mannish and babyish, like his downturned mouth,
a fallen crescent. The strong broad chin, exactly his mother's, pushes forward
to confront the weaker world. He looks confident, uncomfortable, impatient, and
When Edmund Wilson sat for Penn in 1960, most of his great work was behind him: Axel's Castle (1931), that still superbly clear-eyed introduction to Symbolism and the modernism that was its child; the long, pioneering essays on Pushkin, Dickens, Kipling, Wharton, and Hemingway, collected in The Triple Thinkers (1938) and The Wound and The Bow (1941); and To the Finland Station (1940), a massive and spacious account of radical thought from Vico and Michelet to Marx and Lenin. The four years between 1938 and 1941, in which Wilson published those last three books, must constitute the greatest period of critical productivity in American letters, and one of the greatest periods of creative productivity, too.
In these early books, Wilson had established his characteristic personality and intellectual temperament. Isaiah Berlin, one of Wilson's friends, once remarked that other critics writing at this time wrote "just intelligent sentences," while Wilson's, which came out of his discomfort with himself, were always "filled with some kind of personal content." Wilson's criticism is marked by its eighteenth-century robustness, by its glinting, pugnacious clarity, by its need to turn analysis into narrative, by its exhaustive and sometimes exhausting scholarship, and by the tense, prosaic music of its sentences.
It can, at first, seem like a flat style, one unfit for permanent criticism -- which lasts, after all, only if it, too, becomes literature. The abundant literary journalism, often written weekly for this magazine and for The New Yorker, has at times a hasty lusterlessness, but Wilson polished and revised the literary portraits that filled his books, and often we find a beautifully restrained and classically elegant expository prose. The chapter on Proust, from Axel's Castle, is an astonishing thirty-page summary of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and ends with a paragraph that used to be famous:
Proust is perhaps the last great historian of the loves, the society, the intelligence, the diplomacy, the literature and the art of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture; and the little man with the sad appealing voice, the metaphysician's mind, the Saracen's beak, the ill-fitting dress-shirt and the great eyes that seem to see all about him like the many-faceted eyes of a fly, dominates the scene and plays host in the mansion where he is not long to be master.
Finer still, perhaps, are the closing words of Wilson's portrait of Oliver Wendell Holmes, from Patriotic Gore in 1962, his last great book, in which he discusses Justice Holmes's famous bequest of his entire fortune to the government of the United States:
He had fought for the Union; he had mastered its laws; he had served in its highest court through a period of three decades. The American Constitution was, as he came to declare, an "experiment" -- what was to come of our democratic society it was impossible for a philosopher to tell -- but he had taken responsibility for its working, he had subsisted and achieved his fame through his tenure of the place it had given him; and he returned to the treasury of the Union the little that he had to leave.
Wilson several times called himself a man of the eighteenth century, and one can hear in the balanced periods, the long semi-colons, and the finely paradoxical compression -- "plays host in the mansion where he is not long to be master"; "returned to the treasury of the Union the little that he had to leave" -- both Gibbon and Johnson. And behind them is the Latin of Tacitus and Cicero: this is how, until quite recently, if not with such eloquence, English classics teachers of the old school used to write their term reports, and Wilson, almost uniquely among American literary journalists, had a solid training in Greek and Latin, languages which he maintained throughout his life. The tendency to defer the verb and object, to wave them on to the middle or end of the line, to interrupt the shapely sentence with subordinate and prepositional clauses, is clearly Latinate: "The abstractions of German philosophy, which may seem to us unmeaning or clumsy if we encounter them in English or French, convey in German, through their capitalized solidity, almost the impression of primitive gods. They are substantial, and yet they are a kind of pure beings; they are abstract, and yet they nourish." Gibbon, with a greater, more silvery exhibitionism, does the same thing:
While Petrarch indulged these prophetic visions, the Roman hero was fast declining from the meridian of fame and power; and the people, who had gazed with astonishment on the ascending meteor, began to mark the irregularity of its course, and the vicissitudes of light and obscurity. More eloquent than judicious, more enterprising than resolute, the faculties of Rienzi were not balanced by cool and commanding reason; he magnified in a tenfold proportion the objects of hope and fear; and prudence, which could not have erected, did not presume to fortify, his throne.
Wilson disliked the kind of piecemeal quoting I am doing. He called it "anthologizing," and his own prose, built of solid blocks of exegesis and description, is correspondingly difficult to parcel up. Unlike, say, Randall Jarrell -- or Hazlitt, or Woolf -- he had almost no interest in witty or metaphorical one-liners. In his essay, "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" he rebukes Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot for their habit of selecting a line or two of a poet's work, so making fetishistic touchstones of these now "anthologized" poets: "The old critic, when he reads the classic, epic, eclogue, tale, or play, may have grasped it and enjoyed it as a whole; yet when the reader reads the comment of the critic, he gets the impression ... that the Divine Comedy, say, so extraordinarily sustained and so beautifully integrated, is remarkable mainly for Eliot-like fragments."
Wilson's method was likewise to eschew the fragmentary, to strive for integration, and it is both a strength and a weakness in his work. He wrote a huge essay, such as the one on Dickens, which is almost 25,000 words long, by reading everything, and then by clearing an exegetical path through the many large novels in order to turn Dickens's career into a story, comprised of biography and description. For the kind of summarizing and conclusive portraits Wilson did, this method is majestically good, and truly makes of him an heir to Johnson and Macaulay. He seems to rear panoptically above his subjects, like a statue overseeing a city square, sternly, anciently surveying the busy activity, compressing and elucidating vast amounts of mobile information. John Berryman joked that whenever one met Wilson he was always "working his way through the oeuvre" of some writer or other. His letters become rather wearisome to read because of his need to whale his correspondents with his learning; as someone in the Goncourt journals remarks about a minor French writer, "Yes, yes, he has talent, but he doesn't know how to make people forgive him for having it."
