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Lessons of the Master

The remarkably prolific Edmund Wilson has now written, or rather assembled, his thirty-first book. As its subtitle implies, The Bit Between My Teeth belongs with Wilson’s other “chronicles,” The Shores of Light and Classics and Commercials—collections of book reviews and occasional essays which, taken together, display the range of his interests from the 1920s to the present. That range remains dazzling; no critic in this century has been so versatile. Nor, despite a marked slackening in intensity and morale from each of Wilson’s chronicles to the next, has he lost his gift of communicating a disciplined enthusiasm for unfashionable books and ideas. In an age of cautious specialization he is a genuine man of letters; indeed, without Edmund Wilson we could hardly recall what that term is supposed to convey.

Despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, Wilson himself is out of fashion in the academic world. Professors who may well have formed their taste on Axel’s Castle and their politics on To the Finland Station are now sufficiently wise to call Wilson superficial. It is not a simple case of ingratitude; in a limited sense the professors are right. Wilson’s talent has always been more for introducing men and movements than for analyzing them. He has rarely tried to do more than register the encounter of his sympathetic and judicious mind with alien materials—to jog a pleasant mile with the bit between his teeth. This latest book makes explicit his affinity with Van Wyck Brooks and Newton Arvin and Mario Praz—civilized, omniverous impressionists who are largely unencumbered by theory. His patient recitals of biographical facts, his plot-summaries, his assurances that the work under discussion is good bedtime reading have always been characteristic of his method; it is only recently, under the ascendency of more systematic modes of criticism which Wilson finds contemptible, that these practices have been widely interpreted as padding and evasion.

With its recollections of literary friends, its sampling of such varied fare as the Holmes-Laski correspondence and the writings of Sade, its generous praise of George Ade and James Branch Cabell, and its almost total silence about the postwar writers who are usually given top billing, The Bit Between My Teeth is exactly the miscellany one might have expected: personal, appreciative, occasionally fussy and irate, always a bit idiosyncratic in taste. I confess that the book in itself interests me less than the questions it calls to mind about Wilson’s reputation, first as a literary critic, then as a figure in his age. A new book by Sherman Paul entitled Edmund Wilson: A Study of Literary Vocation in Our Time (University of Illinois Press, $5.75) goes into these matters, but in a spirit of premature elegy that does insufficient justice to the chief misgivings that have been voiced about Wilson’s stature.

If Wilson’s criticism is to represent something more permanent than a record of great industry or an episode in mass education, it will have to withstand the charges levelled against it eighteen years ago by Stanley Edgar Hyman in The Armed Vision. Much of Hyman’s chapter consisted of back-handed praise, personal innuendo, and English-department snobbery toward “journalism” and “popularization.” But Hyman and Delmore Schwartz before him succeeded in calling Wilson’s literary judgment into question. If, as they argue, he is almost wholly insensitive to poetry; if his response to the major modern writers has been either to belittle them (Gide, Kafka, Mann, Rilke) or to reduce them to unnecessarily homely terms (Joyce, Proust); if he has too frequently praised the second-rate and squandered his energy in decrying the fifthrate; if his separation of literary form and content has been mechanical and unfeeling; and if his “thesis” books, Axel’s Castle and The Wound and the Bow, have been conceptually weak and even confused—what then is left to admire?

However appealing. Wilson may be as a figure, these strictures are not easily refuted. The point about his taste in poetry seems confirmed by his apparent regard for his own early bathetic attempts at serious verse, which, incredibly, he was still anthologizing as late as 1961 (“The Nephelococcugian flute I heard…,” “Or ever graving blade/Of Evinrude have woke…,” etc.). To judge by the introductory essay to the present volume, Wilson’s pride is invested less in his ideas and perceptions than in the number of languages he has mastered and the number of books he has called to the public’s notice. Many of his adventures in explication read like homework rather than discovery. It is a curious thing to mention at this late date, but Wilson sometimes has an air of not knowing quite what he wants to say.

To appreciate Wilson’s value, however, one need only contrast his criticism with that of his rivals at any phase of his career. When he first made his presence felt it seemed that a critic would have to adopt either the Puritanical insularity of Babbitt and More or the facile iconoclasm of Mencken and Nathan; Wilson’s early writings, by the example of their urbanity and unpretentious seriousness, helped to end the adolescence of American letters. In the Thirties Wilson, a confessed Marxist, saw with perfect lucidity the pitfalls of ideological criticism; and few ex-radicals from that time have been able, as he has, to discuss the social dimension of literature without falling into irrational apologetics or penance. At every point Wilson’s common sense and hatred of intellectual cant have set him apart from schools and cliques. And in our own period Wilson has proven himself a more plausible commentator than most of the academic critics who speak slightingly of his amateurism. He has never been attracted by the formal and “myth” approaches which turn literary works into autonomous, transcendent objects, suitably impersonal for classroom analysis; for him the work is always a human product, a vector of intentions, conditions, and inhibitions. It seems safe to predict that he will outlast all the modes by whose standards he appears old-fashioned.

