Edmund Wilson has become an object of fantasy. A lot of desire is currently invested in him as the representative of a cherished role: the critic-as-generalist, the man of letters as cultural critic, or what in the last decade or more it has become common in the United States to call the ‘public intellectual’. Fantasies are, by definition, about the not-present, and all of these notions are deployed to express a sense of absence or loss, a form of keening for a vanished world. Now, it is said, we only have specialists, experts who address other experts, uninterested in and unintelligible to those outside the walls; but then, wide-ranging, readable critics addressed their fellow common readers on equal terms (quite when ‘then’ was turns out to be tricky to pin down). Cultural controversies fuelled by this fantasy promote the need for icons, and this is what has led so many parts to be scripted for Wilson – the modern Dr Johnson, the American Sainte-Beuve, the last of the men of letters, the man who read everything.
There is something about the surviving pictures of Wilson that uncannily colludes with this process: the stubby, solid figure, with its big head and staring eyes, as though Evelyn Waugh had been reincarnated as a Roundhead; the dark three-piece suit, an interposing formality signalling that ceremony is a proper thing to stand on; the shadowed, book-lined interiors in which he sits, robed and ready to pass judgment. It is all too easy to see him as the Sydney Greenstreet of literature, holding court in a private room across from Rick’s Bar.
In addition, these nostalgic celebrations of Wilson make him out to be one of those figures to whom, when History was thinking of coming to a turning-point, it made sure an invitation was sent. He was at the Western Front during the First World War, in Manhattan in the Jazz Age, on the picket-line during the Great Depression, in the Soviet Union just before the news of Stalin’s butchery started to become widely known. Although his relations with the Zeitgeist soured in the second half of his career, the invitations kept coming. He managed to be in place to write one of the first reports on the state of Europe at the end of the Second World War; to be on hand for the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls; to champion Native American peoples being driven off their ancestral lands in upstate New York, where he had a house; to be a slightly reluctant literary adornment to Camelot during the Kennedy era; to take a highly visible stand against the Vietnam War; and so on. As his journals and letters make clear, he knew everybody (and the very fact that he kept such discursive journals and wrote such copious letters contributes to his iconic standing). As he liked to tell it, he caught the springtime of Modernism and the autumn of Culture. Part of the fantasy he has come to embody is the yearning for a period when it seemed easier to be at the heart of things.
Even while still alive, Wilson had become a semi-mythical figure in American letters (writing about him always tends towards grandly archaic phrases such as ‘American letters’). He played up to people’s expectations, mischievously combining the parts of doyen and bad boy. He really does seem to have detested what he identified as the academic spirit, but he also knew that he had become a stick with which other people could beat whatever it was they didn’t like about universities and academic literary criticism. His late squib against the professors, The Fruits of the MLA (1968), was not just an idiosyncratic contribution to what has become the tiresome ritual of MLA-bashing in the American press; it was also a calculated deployment of his considerable cultural standing to stoke the ever smouldering fires of middlebrow prejudice.
Over the last two decades or more, certainly since the publication of Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (1987), there has been a minor boom in polemical recensions of recent American intellectual history, each of which has attempted to pinpoint when the ‘public intellectual’ was finally supplanted by the ‘academic expert’ (it has been part of the crudity of this literature to assume that these are mutually exclusive categories). The so-called ‘New York Intellectuals’ of the 1940s and 1950s – and it was these Jacoby had in mind – feature in practically every round-up of suspects: figures such as Clement Greenberg, Philip Rahv, Lionel Trilling. But outdoing them all in his credentials for the title-role is Wilson, the freelance writer who never held a regular academic position and who, it is claimed, wrote authoritatively on questions of literature, culture and politics, matters that are now parcelled out among half a dozen non-communicating university departments. These narratives are nearly all to a greater or lesser extent unhistorical, condensing into a single, dramatic turnaround complex developments that have been taking place for well over a century and which anyway do not all point in the same direction; but each retelling of this overworked story only magnifies the symbolic importance of ‘Edmund Wilson’, the locus of unmanageable amounts of longing and regret.