A letter to Gilbert Highet, after the publication of the latter's The Classical Tradition in 1949, runs to many pages, and sixteen numbered points: "2. I think that there is something more to the influence of Virgil on Dante than your account of it indicates ... 3. You say, on page 79, that Dante makes Statius a Christian 'doubtless because of the medieval tradition of his conversion' ... But apparently no such tradition is known." And this was an admiring letter. A typical missive to Lionel Trilling, written in 1953, proceeds thus: "Not only George Orwell but Eliot has been under the delusion that runcible is not a real word. I suppose you know that a runcible spoon was a three-tined spoon (I think, three) for extracting pickles from jars ... Have you ever gone into [Edward] Lear aside from his nonsense rhymes? I think he is very attractive, and I do hope some day to write about him." As late as 1971 (he died a year later), he was writing to Erich Segal: "Thank you very much for the Plautus ... You have been extremely successful in catching the sense and following the meter ... I don't quite like 'Greeking it up,' 'Boozing it up,' etc. (Wouldn't 'going Greek' be better?)" And to Angus Wilson in the same year: "I enjoyed your book on Dickens. I suppose that you have discovered that an illustration by Catermole is attributed to Cruickshank." And to Vladimir Nabokov, with whom he had quarreled over Pushkin, Wilson wrote, also in 1971: "I am just now getting together a volume of my Russian articles. I am correcting my errors in Russian in my piece on Nabokov-Pushkin; but citing a few more of your ineptitudes."
He admired the independence of a historian such as Michelet, or the much more scattered learning of an American oddity such as John Jay Chapman. Though he taught occasionally -- a course on Dickens at Chicago, a term at Princeton, and some lectures at Harvard -- he disliked lecturing, and was not very good at it, and his career was conducted, during the great era of the encroaching university, in prickly independence from academia. What he wrote about Michelet, in To the Finland Station, can also be applied to himself: "The impression he makes on us is quite different from that of the ordinary modern scholar who has specialized in some narrowly delimited subject and gotten it up in a graduate school: we feel that Michelet has read all the books, been to look at all the monuments and pictures, interviewed personally all the authorities, and explored all the libraries and archives of Europe; and that he has it all under his hat." Occasionally one wishes that Wilson would keep his hat on.
Wilson's grand, all-seeing approach, while ideal for narrative, is a weakness in literary criticism. He was never drawn to the kind of close textual reading that was going on around him in and out of the universities, and his unwillingness to quote from the texts that he is discussing gives his criticism, at times, a rather synoptic voraciousness, as if texts exist to be paraphrased and summarized, to be crushed into clarifying prose. In his essay, "Seeing Chekhov Plain," one of his weakest, he argues, without much evidence, that Chekhov's late stories were attempting to cover the whole of Russian society, like Balzac's novels did France. He briskly marches through several of Chekhov's most exquisite tales:
Peasants is a study of the peasant world, which Chekhov is far from idealizing ... A peasant from the izba, who has bettered himself to the extent of becoming a waiter in Moscow, falls ill and returns with a wife and child to his family in the village ... In a companion piece, In the Ravine, Chekhov deals with the brutalizing influence of the kulak, prosperous peasant, class. In this somewhat better-off family, the shopkeeper father sells bad meat, one of his sons passes bad money, and an enterprising daughter-in-law, who is building a brickyard on her father-in-law's land and who fears that she may be deprived of it, eliminates the infant grandson to whom he proposes to leave it by scalding him to death with boiling water ... In The Bishop, the next-to-last story that Chekhov lived to complete, he fixes on his slide a specimen of the not quite diseased yet not very vigorous tissue of the Greek Orthodox Church: a dying peasant priest, who has risen above the level of his parents but now finds he has nobody close to him ... In these, and in the stories that immediately precede them, are presented a variety of other types of peasants, ex-peasants, and the lower middle class that were called in Russia meshchane, together with doctors, professors, petty provincial officials, and -- given the full-scale treatment in The Duel of 1891 -- the pretentious and inept intelligentsia.
It is true that Wilson was trying, in such hard descriptions, to counter the Anglo-American idea of Chekhov, then prevalent, as a misty poet of dreamy despair. Yet the lack of attention to detail, in a writer whose greatness rests supremely on his use of detail, the unwillingness to talk of fiction as if narrative were a special kind of aesthetic experience and not a reducible proposition, the conversion of the complicated long story "The Duel" into what sounds like a mere exposé of intellectuals, is rather scandalous. One reads Wilson on Chekhov without any sense that beauty is involved, or that the critic wants to account for it. One feels only that yet another writer has been mastered. The "specimen" Wilson refers to -- an unfortunate metaphor to use in connection with "The Bishop," which is so full of Chekhovian tenderness and sympathy -- is not Chekhov's bishop, but Chekhov himself, who is here being used to fulfill an ideological requirement of comprehensiveness.
