At Miss Whitehead’s
- The Sixties: The Last Journal, 1960-1972 by Edmund Wilson, edited by Lewis Dabney
Farrar, Straus, 968 pp, $35.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 374 26554 2
Among major 20th-century critics who wrote in English, Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) is still by far the most readable – readable anywhere and at any time. Only professionals are likely to find his style, and even his methods, entirely too informal and amateurish – absence of footnotes, personal tone etc. But I can testify to being able to read him with pleasure and for no particular reason at home, on a bus, in an office, a hospital waiting-room, a hotel. I cannot recall that he was ever an assigned author in any of the many literature classes I took, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, but he was always a significant presence, for my teachers as much as for myself. His vast output stretched over an enormous expanse of literature, and history, over a great range of cultures, East and West, North and South. His voice remained the same: engagingly chatty, effortlessly well-informed, always interested in the human side of books and histories, a side he rendered in the form of chronological narratives, none more gripping and interesting than those deft plot summaries which he combined with biographical detail and perspicacious literary judgment. His model was Sainte-Beuve who, as F.W. Dupee, another remarkable American Sainte-Beuvian, used to say, enabled Wilson not only to be a literary portraitist but also to give you the impression that he was discovering books and authors as if for the first time. This sense of excitement and, yes, egotism – Wilson communicates a proprietary ease, with no book or idea too out of the way or difficult for him to have ferreted out – still makes for great pleasure, despite the many cranky likes and dislikes.
I never met Wilson, although for years our paths crossed and re-crossed, and I saw him three or four times, he the most venerated man of letters the United States produced in the 20th century, I an aspiring student of literature at some of the same universities he frequented first as student and later as guest lecturer. During World War One he was a Princeton undergraduate (as I was almost fifty years later) with F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Peale Bishop, at a time of what seems now like relatively uncomplicated Wasp hegemony there and in the arts generally. His ties with that university remained deep, not only through his literary friends, but also through Christian Gauss, the dean of the college, an excellent teacher and renowned Dante scholar. In its extremely conventional make-up as an institution Princeton somehow managed to produce and even lodge occasional independents like Wilson and, shortly after the Second World War, R.P. Blackmur, the most eccentric and brilliant American literary critic of this century. I have never understood how Princeton actually got around to hiring Blackmur as professor of English, a position he held for twenty years, since in both style and background he was about as unacademic and un-Princeton as one could be. Like Blackmur, Wilson (the two were friends) was largely an autodidact, although unlike Blackmur he did have a good Classical education at the Hill School and then at Princeton.
Wilson never took an advanced degree and, indeed, later made organisations of professional literary scholars like the Modern Language Association the target of his scorn and contempt. Wilson’s well-off family background was in suburban New Jersey and upstate New York, although he seems to have lived most of his life in New York City. Like George Kennan and Walter Lippmann, he assumed the role of insider almost from the start of his writing career. This absence of provinciality, the sheer savoir faire of his attitudes and writing, the extraordinary fluency of his authorial persona always suggest someone who knows everything that it is essential to know, and (perhaps more important) can get access to anything that ordinary citizens might find inaccessible.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] A Pietà for the Dispossessed is published by the Grindstone Press in Princeton.
Vol. 16 No. 14 · 21 July 1994
Edward Said’s irritation at Edmund Wilson’s anti-Arab leanings (LRB, 7 July) is quite understandable but they were common among American liberals of the Fifties and Sixties. As a European at Harvard in the mid-Fifties, I was appalled at Americans’ complacent ignorance of things political outside the US. I met Wilson a couple of times at Poggioli’s house in Cambridge. Most of the time he talked about 19th-century pornographic literature. On both occasions, he downed a lot of whiskey, keeping the bottle handy, under his own chair.