There is also a subtler anachronism at work in these broadbrush accounts, since Wilson did not belong to the generation before the Fall, the generation supposedly furnishing the examples of the now lost ‘critic as intellectual’, those emblematic figures such as Trilling or Irving Howe who assumed their cultural inheritance in the 1940s and 1950s. Wilson, born in 1895, came into his own in the 1920s. It underlines his remoteness to recall that he had already graduated from Princeton before America entered the First World War. His masters, as he himself acknowledged, were H.L. Mencken and George Bernard Shaw. Even the most ideologically liquored-up combatant in the culture wars of the last couple of decades might blanch at taking them as models. The sobering fact is that, by the time ‘the last intellectuals’ were in their pomp, it was already too late for anyone else plausibly to set about trying to be another Edmund Wilson.
All this means that it is hard to get a clear sight of Wilson now, something which the sheer volume and variousness of his writing anyway make difficult. Fortunately, Lewis Dabney appears to be a man of firm purpose. Dabney wrote his PhD on Wilson more than forty years ago, and has been gathering biographical material for decades. Along the way he has contributed to Wilsoniana by editing The Portable Edmund Wilson (1983), the last volume of his journals, The Sixties (1993), and a collection of Centennial Reflections (1997). But proceeding in this comprehensive and methodical way allowed the honour of completing the first full life to fall, almost inevitably, to the swift and prolific Jeffrey Meyers, whose biography appeared in 1995. Dabney’s is a more thorough and fully documented account, one which occasionally casts a sceptical eye over claims made by some of its sources, including those of Wilson himself. His biography is for the most part as readable and judicious as it is deeply informed. Perhaps because Wilson’s life was itself so frenetic in his early adult years, perhaps because it is hard for a biographer to omit laboriously garnered details, the chapters on the 1920s and 1930s struggle at times to retain their shape – though maybe life really was just one damn party after another. By contrast, Dabney is particularly good on Wilson’s later years (he died in 1972), not least because he organises his material more thematically. He is also both attentive to and astute about Wilson’s writing – while remaining, as such a lifetime’s devotion suggests, a great admirer.
Wilson came from fairly typical comfortably-off East Coast Protestant professional stock of the Progressive era, and enjoyed the advantages of private schooling and Princeton when the latter was still partly a drinking club for young Southern gentlemen. He attributed his own widened social sympathies to his service as a private in the US medical corps in France in 1917-18, though in later life the manners and attachments of his class were what struck younger observers. It had been clear from his schooldays that he wanted to write. What now seems striking is the confidence with which he set out not just to write, but to have an all-round literary career. It wasn’t, as with some aspiring writers, that he had a novel in him that just wouldn’t let him get on with living until it had transferred itself onto the page; nor was it, as with some others, that the impulse to write poetry kept overtaking him and reminding him that he was not put on earth for lesser tasks. Wilson, it’s true, did want to write both novels and poems, but from remarkably early on he seems to have had the more middle-aged aspiration to become a ‘man of letters’. After he had completed his war service, he set about realising this aspiration in the approved manner: in the summer of 1919 (when he was 24) he moved to Greenwich Village and set up his writing-table. ‘He wrote steadily and, not letting rejection slips unnerve or discourage him, made a list of magazines and systematically circulated everything he’d written.’ He ‘wrote steadily’ for the rest of his life.
That ‘list of magazines’ was as important symbolically as it was practically. The story of Wilson’s life as a writer can be organised around his relations with literary periodicals; this has the advantage of reminding us of the intimate connections between his writing and particular readerships, specified in social and cultural terms, and of the constraining imperatives of that relation, imperatives that his present-day admirers might find pretty uncongenial. In his 1943 essay, ‘Thoughts on Being Bibliographed’, on the occasion of Princeton University Library’s attempt to draw up an annotated bibliography of his writing (something that jolted Wilson into a moody piece of stock-taking), he deliberately distanced himself from the paraphernalia of scholarship. ‘This list . . . is the record of a journalist,’ he declared, explaining that by this he meant that he had made his living ‘mainly by writing in periodicals’. He went on:
To write what you are interested in writing and to succeed in getting editors to pay for it, is a feat that may require pretty close calculation and a good deal of ingenuity. You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings, you have to develop a resourcefulness at pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitous subjects, and you have to acquire a technique of slipping over on the routine of editors the deeper independent work which their over-anxious intentness on the fashions of the month or the week have conditioned them automatically to reject, as the machines that make motor parts automatically reject outsizes.
