The Magazine

His Master's Voice

Edmund Wilson in the Library of America.

Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By JAMES SEATON
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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:

We acquire a curious affection for even the most objectionable characters in Proust: Morel, for example, is certainly one of the most odious characters in fiction, yet we are never really made to hate him or to wish that we did not have to hear about him, and we feel a genuine regret when Mme. Verdurin, with her false teeth and her monocle, finally vanishes from our sight. This generous sympathy and understanding for even the monstrosities which humanity produces, and Proust's capacity for galvanizing these monstrosities into energetic life, are at the bottom of the extraordinary success of the tragic-comic hero of Proust's Sodom, M. de Charlus.

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.