Early Wilson

A Prelude

by Edmund Wilson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 278 pp., $6.50

Galahad and I Thought of Daisy

by Edmund Wilson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 316 pp., (paperback, $1.95) (paper)

Here are two more of those compact, oblong Edmund Wilson volumes, those books so congenial to the hand and to the eye—un-American somehow in their modest propriety of size and appearance and function. But Wilson’s American publishers for some years now have issued them in this form. By this unobtrusive means, Wilson may yet become one of the very few American writers living or dead whose works exist in print in something resembling a uniform edition—probably as close to a uniform edition, anyway, as American publishers can bear to maintain, unless we could count as books those encyclopedic monstrosities of the university presses, those linoleum-bound monuments to their own footnotes which American scholars are now erecting over the machine-collated remains of our classic nineteenth-century authors.

This row on the Edmund Wilson shelf, sturdy as bricks, now numbers nearly two dozen: fiction, poetry, drama, scholarship, memoirs, travel, anthropology, history, reporting, political pamphleteering; but it would scarcely do to arrange the books in this way. They are all Wilson, and all probably at last criticism. Even though many of them are not examinations of texts, but first-hand reports or original creations, they are all formed by the way the critical mind works. They note the provenance and the surface manner of whatever is being examined, person, place, or thing, and then rapidly, clearly, without any sparring or hesitation or qualification, the underlying structure is exposed and articulated, and its significance stated. This is as true of the slightest book review as of major works of literary history like Axel’s Castle, in which the “Modern Literature” of our century and its roots in Symbolism were first and probably best expounded. Go back now to those essays on Proust, Yeats, or Eliot, and see how much was said there—in 1931—and how all the many volumes on these writers since then can appear to be merely proliferations of some phrase of Wilson’s. We may be aware now of a tremendous lot of twigs, but he saw the woods. Sometimes perhaps he saw the way the woods lay so quickly that he may have missed a good deal: how strange that he never seems to get lost in Proust when he talks about him, and it is hard to imagine how he could not get lost, how he could fail to understand that he ought to have got lost there; but as he says in another connection, he nearly always knew exactly what he wanted and where he was going. When for some reason he couldn’t decide what to do, he cracked up.

ONE OF THE PAIR of books now published is a volume of two fictions, a story called “Galahad” and the novel I Thought of Daisy, both of them first printed in the Twenties. The other volume, A Prelude, has the subtitle Landscapes, Characters and Conversations from the Earlier Years of My Life. This consists of Wilson’s notebooks from the years 1908 to 1919, the …

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