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.
Both Trilling and Wilson made free use of "we" and "us" in describing their responses to literary works, and their ability to do so convincingly is not only testimony to a lost cultural unity, now seemingly fragmented beyond repair, but to their common rejection of any romantic pretensions to spiritual superiority. The difference in their eras, and perhaps in their personalities is expressed, however, in the different use each makes of the plural subject. Trilling typically uses "we" to implicate himself and his readers in some questionable moral or intellectual assumption, as when, in defending "the quality in Wordsworth that now makes him unacceptable"--Wordsworth's "concern for the life of humbleness and quiet"--he notes ruefully that "with us the basis of spiritual prestige is some form of aggressive action."
Wilson, on the other hand, assumes that his reader, like himself, approaches each work with an open mind, ready to be persuaded, and perhaps even seduced, by literary manipulation but ultimately able to tell the difference between the truly "first-rate" and "a piece of pure rubbish"--his characterization of Kay Boyle's World War II novel Avalanche. Reviewing the Soviet novelist Leonid Leonov's Road to the Ocean in Classics and Commercials, he asserts that "We are conscious from the beginning that the characters are types, but we do not at first sight take them for the conventional types of Soviet fiction. . . . We give [the author] the benefit of the doubt." The ending, however, is twisted to conform to Soviet propaganda: "It is not till we come to the end that we are definitely let down by Leonov, but then we are badly let down. . . . Looking back, we become aware that these people have never been real in the first place, and that we have simply been distracted from minding it by the technical agility of the author."
Just as Wilson assumes that the reader, like himself, is capable of distinguishing between the stick figures of propaganda and true literary creations, he takes it for granted that the general reader, if willing to make the effort, can understand and appreciate aesthetic revolutionaries like Eliot and Proust. In that 1922 review, one of the first and still one of the most perceptive considerations of The Waste Land, Wilson insisted that "for all its complicated correspondences and its recondite references and quotations, The Waste Land is intelligible at first reading." Wilson points to the human meaning of Eliot's images, convincing us that Eliot is "speaking not only for a personal distress, but for the starvation of a whole civilization . . . our whole world of strained nerves and shattered institutions."
In Axel's Castle, Wilson made the literature of high modernism available to the general reader not by slighting its complexity but by refusing to accept its technical innovations as ends in themselves and, instead, pointing to their human meaning as responses to modern life. Perhaps the highpoint of Axel's Castle is the chapter on Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Without obfuscation or oversimplification, Wilson succeeds in bringing out the significance of Proust's masterpiece and its main character for the general reader, who is also Edmund Wilson:
Although the chapters in Axel's Castle on such major figures as Eliot, Proust, Yeats, and Joyce have not only retained their value but have acquired a new significance as reminders of the human meaning of works buried under mountains of academic commentary, Wilson is at his best on lesser-known writers. Though he gives the impression of having read everybody, he had little to say in his prolific career about Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Tolstoy, or Mann, and his "Dissenting Opinion on Kafka," challenging Kafka's stature as one of the great writers of the 20th century, made almost no impact.
On the other hand, Wilson's treatment of minor figures is unexcelled. His criticism offers a gallery of portraits in which writers, if only they write well, are presented with respect and sympathetic understanding, no matter how slight or anomalous their work might be. A representative essay in The Shores of Light makes a strong case for Lewis Carroll, arguing that "as studies in dream psychology, the Alice books are most remarkable: They do not suffer by comparison with the best serious performances in this field--with Strindberg or Joyce or Flaubert's Tentation de Saint Antoine."
Wilson goes on to evoke the world of Alice as
And yet Alice is "always a sensible and self-possessed little upper-class English girl, who never fails in the last resort to face down the outlandish creatures that plague her."
Wilson is unparalleled in evoking the atmosphere and spirit of writers like Thomas Love Peacock, the friend of Shelley whose novels feature "the conversation in a country house, with much passing of port and claret, among highly intellectual guests, each of whom appears as the exponent of some current tendency or doctrine reduced to its simplest terms and carried to its most absurd lengths." The various doctrines "more or less cancel one another out," leaving the reader with Peacock's own "classical common sense"--a quality, Wilson notes, still relevant "today, at a time when extreme ideas are being violently put into practice."
Christian Gauss and Edna St. Vincent Millay are no longer major literary figures, and Mr. Rolfe, Wilson's Greek teacher at the Hill School, was never widely known, but Wilson's essays on them are among his best. For Wilson, Mr. Rolfe "represented both the American individualistic tradition which has cultivated the readiness to think and act for oneself . . . and the older humanistic tradition: the belief in the nobility and beauty of what man as man has accomplished, and the reverence for literature as the record of this." Wilson acknowledges this tradition as his own: "I realize that I myself have been trying to follow and feed it at a time when it has been running low." He expresses his hope that it will survive not only traditional religion but, more urgently, "the political creeds, with their secular evangelism, that are taking the Church's place."
Over his lifetime, Wilson's politics changed radically, from fairly conventional liberalism in the twenties to Marxist radicalism in the thirties and then to a disillusionment with politics in general epitomized in the introduction to Patriotic Gore (not included in these two volumes) where the Soviet Union and the United States are compared to "sea slugs," each attempting to "ingurgitate" the other.
In contrast, Wilson remained loyal throughout his career to the view "that every valid work of art owes its power to giving expression to some specific human experience and connecting it with some human ideal." Attributing this view to the neglected critic Paul Rosenfeld in the closing essay of Classics and Commercials, Wilson comments that he and Rosenfeld "had in common a fundamental attitude and invoked a common cultural tradition, which it is easiest to call humanistic."
Characteristically, Wilson's essay on "Marxism and Literature" in The Triple Thinkers says nothing about the various "laws" of social development that Marx thought he had discovered. Instead, rejecting the Marxist demand that writers avoid merely personal issues and deal instead with the class struggle, he calls the reader's attention to the importance in literature of "a sort of law of moral interchangeability" that allows us to "transpose the action and the sentiments that move us into terms of whatever we do or are ourselves." In illustrating his point by a reference to Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Wilson moves far beyond Marxism to the moral core of the humanistic tradition his criticism exemplifies:
Edmund Wilson's personal life was often in disarray, and his political opinions were questionable. Yet these two volumes provide powerful testimony to the fidelity and continuing fruitfulness of his passion for literature.
James Seaton is professor of English at