The Magazine

America's Critic

Edmund Wilson, mandarin in chief.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By JAMES SEATON
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One way to grasp Wilson's achievement is to compare his work with that of the critics he himself respected. In Classics and Commercials he offers a tribute to his late Princeton classmate T.K. Whipple, the author of two books on American literature, Spokesmen (1928) and the posthumous Study Out the Land (1943). Whipple, like Wilson, turned left in the thirties, but, unlike many others, the two managed, in the end, to keep their balance. He praises his friend for writing criticism that remained "unhysterical and unstampeded" despite his leftism. Wilson calls Whipple "the first of our critics to study the new novelists and dramatists and poets at the same time appreciatively and calmly, to try to see the work of each as a whole and to make some sort of summary of it." This generous praise describes Wilson's own criticism more accurately than it does his classmate's fine work.

Two essays in Classics and Commercials praise George Saintsbury, the turn-of-the-20th-century English critic whose opinions were very different from Wilson's--"in religion he was Church of England and in politics an extreme Tory"--who wins Wilson's praise because "his prejudices were rarely allowed to interfere with his appetite for good literature, wherever and by whomever written." Wilson even argues that Saintsbury's extreme political opinions give his criticism a dramatic interest it would not have otherwise, "provided by the recurring conflict between Saintsbury's Tory principles and the productions of those of his subjects who hold contrary opinions. The thrill for the reader results from Saintsbury's displays of gallantry in recognizing and applauding the literary merit of writers whose views he abhors."

Of course the quasi-Marxist Wilson's treatment of the Tory Saintsbury itself exemplifies the same "gallantry." Similarly, Wilson's masterpiece, Patriotic Gore, gains in dramatic quality as the reader waits to see if Wilson will treat Lincoln, Grant, Alexander Stephens, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. with the reductivism that the "sea-slug" theory of history announced in the preface would seem to demand. Wilson seems to be characterizing his own work when he notes both Saintsbury's limitation and his strength: "[I]t is true, as has sometimes been said of him, that he does not plumb the deepest literature deeply. But at least he has arrived by himself at his reasons for the greatness of the greatest. He never takes merits for granted."

The 18th-century rationalism that was an enduring part of Wilson's intellectual equipment did, indeed, keep him from appreciating fully those writers whose vision either transcended, or at least differed radically, from that outlook, as his once-notorious "Dissenting Opinion on Kafka" illustrates. Yet Wilson's essays also demonstrate his own insistence on judging for himself, whether he is considering would-be "classics" or "commercials" like the latest bestseller. Ready to condemn Somerset Maugham despite "his swelling reputation" as "a half-trashy novelist, who writes badly, but is patronized by half-serious readers, who do not care much about writing," Wilson finds that the religious bestseller The Robe, despite being written with "an almost unrivaled fabric of old clichés," nevertheless has an imaginative integrity that gives the novel "a certain purity" and makes the author worthy of "a certain respect." Lloyd Douglas, the author, "has imagined the whole thing for himself," and thus "his book, on a lower level, has the same kind of dramatic effectiveness as Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan."

Wilson's personal life, especially his troubled marriage to Mary McCarthy, has sometimes been used to impugn his reputation as a judicious literary critic, as have his political opinions, which changed over his career but were consistently less than perspicacious. In the presidential election of 1932 he endorsed the Communist candidate William Z. Foster. In To the Finland Station Lenin is presented as a heroic figure whose practical sagacity is matched by his humanity: "Lenin was one of the most selfless of great men . . . He regarded his political opponents not as competitors who had to be crushed, but as colleagues he had regrettably lost or collaborators he had failed to recruit." In The Cold War and the Income Tax Wilson complains with vehemence and moral indignation about the income tax after being taken to court by the IRS for not filing returns for nine years. (Wilson explains he had been "unaware that failure to file had been made a serious offense.") The preface to Patriotic Gore characterizes the United States and the Soviet Union as equally amoral agglomerations of power, sea-slugs each attempting to swallow the other, and suggests that the South's rebellion in the Civil War should be understood as

an attempt to avoid being swallowed by the sea-slug North.