Among those he was pleased to think of as his predecessors, he particularly admired Poe for getting journals to publish revised versions of some of his essays, ‘scoring the triumph of thus making them pay him for the gratuitous labour of rewriting demanded by his artistic conscience’. ‘My own strategy,’ he confided, ‘has usually been, first, to get books for review or reporting assignments to cover on subjects in which I happened to be interested; then, later, to use the scattered articles for writing general studies of these subjects; then, finally, to bring out a book in which groups of these essays were revised and combined.’ As a compositional method, this pattern may have served Wilson well, but that wasn’t the chief point: getting paid more than once for essentially the same words was the thing.
Of course, he was attempting to épater les professeurs on this occasion, so he deliberately played down the amount of preliminary reading that went into his review-essays. In a piece from the mid-1930s, he had set out a more daunting prescription. The ‘reviewer critic’, he declared,
should be more or less familiar, or be ready to familiarise himself, with the past work of every important writer he deals with and be able to write about an author’s new book in the light of his general development and intention. He should also be able to see the author in relation to the national literature as a whole and the national literature in relation to other literatures.
The really surprising thing is how close Wilson seems to have come to following this prescription himself; the fact that he did not need much sleep was not the least of his attributes as a critic.
The first magazine on which he found regular employment was the monthly Vanity Fair, ‘the most successful of the “smart” magazines of the 1920s’, with a circulation that reached 80,000. Wilson had already submitted some pieces to it when, in 1920, following a sudden turnover of the magazine’s staff, his undergraduate journalism experience helped him land the post of managing editor. Meyers describes the Vanity Fair of that period as ‘a cross between today’s Esquire, Paris Review and New Yorker’; Wilson was not one of those who cultivated aesthetic purity by working for impoverished avant-garde ‘little magazines’. After a while he gave up the Vanity Fair job and tried supporting himself and his new wife as a freelance writer: as a result, he was in his fifties before he enjoyed anything approaching financial security.
Part of what, in retrospect, seems distinctive about Wilson’s literary journalism in the interwar years comes from the fact that although he largely wrote for mainstream publications, he constantly attempted to introduce his readers to the newest and most experimental writing. Famously, he reviewed both Ulysses and The Waste Land on publication, the former in the New Republic. Wilson wrote for the New Republic throughout the interwar years, contributing more than 350 articles and reviews; from 1925 to 1931 he was, in all but name, its literary editor and lead reviewer (he later described himself as the magazine’s ‘cultural man-of-all-work’). During those years the magazine, with a circulation of about 30,000, was the leading progressive weekly; the nearest British analogue may have been the Nation and Athenaeum (which was in turn merged with the New Statesman in 1931). In other words, it was primarily a political journal with a ‘back half’ where the literary editor was allowed considerable latitude. Even so, Wilson’s markedly left-wing politics of the early 1930s caused some strains within the editorial board, and the paper’s strong support for the Allied cause in 1939-40 was the final straw for Wilson, an old-style principled isolationist who saw no reason for the great democratic republic to get involved in corrupt Europe’s quarrels. He broke with the New Republic and never wrote for it again.
Already by 1952, Lionel Trilling, exhibiting the kind of nostalgia that seems inseparable from this topic, lamented that ‘we have nothing in our intellectual life today like the New Republic of that time, no periodical generally accepted by the intellectual class, serving both politics and literature on the assumption that politics and literature naturally live in lively interconnection.’ It is questionable whether, even in its heyday, the New Republic was ‘generally accepted by the intellectual class’; such periodicals almost always seem more central in retrospect than they did at the time. But Trilling was surely right to go on to observe that Wilson benefited not just from the standing of this particular periodical, but from the very regularity of his contributions:
The authority with which he could speak by right of function as well as by right of talent; the frequency with which, as a matter of duty, his work appeared; the continuity of his writing over a considerable time – these circumstances were of great benefit to him. He was not in the situation of the merely occasional reviewer or essayist, who, if he has anything to say, is likely to say too much and to say it too hard in order to establish his identity and his authority, and this editorial situation of Wilson’s had, I think, a decisive effect on his style.
One can certainly see signs of this intimacy with his readers in Wilson’s articles from these years. Halfway through a piece on T.S. Eliot’s For Lancelot Andrewes, for example, he can break in on his own prose and say, ‘I was writing last week on John Dos Passos,’ and then go on to make a comparison between the two authors’ respective forms of revulsion from industrial society.
