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Wilson’s Amerika

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.

It was in this house that Wilson received, in June 1958, a notice to appear before the Internal Revenue Office in Utica to explain when he had last filed an income tax return. Since he had filed no returns between the years 1946 and 1955 and since he had no money to pay the government what he owed—with penalties and interest the sum was about $60,000—his negotiations with the IRS were to become highly complex and, as Wilson describes them in the present book, even phantasmagoric, like the bureaucratic tangles that the characters in nineteenth-century Russian novels would get themselves into. Wilson’s difficulties were to last for four years and to result in, among other things, the present book.

It is not altogether clear from reading this book just why he neglected to file his returns over such a long period. The fact that for four of these years he was making very little money (between 1947 and 1951 his income averaged $2,000 a year), that he did not clearly understand the dangers involved (though nearly everyone else did), that he had other, more pressing expenses, and that he intended to settle with the government when his financial circumstances improved, as they eventually did, are plausible explanations, but they are not sufficient. There must, one suspects, also have been an element of wilfulness in such a rebellious and dangerous omission.

When Wilson’s father bought the Talcottville house as a retreat, it is likely that he thought of the place, as Wilson himself was later to do, as “a pocket of the past” where one could still be in touch with the old republican virtues and hold oneself aloof from the millionaires and bond salesmen as if they belonged, Wilson once said, “to a different race.” It was here too, in northern New York State, that the Copperhead movement flourished—which Wilson has described as an instance of this old republican spirit—the spirit which refused, at the time of the Civil War, to support New England in its suppression of the South, because this suppression represented the opposite of “the ideal of American republican freedom.”

Though the Talcotts, after whom the town was named, were not themselves part of this movement, they seemed to manifest an independence and crankiness of their own. According to the county history they had a profitable grist mill, but “they adopted a policy averse to the building up of the village at the point where the natural advantages greatly favored,” since they “refused to sell village lots to mechanics, and retained the water power on the Sugar River, although parties offered to invest liberally in manufactures.” Wilson’s father, though he came from a different part of New York State and practiced law in Red Bank, New Jersey, seems to have shared some of this disposition, for despite his influential connections (he had represented the Pennsylvania Railroad and served a term as Attorney General of the State of New Jersey) he never accumulated a fortune and refused on principle to speculate in securities because he felt the stock market was just another form of gambling. As a result, he was unable to leave his son a legacy, a fact which Wilson reports with regretful pride.

It must,” Wilson says in his new book, “seem naive and even stupid, on the part of one who had worked for years on a journal (The New Republic) which specialized in public affairs, that he should have paid so little attention to recent changes in the income tax laws…”But there is more to it, I think, than this: something more in keeping with the Talcotts’ refusal to let go of their water rights: a stubborn rejection of the idea that one’s essential relation to one’s country is, as it has increasingly come to be, a matter of money, that one serves one’s country first in the role of a book-keeper.

In a famous essay which he wrote in 1929 Wilson condemned T.S. Eliot for associating himself romantically with the medievalism of the Anglo-Catholic Church and for refusing to confront the realities of life in his own country in the twentieth century. In the same essay he criticized his friend Dos Passos for escaping from the real world into a cult of the proletariat while Mencken and Pound, he felt, had secluded themselves, respectively, in a German university town and medieval Provence. “Most Americans of the type of Dos Passos and Eliot—that is, sensitive and widely read literary people—have some agreeable literary fantasy in which they can allow their minds to take refuge from the perplexities and oppressions about them.” But five years later Wilson was on the train to Utica—the train never went to Talcottville itself—and was thereafter to contrive a somewhat imaginary country of his own in which to take refuge. For the legend of Talcottville—with its old stone house, its walls “a foot and a half thick…the beams secured by enormous nails, made by hand…solid and simple as a fortress…with the charm of something that has been made to order…”, with its Copperheads and with its Iroquois who, to this day, refuse to agree that they are American citizens—this legend has not much more to do with “the perplexities and oppressions about” us than the courts of Provence or the church of Lancelot Andrewes.

