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Wilson Without Reputation

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, other writers have done repeatedly with more finesse: elevated Wilson, that is, while humbling most others of his profession. Generally the humbled are said to belong to some narrow, conspiratorial circle, say the “New York Critics” or the “new Critics”—the latter group, incidentally, a collective dead horse which continues to be flogged, so persistently and with so little discrimination that it has acquired the status of an immortal scapegoat, flayed all over, the life long since gone out of it, but still good for a passing kick. How seriously is Wilson himself involved in this process of making him into a Moloch or Minotaur? One can’t confidently say, except to note that he has given tacit consent to the process and even at times gone victim-hunting on his own. A habit of swagger, often recklessly cruel, is common among longtime survivors who have made it. The aged Yeats, Shaw, Churchill, and Gertrude Stein afford precedents, not to mention the abominations in this line of the ageing, but as we now know, half-demented, Hemingway.

What is most disturbing about Wilson’s attitude, as I understand it, is the extent to which it seems to represent a concession to present-day literary attitudes and manners and thus to be at odds with the attitudes and manners of Wilson’s own literary generation in its prime. On the whole, literary manners today are awful—virile and exciting, yes, but absurdly vindictive, self-advertising, and in the long run self-destroying. Dog eats dog, or at least cat cat, only to find that he has made an unappetizing spectacle of himself. (Truman Capote’s overblown campaign of self-publicity for In Cold Blood accounts for many of the equally silly and quite irrelevant attacks on his fine book.) Contemporary literary manners rest on assumptions peculiar to this inflationary age, an age habituated to the imminence of “explosions” in all things, from culture in general to literary reputations in particular. To expect immediate recognition is common; to develop acute paranoia when recognition fails to materialize in full and without qualification is not uncommon. The times are, or seem to be, magnificently astir; anything can happen, and does, with consequences, for writers, that are about equally inspiriting and demoralizing.

Quite different literary manners still prevailed when, in the Thirties, I first knew Edmund Wilson. They prevailed, I mean, with him and, I would guess, with other of his contemporaries such as Cummings, Stevens, Tate, Dos Passos, and—despite their resounding public roles—Pound and Eliot. Not that these writers were merely “modest.” Inwardly, at least, they seem to have felt immense pride, the natural concomitant of their shared ambition to make new the fiction, poetry, or criticism of the English-speaking world. The very size of their ambition nevertheless qualified their expectations of immediate fame. Nor did their intense rivalries and loyalties take the form of public feuding and acts of mutual demolition to the extent that similar rivalries and loyalties (if any) do today. Yet each of those older writers—the good ones—gave the impression of being a fully self-made self. Marvels of individuality, intricate, prickly, often hermetic, they confirmed Hopkins’s claim that every first-rate literary talent “is like a species in nature, and never recurs.” Even so, most of them conceived of the literary life as an affair, so to speak, of adjoining ateliers, in each of which the single talent thrived in proportion as it gave assent and aid to a common cause, that of remaking, as I say, art and literature. D.H. Lawrence was the great exception, a genius trapped in an age of genius; and it is Lawrence’s pugnacity, or a travesty of it, along with Hemingway’s more visceral approach, that has helped to fix the literary tone of the present age.

LIKE OTHERS of his generation, the Wilson I knew in the Thirties and early Forties showed a marked diffidence towards public opinion, friendly or hostile. The “atelier,” his and that of the rest, was open to qualified outsiders. There you could spend an entire evening in distinguished company without once mentioning—as today it would be fatal to fail of doing—the “work” of one’s host or hosts. The diffidence was charming, merely assumed though it may often have been in conformity with the prevailing manners. It was also, possibly, a useful form of self-restraint. As a member of a younger generation. I recall the times when, on making the acquaintance of one or another of those older writers, I violated the code. Warned though I had been, for example, against referring to Dos Passos’s work in his presence, I found Dos Passos so friendly and in his bashful way so communicative on our first meeting—again in the Thirties—that the warning was forgotten. While talking alone with him about a woman we both knew I let fall the suggestion that she reminded me of a certain character in U.S.A. With that the author of U.S.A. turned crimson and stammered something unintelligible. To the distress I already felt was added the pang of realizing that Dos Passos was exerting himself just in order to spare me distress.

With Wilson, whom in those years I saw more often, the diffidence was less pronounced though in its own way it was inescapable. When, occasionally, he spoke kindly of something. I had written, he spoke with conviction but very quickly, as if any talents I might possess were to be taken for granted. When, however, I undertook to review To the Finland Station and found little in it to object to, he sent me a postcard saying that he would have appreciated more criticism. Had I been guilty in his eyes of the unpardonable sin, as it then was in the best literary circles, of log-rolling? Another time, talking with him about Yeats, I said that the chapter on Yeats in Axel’s Castle, which I had just been re-reading, had survived very well all the more recent hullabaloo about that poet. “No, no,” Wilson replied, again with conviction but quickly, “It’s very dated. It won’t do at all.” And just as I had not meant to log-roll before, so now the intention of flattery was far from my mind. In fact, our conversations had by this time become difficult, even slightly irascible, owing to my inability to cope with Wilson’s conversational tactics—those habits of flat contradiction and of one-upmanship to which he has since confessed, not at all ruefully, in print.

He several times conveyed dissatisfaction with other of his writings, doing so, however, always with authority, even with pride, never as if asking for reassurance or offering extenuation. In short, the dissatisfaction was genuine beyond a doubt. And whatever it may have owed to literary manners, it owed more to his now celebrated pioneering spirit. As his eulogists have often noted, Wilson’s pioneering spirit manifests itself in numerous ways. He continually explores and settles new literary territory. He also re-visits, scrutinizes afresh, and alters for republication, the quite sizeable world of his own past writings.

That this expansiveness takes its toll in the form of occasional superficiality and poor judgment is equally a feature of the legend. While bestowing honors on some second-rate Sicilian or Canadian writer, Wilson is capable of ignoring or condescending to the first-rate talents that exist—literally—under his nose. This limitation has had its advantages; it has made work for less ambitious critics. To poor Richard Blackmur, for example—“poor” because so often associated with the New Critics and sacrificed with them to Moloch Wilson—was left one of the essential critical jobs of the century. I mean the making more or less accessible to the common reader of the American modernist poets—poets who, in certain cases, were once Wilson’s neighbors and acquaintances in the Village and who wrote for the same periodicals. To them he never really gave the time of day. Yet theirs turns out to have been probably the most substantial achievement of his generation, their very modes of life testifying to the kind of moral character, the capacity for long and sustained efforts against odds which, in other instances, have so often fired Wilson’s critical imagination. Yet his expansiveness is a prime reason for his indispensableness. To it he owes, above all, the forceful narrative momentum of his essays, that effect of a venturesome critical expedition whose outcome is the more eagerly awaited because not readily foreseen.

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