Lewis Dabney's fine, highly capable new biography is the best picture we now
have of Wilson's massive and many-chaptered career. Dabney, who edited Wilson's
journal The Sixties, and who probably knows more about his subject than
anyone alive, is an intelligent guide, who quotes extensively from the letters
and the journals. He clings a little too closely to this handrail, one feels:
his narrative rarely lifts away from its subject, rarely dares generalities. There
is little attempt to place Wilson in the larger critical tradition to which he
obviously belongs, and one has almost no sense, while reading the book, that other
critics, as talented as or perhaps more talented than Wilson, were simultaneously
at work: Randall Jarrell, V.S. Pritchett, Lionel Trilling, and William Empson
surely come to mind. Dabney's book may not be surpassed, but the studious reader
will need to supplement the rich factual provender of the book with the more atmospheric
sketches provided by Wilson's own letters (selected by his last wife and Daniel
Aaron in Letters on Literature and Politics).
Dabney, for instance, is a thorough historian of Wilson's family origins, but
he misses a chance to show how the first twenty years of Wilson's life decisively
established his critical aesthetic. Three men influenced Edmund Wilson's youth
and constructed his sensibility: his father; the nineteenth-century French historian
Hippolyte Taine, whom Wilson read as a teenager, and whose History of English
Literature was the first criticism he ever read; and Christian Gauss, the
teacher of Dante and Flaubert whom he encountered as a student at Princeton,
and with whom he corresponded until Gauss's death. It might be said that, among
many things, Wilson received, respectively, from these three: an abiding interest
in, and personal involvement with, neurotic collapse; a sense that literature
should above all be accounted for historically; and a deep, neoclassical suspicion,
amounting to an incomprehension, of romanticism.
One of Wilson's finest essays is "The Author at Sixty," a portrait not really
of the writer but of his father. It is written with Wilson's lovely stern objectivity;
the impulse is not to bathe in memory, but to see his father whole, to comprehend
him as Pushkin or Marx or John Jay Chapman are also comprehended. Edmund Wilson
Sr. was a successful trial lawyer who became attorney general of New Jersey,
and who was once sounded out for a Supreme Court position by President Wilson.
But like Virginia Woolf's father, though much more drastically, he was a neurotic,
who had a breakdown in mid-life and never quite functioned properly again. He
was learned, severe, hypochondriacal, and inaccessible. "He was undoubtedly
a very self-centered man, and, when sunk in his neurotic periods, would be shut
in some inner prison where he was quite beyond communication," wrote his son.
These periods of withdrawal could last as long as a year, broken only by his
wife's insistence that he take on another case, to fill the family coffers.
As a lawyer, the elder Wilson was formidable, and his son reckoned that the
success had partly to do with rhetorical power and with imperturbable confidence,
traits that he himself would inherit: "The reason for his success was undoubtedly
that he never undertook a case which he did not think he could win, and that
his judgment about this was infallible. He would cause [the jury] to live through
the events of the crime or supposed crime, he would take them through the steps
of the transaction, whatever that was, and he would lodge in their heads a picture
that it was difficult for his opponent to expel."
His son, who had a breakdown at the same age his father was first afflicted,
would develop what amounts to a theory about the connection between artistic
production and personal suffering -- "the wound and the bow" -- and would become
expert at lodging in the minds of his readers "a picture" of his subjects. It
was a talent that both Taine and Gauss possessed, too. Wilson discovered Taine's
book, in translation, on his father's shelves. From the first, he was enthralled
by his mixture of belletristic criticism and biographical verve -- the way,
for instance, Taine began his chapter on Swift (in Van Laun's translation):
In 1685, in the great hall of Dublin University, the professors engaged
in examining for the bachelor's degree enjoyed a singular spectacle: a poor
scholar, odd, awkward, with hard blue eyes, an orphan, friendless, poorly supported
by the charity of an uncle, having failed once before to take his degree on
account of his ignorance of logic, had come up again without having condescended
to read logic ... and the professors went away, doubtless with pitying smiles,
lamenting the feeble brain of Jonathan Swift.
Taine's French positivism involved studying works of literature "scientifically,"
by setting them in their historical and biological context -- in what he called
"la race, le milieu et le moment." Though Wilson did not subscribe as
faithfully as Taine to a belief in the causative powers of history and race,
he employed such categories when it suited him (particularly when writing about
Russians). Like Taine, he believed that literature could be studied as a "specimen"
-- that word used by Wilson to describe Chekhov's dying bishop -- and he learned
from the French tradition the importance of clear, objective scrutiny.
Born just inside the nineteenth century, in 1895, Wilson was a man
both of that epoch and of the eighteenth century, and in some ways he remained
fiercely loyal to his background. Just as his father, in later years, had taken
to spending time alone in the old family house, in Talcotville, New York, so
his son, in his later years, would spend bookish weeks alone in Talcotville,
despite the hostility and the absence of his wife. He loved Swift, as Taine
did, and like Taine he had a tendency, reinforced by his education at Princeton,
to condescend to Wordsworth and Shelley, using the more classical Goethe and
Dante as sticks with which to chastise the Romantics' spilt religion. Just as
George Saintsbury, the breezy Victorian scholar of English literature whom Wilson
read as a young man, disdained George Eliot, so Wilson would confess to never
having read Middlemarch.
He encountered Christian Gauss in his final year at Princeton, and wrote a
fine memoir of him after his death. Gauss was a greatly learned professor of
French and Italian, born in Michigan to German parents. "He seemed to be able
to summon almost anything he wanted in prose or verse, as if he were taking
down the book from the shelf," wrote his distinguished pupil. He transmitted
to Wilson a lifelong love of Dante, and a neoclassical aesthetic. "Shakespeare
was not one of the authors whom Christian had lived in or on; and he always
made us feel that that sort of thing [Shakespeare's messiness] would never come
up to literature that was polished and carefully planned and that knew how to
make its points and the meaning of the points it was making." Likewise, Wilson
never gives the impression of one who lives in, or on, Shakespeare. Virgil,
Dante, and Flaubert were his great navigators. "This non-English, this classical
and Latin ideal, became indissolubly associated in our minds with the summits
of literature," he writes in his memoir.