Describing himself as ‘a concision fetishist’, Wilson recommended that the literary journalist should steer a path between two available styles: ‘the impressionistic criticism of the day before yesterday’ and the ‘sort of literary scholasticism that limits itself to putting things into categories’. This required a constant responsiveness sustained by deep wells of intellectual energy. Part of Wilson’s subsequent standing, and much of his status as a fantasy object, is due to the stamina he displayed in fulfilling his regular reviewing duties. The sheer miscellaneousness of what he covered has its own romance. But this role also fosters characteristic failings, all too observable in the work of resident reviewers in contemporary broadsheets – superficiality, over-confident judgments, self-importance, puffing – and Wilson was not as exempt from these as it might please us to think. Nonetheless, this platform made him a person of consequence in literary New York. Though scarcely more than thirty, he was already being teasingly referred to as ‘the Great Wilson’. Lionel Trilling recalled that when he first met the 34-year-old Wilson at the offices of the New Republic, ‘he seemed in his own person, and young as he was, to propose and to realise the idea of the literary life.’ It has been part of Wilson’s enduring appeal that, aside from the merits of any particular work, he can be taken to have realised ‘the idea of the literary life’.
In 1929, he added another important element to this profile by publishing a semi-autobiographical novel, I Thought of Daisy, a book Dabney forthrightly describes as ‘a commercial disaster’. (Wilson apparently liked to tell the story of how, when a woman said to him that she had bought and enjoyed the book, he had replied, ‘Oh, it was you who bought it,’ but variants of that self-protective mot are familiar from the biographies of several subsequently popular writers.) The first book that won him any lasting recognition was Axel’s Castle (1931), in which he introduced to a relatively uninstructed readership the difficult, sometimes forbidding work of several figures who were coming to be recognised as the leading European Modernists – Proust, Eliot and Joyce. The literature on Wilson repeats several slightly different versions of his remark that (as Dabney reports it) he ‘was never happier than when telling people about a work they were unfamiliar with in a language they didn’t know’. This is certainly something that Wilson was very good at, but Axel’s Castle, in particular, exhibits the simplifying, didactic voice encouraged by this role. ‘To persons already familiar with the field, my explanations in this first chapter will seem rudimentary,’ he begins, with understandable defensiveness, for the tone of the exposition is introductory in the extreme (‘Romanticism, as everyone has heard, was a revolt of the individual,’ and so on). Even in the best chapters, such as that on Eliot, there is a disconcerting mix of expository levels. It is impressive to see the author of such a book responding appreciatively and perceptively to Ash Wednesday, which only appeared as he was writing. Yet the Eliot chapter begins with a brief account of the work of the French Symbolists, Tristan Corbière and Jules Laforgue, containing little more than anecdotal character sketches:
In Paris, he [Corbière] slept all day and spent the nights in the cafés or at his verses, greeting at dawn the Paris harlots as they emerged from the station house or the hotel with the same half-harsh, half-tender fellow-feeling for the exile from conventional society which, when he was at home in his native Brittany, caused him to flee the house of his family and seek the company of the customs-men and sailors – living skeleton and invalid as he was, performing prodigies of courage and endurance in the navigation of a little cutter which he sailed by preference in the worst possible weather.
Quite apart from the fact that there is precious little sign of the ‘concision fetishist’ here, this is surely a case of an author underestimating his readers, or at least succumbing to a publisher’s misguided notion of how the pill of literary criticism needs to be sugared.
Not that the book contains much ‘literary criticism’ in the form in which the generations after Empson and the New Critics came to understand that activity. Wilson didn’t for the most part dwell on the mechanics of the writing under discussion; instead, there is a quantity of thematic summary with the passages quoted being treated in a relaxed ‘look at this’ kind of way rather than providing the occasion for any special attentiveness or set-piece pirouetting. He sounded more like a genuinely if idiosyncratically learned tour guide, able to give his party the sense that he was in some way on the inside track yet uncorrupted by official or merely academic orthodoxies.
When in 1948 the American critic Stanley Hyman published The Armed Vision, a survey of modern criticism, he began with a chapter on Wilson which was omitted from later editions of the book, perhaps because its tone was offensively dismissive. Hyman focused on Wilson’s role as a populariser and what he called an ‘introductory critic’, observing that ‘the introductory critic suffers the handicap . . . that his value decreases in direct proportion to the literacy of his audience and its familiarity with the work he is discussing, until it becomes almost nil for the relatively informed reader.’ This may have been exaggerated as well as condescending, but it does highlight a difficulty for those who think today’s literary professors should write like Wilson. The best reviewer-critics often manage to cloak the didactic in the conversational, something at which Wilson was adept, but there was also more than a dash of the village explainer in him, and – as was said of Ezra Pound, another with this trait – that was all right if one were a village and not if not.
