The Magazine

America's Critic

Edmund Wilson, mandarin in chief.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By JAMES SEATON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Beyond the question these opinions raise about Wilson's political sagacity, they, like his personal life, raise the larger issue as to whether the study of literature really does make for deeper insights and greater wisdom about human affairs, as the humanistic tradition affirms, and as Wilson himself firmly believed. One response may be found in the answer Evelyn Waugh reportedly gave when Nancy Mitford demanded that he explain how he squared "being so horrible with being a Christian." Waugh replied that were he "not a Christian [he] would be even more horrible."

If it is impossible to gauge the influence, or lack of it, of Wilson's literary faith on his personal life, it can be surmised that the political and ideological judgments expressed in his writings, ill-advised as these sometimes are, would have vitiated his work much more than they, in fact, do if he had not been determined to maintain an independent literary judgment in all circumstances whatsoever. Thus, To the Finland Station, with the exception of its portrait of Lenin, retains a sense of the complexity and variety of human beings that prevents it from descending to the cheap polemics and vulgar Marxism so common among literary intellectuals of the period. Similarly, the body of Patriotic Gore refutes the reductivism of its preface in the most effective way possible, by bringing out through close studies of literary works and individual lives the inevitable failure of any historical theory, including the one offered in the preface, claiming to explain them all.

Dabney's biography, sure to be the definitive work for many years, will be welcomed by all those who love Edmund Wilson, but it will be especially valuable to the many English graduate students and professors who have either never heard of Wilson or know only that he is one of those hopelessly outdated, untheoretical critics who flourished in the benighted era before postmodernism, but who can now be safely ignored. Wilson's current status in academia can be gauged by the attention he receives in the two most influential anthologies of criticism, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism and Critical Theory Since Plato. The Norton devotes to 20th-century criticism more than 1,500 of its 2,624 pages, of which Wilson is allotted 12, while he does not appear at all in Since Plato. Admirers of Wilson may take comfort, however, in noting that his shabby treatment by the two anthologies puts him in select company: Lionel Trilling, one of his few peers in literary criticism, is missing from both.

Both Trilling and Wilson insisted on making connections between literature and the larger society, and yet neither was willing to reduce literary criticism to a subdivision of psychology, sociology, or anything else. Both were influenced by Marx and Freud, and both were generally on the political left; yet if both are virtually nonpersons in the academy today, it is because each continued to believe in the priority of literature over theoretical or ideological systems. Wilson did not have, as T.S. Eliot said of Henry James, "a mind so fine that no idea could violate it." And yet his writing, if not his politics, remained almost unscathed from his encounters with Marx and Freud. The Freudianism of The Wound and the Bow, for example, is worn so lightly that the validity of the connections Wilson draws between the life and work of Charles Dickens or Rudyard Kipling does not depend at all on acceptance of Freudian formulas.

Wilson's criticism exemplifies his belief that "nothing was quite so important as literature, and that literature was never to be treated as an end in itself," the outlook that Joseph Epstein ascribes to Matthew Arnold, a model for both Wilson and Trilling. Arnold was one of the great humanist critics, part of a tradition that believed good literature was not only a source of refined pleasure for an elite, but also a rich source of insight about human life that could and should be made available to as many readers as possible. Arnold declared in Culture and Anarchy that it was "the men of culture [who] are the true apostles of equality" since it is they "who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time."

Dabney makes a strong case that Wilson succeeded over his long career in fulfilling Arnold's ideal, at least as well and, perhaps, better than any other writer of the 20th century in any language. The contemporary academy's lack of interest in Wilson is, in large part, explained by its hostility to this humanistic ideal. The Norton Anthology considerably understates this opposition in acknowledging that Arnold's "ideal is one that radical critics and contemporary literary theorists have sought to complicate or undermine."

Dabney offers no sustained argument against the academy's dismissal of Wilson, but he occasionally contrasts Wilson's positions with those of the current orthodoxy, usually managing to imply convincingly that it is the contemporary academy that suffers by the comparison. Noting Wilson's observation, in the course of a generally sympathetic chapter in Axel's Castle, that Gertrude Stein's effort "to detach words from ordinary meanings" was "misguided," Dabney adds that Wilson's reasonable criticism of Stein's technique marks "Wilson's distance from post-structuralists who would one day judge words to be unhinged from their signification."

Noting that Wilson took issue with Paul Valéry's "prediction that, in cultures dominated by radio, movies, and television, literature would become purposeless in its endless introspection and quest for novelty," Dabney comments that Wilson thus anticipated and rejected "what would be called postmodernism." Wilson's distinction between Dante the political activist and Dante the poet places the critic in opposition not only to Wilson's contemporaries the New Critics, but also to "those leftist theorists who, at the tail end of the 20th century, were to find aesthetic taste arbitrary, all writing political." Wilson's "Marxism and Literature" rejects "the view of art as a weapon," a view "fashionable during the Popular Front" of the thirties and also "among English department theorists half a century later." And Dabney contrasts Wilson's observation that the Marquis de Sade used "whips and knives and poisoned aphrodisiacs" only "on women who were his social inferiors" with the glossing-over of this point by "the Sade cult of Barthes, Foucault, and others."

Wilson, without condescension, and while maintaining the highest standards of literary excellence throughout his long career, succeeded in conveying the importance and delights of literature to the general reader more prolifically and more eloquently than any other critic of his time. Though he took issue with the New Humanism of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, Wilson is arguably the critic who did most in the 20th century to keep alive and enrich that humanist tradition. Even in so personal an essay as the moving tribute to Edna St. Vincent Millay that closes The Shores of Light, Wilson's praise of his onetime lover's lyric poetry articulates and reaffirms the humanistic view of literature's importance:

[I]n giving supreme expression to profoundly felt human experience, she was able to identify herself with more general human experience and stand forth as a spokesman for the human spirit, announcing its predicaments, its vicissitudes, but, as a master of human expression, by the splendor of expression itself, putting herself beyond common embarrassments, common oppressions and panics. This is man who surveys himself and the world in which he moves, not the beast that scurries and suffers; and the name of the poet comes no longer to indicate a mere individual with a birthplace and a legal residence, but to figure as one of the pseudonyms assumed by that spirit itself.

As Dabney observes accurately, that Wilson upheld the "classical premise that literature delights and teaches, invigorating the life of society and the language of ordinary men and women" may discredit him among academics in thrall to the current campus orthodoxies. Dabney's fine biography reminds the rest of us why Edmund Wilson's writings themselves continue to both teach and delight.

James Seaton is professor of English at Michigan State.