The Twenties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period
From the bleak isolation of a provincial elite, young Edmund Wilson drove himself to escape by way of cosmopolitan society, sexual freedom, and high culture. A dreary chronicle of alcoholic camaraderie now reveals that his personality had set too deeply and too soon for indirect methods to transform it. In middle age he would come to terms with his fate, realizing that the humanistic tradition gave meaning to his life even if it could not expel his demons.
Wilson was the only child of a melancholy lawyer who thought gambling in stock shares was immoral, and of an ardent gardener who loved spectator sports. Both parents belonged to rich, distinguished families; both were hard to talk to. The father was self-absorbed and hypochondriacal; the mother was deaf. Mr. Wilson senior began having breakdowns when his son was an infant, and he spent his later years in and out of sanatoriums. Mrs. Wilson would have liked Edmund junior to be an athlete; she did not read his work.
When Wilson was growing up, the family relations constituted his social circle. He collaborated on literary projects with a favorite cousin Sandy Kimball, who became his only “really close companion” before Wilson went away to prep school. They read Studies in the Psychology of Sex together, and Sandy disturbed him with tales of homosexual experiences at St. Paul’s School. When Wilson returned from military service in 1919, he discovered that Sandy was now schizophrenic, living in a sanatorium.
At this point, where an earlier and mercifully thinner volume left off, Wilson’s fat new gathering of autobiographical materials takes up. Some hint of its limitations may be conveyed by his treatment of the month of May 1923. About the beginning of that month he married the actress Mary Blair. Mrs. Wilson senior disapproved of the bride, and Mr. Wilson had discussed the matter with—of all people—Frank Crowninshield, his son’s epicene boss at Vanity Fair. But Dean Gauss of Princeton, Wilson’s surrogate father, at once invited the young couple for a visit and politely wondered whether the new wife would take her husband’s name.
On May 8 Wilson had his twenty-eighth birthday. The following week, he and his mother visited his father in the hospital where he was dying of pneumonia. Just before the end, the sick man asked them for the doctor’s opinion, and his wife gave a little cry. But as soon as she came downstairs with her son, she declared what was really on her mind: “Now I’m going to have a new house.” The only entries in The Twenties under May 1923 are descriptions of landscapes—although Wilson mentions the talk with Crowninshield in an editorial commentary.
It looks as if he would have liked to furnish his audience with a panoramic view of American civilization through the eyes of an acute observer. He supplies lists of popular songs and current slang, like Joyce making notes for Ulysses. He describes clothes and coiffures; he offers glimpses of town and country in all seasons and hours, like sketches for Impressionist paintings. He rehearses anecdotes of Santa Barbara, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, New York—the fragmentary annals of more drunken conviviality than Volstead himself might conceive of.
Wilson also saw fit to republish here a few essays not found worthy of inclusion in earlier books. Of the apparently new materials, the liveliest can generally be seen better framed as he shaped them in his old pieces of fiction or journalism. I wonder how many persons will wish to study the raw data of “The Men from Rumpelmayer’s” or of the Coney Island episode in I Thought of Daisy.
For readers of a diary the date and integrity of the entries are of crucial importance. Yet we are left largely in the dark about the text of The Twenties. We do not know how Wilson decided which passages to preserve. We are unsure whether or not he omitted bits within those he prints. In his introductions and notes Wilson gives us valuable information about his life; but do we not sometimes trace his editorial hand wandering into the entries themselves? Most of the material is not dated; some entries are cryptic notes; often one cannot identify the people Wilson mentions.
The scandalous feature of The Twenties will probably be the record of Wilson’s sexual tact (such as it was) with humble women. While he excluded any account of his first or second wedding from this selection of memorabilia, he kept the notice of his first condom, bought when he was twenty-four. To prove its tensile strength, the clerk blew it up. But the balloon burst, “and this,” as Wilson remarks, “turned out to be something of an omen.”
Over ten years and countless condoms later, when he ends these annals, he is dislodging the lice he acquired from a waitress (whose husband was in Sing Sing), divorcing his first wife, and taking his second on a holiday in Connecticut. The previous spring, he had recovered from a near-breakdown due to suicidal depressions and anxiety. Gonorrhea had come and gone a couple of years still earlier. So had the whore in New Orleans who “simply threw herself on her back across the bed with her feet hanging down at the side and pulled her skirts up over her stomach.”
During the decade, the sexual connection that meant most to Wilson was a waitress who is here named Anna. Readers of Wilson’s story “The Princess with the Golden Hair” will easily recognize the entries that deal with her visits to his lodgings. Transcribed into that short novel is a reasonable facsimile of the notes on Anna in The Twenties. In both versions the author seems to cherish her as a blissful combination of sex machine and case history. When he is not celebrating the “rank mossy underparts, the mystery, the organic animal, the human furnace of heat and juice,” he is gathering data on her background and living conditions—e.g., “The sister’s family tried to live on $24 a week.”
