His Master's Voice
Edmund Wilson in the Library of America.
Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By JAMES SEATON
Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s & 30s
Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 40s
The Library of America's publication of Edmund Wilson's literary criticism from the 1920s through the '40s, in two volumes, edited ably and unobtrusively by Lewis Dabney, marks a welcome instance of fidelity to the original purposes of the Library, as envisioned by Wilson himself.
Condemning the scholarly editions sanctioned by the Modern Language Association as unreadable, Wilson for years called (without success) for the publication of American classics in volumes intended for the general reader, with texts established according to the highest scholarly standards but with a minimum of scholarly apparatus. The first publications of the Library of America answered Wilson's call, but over the years, the Library's notion of a classic seems to have diverged from what Wilson had in mind. A current "Featured Offer" on the Library's website is a three-volume edition of the works of John Steinbeck--about whose work the Library does not, apparently, share the reservations that led Wilson to offer "the novels of John Steinbeck, for example," as books "that seem to mark precisely the borderline between work that is definitely superior and work that is definitely bad."
H.P. Lovecraft's Tales is Volume 156 in the Library of America, though Wilson considered Lovecraft's stories "hackwork contributed to such publications as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, where, in my opinion, they ought to have been left." In three famous New Yorker articles reprinted in Classics and Commercials, Wilson decried attempts to give literary standing to mystery and crime fiction, asking "how can you care who committed a murder which has never really been made to take place, because the writer hasn't any ability of even the most ordinary kind to persuade you to see it or feel it?"
Of all the genre writers he considered, only Raymond Chandler seemed to Wilson to have any real literary ability, and even he was "a long way below Graham Greene." The Library of America, meanwhile, has so far published two volumes of Raymond Chandler, two of Dashiell Hammett, and two volumes of Crime Novels of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.
The Library's willingness to relax literary standards--sometimes because of popularity, sometimes for political reasons (the two volumes of reporting on the Vietnam war come to mind)--is worth emphasizing because Edmund Wilson's own refusal to do so is one of the chief reasons for the continuing importance of his criticism. If literature is to have any value for us as a commentary on political and social life, it is essential that our evaluation of literary works themselves not be ruled by the very political opinions complicated or challenged by those works. It was because Wilson believed in the human significance of literature that he insisted on judging literary works by strictly literary standards. And though Wilson changed his political views several times throughout his career, he always believed that a literary critic had an obligation to judge the excellence of a poem or novel by strictly literary criteria, and only after that judgment to assess its implications for politics or society.
Thus, in one of his previously uncollected reviews (a prescient 1922 consideration of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land), Wilson, addressing readers who might prefer a self-proclaimed poet of the common man like Carl Sandburg to an Eliot who characterized the common man as "Apeneck Sweeney," commented that "Mr. Eliot's detestation of Sweeney is more precious than Mr. Sandburg's sympathy for him." All the objections one could make to Eliot's views were "outweighed by one major fact--that fact that Mr. Eliot is a poet . . . that is, he feels intensely and with distinction and speaks naturally in beautiful verse."
Today, Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson stand out as the most impressive critics of the past century in the humanistic tradition. Both insisted on writing for the general educated public beyond the campus, and more important, both saw themselves as representatives of that public. They presented themselves not as theorists or specialists writing down to middlebrow intellectual wannabes but, rather, people who happened to have had the time and inclination to read more widely and think more circumspectly, but whose tastes and principles were not otherwise radically different from those of their readers.