I do not mean that Wilson is admirable simply for what he avoids. In his best work we see that his frank interest in the social and emotional vicissitudes of writers has led him back into an awareness of the immediate psychological quality of literary texts—that pervasive atmosphere which somehow eludes the formalist and the moralist and the historian of ideas. Thus “Dickens: The Two Scrooges” and “The Kipling That Nobody Read” appear to be works of biographical speculation but in fact become indispensible statements about the nature of each writer’s fictional world. Again, anyone who wants to consider the essential spirit of Lincoln, of Marx, of John Jay Chapman would do better to go to Wilson’s seemingly relaxed treatments of these writers than to more systematic and imposing studies. And in the case of Henry James it may be said that the widespread avoidance of Wilson’s insights is the mark of a decadent critical tradition. “The Ambiguity of Henry James” is remembered only for its controversial but second-hand theory about the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw, not for its more general and potentially revolutionary assertions. It is Wilson’s belief—corroborated, in my opinion, by Leon Edel’s biographical findings—that James’s ambiguity has to do with a reluctance to be found out; that his surface psychologizing is largely refuted by the revealed natures of his characters; and that his plots are vehicles of uneasy self-dramatization and occasionally of perverse sexuality. No one who accepts these heretical ideas has as yet succeeded in expounding them without dismissing James’s genius along with his poses; the person who does so will find no better starting-point than the 1948 version of Wilson’s essay.

Wilson’s stature, I would surmise, will be measured by specific pieces of criticism, by the brilliant sketches that compose To the Finland Station and Patriotic Gore, and by at least one memorable work of fiction, “The Princess with the Golden Hair” (in Memoirs of Hecate County). But it is also possible that he himself, as a representative American, will come to seem more important than any of his writings. This is the impression fostered by Sherman Paul’s book, which, well-disposed as it is toward Wilson’s criticism, is chiefly a study of the survival and development of his individualism. Here we see Wilson as a humanist, a progressive, a friend of the unpopular and the dispossessed, a scrupulous balancer of the claims of reason and action—but above all as an enemy of authority. And this latter note is, after all, the one that Wilson himself has come to strike most emphatically in all his recent books. I am in no position to dispute any of this—indeed, I recommend Paul’s book as a plausible account of Wilson’s virtues as well as a useful chapter of literary history—but I do want to raise some questions that are bound to be asked sooner or later.

There is something appealing in the simple image of Wilson, the eighteenth-century republican, turning his back on a wicked age and declaring (in 1963) that “this country, whether or not I continue to live in it, is no longer any place for me.” Despite the ludicrous aspects of his (surely semi-deliberate) “delinquency” before the Internal Revenue Service, The Cold War and the Income Tax is a moving book—moving precisely because its indictment of bureaucracy and war psychology is delivered from the moral vantage of an all-but-forgotten Jeffersonianism. And yet the indictment sounds oddly distant. Wilson’s habit in recent years has been to simplify political affairs to terms so general and so degrading that he need not dwell on particulars except as illustrating the untrustworthiness of man. The Cold War, he tells us in The Bit Between My Teeth, is “just an animal rivalry—a couple of gorillas beating their breasts.” We learn in the Introduction to Patriotic Gore that all battles, irrespective of the stated issues, are caused “by the same instincts as the voracity of the sea slug.” It is all a spectacle of folly; one’s business is not to explain it but to dissociate oneself from it. “Human life since Stalin and the Nazis,” according to Wilson, “has been something that few people in the East or the West any longer care much about.” The writer who once captured the revolutionary involvement of Michelet and Babeuf, of Marx and Lenin, now brings to mind the later Mark Twain’s hollow nihilism.

It seems at least arguable that this demoralization has less to do with the intangible dreariness of postwar life than with an inherent limitation in Wilson’s temperament. As we learn from Sherman Paul and from autobiographical comments, Wilson has shared the plight of many an earlier American writer who was raised in the shadows of Calvinism and family neurosis. His professed intention to embrace humane values without aid from religion or myth has entailed a constant self-correction, a perilous steering between inhuman cynicism and inhuman faith (including faith in political utopias). The strain of willing his temperate iconoclasm has begun to show in Wilson’s prose; his advocacy of reason has occasionally verged into a sweeping rationalism which expresses disgust with the image of man denuded of illusion.

These thoughts are occasioned by certain recent statements of Wilson’s which are flatly contrary to his announced principles. In A Piece of My Mind this celebrated anti-bureaucrat, in one last burst of utopianism, envisions “a bureau which should ask for volunteers for the breeding of a new élite.” Astoundingly, he cites “the German Youth Movement of Hitler and the Russian Komsomols” as promising starts in this direction, and he urges with no humorous intent: “Think what we have done with dogs. Think what we have done with horses.” One would suppose that a man of Wilson’s political education would see the dangers to human liberty in centrally managed eugenics; if he does not see them, it must be because he finds the present state of mankind insupportable. And this suspicion is backed by his most recent and least amusing attempt at facetiousness in The Bit Between My Teeth:

I try to look on the cheerful side, and to tell myself that there’s no real way of getting rid of the horrible American cities except to have them vaporized, so I am not in favor of those weapons which exterminate the human beings without destroying the buildings. And it is something of a consolation to remember that if New York, for example, were bombed, Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Luce and Cardinal Spellman and Robert Moses might be quickly exterminated; and then if Washington got it, the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and all the rest of the government bureaucracy would go. But I hope that as between us and Russia the destruction would be reciprocal. Moscow is a dreadful place, too—also swarming with bureaucrats.

If this is humor it is that of The Mysterious Stranger.

Wilson’s sentiments toward mankind have begun to resemble those of a village atheist. The man who still thinks he was right in opposing our taking arms against Hitler, and who sees little but threats to privacy and selfhood in every turn of history, has become a curious shadowboxer in the cause of humanism. This is meant as no detraction from his formidable work in civilizing his countrymen, and it has no bearing on his worth as a literary critic. I am only saying that if we are to understand his whole intellectual progress we will have to supplement such explanatory terms as humanism and individualism with a more precise sense of his mind. Wilson’s doctrine of the wound and the bow may remind us that self-mastery has been the dominant note of his career; indeed, it is the subject of all his best writing. No one should now be surprised if Wilson has been able to sustain that mastery only at the price of a near-total withdrawal from the political life of these recent decades.


Wilson and the Academy December 23, 1965

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