Edmund Wilson at Ease

The Fifties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period

by Edmund Wilson, edited with an introduction by Leon Edel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 663 pp., $25.00

Readers of Edmund Wilson’s diaries for the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s may have regretted that in these volumes Wilson omitted sustained accounts of the literary life in which he had been immersed for thirty years, and supplied only glancing sketches of such youthful companions as John Bishop, Edna Millay, and Scott Fitzgerald. Wilson’s diaries for those decades were remarkable mainly for their descriptions of his many love affairs, pursuits for which this distinguished and reputedly austere literary personage was not widely known. One reviewer has recently gone so far as to call the erotic passages in these diaries pornographic, and even for Wilson’s less easily inflamed readers his amatory descriptions must have come as something of a shock, for Wilson’s candor is as defiant, as limitless, and as innocent as Stieglitz’s in his erotic photographs of Georgia O’Keefe. Perhaps for this reason these amatory writings have not received their due, particularly the long elegiac piece on his second wife, Margaret Canby, in The Thirties.

Though Wilson had been taken seriously as a critic almost from the time he began to write, he was not the personage he would become by the 1950s, when he was in his own fifties and sixties, and usually described as America’s leading man of letters. Nor did he write his earlier diaries for eventual publication as he seems to have done the present ones. Compared with the earlier volumes, the current installment is the largely finished work of a successful literary man at the height of his powers and reputation, disillusioned but still intensely if rather more narrowly than before practicing the haute vulgarisation that had by now become his specialty. No longer primarily a literary critic, Wilson by the 1950s had become a cultural journalist of an incomparably high order.

A virtue of these diaries is their record of Wilson’s encounters with what would prove to be the last group of writers still on easy terms with the language and culture of the last century, the century in which Wilson himself was rooted: such writers as Max Beerbohm, E.M. Forster, Cyril Connolly, W.H. Auden, and Vladimir Nabokov. But for all the care that Wilson has taken with his often biting portraits of these figures this volume nevertheless represents its author domesticated and at ease. Wilson is less interesting in these pages for his intellectual discriminations, which he saved for his more formal writings, than for what he reveals, often without quite meaning to, about his state of mind as he comes in his sixth decade within sight not only of his own death but of that of the Edwardian literary generation by which he had been formed, and of which he was to be the last important American example.

As for his amatory career, Wilson is now married to his fourth wife, the former Elena Thornton, with whom he is much in love, and with whom he is much in love, and with whom he quarrels only over her reluctance to accompany him…

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