When Memoirs of Hecate County was published, with “The Princess” as its largest component, Diana Trilling said the detailed sexual passages disturbed her not because they were daring but because of the gap “between sensation and emotion.” The gap is more offensive in the original journals. Some readers may have hoped that the fiction was not autobiographical, that the narrator’s attitudes were not Wilson’s. We can now be sure that in the least attractive ways they represent the same sensibility.
Even if we neglect Anna, we cannot feel perfectly complacent to discover that the old girl friend who returns at the end of the story, and who, in the narrator’s unflattering words, “came to bed right away, as a matter of course, with happy eyes wide-open in the daylight,” was wearing the shoes and delivering the speeches of Margaret Canby, whom Wilson married in 1930. As Matthew Arnold said of the Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill, it is a question not of law but of delicacy.
This gap surely represents a characteristic failure of Wilson’s imagination. Contrary to what one might suppose from the thousands of notations of reality in the new book, Wilson’s creative force did not work best on the real, familiar, intimately known world. The more facts he collected about Anna, the less he was able to give her the independence of a work of art. It was not as a writer of reality-based fiction or as a social reporter that he excelled but as a literary critic. It was Joyce, Flaubert, Marx—men incarnate in books—that truly excited his sympathies.
In Wilson’s best criticism, sensibility does the work of intelligence. His desire to identify himself with literary genius, to appreciate its rhythms, to convey its visions, rose easily above his powers of analysis. He had an excellent memory and, for an American, a rare mastery of languages. He grew up with an old-fashioned knowledge of Latin and Greek literature; one of his attractive displays in The New Republic was a duel with a pedant over the character of Sophocles’ Antigone—in which Wilson proved himself to be correct. And of course he set out to acquire Russian at an age when most critics consider their education complete.
Wilson longed to give his criticism a solid foundation in philosophy; and he tried hard to ally himself with Whitehead’s metaphysics and the tradition of Marxism. But he never produced a thorough piece of original scholarship—the generalizations about “classicism” at the beginning of Axel’s Castle are crude and false—and his appeals to logic or philosophy were seldom profound. What set Wilson apart from the run of our critics was the relation between his taste, his learning, and his sympathetic imagination.
We learn from The Twenties how subtly Wilson felt estranged from the women who accepted him. In life, of course, such ambivalence is treacherous; and one cannot be pleased to see Wilson transform vulnerable creatures into instruments of pleasure and social research. In his fiction the defect was fundamental. As if he were protecting the core of his personality, he held back or simplified his intuitive responses to gnarled emotions. Depth of characterization, like suspenseful narrative, was out of his range.
So also his social reportage was rarely as useful as his literary criticism. While Wilson genuinely wished to strengthen the oppressed classes, one reason they attracted him was that they started so fascinatingly far from his own sources. Impulsive benevolence is not the same as insight; and his approach to the poor was external. Like a rescuer swimming a polluted lake, he offered his clients an instant advocacy that betrayed as much discomfort as indignation.
In an article called “Mr. Foster and Mr. Fish,” Wilson reported the hearing of witnesses by a congressional committee investigating communism. It was simple enough for him to expose the rhetoric of American statesmanship, and only a little harder to represent communist witnesses as men of good will. He certainly did not suppress the defects of the communists’ position, but he never sneered at them. He reserved his sneers for the final witness called by the committee: “one of the most untrustworthy characters who has surely ever been called upon to testify to anything, a pale-eyed, shifty-eyed, shaved-headed man, represented as an honest Russian farmer.”
Almost certainly this man was just what he claimed to be; and Wilson later felt so embarrassed by the bias of the description that when he reprinted the article in a collection, he drew attention to his error, saying he left it to show how partisanship could “fabricate favorable evidence.” He did not remark that in the republication he had softened his original language. (A general statement at the beginning of the whole volume did warn readers about revisions.)
Wilson’s real strength is seldom analytical or statistical. As a historian of ideas he is not at home with subtle systems of thought, and his yielding to sensibility becomes more dangerous here than in journalism. But when he criticizes literature, it is precisely by being drawn to alien types that he shines. He seeks out, as Alfred Kazin says, “subjects from which he feels excluded by temperament.” German literature means less to him than Russian; French literature means more than British. His important book Axel’s Castle deals with Symbolism, a literary movement that defied his social sympathies.
The connection between political justice and the creative imagination, or between art and morality, was Wilson’s riddle. He took too much delight in literature to suppose that its value depended on the lessons it taught. Yet he could not bear to isolate heroes like Proust from centuries of effort to improve the lives of the poor. So he transferred the moral value of literature from the meaning of the work to the implications of the literary career. Instead of celebrating the cordial powers of aesthetic experience, he celebrated the exemplary courage, self-denial, and suffering of the makers of art.
When he came to write a book about philosophers of social revolution, Wilson reversed the process. Instead of praising them for the effect of their gospels upon the human condition, he praised the power and complexity of their embodied visions, the heroism of their devotion to revolutionary socialism. Implicitly, he tells us to disregard the savagery of the regimes that came to power while admiring the mind of the thinker who heralded them.