As far as the art of turning journalism into successful books was concerned, the end of the 1930s marked something of a golden period for Wilson. In 1938 he published The Triple Thinkers, ‘ten essays on literary subjects’, later enlarged to 12, and including some of his best known, such as his surprising disquisition on A.E. Housman as a classical scholar or his influential meditation on ‘The Ambiguity of Henry James’. In 1940 he published To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, his account of the revolutionary tradition from Michelet through Marx and up to the Bolsheviks. This may look like the one among his works that was wholly conceived and written as a book, though in fact most of its chapters had first been contracted to the New Republic. And then in the following year came The Wound and the Bow, the collection that contains his most widely read essay, ‘Dickens: The Two Scrooges’, which was itself a reworking of two earlier pieces that had appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic.
It was a sign of Wilson’s growing reputation by the late 1930s that the Atlantic Monthly paid him special rates for several of the pieces that went to make up The Wound and the Bow. But the freelance life remained precarious, even for someone who seems in retrospect to have been such a successful practitioner of it. The early 1940s found him at something of a turning point: he was in his own mid-forties, in debt and with no prospect of a regular income; his third marriage (to Mary McCarthy) was becoming bumpy; and his country was heavily committed to a war he opposed. It is particularly interesting to learn from Dabney that ‘Wilson sometimes dreamed of an organ of American literature like the Nouvelle Revue française,’ and that in 1942 he even went so far as to propose to Harold Ross, the editor of the New Yorker, that such a journal should be established with Wilson as editor. A similar inspiration had lain behind the establishment of the Criterion in London twenty years earlier with T.S. Eliot as editor, and Wilson clearly hankered after a pulpit that would possess undisputed literary authority in even the most intellectually serious quarters. The income from such a position would have been handy, too: in 1941 Wilson had to borrow money for the deposit on the old house at Wellfleet on Cape Cod which was to be his principal home for the rest of his life.
The upturn in his fortunes came in 1943 when Harold Ross offered him what seemed initially an attractive platform: the post of weekly book reviewer on the New Yorker. Again, there has been a good deal of subsequent idealising of his performance in this role. In practice, this was a very different berth from the one he had enjoyed at the New Republic. Sustained by glossy advertising, the New Yorker largely catered for a chic, moneyed and metropolitan readership; during Wilson’s association with the magazine, its pages were cultivated and literary in a rather self-conscious way. Before long, Wilson came to find the atmosphere at the magazine a little staid and apolitical – Meyers is, for once, more informative than Dabney on this episode. Wilson did not welcome the interventionist editing of his pieces; it is heartening to find that even he had to plead with his editor not to ‘take out the semi-colons’ in his copy. After doing the weekly book review for several years, he moved on in the late 1940s to an arrangement that suited him better, still writing frequently but at greater length and on a more miscellaneous range of topics, not so tied to the treadmill of that season’s catalogues. Both his erudition in some of these pieces and the magazine’s indulgence of it still seem remarkable; it was in the New Yorker in 1955, for example, that he published the first version of what became his book on the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Dabney quotes Malcolm Cowley saying that one followed the New Yorker ‘to see what in God’s name he would be doing next’.) At the same time, his reviewing was becoming crustier; he now seemed keener to express his irritation at books he did not like than eager to introduce new readers to those he did.
As Wilson’s reputation grew, so the opportunities for transmuting journalism into books increased; by the time his journals started to appear at the end of his life, some passages had done several tours of duty in only slightly revised forms. Even so, the first book of his that was immediately a commercial success was his novel (really a collection of related stories) Memoirs of Hecate County, published in 1946 when he was 51. This was briefly a bestseller, clocking up sales of 50,000 in four months – chiefly, it seems, because of its allegedly scandalous sexual explicitness. His mother’s death in 1951 further improved his financial position (he also inherited the family house in Talcottville, in upstate New York, which was to be the inspiration for his last book, Upstate, in 1971). His relations with publishers took an altogether more favourable turn at about this time. Roger Straus, at the recently formed house of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was an admirer, and in 1950 he brought out a collection of Wilson’s pieces from the 1940s called Classics and Commercials, followed two years later by The Shores of Light, subtitled ‘A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties’. These two lucrative bits of recycling consolidated Wilson’s reputation rather than, as can sometimes happen, damaging it: the quality and variety of his essays drew admiring notices (The Shores of Light remains the best of his collections). Meanwhile, Jason Epstein had launched his Anchor paperback imprint and reissued several of Wilson’s earlier books: To the Finland Station, in particular, sold much better in this format in the 1950s and 1960s than in the decade following its original publication. All this allowed him to feel, as he confessed in 1954, ‘a little, for the first time in my life, as if I were a real success’.
