At Miss Whitehead’s

Edward Said

  • 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.

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[*] A Pietà for the Dispossessed is published by the Grindstone Press in Princeton.