Still, there is a difference between Wilson, despite Talcottville, and these other American writers; for Talcottville is, after all, Wilson’s own myth and it is also a myth perhaps the myth, that belongs to America. It is the case too that Wilson was not so much to submerge himself in Talcottville as to use the place to keep himself afloat. The difference is that between the confirmed addict, who has sacrificed his sense of reality, and the circumspect taker of hallucinatory or energizing drugs who wants to tighten his grip on a reality which is growing elusive and might otherwise evade him.

The substance of Wilson’s new book is a diatribe against what America has lately become; a country which, compared to its past, is itself hallucinatory and impalpable, a spectre beside the decaying reality of Wilson’s old stone house. We inhabit, Wilson feels, a power unit so large that it can no longer be controlled by its citizens or even by its leaders. It is now so abstract in relation to the people who live in it that it can hardly, any longer, be understood. Perhaps for this reason, the present book, compared with Wilson’s literary essays or his earlier political articles, is itself somewhat abstract; as if the shaping, analytical mind which could, in dealing with such writers as Dickens and James, or such political figures as Marx and Lenin, recreate so solidly and with such density the substance of these figures, had suddenly—in the face of our phantasmagoric arsenals and our incomprehensible bureaucracies—found itself in an atmosphere too thin to support its customary exertions. “…found itself in gone so far” that Wilson wonders “whether there is any chance, short of catastrophe, of dismembering and disassembling this image and constructing a nobler one that answers better to what we pretend to?” But it is less, one feels as one reads this book, a matter of dismembering and disassembling this image than it is of finding something human that one can get hold of at all. It is as if this literary critic were trying to describe and understand a poem or novel whose characters are so unconvincing, and so obscurely motivated, and whose language so weakly conveys the ordinary emotions, that he can not begin to follow their actions.

Stanley Elkins, the American historian, has, in his excellent little book, Slavery, attempted to draw a parallel between the Southern plantations before the Civil War and the Nazi concentration camps. In both of these total institutions the inmates—the Negro slaves and the Jewish prisoners—had, in order to survive, to adopt a submissive and even cheerful infantalism, to deny and literally to forget what they had been as responsible men. They had to conform like children to the prevailing regime, no matter how absurd, for they could do nothing to change it and to challenge it meant death. It seems to be Wilson’s idea that America has by now become somewhat the same sort of institution, but on a gigantic scale, and that it is having somewhat the same effect on its citizens. They are becoming passive and mindless and they are nearly all collaborating, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes grudgingly, in their own destruction. “Even those who do not give much conscious thought to what has been taking place are discouraged and blocked in their work or alienated from their normal ambitions by the paralyzing chill of a national effort directed toward a blind dead end which is all the more horrifying for being totally inconsecutive with their daily lives and inapprehensible to their imaginations. The accomplished, the intelligent, the well-informed go on in their useful professions that require high integrity and intellect, but they suffer more and more from the crowding of an often unavowed constraint which may prevent them from allowing themselves to become too intelligent and well-informed or may drive them to indulge their skills in gratuitous and futile exercises.”

The source of this decay is, Wilson thinks, the income tax and the cold war, which have by now succeeded in terrifying and paralyzing everybody, including the people who imagine that they are in charge of them. The Internal Revenue is, according to Wilson, a kind of secret police, staffed, however, not by the old-fashioned thugs in jack boots but by certified public accountants, who have, somewhat incomprehensibly, empowered themselves to expropriate billions of dollars from their fellow citizens. Most of these funds are then turned over to the production of unimaginably dangerous, but useless, weapons and, more disgusting still, to the production of chemicals and bacteria meant to produce diseases which mankind has labored for centuries to overcome. One of our government laboratories, which Wilson describes, occupies itself by experimenting with larks whose wings have been infected with wheat rust while another group breeds tough strains of yellow fever mosquitoes whose vigor it then tests—though they are not as yet armed with the disease—by releasing them over military establishments whose inhabitants, mothers and infants included, are then, presumably, asked to report how often they have been bitten. And all of this is either hidden from the public which is paying for it or presented to them as a less obnoxious form of mass murder than nuclear warfare.

