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.
Wilson is therefore never cowed or reverent. ‘America’ is something he – like Lippmann and Kennan – can speak for (with just a touch of preachiness), not just by virtue of class and education, but by dint of having understood its past, read its classics, understood its nature, good as well as bad. There is, for example, no finer indictment of imperialist American foreign policy, including the North’s attitude to the South during the Civil War, than the introduction to Patriotic Gore (1962); and for sheer anger at bureaucratic idiocy and the propensity to tyranny in America, Wilson’s attack on the Federal income tax is hard to match. Yet he was far from being a populist or anarchist. Despite his cosmopolitan taste, he knew himself to belong to a thoroughly American aristocracy of talent and position, and it is this, plus his stubborn sense of arriving at his own judgments that gives his work both its confident knowingness and its unique freshness. Wilson, it should be said, is always making judgments: scepticism and self-irony are not part of his repertoire.
He did write poems, plays and novels, but they have always seemed to me neither as interesting nor as satisfying as his essays and historical studies. His own imagination simply does not soar, nor his insight pierce deeply enough into the basically humdrum, usually gossipy material his creative work was constructed from. But his historical work sticks with you for a lifetime. This is especially true of his extended analyses of the historical imagination from Vico to Lenin in To the Finland Station, of his patient account of Modernism in Axel’s Castle, and of Patriotic Gore, his almost too laborious re-creation, full of plot summaries and long quotations, of American writing on the Civil War. Wilson’s hallmark in these books is his colossal learning, and his ability to make it seem as if every book, pamphlet and letter he has read was both a completely new discovery and an episode in an unfolding narrative directed by him. On the other hand, Wilson has that other tendency of the autodidact, the wish to show off. This is most apparent in his daunting habit of learning difficult languages like Hungarian, Russian and Hebrew in order to write about their literatures, usually with a cheekiness designed to infuriate experts and native speakers in equal measure. But whatever his subject – Ben Jonson’s plays and poems, Swinburne’s novels, the Marquis de Sade’s psychology, the mystery of Oscar Wilde, the American Indians, Haitian fiction, Russian poetry, Malraux’s theory of art – there isn’t an unclear or inelegant sentence, an unnecessary theory or an overt ideological sentiment. He remained a patient explainer, reliable guide, and thoroughly down-to-earth critic, a large part of whose work was done for magazines like the New Yorker and the New Republic. His work is both clear and eccentric, youthful and mature in tone.
Towards the end of his life he was a guest professor at both Princeton and Harvard, never for more than a year at a stretch. The first time I saw him was in 1962 in Cambridge, where he was doing a Harvard seminar on what was to become Patriotic Gore. As I think back on it now, it never even occurred to me to take the sparsely-attended course, partly because I wasn’t at the time that interested in Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sidney Lanier, and partly because I couldn’t imagine sitting in a class with the PhD-less Wilson, whom I had mistakenly fixed in my mind’s eye as a journalist, not a scholar or teacher of the kind we were required to seek after. There was a second-hand bookstore on one of the small streets off Massachusetts Avenue that I used to frequent, as much because I was intrigued by the little old lady with a green parakeet on her shoulder who owned the place (she was reputed to be Whitehead’s daughter or niece), as because I was always in the market for a set of Conrad, Parkman or Scott. One day I went into the tiny shop just as she was saying to a small, pudgy and extremely testy-looking man: ‘What do you think of Steinbeck’s winning the Nobel prize this year, Mr Wilson?’ Never having laid eyes on him before, I nevertheless knew intuitively that it was Edmund Wilson she was addressing. Rather tentatively he replied: ‘Oh, I don’t know. Steinbeck’s okay as a writer, but I would have thought of others before him. André Malraux for one.’ I wanted to agree but said nothing. I saw him three or four years later at the New York Princeton Club; two tables away from me, he seemed to be wearing the same dark suit, white button-down shirt and nondescript tie that I remembered from Miss Whitehead’s shop. This time he was with a woman I took to be his wife, reading some galley proofs at her, she silently eating and drinking as he droned on and on.
