Last Man of Letters

Frank Kermode

  • The Forties: From the Notebooks and Diaries of the Period by Edmund Wilson, edited with an introduction by Leon Edel
    Macmillan, 369 pp, £14.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 333 21212 6
  • The Portable Edmund Wilson edited by Lewis Dabney
    Penguin, 647 pp, £3.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 14 015098 6
  • To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson
    Macmillan, 487 pp, £5.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 333 35143 6

Lewis Dabney, editor of the Portable Edmund Wilson, makes the slightly surprising claim that Wilson’s ‘reputation continues to grow’. I had supposed that it was, at least temporarily, in abeyance, and for reasons that Wilson would have easily understood. Mr Dabney remarks that Wilson’s work ‘reminds students of literature and history of their heritage from a time when these were the joint concerns of educated men rather than separated fields in the academy’. He presumably means that it ought to; there is very little evidence that it does. Dabney says that Wilson’s biographical emphasis (‘he sees society through the individual, takes style as a mirror of personality, and has the old 19th-century interest in authors as persons’) displeased the New Critics: ‘but their taboos have long since faded, and their heirs seek alternatives to the endless interpretation of texts.’ This rather amazing assertion is perhaps only a sign that the editor of the Portable E.W. would like his author’s stock to rally. The posthumous publication of The Twenties and The Thirties – Wilson’s notebooks and diaries for those decades – may have done something to further this end. Wilson had done some of the preparation for their publication before his death in 1972. The Forties is wholly edited by Leon Edel, who says in his Preface that this decade, at any rate the first half of it, is pretty scrappy so far as journal entries go, and it has to be said that the whole collection does Wilson no good whatsoever: which, considering his genuine importance, is a pity.

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