Faithfully, Wilson would use this "non-English, this classical and Latin ideal"
as a standard by which to judge much literature. It is how he thought Flaubert
should be read, thus squeezing the romanticism out of that writer, and he rather
strangely praised Henry James for "his classical equanimity in dealing with
diverse forces ... his combination, equally classical, of hard realism with
formal harmony." He disliked the romantic aestheticism in Arnold and Eliot's
criticism, and he liked in Michelet that "he gave the world, not as his romantic
contemporaries did, personal exaltations and despairs swollen to heroic volume,
but the agonizing drama of the emergence of the modern world out of feudalism."
He would read Marx as perhaps the ideal nineteenth-century romantic, a child
of the Enlightenment who united rationalism and a properly submerged personal
struggle. Most happily, Wilson would rightly find in Pushkin, whose greatness
he pressed on a largely ignorant Anglo-Saxon world, a Mozartean blend of the
classical and romantic.
If we were to use Taine's categories of milieu and moment, we would
have to admit that when Wilson left Princeton in 1916, European and American
modernism had found its ideal critic. As modernist writing would draw some of
its chastened lyricism from the trauma of the Great War, so Wilson, who served
in the hospitals in France, dressing the wounds of men whose genitals had been
burned by mustard gas, would be deeply affected by his wartime experience. At
Princeton, the young man had added French to his Greek and Latin, and this would
enable him to trace a line from the aestheticism of Mallarmé and Villiers de
l'Isle-Adam to Proust, Eliot, and Joyce. Above all, modernism's own classicism,
its formal rigor and allusive snobberies, its Homeric and Virgilian aspirations,
would fall right into the lap of a young critic with deep historical eyesight
and his own distrust of "personality."
So began the two great decades of Wilson's career, first at Vanity Fair,
and then, from 1925 and through the 1930s, at The New
Republic. Dabney is an excellent guide to these packed years, showing
how Wilson moved between relentless amounts of work and equally relentless eroticism.
(He did not lose his virginity until he was twenty-five, to Edna St. Vincent
Millay; but he made up for lost time in the next decade.) Nowadays, as we run
around town yelling about reviewer's "snark," it is invigorating to be reminded
of how steely and objective Wilson was as a critic, and how the writers he pressed
to give the best of themselves came to rely on the critic's clear-running judgment.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, a Princeton classmate, received harsh criticism for This
Side of Paradise, but wrote to Wilson that "I am guilty of its every stricture
and I take an extraordinary delight in its considered approbation." Wilson,
Dabney tells us, wrote the first review in America of Hemingway's work, in 1924,
and would write with great insight over the next twenty years about this novelist.
The two became friendly, but this would not stop Wilson from severely criticizing
Hemingway's masculinist fantasies. Yet Hemingway, like Faulkner after a similar
bruising, eventually wrote to Wilson in a spirit of solidarity. None of them
went to quite the lengths of Anaïs Nin, who slept with Wilson in order to win
his critical approval of her work. Fitzgerald probably spoke for many when he
called Wilson the literary conscience of the age.
Most impressive, perhaps, were Wilson's early reviews of The Waste Land
and Ulysses. He would go on to defend Joyce in particular (Eliot's conservative
politics irritated him), and to write wonderfully about Finnegans Wake,
seeing in that book a new Joycean lyricism. Wilson was always independent, but
in modernism he had found his creed, or it had found him. He was blindfolded,
like Justice herself, so that he could see beyond the Manhattan horizon. His
criticism, at once partisan and Olympian, manages the extraordinary feat of
being disinterestedly interested.
The other creed that found Wilson was Marxism. Dabney does not underplay
Wilson's infatuation with radical politics, but he neglects the way it permeated,
and sometimes badly distorted, many of his literary judgments. What, after all,
is Shaw's Heartbreak House doing in that final paragraph about Proust
from Axel's Castle? ("Proust is perhaps the last great historian of the
loves, the society, the intelligence, the diplomacy, the literature and the
art of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture....") And when he concludes,
"... dominates the scene and plays host in the mansion where he is not long
to be master," did this final sentence about Proust not encode a kind of revolutionary
Wilson's radical politics had a long literary afterlife, too. Many years after he had drifted away from any belief in Marxism's survival in Soviet Russia, long after he had become disgusted by the show trials and exterminations and censorship, his notion of literature was apt to be skewed by his old loyalties. His long essay on Chekhov, written in 1952, is an example in which Chekhov is turned out as a writer who usefully shows us scenes of peasant life and the idiocies of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia. His essay on Flaubert, published in 1938, is bizarrely determined to see the novelist as a kind of unconscious Marxist: "In his novels, it is never the nobility -- indistinguishable for mediocrity from the bourgeois -- but the peasants and working people whom he habitually uses as touchstones to show up the pretensions of the bourgeois." That anachronistic phrase, "working people," surely alerts us to the degree of distortion here. Wilson, who as Dabney admits, believed in literature as a force for betterment, can at times sound like the much more orthodox Marxist, Georg Lukacs, who was writing at the same time about the bourgeois novel.