Relentless and opinionated, Wilson by that time had fallen foul of the Internal Revenue Service, which, because he hadn’t filed returns for several years, had impounded his earnings and possessions, actual as well as potential. He had already begun to regale his readers with all sorts of personal writings, the most annoying of which to me was the garrulous A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty, published in 1965 under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee. I was very far from being politically involved at the time I read this book, but for some years I had been impressed with the fact that many people I admired then – Martin Luther King, Reinhold Neibuhr, the Kennedys, Isaiah Berlin and Wilson himself – were also dedicated Zionists, totally opposed to anything like a Palestinian side. Wilson himself was a philo-semite, and particularly enthusiastic about scholar-warriors like Yigal Yadin, the Israeli general and archaeologist. For me this could not have been a neutral fact. What made matters considerably worse was that all the above – Wilson especially – were quite happy to make known their hatred and contempt for the Arabs as a people and a culture. I still do not have any real explanation for this strange phenomenon, even though I tried to document and analyse it in Orientalism and The Question of Palestine. Why being both a Westerner and a philo-semite should also entail a cultivated dislike of and hostility towards the Arabs is a mystery that is far from being resolved.
It is this unattractive, prejudiced and vindictive aspect of Wilson – not the admirable humanism and critical acumen of his formal essays – that is on display in The Sixties, the last in a series of his notebooks, most of them, though not this one, edited by Leon Edel. As with all of Wilson’s prose I was easily borne along by the intermittent and casual elegance of his expression. But that there is so little of real substance in the book, and so much nasty gossip, idle observation, inconsequential nattering (some of it masked as profound, melancholic end-of-life observation) is highly disappointing. One wonders whether these pages were written with publication in mind, or were merely the occasion for Wilson to unbutton himself in private. In neither case do they do him much service. The notebooks cover his year at Harvard in 1961-2, as well as numerous trips to New York, Hungary, Paris and the Middle East. Interspersed are several sojourns on Cape Cod, where he had a summer house, and in Talcottville, the little town in upstate New York where he also had a house. Aside from numerous episodes describing the life he led with his wife Elena and various other members of his family (and ex-family like Mary McCarthy), The Sixties is brimming over with accounts of visits with and from lots of important and interesting people: Penelope Gilliatt, Lillian Hellman, Isaiah Berlin, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Harry Levin, W.H. Auden, Malraux, James Baldwin, Stravinsky, Robert Lowell etc.
None of these people, however, furnishes Wilson with anything like a satisfying number of thoughtful passages in the journals. This is partly a result of misleading editing by Lewis Dabney, who divides the book into 19 sections and dozens of sub-sections, most them enticingly labelled ‘Auden, Mike Nichols and Flying in New York’ or ‘European Intellectuals’. So you look up what promises to be an interesting sub-section to read Wilson’s reflections on Isaiah Berlin at Cambridge (Mass) and what you get instead are telegraphic put-downs of the man, his Oxbridge associates like C.P. Snow, David Cecil and Stuart Hampshire, and that whole way of life. Twenty or so lines of that, and then you move on to something else; a page later, Berlin is back again, though this time Wilson comments on the tremendous range of his conversation, and poor Harry Levin is trashed again.
It isn’t the episodic, meandering, mean-spirited quality of much of this that is so vexing: it’s the point of publishing it at all. We know we are supposed to think that Wilson’s prodigious mind was a wonderful instrument, and that his learning was quite amazing. But who does it help or amuse to know now that he thought Susan Sontag was boring and pretentious, or that Levin was pompous and pedantic, or that Hellman’s plays suffer from the fact that she doesn’t often enough portray a Jewish family? The notebooks are full of this kind of ill-considered back-biting, with lots of further uninteresting and inconsequent details about Wilson’s dining and drinking habits, his lust for women, his sense of futility and gradual decline and impotence, most of it repeated dozens of times with scarcely any variation or enlarged awareness that might have mitigated the nagging monotony and poverty of soul. The more I think about it the less I can see to justify the publication of so many hundreds of pages – unless, that is, the executors of his estate are so greedy as to want to publish literally everything he ever wrote. The enterprise is so counter-productive as to cause you to wonder whether there mightn’t be a plot to tarnish Wilson’s reputation, to make it very hard to like his serious criticism and history as much as one should.