The justification for all of this, Wilson feels, is by now rather vague. It is no longer a matter of defending ourselves against Russia and China and any other enemies we may have, for our nuclear weapons are enough to demolish these countries, as well as ourselves and our friends, many times over. It seems, in view of this, excessive and even crazy to inflict on the world, at vast expense to ourselves (the cost this year is more than $200 million), famine and plague as well, and to pretend, as we have been doing, that our aims are nevertheless humanitarian. It seems to Wilson especially crazy that we should be spending these sums when many American families, to say nothing of families living in other countries, are finding it hard to keep their children in shoes or are unable to send them to the admittedly miserable schools which we provide for them. But we go on with these deadly enterprises, Wilson feels, because we can no longer imagine alternatives. It is, he suggests, as if we and our enemies were engaged in a monstrous Olympic game, sustained by a rivalry that has been trumped up, like that between neighboring towns, in order to keep us interested in the game. But the game, for all its excitement, is too dangerous to go on playing. Yet nobody has thought of a way out and, by now, no one seems capable of doing so. Our helplessness thus feeds on itself and has become corrosive, as if the weapons had—though not yet fired—already begun to do their work. We may not, Wilson seems to be saying, have to wait for the bombs to go off or for the larks to be let loose. The impotence and the sense of unreality we experience as we prepare for war may be enough by themselves to finish us off.

Wilson once asked of Kafka, a writer whom he does not admire, “Why should this artist have gone on past boyhood accepting the role of a cockroach…? If…one puts Kafka beside writers with whom he may properly be compared he still seems rather unsatisfactory. Gogol and Poe were equally neurotic…yet they have both certain advantages over Kafka—for Gogol was nourished and fortified by his heroic conception of Russia, and Poe, for all his Tory views, is post-Revolutionary American in his challenging, defiant temper, his alert and curious mind…they are both tonic…the denationalized, discouraged, disaffected Kafka, though for the moment he may frighten or amuse us, can in the end only let us down…’One must not cheat anybody’ says Kafka, in an aphorism which has been much applauded, ‘not even the world of its triumph.’ But what are we writers here for if it is not to cheat the world of its triumph? In Kafka’s case, it was he who was cheated and never lived to get his own back. What he has left us is the half expressed gasp of a self-doubting soul trampled under. I do not see how one can possibly take him for either a great artist or a moral guide.”

Yet how close we have all come to finding ourselves in this condition of being trampled under. One feels, as one reads Wilson’s diatribe, not so much outrage as numbness as one is reminded how powerless we all are to defend ourselves or our children from the insane programs which we are supporting with our taxes. It is no longer a matter, Wilson argues, of overthrowing a particular institution, like one of Theodore Roosevelt’s trusts, or even of controlling a thriving corporation that has got out of hand. “For we have created the war branches of our government in one of our own images.” And thus we are ourselves our own enemy, the builders and keepers of our own death camp. We cannot even look forward to a recurrence of the exhilaration Wilson felt thirty years ago when the whole thing went to pot, for this time we shall almost certainly—all of us—go to pot along with it. And for us, born in the twentieth century, there are no Talcottvilles to which to return for inspiration. There is probably nothing for us but to keep faith with the distinction, to the clarification of which Wilson has devoted his life, between the Kafkas on the one hand and the Gogols and Poes on the other, even though we know in our hearts that the Internal Revenue—in the face of whose book-keepers it makes so much more sense to play the fool than to play the hero—may in the end make Kafkas of us all.

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