Wilson Without Reputation

Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson; drawing by David Levine

This volume is a re-issue—with alterations and omissions duly acknowledged in the Preface—of a book made out of the author’s experiences in Europe (chiefly England, Italy, and Greece) during the final terrible months of the Second World War. The writing of it was undertaken on assignment for The New Yorker and the results were first published as a volume in 1947. To this series of vivid “sketches among the ruins,” as Wilson calls them, are now added some Notes From a Diary of 1963-64: Paris, Rome, Budapest. The Notes were also published, quite recently, in The New Yorker. But they show less of the alertness of someone writing on assignment, more of the fatigue of an ageing—though far from moribund—tourist writing on his own. Piecemeal, often imprecise and cranky, the Notes are, conspicuously, from a diary. Occasion is nevertheless found for including in them a lengthy account—more like a good encyclopedia article than a diary entry—of puppeterring.

First mention is here given to Wilson’s book rather than to Wilson himself for a special reason. Increasingly, it seems to have become impossible for anyone to write about any of his books without remarking at length on his “reputation,” a looming phenomenon. The causes of the Reputation, and the value of it relative to the value of that widely despised commodity, literary criticism in general, is one of the stock subjects of the higher journalism at present. Sometimes the much eulogized Reputation is dis-eulogized, declared to be overblown. By and large, however, it forms a spectacle that excites only praise—praise, moreover, of the peculiarly gratifying kind that appears to give pleasure to the giver, as well, presumably, as to the receiver and to that part of the public which, to its credit, rejoices in a well-earned success story.

With a single reservation, the present writer is at one with the praisers. To me Edmund Wilson has been an indispensable figure almost as far backward in time as my literary memory extends. Yet—here is the reservation—Wilson is frequently eulogized, not only on his own merits but at the expense of other, lesser critics. Exclusiveness reigns here as it does not reign, to any such extent, in the departments of fiction, poetry, or drama. The implication seems obvious: Criticism is tolerable. In fact admirable, only insofar as it is represented by the work of a single major figure; otherwise it is suspect.

ONE RURAL EDITOR put the matter graphically when he wrote that, compared to Edmund Wilson, all other living critics are as mice scampering around the Master’s feet. Wilson was evidently sent a copy of the editor’s remarks, for he replied (the reply was promptly published). “Thanks for the plug.” No doubt he thought the occasion too trivial for further comment, thus failing to disassociate himself from the vulgar invidiousness of the “plug.” Yet the rural editor was only doing what, as I say,…

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