It has always seemed to me that Wilson’s reputation as a critic was vastly exaggerated, in spite of the great influence he could swing in the editorial and academic world; and that large sections of his Axel’s Castle, notably the chapters on Proust, are just bunk. As to his controversy with Nabokov, it was difficult not to side with the author of Lolita. Wilson’s notebooks, important as they are as period pieces, reflect his prejudices, as well as his ignorance of everything that was not American. He wrote a lot about European literature but to the end of his life he saw Europe from the viewpoint of a 1930 American radical, never taking pains to understand what had really gone on, what was now going on, there. Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald could do better.
To an Italian, an irritating feature of Wilson’s notebooks is his constant mispelling of Italian words and his incapacity to get straight information on the people he writes about. Most of the time, his editors are just as bad as he was and Mr Dabney, who edited The Sixties, is no exception. Here are a few items from Dabney’s ‘Biographical Notes’, at the end of the volume. Elsa Morante is described as an ‘Italian author known for her short novels’. Miss Morante’s first novel, Menzogna e Sortilegio, is 800 pages long; L’isola di Arturo, 370 pages; La Storia, 1200 pages. Dominique de Roux, ‘critic and head of the French publishing house Gallimard’, never worked for Gallimard. He was the editor of the small, avant-garde publishing house L’Herne. Towards the end of his life he associated himself with Christian Bourgois, the director of the publishing house that still bears that name. Ignazio Silone’s family name was Tranquilli, not Tranquillo. In his youth, he was something more than ‘a leader of the Communist Party’: he was one of its founders. Etc.
Mr Dabney’s are minor errors, however, in comparison with those of Leon Edel, the editor of the other volumes of Wilson’s notebooks. Authors change sex in Edel’s footnotes (Paola Monelli, instead of Paolo, The Forties); family names are seldom spelled correctly (Mussolini’s mistress was not Clara Patacci but Clara Petacci, The Forties). Sometimes people play roles that are totally imaginary: Enrico Mattei did not become ‘a powerful industrialist’ (The Forties) in post-1945 Italy, but was the powerful manager of ENI, Italy’s state-owned oil concern. Etc.
Vol. 16 No. 15 · 4 August 1994
What’s all this, in Piero Sanavio’s letter (Letters, 21 July), about Edmund Wilson’s reputation being ‘vastly exaggerated’? On the contrary, Wilsons work suffers from depressing neglect, as witnessed by the fact that so little of it is in print – apart from the Journals, about which Edward Said (LRB, 7 July) was so judiciously and appropriately unconvinced. Anyone who, like Sanavio, thinks that ‘large sections of Axel’s Castle, notably the chapters on Proust, are just bunk,’ is just not a very good judge. As for ‘his ignorance of everything that was not American’: Wilson could read Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Russian, Hebrew and Hungarian, and wrote brilliantly about all of their literatures. And as for ‘the great influence he could swing in the editorial and academic worlds’, the first edition of To the Finland Station sold five hundred copies. And if Sanavio can soberly declare that Dos Passos and Fitzgerald wrote better about Europe, then perhaps it’s just as well Wilson didn’t give him any of the whiskey he kept under his chair.
It is a pity that Edward Said chose to devote so much of his review of Edmund Wilson’s The Sixties, first to an account of how he failed to meet Edmund Wilson, and then to a search for confirmation of his own prejudices. The Sixties shows Wilson pursuing his public enthusiasms for the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hungarian language. He tells us what he was reading in the last years of his life. He records his private life: his relations with his children, the emotional and physical aspects of ageing in general, and of its effect on his sexual life in particular, his growing attachment to place and his detachment from the world at large. He drank a lot, and he records the fact. There are flat passages, repetitions and dismissive judgments. But this is a journal, and as the reviewer notes, Wilson is not helped by the exceptionally heavy-handed editorial apparatus. Professor Said devotes most of his space, not to a critique of what is in the journals, but to an attack on Wilson for what is not there. Thus it is noted that he did not know South American literature in the original. This is hardly surprising, when Wilson’s dismissive attitude to Spanish literature is so well known. Above all, Wilson is attacked for not being a ‘philo-Arab’. But where is the attempt to understand why this might be so?
