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.

Wilson wrote incessantly, but his income was entirely derived from his writing, and he had an understandable determination that nothing should be wasted. Nearly all his articles appear again, often elaborately recycled, in later books. Towards the end of his life he extended this practice to unpublished journals and notes. The Twenties and The Thirties contain valuable and characteristic material – for example, the strange meditation on the death of Wilson’s second wife Margaret Canby. She had died after a fall down some steps – after a party in California. Wilson describes in detail the long flight west (this was in 1932), the talk of the stewardess and his fellow passengers, the varying landscape, all as if he had a duty to be one on whom nothing was lost. Mixed with this there are murmurs of guilt and sorrow, reminiscences of love-making – for example, in evening dress (a pleasure recalled in Memoirs of Hecate County) – of rows, of the condition of the writer’s ‘prong’, which is a recurrent, preoccupation. ‘After she was dead, I loved her,’ he notes, remembering that she had called him a cad and ‘a cold fishy leprous person’. One can see why. It must be disconcerting to know that even your orgasms are being witnessed by someone who will shortly be describing them in his journal with the same striving for exactitude that he accords the chat of a commercial traveller or the desert seen from the air. Wilson was not so much one of those on whom nothing is lost as one of those for whom nothing really occurs until he writes it down.

The new volume contains nothing so interesting as the memoir of Margaret Canby, though the years it covers saw the death of Scott Fitzgerald, Wilson’s marriage to and divorce from Mary McCarthy, a new marriage, the first seven years at the New Yorker, the publication of To the Finland Station, Memoirs of Hecate County, The Wound and the Bow, and six other books, to say nothing of a world war and much assiduous travel. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Wilson somewhat neglected his journal. There is now only a little of the characteristic self-absorption of the true journal-keeper, to whom nothing human is alien as long as he has a part in it – and to whom his own absurdities are as worthy of record as anything else:

– Blond woman violinist with Portia-like yellow hair – Ruth Posselt – long full black dress and arms bare almost to the shoulders – played Barber concerto, and as I watched the sawing motion of her pretty round arm always held away from her body and saw the bow moving straight across the bridge and eliciting the sweet and tender and rather sentimental strains of the alleged first movement, I realised that violin music was intensely sexual and feminine, even when produced by a man, in the sense that it represents the feeling for a woman of the underpart of the penis lingeringly passing in and out and eliciting exquisite music.

Among other things, why ‘alleged’? Did he write ‘allegro’?

The low-toned scrupulosity of the journal style tends to make the travel notes tedious, and anyway most were written up in books. I suppose the most impressive piece in this volume is the account of a visit to Santayana in his Roman convent, but that was used in Europe without Baedeker (1947), in time for Stevens to remember it in his great poem. The finished version is included in the Penguin anthology, and it is interesting to see what happened in revision: for example, ‘He slept, in his plain single bed, in the consciousness of the whole human mind’ becomes ‘... he reposes on his shabby chaise longue like a monad in the universal mind.’

The Portable Edmund Wilson is a large paperback (too large, perhaps – my copy broke in half) with a section of autobiographical writing, a sampling of Wilson’s work in the Twenties and Thirties (Prohibition, the Detroit assembly line, the admirable ‘Partnership of Marx and Engels’ from To the Finland Station), selections from the literary criticism, a great deal from Patriotic Gore, and some miscellaneous letters and travel pieces. It provides a good though of course not complete idea of Wilson’s achievement. One sees how much this depended on conscience and industry – on the assumption that it was proper to read all the relevant books, and learn all the relevant languages including Russian and Hebrew, later Hungarian, and finally, in his last days, Chinese. One acquired information and then put it into shape. As a critic Wilson was deliberately old-fashioned, admiring Sainte-Beuve and Saintsbury; he was largely, indeed, a conscientious critical biographer, and it was in that capacity that he tried to use psychoanalytical insights. In his youth he was quick to spot the Modernist winners, and it was in those early days that he had most influence on American taste. He wasn’t afraid to stand by opinions that must have seemed freakish: for example, his view of Edna St Vincent Millay as one of the greatest poets of the age – an opinion obstinately held, but enforced by no persuasive comment on the poems. His falling out of step with the avant-garde he attributed to no loss of interest or acumen in himself, but to a failure in literature, or in the culture. His revulsion from the ‘Symbolist’ tradition at the end of Axel’s Castle was on account of the uselessness of such art in a time of capitalist crisis, and he continued to be concerned, though without political commitment, with the usefulness of literature to a society that seemed to have little use for it.