One could also have wished that these nasty notebooks had made more contribution to social, political or cultural history. As far as I can recall, there isn’t a new writer – someone without status and established reputation – that Wilson writes about here. Yes, of course, he can be perspicacious about Lampedusa and Tolstoy, but they belong to a known world, not a newly discovered or uncharted one. Wilson lived through the big anti-Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement, in addition to the numerous manifestations of 1968 that rocked his world: there is hardly a trace of any of them in what he writes. I wouldn’t deny that I found it interesting (if not really edifying) to read about old professors of mine, or well-known writers, or about Wilson’s dealings with publishers, the IRS and various Paris hotels, but I wish that after I’d finished I hadn’t also felt like saying ‘So what.’ Wilson’s whole career was premised on enlightening and engaging his readers. In an unforeseen way, therefore, these notebooks cause us to disengage from him – unless the hagiographic impulse is simply unstoppable. They also prove the point that no person’s life on its own, no matter how many biographical details are provided, can sustain serious and prolonged attention without producing a great deal of niggling and disenchantment.
On the other hand, I am prepared to admit that Wilson’s awful prejudices put me off him and his notebooks. I don’t require that worldly writers such as Wilson like all peoples and all cultures; in what he calls ‘a modest self-tribute’, published as the opening piece in a lively collection of essays entitled A Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-65, he speaks proudly about his catholicity of taste and vision, although he admits to having no knowledge of Latin American literature in Spanish and Portuguese. No one, not even Edmund Wilson, can know everything, although more than any other man of letters he was given credit for precisely that. So what one regrets is not so much the inevitable ignorance and gaps but the pre-emptive, often racist tones that he used to glory in them.
At one point in The Sixties he talks about spending time in Jerusalem with the head of the American School there, John Marks, and his wife Aminta. This was at the time of the June 1967 war and Wilson suggests that the Markses were not happy there and were anxious to return home. There are also numerous anti-Arab remarks that are both silly and gratuitous (later he tells us that he proclaimed to a philo-Arab friend: ‘A bas les Arabes!’). Quite coincidentally, about a month ago I received a letter from Aminta Marks – I have never met or communicated with her or her husband – along with a book of her prose and poetry called A Pietà for the Dispossessed; The Grace of Palestinians.Most of what is in the book is based on roughly the same period of time as Wilson spent with them in Jerusalem, but how different the quality of this period was for each of them can be judged from some of her introduction to the volume:
We mourn as we see how, trying to right the sacrifice of European Jews, we sacrificed the Palestinians. But perhaps jangled Palestinians can now lift us up, jangled people of this fractured world, in a gesture like the Rondadini Pietà. Perhaps their grace can show us how to be gracious. As I wrote, the story of these unbowed people seemed a universal story, the prophet-like Omar, who made cookies, vigorous Asia Halaby and her artist-sister Sophie, Kassim living serenely under the pillboxes on Mount Scopus, Mohammad ... father of newborn twins, the mother of a dead son ... a Gothic Madonna ... erect in her straight chair welcoming us to her hilltop blue-green with olive trees in the village of Taybeh, young Doris Salah ministering to dispossessed women at the YWCA, the Beduin boy with the lamb, Sassa who talks too much, motherly ... strong ... devout ... dependable Wadiah, all of the people who took their places on the pages of this book, and gentle Judy ... on ‘the other’, the indestructible dignity of all of them lifting us up.
It is interesting that the passage took shape under Wilson’s very nose, and that he, it must be assumed, was completely unaware of it. Such things happen all the time: we see the same things from different perspectives, and we often remark on the fact of one perspective being blind to another. But this case is a bit more complicated and it isn’t just that Wilson has no inkling that it is possible to have such sentiments about the very Arabs he hated so much. It is rather that you finish going through The Sixties missing anything like Aminta Marks’s compassion and caring, not just about Palestinians, but about anything or anybody. Then you are somewhat aghast at the petulant desolation of Wilson’s life, and a little less satisfied by his very considerable literary and critical achievements.
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