In Wilson's forced reading, Madame Bovary becomes an attack on capitalist nostalgia: "What cuts Flaubert off from the other romantics and makes him primarily a social critic is his grim realization of the futility of [Emma's] dreaming about the splendors of the Orient and the brave old days of the past as an antidote to bourgeois society ... She will not face her situation as it is, and the result is that she is eventually undone by the realities she has been trying to ignore." That last rather moralistic sentence reminds us of the brutally summarizing Wilson, the Wilson who will happily gut a living novelistic organism with the blunt blade of précis. In this case, his classical resistance to Flaubert's romanticism combines with his worthy political belief that Flaubert ought to be on the side of the good, to blind him to the quality of ironic nullification, the conservative misanthropy that is so disturbing in Flaubert.
Wilson is determined to see something "positive" and "objective" in Flaubert, as he rightly found many positive elements in Dickens. These socialist loyalties would obstruct, at times, his friendship with Nabokov. When the Russian complained, in 1946, that André Malraux, Wilson's newest literary "find," was not a great novelist, Wilson confidently replied that "Silone and Malraux now emerge, I think, as the masters of the political-social-moral semi-Marxist school of fiction that is the great development in its field since the analytical psychological novel." Wilson was bringing the cultural news. But one can only imagine what Nabokov thought of the headlines: "the political-social-moral semi-Marxist school of fiction," indeed.
The fruit of Wilson's interest in communism was his great history of radical thought, To the Finland Station, which he began in 1934 and finished in 1940. It began life as a series of articles for The New Republic on Vico, Michelet, Taine, Fourier, Marx, Engels, and Trotsky. The labor involved was prodigious; Louise Bogan wrote to a friend about counting eighty-six volumes of Michelet's writings lined up on a shelf in Wilson's study. Wilson visited Russia in 1935, and in the next two years taught himself both Russian and German. There is something very moving about Wilson's independence, his erotic curiosity for knowledge -- though the conquistador of knowledge, bedding one fact after another, becomes tiresome after a while. Wilson moved out of New York, to Stamford, where most of the book was written, and as late as 1939 he is writing to Trilling to ask him to find, in a New York library, Marx's pamphlet on Palmerston.
To the Finland Station is still an enthralling book. Wilson conveys, with something approaching joy, the experience of reading Michelet, or Das Kapital, or Trotsky's history of the revolution. The book is full of vivid portraits, which are etched like woodcuts: Marx and his family, evicted from their Soho lodgings; Engels, and his almost French liveliness and buoyant rationalism; Trotsky, with his amazing confidence, sitting in prison and posing for a photograph, "not abashed, not indignant, hardly even defiant, but like the head of a great state who has still at a time of crisis to give the photographer a moment." Wilson is aflame with the idea, now perhaps too obviously naïve, that Marxism is the great second flowering of the Enlightenment, and that Marxism-Leninism still holds the possibility of founding, in Russia, the first "truly human" society.
Of course, the book is also spiked with premonition, for Wilson could now see, despite his own golden reports during his visit, that Stalin's Russia was far from being a truly human society. Little jabs of warning protrude like fingerposts every so often: "So the Communists of the Third International, leaving history to the dialectical demiurge, have acquiesced in the despotism of Stalin while he was uprooting Russian Marxism itself." Or: "There are many respects in which Marx and Engels may be contrasted with the crude pedants and fanatics who have pretended to speak for the movement which Marx and Engels started." But Wilson believed that it was not Marxism so much as something rotten in the Russian system, even the Russian psyche, that was to blame. "The problem is not Marxism but the incompatibility of certain national psychologies to Marxism," he wrote to John Dos Passos, who, as Dabney points out, was the most clear-eyed of all American observers of the Russian disaster. As Paul Berman has shown, Wilson had come under the tutelage of the historian Max Eastman, for whom the culprit was Marx's mysticism, and for whom Lenin was a hero. This explains the willful romanticizing of Lenin at the end of Wilson's book, who is seen as the gentlest and most selfless of men, a lover of Beethoven and War and Peace who once, Wilson moistly reports, refused to shoot a fox because he thought it "beautiful." A pity then, wrote Nabokov tartly, that Russia was homely.
Wilson could see that it was psychologically credulous of Marx to believe that when the proletariat took over it would simply be on its best behavior. What was the evidence for this? asked Wilson. Why would the worker not want what the capitalist plutocrat had had? Marx, reflects Wilson, "did not know the United States," and thus begins four glorious pages, in which Wilson's difficult, crooked, ornery love of America, which would become more and more of a passion in his later years, is flowingly confessed.
What Karl Marx had no clue for understanding was that the absence in the United States of the feudal class background of Europe would have the effect not only of facilitating the expansion of capitalism but also of making possible a genuine social democratization; that a community would grow up and endure in which the people engaged in different occupations would probably come nearer to speaking the same language and even to sharing the same criteria than anywhere else in the industrialized world. Here in the United States, our social groupings are mainly based on money, and the money is always changing hands so rapidly that the class lines cannot get cut very deep ... we have the class quarrel out as we go along ... We are more lawless [than Europe], but we are more homogenous; and our homogeneity consists of common tendencies which Marx would have regarded as bourgeois, but which are actually only partly explicable as the results of capitalist competition. The common man, set free from feudal society, seems to do everywhere much the same sort of thing -- which is not what Marx had expected him to do because it was not what Marx liked to do himself.
Wilson continues in this powerful vein, finally landing on the devastating sentence: "In other words, Marx was incapable of imagining democracy at all."