Axel’s Castle gave a carefully studied account of a kind of literature that ought to be rejected; and Wilson’s conscience in such matters is probably his chief claim on our attention. He was the perfect introducer – see, for example, his essay on Pushkin in the Portable Wilson. He was a patrician American with a mission to civilise, to make familiar the best of European literature without sacrifice of native quality. A defensive Americanness is the best explanation of his sometimes silly Anglophobia: not that the English weren’t on occasion hateful, but to Wilson in the postwar period any anti-British canard was as acceptable as sworn evidence. His patriotic feelings soured without diminishing, and he constantly lamented the decadence of his own country; as he grew older he came to think of himself almost as a stranger there. He dwelt more and more on the American past. One result was Pariotic Gore, a vast and laborious book he did not enjoy writing. Robert Lowell called it the American Plutarch, which is ingenious but wrong. Patriotic Gore is probably, from the point of view of British readers, over-represented in Dabney’s selection, though it could be argued that the long pieces on Ulysses S. Grant and Justice Holmes are central to Wilson’s later interests. These were no longer of the kind that animated the eloquent tribute to Marx, or inspired the passage claiming that Marx was a great master of satire, ‘the greatest ironist since Swift’. He had turned inward.

One of the finest of the later pieces is an account of what it is like to learn enough Hebrew to read Genesis; he records ‘a feeling of vicarious authority as one traces the portentous syllables’ and remembers the hand of Jehovah writing on Belshazzar’s wall (though with his usual scrupulousness he adds that Jehovah in that instance was writing Aramaic). ‘The vowel points hang like motes, as if they were the molecules the consonants breathed ...’ However fanciful, this communicates a civilised pleasure, though on the small private scale appropriate to Wilson’s later more isolated years.

He was aware of himself as an odd man, a loner; he thought he might have inherited from his father ‘some strain of his neurotic distemper’. But he was also alive to the conditions under which he might hope to lead his independent life. When the energies of the Twenties were spent, writers had to become ‘sober and poor’; and in the confusions about Communism in the Thirties were apt to fall victim to ‘the two great enemies of literary talent in our time, Hollywood and Henry Luce’. (He thought of the Luce magazines as the most depressing index of American decadence.) Working as hard as ever, he withdrew from the new vulgar world, dominated by immoral journalism and drained of personality. To others, his withdrawal looked like a retreat.

Dabney provides a long introduction and headnotes to each section. He claims a little too much for his man – a novelistic grasp of character, a ‘nurturing responsiveness’ in criticism. ‘Warmth’ and ‘generosity’ are but intermittent qualities in this author. And, as I said at the outset, it is hard to believe that Wilson’s standing is at present so high that people are using him as a model. However, we should certainly not be sorry if there were a return to prose style ‘both polished and informal’, and Wilson is in many ways a model in that respect, whether he is describing a stay in the Odessa isolation hospital or patiently expounding Harriet Beecher Stowe, or indeed writing fiction. Memoirs of Hecate County had a success that was largely scandalous, but it is a good book for all that, and even when he is beefing about the Internal Revenue or describing his marital performance Wilson is his own man, subdued and precise. He was probably the last writer, here or in the US, who could found a serious career on literary journalism, and that he was the best of his kind in our century is hardly a matter for dispute.