Vol. 16 No. 19 · 6 October 1994
Edward Said is of course free to prefer Edmund Wilson’s criticism and history to his journals, and specifically The Sixties (LRB, 7 July). There is, however, a gulf between Said’s discerning celebration of the public Wilson and his cursory dismissal of the private man. He patronises Wilson’s witty social history, his ruthless anatomy of old age and ill-health. Citing anti-Arab comments made in an Israel about to be invaded in 1967, he accuses Wilson of race prejudice, ‘poverty of soul’, and a lack of compassion and caring ‘about anything or anybody’. Many scenes refute this account of The Sixties. Wilson darkly grieves at the funeral, on a Cape Cod hillside in January, of a writer friend who never learned his trade. When Betty Huling, once an editor at the New Republic, dies of cancer, receiving only a perfunctory notice in the New York Times, he writes: ‘so abounding in good nature and affection and energy and humour, to be extinguished as a suffering withered wisp like this’. The Sixties contains much gossip, but it is scarcely shallow.
At Columbia University in 1965, Edward Said was one of those before whom I defended my dissertation on Wilson’s early years. Generously, he joined my teacher and friend F.W. Dupee in predicting my present role as Wilson’s biographer. Said’s clarity and passion about Wilson that day came back to me as I read the tribute that opens his review. But there is no clarity when he blames Wilson for not organising his ‘episodic, meandering’ narrative so as to make it easier to dip into, or regrets my editing because my chapter titles are too ‘enticing’. ‘Auden, Mike Nichols and Flying in New York’ – a chapter of which he complains – is representatively rich. Its four pages include Auden on Falstaff, Wilde and the lack of class barriers in America; Nichols on Elaine May’s creation of a character based on him – with an aside on Mary McCarthy’s identification of Wilson with her wicked Uncle Myers; and a delightful paragraph in which Wilson and two others talk, at the Algonquin, about the height they fly above the ground in dreams. One of his friends remembered how the critic illustrated this by swooping about among the tables in his ‘ratty linen suit’.
Illogically, Said belittles the ageing tourist, who died in 1972, for lacking the sympathy and piety towards the Palestinians found in a recently published book by a woman Wilson met a quarter-century ago in then Jordanian Jerusalem. Wilson, a fighter for underdog causes and small nations, might well have come to endorse the rights of these dispossessed people, as so many have. ‘The tides of society can give a new configuration to all but the strongest personalities, if they do not sweep them away,’ Wilson wrote in 1939, near the mid-point of his own career. Said’s smug account of what he calls ‘these nasty notebooks’ tells us more about his own evolution over these thirty years than about The Sixties.
Edward Said writes: Imagining himself to be, if not Wilson, then the appointed champion of Wilson’s tediously banal journals, Lewis Dabney falls all over himself to right my wrongs. Unfortunately, however, the facts elude him in his rather feeble response. The Palestinians whom Wilson hated were dispossessed and their society destroyed in 1948, not 1967 as Dabney supposes; and they certainly weren’t ‘about to invade’ Israel in 1967. Wilson therefore had at least nineteen years in which to adopt the cause of ‘underdog causes’, but he simply didn’t in this case. ‘The woman’ – i.e. Aminta Marks – who wrote about them humanely did so when Wilson was staying with her in the Sixties although what she wrote then and later has indeed been recently published in book form. Besides, the comment by Wilson that I quoted, ‘à bas les Arabes,’ is dated 1969-70, well after Israel (for which he had unbounded admiration) had invaded and annexed several Arab territories.
Dabney has further confused himself by believing that a few choice sentences here and there reveal a compassionate, interesting person, forgetting perhaps that these occur very rarely in what is after all a 900-plus page desert of trivia, mean-spirited gossip, and repetitive (how many times do we need to be told by Wilson that ageing is an unpleasant business – fifty, sixty?) and fundamentally undistinguished observation. In his defensively sentimental reverence for everything about Wilson, Dabney has plopped into the worst of the biographer’s pitfalls, servile hagiography. I would think it better for him to apply the tough literary distinctions made by Wilson in his criticism to Wilson’s own writing. It might result in better biography.