Yet Wilson cannot get round the problem that Marxism seems to have failed in Russia, and he seems unsure where to place the blame -- sometimes at Marx's door, more often at the feet of those "pedants and fanatics" who have distorted Marx's humanism. In this regard there are two fascinating omissions in To the Finland Station which, as far as I know, have not been discussed: Rousseau and Dostoevsky. It is strange to write a history of radical political thought that only briefly mentions the thinker most influential on the prime movers of the French revolution, whose own work alleges that society began to go downhill when a single man first declared that his patch of land was private property, whose notion of the "general will" could be described by a later historian as "totalitarian democracy."
But Rousseau's speculative theology of the fall of man only forces the very question that Wilson cannot face in Marx. If man was once good, in his state of nature, and is now bad, in his state of society, how exactly did he begin to corrupt? Did he become bad because human nature is corrupt, or because society corrupted his goodness? If the latter, what is the hope for a utopian restoration of man? How do we get back -- or back and forward at once -- to the ideal state of man? Likewise, did the revolution of 1917 go bad because corrupt human nature cannot be trusted with revolutionary despotism, or because revolution is at its heart a corrupt idea? And if the answer to either question is yes, the question fudged by Rousseau returns: how do we reach utopia, how do we restore what has been lost?
Dostoevsky, only once, and briefly, mentioned in Wilson's book, is in some ways the more flagrant omission, for in The Possessed, fictionalizing the rabid cruelty of the revolutionaries Nechaev and Bakunin, he produced a prophetic, highly conservative account of what Leninism would become. It is hard to read the novel without feeling that, in Peter Verkhovensky, arrogant, contemptuous, bullying, murderous, one has really met Lenin. Wilson was not given to theoretical questioning like this, and had very little time for the kind of theological answers that such questions tend to prompt. So Rousseau and Dostoevsky, in their different ways religious, hem Wilson from two sides, both of them finally pessimistic about worldly utopia (though Rousseau did not think he was), and both waving before his eyes the tattered flags of radical defeat.
Re-reading Edmund Wilson, one's admiration for him both expands and contracts.
His literary portraiture is remarkable, and lastingly fine. Meyer Schapiro once
remarked that Wilson's subjects are rendered like "the great fictional characters
of literature," and it is true that Wilson extends to Marx, to Chapman, to Dickens,
to Holmes, to Ulysses Grant, to his father, a kind of negative capability that
he never truly summoned in his own fiction: he is willing to give these men
the benefit of the doubt, to leave them in a dapple of ambiguity rather than
drag them out into any prematurely decisive light of judgment.
He follows the eccentricities and brilliances of a man such as John Jay Chapman with fascinated tact. Chapman, like Wilson's father, had roared out of his upper-class confinement into the political and legal world, only to withdraw into inexplicable obscurity. As a young man, he lost his arm by thrusting it into a fire -- he was morbidly in love -- and then entered New York politics. Highly literate and refined, he wrote a biographical study of Emerson and countless brilliant essays on literature and philosophy. Wilson does not really know why Chapman withdrew from political and social life. He simply describes it:
Given the fineness of Chapman's equipment, the overpowering nature of his emotions, and the relentless clarity of his insight -- and given the inescapable conviction of his superiority ... there was nothing for him to do but break. And the permanent psychological damage which he had inflicted upon himself by beating his head against the gilt of the Gilded Age was as much one of the scars of the heroism of his passionate and expiatory nature as the hand he had burnt off in his youth.
This is very good; it does what Wilson's father achieved as a lawyer -- it fixes in our mind a picture, as in the close of the essay, in which Wilson remembers seeing Chapman, now a middle-aged man, in New York in the 1920s:
One used to see him, during those years, in New York, in company a figure of a distinction almost exotic for the United States, with his fine manners, his sensitive intelligence, his clothes with their attractive suggestion of the elegance of another era, his almost Jove-like beard and brow, his deep and genial laugh; or for a moment under a quite different aspect, when one had happened to meet him in the street: walking alone, head drooping and brooding, with his muffler around his neck, in his face dreadful darkness and sadness and fear, as if he were staring into some lidless abyss.
What is most surprising, perhaps, in light of Wilson's reputation, is that he is sometimes, in the major essays, a disappointing literary critic. The negative capability that he extends to his people -- to their ambiguities, their abysses, their neurotic hollows -- he often refuses to extend to texts themselves. Indulgent toward biographical ambiguity, he is actually hostile to it when it emerges in literature. To my knowledge, his only published words on William Empson are found in a letter to Louise Bogan, in 1938: "He has one of those untrustworthy minds which in their more uncontrollable forms prove that Bacon wrote Shakespeare." It is telling that Wilson had no time for the great theorist of ambiguity and contradiction, whose "seventh category" of ambiguity in Seven Types of Ambiguity occurs when the two meanings of a word "are the two opposite meanings defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer's mind." Empson concedes that many will presume that contradiction always forms "a larger unity if the final effect is to be satisfying. But the onus of reconciliation can be laid very highly on the receiving end" -- that is, readers may want to push reconciliation onto a text, but this may be just our fantasy of wholeness, not the text's, which may want to persist in being contradictory.
It was just this "onus of reconciliation," this need to tidy up ambiguities, that seemed to make Wilson so restless as a critic, and to push him out of the twentieth century and back into the nineteenth or eighteenth. Recall the words with which Wilson memorialized his mentor at Princeton. Christian Gauss, he wrote, always made them feel that Shakespeare would never quite equal a classical literature "that was polished and carefully planned and that knew how to make its points and the meaning of the points it was making." This sounds very much like Wilson's own criticism; but it is a weak foundation on which to judge modern literature, with its ironies and its veils. It is the desire to force literature to "make its points and the meaning of the points it is making" that leads Wilson into the coercions of paraphrase again and again.
