Wilson’s Amerika

Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson; drawing by David Levine

In his middle thirties Edmund Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown from which he was not fully to recover for several years. At about the same time in his own life Wilson’s father, a gifted but extremely neurotic lawyer, suffered the first of a series of mental collapses which was to plague him and his family until he died. Naturally Wilson felt that there might be some connection between his father’s situation and his own. But there may have been a more immediate explanation too, for when Wilson was in his thirties America was also experiencing a depression and “the slump,” Wilson wrote, “was like a flood or an earthquake. It was a long time before many things righted themselves.” Two of his friends committed suicide and others were joining the Roman Catholic Church. Some of them went insane. “My own generation,” he said, “has not had so gay a journey as we expected when we first started out.” But for Wilson there was also something stimulating about the crash. “One couldn’t help being exhilarated at the sudden unexpected collapse of that stupid gigantic fraud,” by which he meant the era of Big Business. “It gave us a new sense of freedom; and it gave us a new sense of power to find ourselves still carrying on while the bankers, for a change, were taking a beating.”

At about this point in his life—it was 1933—Wilson returned, for the first time since his boyhood, to Talcottville, the town in upstate New York which had been settled, late in the eighteenth century, by his maternal ancestors. The family homestead was, by this time, pretty much abandoned, though in its day it had been a place of some importance. “The first event,” Wilson wrote, “recorded in connection with it was a memorial service for General Washington.” But by the 1930’s the town had just about dried up and the family had either died off or moved away. Though Wilson describes this house affectionately, his account of it does not obscure the fact that for years the place must have been fairly gloomy. Wilson’s mother, an ebullient woman who liked all her life to attend the Princeton football games, had little interest in her ancestral surroundings, but his father, as he grew more neurotic, would regularly retreat there and eventually he bought the place. The house now belongs to Wilson himself and, like his father, he spends much of his time in it. This old stone house, fronting on what had once been a main highway and, until a few years ago, with a hot dog stand across the road, has figured in a number of Wilson’s writings as a kind of motif or background against which it is interesting to consider some of his more recent work, especially the polemics he has lately been directing at the paradoxical coarsening and thinning out of American society.

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