The first of the following letters was written to John Jay Chapman, whose book Lucian, Plato and Greek Morals had just been published. It is printed here by courtesy of the Harvard University Libraries. The second letter was written to the critic Morton Dauwen Zabel and is printed by courtesy of the Newberry Library. Both letters will be included in a collection of Edmund Wilson’s letters,. to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
September 8, 1931,
7 Lingate Lane,
Santa Barbara, California
Dear Mr. Chapman:
I have just read your book with great enjoyment and written something about it for the New Republic. I’m glad you wrote me about it.
I always sympathize with your onslaughts on the scholars—though I do think that in your first chapter you are a little too sweeping. There are surely cases of accurate scholars who are imaginative, too. A. E. Housman, for example. You know that in several cases his proposed readings were justified by texts afterwards found. And his emendations of the Latin poets spring from a kind of divination that only a poet could have. Did you ever read the preface to the first volume of his text of Manilius?—it is a fascinating production. It also contains a fine Latin poem by him.
One gold brick I believe the scholars have put over on you. I think that you have been misled by Jebb about Antigone. So far as I have ever been able to see, all that about Antigone’s crying out the name of Haemon is a pure invention of his. In the original text it is only Ismene who is concerned about Haemon. Antigone is interested only in her brother and never thinks about her fiancé or makes any attempt to see him. Jebb’s assignment of certain lines to Antigone is based wholly on his feeling that Antigone ought to have something to say about Haemon. His emendations are very implausible because they break up the one-line dialogue. Also, there is no textual reason whatever for outlawing the famous passage about dying for a brother but not a lover, etc., which Sophocles evidently intended. Goethe hadn’t been able to understand it and Jebb set out to make the play more acceptable from the nineteenth-century point of view. See how closely certain features of the Electra parallel the Antigone—the contrast between the sisters, for example—and how Sophocles has failed to provide Electra with a husband where Euripides did. Evidently he had a special sympathy for these fierce virgins.
I hope that we can have lunch together sometime in the fall when I get back to New York and you are in town, and discuss these matters.—Your Lucian book makes me want to read him. I agree that Plato is buttered on both sides. No doubt there is a lot to be said about him that has never been said—or at least that I have never seen said. It is interesting to compare Plato’s “sublimation” of love with Dante’s. They can be made to sound alike, but they are really very different—and the difference is certainly partly the difference in sex between Socrates and Beatrice. The type of Socrates in Dante is Ser Brunetto and he is condemned to the sterile plain.
Yours very sincerely,
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October 31, 1938,
233 Stamford Avenue,
I haven’t written you before about Under Western Eyes because we have been reading it aloud in the evenings and have only just finished it tonight. The first hundred pages, as you say, are good; and I was interested in it all through on account of its dealing with Russians, about whom he says many things that seem to me true and penetrating and giving a Polish slant on them; but my opinion of it differs so much from yours that I am curious to know why you rate it so high. It seems to me about the worst told story I have ever read and confirms my doubts about Conrad at the time years ago when I gave up reading him. I have always thought there was a good deal of bunk about the technical apparatus of non-participant observers, etc. which James and Conrad went in for and which caused them to scoff at Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; I’ve always thought the non-participant observers were alibis for not showing the main characters from the inside, as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were able to do. But Henry James does get something out of this method: given the form and the theme, the story is wonderfully told; it keeps you in suspense and it progresses. But Conrad cannot seem to do either. He shifts back and forth between Razumov and the professor in what seems to me the most perfectly meaningless way. The narrative goes round and round in circles. He keeps going back and telling you what is behind scenes from which you have already drawn the correct inferences; and these returns on himself simply drive me crazy. What is the use of going back, for example, to Razumov’s experiences in Russia after you have seen him in Geneva? And where, in Henry James, every character or setting is strictly what they call nowadays functional, Conrad introduces various interesting characters and vividly describes a whole series of settings without making them do anything at all. The whole book from the end of part two seems to me a masterpiece of mishandling. You know from the moment that Razumov shows up in Geneva that he is going to be moved by Miss Haldin to perform some act of contrition and that is precisely what he does, in a way that occasions little surprise.
Of course, there is a good deal by the way that is remarkable: the picture of Geneva; the psychology of the illegitimate and motherless Razumov (the use of this in the confession part is splendid); and the characterization of the Russians—though I feel that this, deeply intelligent as it is, has a little the second-hand quality of most sketching of national types by foreigners. Isn’t it much more satisfactory to read The Possessed or Crime and Punishment? But do tell us why you like the book so much, why you should go back to it and reread it, as you say.
In any case, Conrad is an interesting bird, and I shall be very much interested to see what you say about him. It must be true as I think you were telling me that some bad conscience or feeling of defeat about Poland is behind these characters of his who are always selling out or letting themselves down or disastrously going to pieces. Certainly his interest in Razumov is not, as he seems to imply in his preface, simply an amazed curiosity at the eccentric ways of Russians, the national enemies of Poles. I should think that the whole Slavic end of Conrad ought to be gone into.
You must certainly write about him: why not a book of three longish studies, like Thomas Mann’s Wagner, Goethe and Freud? Couldn’t one of them be E. M. Forster?—It seemed to me, by the way, in reading your piece in The Nation, that your writing has very much improved: you seem to have got rid of your old fault of verbosity—or I guess what I mean is prolixity—which sometimes used to swamp the form of your long essays.
In any case, we have much enjoyed both the book and the brandy—blessing you whenever we drank the latter and cursing you whenever Razumov, for every action of whose we felt you for mysterious reasons had desired to assume entire responsibility, got hung up for some too interminable conversation. (I’m afraid this last sentence sounds like Conrad.)….