That coercion is there in the Chekhov essay, and also in his essay on Gogol. It makes the essay on Flaubert dogmatic. It makes a scandal of his essay "The Ambiguity of Henry James," collected in The Triple Thinkers. Wilson peculiarly uses The Turn of the Screw as the key to unlock what clearly irritates him in James -- which is James's apparent refusal decisively to judge his characters, to come down on one side or another. The Aspern Papers is praised because "there is no uncertainty whatever as to what we are to think of the narrator"; but in The Sacred Fount, as in The Turn of the Screw, "the fundamental question presents itself and never seems to get properly answered: What is the reader to think of the protagonist?" James, Wilson decides, was not "clear" in his own mind. "Hitherto, as I have said, it has usually been plain what James wanted us to think of his characters; but now there appears in his work a relatively morbid element which is not always handled objectively and which seems to have invaded the storyteller himself. It is as if at this point he had taken to dramatizing the frustrations of his own life without being willing to confess it, without fully admitting it even to himself."
Flaubert is favorably contrasted with James. In Sentimental Education, for instance, "Flaubert is quite emphatic in his final judgment of Frédéric. He considers Frédéric a worm." But this pugilistic confidence is surely misplaced. It is by no means certain what Flaubert thinks of Frédéric, precisely because of the ironic ambiguity of Flaubert's writing, and indeed Henry James himself worried that Flaubert was not entirely in control of these ambiguities. But Wilson tends to revert to biography, and to reductive biography, when he gets into such critical abysses, and sure enough he decides that James's ambiguities really flow from his repressed homosexuality. In a barbarous postscript for a second edition, dated 1948, Wilson digs himself further in by bizarrely accusing James of being fond of describing the sexual violation of children. He reports that he has shown The Turn of the Screw to an Austrian novelist who remarked: "the man who wrote that was a Kinderschander [child molester]." Wilson seems to concur: "There was always in Henry James an innocent little girl whom he cherished and loved and protected and yet whom he later tried to violate, whom he even tried to kill ... in his impatience with himself, he would like to destroy or rape her."
His much-praised essay on Kipling seems to me similarly reductive, drawing back weaknesses in the work to Kipling's childhood trauma of being sent away at the age of six to stay with cruel relatives in England. Wilson's political hostility to Kipling's work is far more virulent than Orwell's; unlike Orwell, who in his sensible essay on Kipling eschews this kind of biography-mongering, he decides that Kipling's politics can best be explained with reference to an originating wound. (The essay appeared in The Wound and the Bow.) Kipling, it seems, learned at an early age to cower before authority and to bully the weak; there was something wrong with "the basic courage and humanity of his character." He was even, so Wilson reports, bossed around by his wife! Here, as in the James essay, Wilson sounds much more Victorian, much more moralistic, than he probably wished to sound. He attacks the weakest stories, and then, too late, praises the great late tales, such as "Mary Postgate" and "The Gardener." But these are briskly celebrated, unlike the poorer stories, which are lovingly excoriated, and there is no really discriminating account of what makes Kipling so exciting to read. The reader has to go to Jarrell's and Trilling's brilliant essays on Kipling for any sense of aesthetic pleasure.
So Wilson's three great childhood inheritances -- his interest in neurotic collapse, his neoclassical aesthetic, and his belief in a positivist historicizing of literature -- frequently lead him away from an aesthetic account of a work toward biographical speculation and cultural instruction. Wilson is a superb elucidator of the pleasures to be had on first looking into Proust or Das Kapital, but it is hard to find any sustained analysis of deep literary beauty in his work. What was ideal "equipment," to use his word from the Chapman essay, for writing about modernism, about the shock of recognition indeed, was comparatively blunt on other surfaces, and it is perhaps no surprise that Wilson began to decline as a critic after World War II. The essays in A Window on Russia (1972), mostly written in the 1950s and 60s, are a great disappointment. Not for the first time, reading about Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gogol, one has the uneasy sensation that the more one knows about the subject the less helpful Wilson becomes. Often it is a matter of tone as much as of comprehension. "In all Tolstoy's talk about love and God," Wilson writes in "Notes on Tolstoy," "it is a little hard to know what he means by either. He does not seem very much to love others; and what is his communion with God?" This is right, as far as it goes, but phrasing it like this, as if merely asking the irritable question is to have irritably answered it, is not to go very far.
At other moments, the most basic comprehension seems to desert him. In the same book he attacks Nabokov's fiction for its addiction to schadenfreude: "Everybody is always humiliated." In Pnin, writes Wilson, "he goes so far as to bring in himself to humiliate in prospect in his own person his humble little Russian professor, who dreads Nabokov's brilliance and insolence." Moving at too rapid a speed, Wilson misses the great comic sympathy extended to Pnin by Nabokov, and fails to see that Nabokov beautifully engineers the novel so that Pnin finally escapes the clutches of the Nabokovian narrator, a narrator who is deliberately made to seem untrustworthy, snobbish, cruel, and not as dear a friend of Professor Pnin as he tiresomely claims to be. The Wilson who could do this to Pnin is the same Wilson who found the narrative strategies of late James and Conrad frustrating and needlessly obscure: "the unnecessary circumlocutions and the gratuitous meaningless verbiage."