Thereafter, references to him as ‘the dean of American letters’ became commonplace, a standing reinforced by his large study of American literature of the Civil War period, Patriotic Gore, which came out in 1962 and which, unlike his earlier critical studies, was an immediate success. (Those of us who can only goggle at Wilson’s productivity may find some small encouragement in the fact that he had signed the contract for this book 15 years earlier.) President Kennedy tried to quiz the author about his recently published book at a dinner in the White House, but Wilson was not to be drawn into a glib summary of a work on which he had laboured so long. ‘I suppose I’ll have to buy it,’ sighed Kennedy; ‘I’m afraid so,’ returned the unyielding author. He refused an invitation to the Lyndon Johnson White House because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. To his journal he confided the thought that a law should be passed forbidding Texans to be president (if only). In 1972 he supported McGovern (but died before the election). Robert Penn Warren, reviewing Patriotic Gore for Commentary, was surely right to say that what most moved Wilson was ‘some courageous manifestation of the old virtues’, regardless of political affiliation. Once when he was asked why he was so anti-British, he replied simply: ‘The American revolution.’ Long after it had ceased to be fashionable, he remained an old-style Abe-Lincoln-admiring, man’s-last-best-hope-believing, republican citizen.
Thinking about his near contemporaries in Britain, it is tempting to try to see Wilson as a blend of Orwell, Pritchett and Isaiah Berlin (also writers around whom a fair bit of nostalgic commentary has clustered). But even that alluring amalgam doesn’t altogether catch him, and one element it doesn’t represent is the impression he gave even from quite early on of being a survivor from a previous age of civilisation. As his career progressed, this became a matter for comment. ‘There is indeed something very appealing in Wilson’s old-fashioned, undoctrinaire voracity for print,’ Trilling remarked in reviewing The Shores of Light, and it is indicative of the pitfalls awaiting contemporary nostalgia that Trilling should already see this as ‘old-fashioned’ in 1952. Wilson himself liked to play the dinosaur. As early as 1943 he was lamenting that ‘we are left now with very little journalism of the literary and liberal kind that flourished just after the last war,’ and consequently he saw himself as ‘the distant inhabitant of another intellectual world’, belonging to ‘a kind of professional group . . . now becoming extinct’. This mood was intensified in his last years as, holed up in the 18th-century family house in Talcottville, the blinds closed as protection against the sun, the Scotch open as protection against the dark, he brooded on his affinities with his stern, upright ancestors. ‘Nobler country here, which, I think, has made nobler people. It is a part of the whole moral foundation of my life.’
One of the ways in which the recent idealising of Wilson veils the historical reality is that it turns him into altogether too equable and too civilised a critic, a cross between the urbanity of Trilling and the thoughtfulness of Kermode without the sharper, engaged qualities of either. But the actual Wilson was a darker, more troubled soul; less likeable, and even in some sense less intelligible, than the figure celebrated in so many admiring eulogies, and certainly more tangled, more blocked, than his clear, commanding prose usually reveals. Isaiah Berlin, a fairly close friend in Wilson’s later years, thought him by nature ‘disharmonious’, ‘an uncomfortable man’. Mary McCarthy, who knew a bit about inner conflicts, recalled: ‘He was two people. One is this humanistic Princetonian critic and the other is a sort of minotaur, really, with his terror and pathos.’ Dabney doesn’t altogether scant this side of Wilson, though he may be thought to play it down. But reading between the lines of people’s recollections published elsewhere (Wilson’s was the kind of presence that prompted others to record their impressions), one can see that he wasn’t just daunting; he could be frightening, and this was surely something to do with the fierceness of his passions, the suggestion that on occasion even physical violence might not be altogether out of the question. Obviously, it is tempting to apply the Philoctetan story to Wilson himself, to find the wound that enabled him to draw the bow ‘that never missed its mark’. Whatever the merits of the various attempts to do this (Dabney is admirably restrained in his psychological speculations), one effect of keeping the racked, unsocialised side of Wilson in view is to make his writing seem more hard-won and less imitable. It is not only too late for anyone now to try to be Wilson; it’s not obvious that it was ever such an easy or attractive part to slip into.
There is one respect, it must be said, in which this thoughtful biography provides support for contemporary nostalgia for Wilson as representative of a world we have lost. The evidence really does suggest that drinks just aren’t what they used to be: nowadays they’re mostly lower in alcohol and a hell of a lot less frequent. Dabney reckons that Wilson was ‘the only well-known literary alcoholic of his generation whose work was not compromised by his drinking’. But it seems at least as true to say that his drinking wasn’t compromised by his work, either. He really could put it away, quarts of the stuff: gin and whisky for the most part, various bootleg substitutes when necessary, fashionable cocktails when available, and anything that was going when the cocktails ran out. In the 1920s one of his contemporaries teased him about getting by ‘on a diet of Proust and grain alcohol’, but the truth was that by then he had his dependence on Proust well under control. Reminiscences of him always include drink. For example, Harry Levin remembered Wilson delivering a lecture at Harvard in the late 1930s (he was a poor and nervous lecturer) and ‘fortifying himself from a pint of whiskey behind a screen at the side of the stage, not knowing he was visible in silhouette’. Jason Epstein recalled meeting him for the first time at the Princeton Club in New York; the great man asked the bartender for ‘a half-dozen martinis’. ‘They were those small martinis that in those days you got in academic clubs of that sort. But even so, half a dozen, and they were all for him.’ His attempts at abstemiousness contain telling and often comic detail. In the mid-1930s the poet Louise Bogan reported after a visit to Wilson that ‘out of a desire for work and sobriety’ he now bought gin ‘only one bottle at a time’. When in his last years his declining health forced him to cut back, he was confined to ‘a pint a day’ (and we’re not talking beer).
Of course, in the years when Wilson was forming his habits he spent a fair bit of time in the company of those who, as one party-lover put it, were ‘making the best of the last 24 hours of capitalism’. His friend Scott Fitzgerald tried periodically to give up the booze, but, apparently, ‘his “on the wagon” could mean any number of things, including drinking lots of beer’. Wilson reflected in one of his later journals: ‘I am a man of the 1920s. I am still expecting something exciting: drinks, animated conversation, gaiety, brilliant writing, uninhibited exchange of ideas.’ First things first. Elena Mumm Thornton, his fourth wife, thought ‘Edmund just about never wrote when drunk,’ but this must have been true only of the years she knew him (during which she did manage to get him to cut down for longish stretches): given how much he wrote and how much he drank, the sums just wouldn’t add up for the earlier period. It’s astonishing that he lived to be 77 and published (depending on how one counts) more than 30 books in addition to vast quantities of uncollected journalism.
Wilson was good at final paragraphs, and the juxtaposition of two from his best-known books may serve as an epitaph, since they frame two ideals to which he gave lasting allegiance. The first passage comes from the ending of Axel’s Castle, where Wilson saluted his chosen authors for the way ‘they have revealed to the imagination a new flexibility and freedom’, adding:
And though we are aware in them of things that are dying – the whole belles-lettristic tradition of Renaissance culture perhaps, compelled to specialise more and more, more and more driven in on itself, as industrialism and democratic education have come to press it closer and closer – they none the less break down the walls of the present and wake us to the hope and exaltation of the untried, unsuspected possibilities of human thought and art.
The second passage concludes his portrait of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr at the end of Patriotic Gore; these sentences are tellingly quoted by Dabney to round off his deftly sympathetic account of that wilful, lumpy book. Wilson judged that Justice Holmes knew exactly what he was doing when, dying childless, he left his estate to the United States rather than to some more conventional good cause:
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.
But life has a way of being less shapely than art. The Augustan element in Wilson would no doubt have liked to deliver itself of a few graceful, enduring last words to an admiring (and recording) audience; the reality was more mundane, but perhaps no less appropriate for that. On the last morning of his life, his heart and various other organs failing, Wilson managed to get himself out of bed and into the chair at his writing-table, feebly miming, from some mixture of will and habit, the activity that had defined his life. The nurse who was looking after him at home asked if he would like a bath or breakfast first. He replied: ‘Breakfast.’
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