By this time, of course, the struggle with Nabokov had become personal. In the 1940s and '50s, Wilson had shown great generosity to the Russian émigré, newly arrived in America. He introduced his new friend to other writers and editors, and properly chivvied him when Nabokov would be about to dismiss -- out of almost perfect ignorance, it should be said -- Jane Austen or Henry James. It is thanks to Wilson that Nabokov chose to teach Mansfield Park and Bleak House to his students at Wellesley and Cornell.
What now seems a frail bridge joined the two men until Wilson, in 1954, told Nabokov that he did not think much of Lolita; it crumbled slowly for almost a decade, and then spectacularly collapsed when Wilson, with his usual confidence, reviewed Nabokov's translation of Eugene Onegin in The New York Review of Books in 1963. Wilson was right about the awkwardness of Nabokov's literal English version -- though it has many superb and canny triumphs -- but he unwisely presumed to set Nabokov straight about his "ineptitudes" in Russian. Nabokov replied by pointing out that Wilson's own piece made several errors in Russian. It was a fight that apparently only Wilson, who read Russian fluently but could barely speak it, thought he could win.
The episode, a sad one for those who, like Mary McCarthy, had witnessed the "joy" that Wilson radiated in "Volodya's" company, is usually read in a spirit of tart Shakespearean symmetry: the two palatial egos deserved this plague on both their houses. But the conflict was deeper-rooted than mere ego. Wilson and Nabokov had never agreed about Russia, about socialism, and had never agreed on how to read fiction. From the very beginning, Wilson had felt that Nabokov's book on Gogol was too aestheticising, too decadent. They would disagree vehemently about the quality of Dr. Zhivago, which Wilson championed and Nabokov thought second-rate. Dabney quotes Isaiah Berlin -- something he tends to do whenever he wants to lean on greater authority -- to the effect that Wilson "was a moral being" while Nabokov "was purely aesthetic," as if this were the last word. But to throw away a friendship for the sake of a few thousand bullyingly corrective words in The New York Review was not a very "moral" act, and Nabokov was by no means "purely aesthetic," as his fiction, which so often reflects morally on the dangers of freewheeling aestheticism, beautifully demonstrates.
Curiously, though, if Wilson became a poorer critic as he aged, bullishly brushing aside complexities and ambiguities, restlessly exploring one promising cultural site after another -- Israel, Canada, Haiti, the Iroquois reservations -- he became, if anything, a better writer. As he swerved away from journalism, from the weekly or monthly treadle of reviewing, and into memoir and the writing of his journals, so his prose took on a new lyricism. It was in the 1950s that he wrote the lovely memoirs of his father, and of D.S. Mirsky, the Russian critic and aristocrat whom Wilson had visited in Moscow, and who was arrested in the purges of 1937, dying sometime after that in northeast Siberia. The old stone family house in Talcotville, so full of sublime childhood memories, and where the now aged critic spent more and more of his waning years, always stimulated him.
Dabney quotes, near the end of his biography, a passage from the journal The Sixties, in which Wilson describes a watery hollow just off Route 12. It was June 1970, exactly two years before Wilson's death. The portly and wheezing man of letters, always on the qui vive for erotic adventure, was newly infatuated with a young female neighbor, and had gone with her to the hollow. But he is content to watch. He sees her take off her dress -- "I saw her slim brownish figure from behind, and she looked very pretty." Then he paints, in words, as his admired Turgenev so often did, the landscape. The graceful, lucid, lyrical writing has all the virtues of Wilson's determination to see and to describe, his fortifying curiosity and his sure sense that language can objectively capture galaxies of disparate data -- natural, literary, political, even sexual.
You find yourself in a high-walled chasm of stratified limestone rock which is feathered with green fern and lined in the cracks with green moss. Birds flit back and forth between the rapids. The cliffs where they overhang are dripping with springs, and across the river, the farther one goes, the more densely they are plumed, grown with trees: ash, feathery hemlock, elm -- bushes of sumac. A dead tree droops down over the stream. The cascade is white, rather crooked and dragged ... A stretch of primitive landscape invisible and little frequented just off the traffic of Route 12. Above the chasm, against the blue, the coverlet of small dappling clouds crawls slowly below the sky.
Wilson preferred to be called a journalist rather than a critic, and there is an attractive wholesomeness to this preference. In the end, Wilson's name will last because of everything he wrote -- the paradox being, then, that his reputation will last because of many pieces of work that have not lasted. Already out of print and likely to remain so are much of the travel writing, the hundreds of book reviews, the political journalism, the books on Canadian literature, on the Iroquois, on Haiti, on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so on. The journal-chronicles of the decades, especially The Sixties, deserve to live. But a literary world that does not keep the great nineteenth-century diarist H.F. Amiél in print is unlikely to feel much compassion about the much looser, much scrappier chronicler of Talcotville.
Wilson's desire to be called a journalist, which would have been redundant before the twentieth century, becomes more problematic in an era marked by the rise of academic criticism. For 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. Wilson's criticism, by contrast, exposes the limits of literary journalism in an age when journalism was no longer the only, nor indeed the best, way of attending to literature. Wilson's robust will to mastery, his comprehensive and solitary scholarship sometimes seems to substitute for an equivalent critical rigor in matters of aesthetics, philosophy, and religion. There was a short revolution that almost exactly coincided with Wilson's life, in which literary criticism briefly became both an art and a philosophical discipline -- that moment between, say, Eliot's essays of the 1920s and the decline of the New Criticism in the 1950s. Wilson's work stands somewhat to the side of that efflorescence, proudly independent as he always wished it to be, but perhaps now more isolated than he ever thought it would become.
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