Unfortunately, the principle that seems justified in Axel’s Castle and is misleading in The Wound and the Bow becomes pernicious in To the Finland Station. As if he felt guilty for the joy he found in literature and other arts, Wilson seemed to shrive himself by associating creation with pain. In effect, he made the poet suffer to redeem the reader. This doctrine has some relevance to the Symbolist masterpieces but little to other works whose authors found their deepest pleasure in literary composition.
Applied to Marx and Lenin, the principle becomes almost an insult to humanity. One does not judge governments by the dreams of their prophets. If Lenin met history at the Finland Station, it was not as lovers join at the church door but as an enthusiast rushes at the ghost of a foe. Wilson, describing Lenin’s rendezvous as a moment when Western man might be seen “to have made some definite progress in mastering the greeds and fears, the bewilderments, in which he has lived,” only reveals how thirstily he imbibed that austere despot’s aspiration. To sacrifice his critical judgment for such transient refreshment was a poor bargain.
Reviewing Lenin’s deeds when he arrived in Russia, Wilson evokes their setting, the palaces of St. Petersburg, and he calls those splendid, life-giving masterpieces “pompous façades,” whose artisans, he says, “Peter the Great had sent to perish in building it in the swamp.” As one observes this belittling of art in the supposed interests of humanity, one recalls the stronger words of Solzhenitsyn looking at the same scene with Lenin’s legacy in mind: “What of our explosions of protest, the groans of men shot by firing-squads, the tears of our women: will all this too—terrible thought—be utterly forgotten? Can it, too, give rise to such perfect, everlasting beauty?”
Unlike Wilson, Solzhenitsyn did not have to surrender his aesthetic judgment to his moral conscience. He memorialized, better than Wilson, the martyred laborers who “ground their teeth and cursed as they rotted in those dismal swamps.” But he did not suppress his delight in their creation: “It is alien to us, yet it is our greatest glory.”
So it is indeed wonderful, as Irving Howe suggested, that a critic born and educated in our country should have encompassed the breadth of historical scholarship wanted for the making of To the Finland Station. But Wilson’s congenial vocation lay elsewhere. For American critics today he sets an example that does not depend on mastery of languages and texts—a mastery which our schools today would hardly tolerate. Rather, he offers a model of approachable virtues built one upon the other.
A critic’s job starts with his willingness to make independent judgments. How fallible Wilson’s response could be must be known to anyone who has met his appraisals of Frost or Wallace Stevens, or his cautious commendation of J. M. March’s long poem The Wild Party (1928: “Some love is fire: some love is rust: / But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust,” etc.). But how much better to risk a stupid blunder than to ignore one’s chief duty. Fifty years ago, Wilson wrote “The All-Star Literary Vaudeville,” a bold survey of contemporary authors that a wise editor included in an annual collection of critical essays. Of the twenty-eight other contributors not one came near Wilson in his determination to particularize blame and praise.
He never lost this desire to put his private opinion to a public test. Among the few fresh but moving paragraphs in The Twenties is an apology for this part of his labors: “The sober judgment which, by an effort, I was able to muster in print was nothing more than compensation for the disappointments and humiliations of a life which never hit the mark or suited the means to the end.” I attribute the chagrin here to the sense of doomed isolation Wilson derived from his father; the modesty remains touchingly his own.
Luckily, his successes were splendid, and one aspect of their splendor was Wilson’s urge to do battle with the provincialism of his family’s culture. Just as people like Anna shook both his smugness and his diffidence, just as French and Russian literature refined his intellectual energies, so in dealing with American literature Wilson tried himself not only on the safe ground of familiars like Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and Millay, but also in strange and remote territories. His discriminating review of The Fugitives would do honor to an authority on Southern literature, and is only one instance of his luminous sympathy with Southern writers. In Patriotic Gore this sympathy affords Wilson a Homeric generosity and detachment; it redeems his long-windedness and lets him treat Stephens or Cable with more penetration than Holmes.
So it was natural for Wilson to deny himself those easy acts of dismissal in which bold critics often like to indulge. High standards of judgment usually work against sympathetic appreciation. A critic eager to elevate taste is often slow to identify himself with unclassified authors writing in strange new styles. But the sarcasm of Poe or Leavis is not the best model for useful criticism today. Wilson rarely demolished a young reputation in order to show off his irony. He was eager to recognize promise; he was prepared to risk his name; he strove not to be a hanging judge.
Such catholic appreciation of new talent gets much of its value from a promptness of response. “He who gives quickly gives twice,” runs an old proverb that might have been Wilson’s slogan. Joyce and Hemingway are only two of the best-known cases of his shocks of recognition. Yet this very talent produces a difficulty when we read collections of his essays.
Constantly what we look for is not merely Wilson’s opinion but his opinion at a particular time. In presenting his collections, he warns us that he has revised the texts. Yet I doubt that many readers realize how full his changes could be. It is one thing to mend an error in grammar; it is another to brighten a eulogy or to weaken a condemnation. Surely it matters that a description of Frost’s verse as “abominable” in 1926 should reappear as “very poor” in 1952, signed with the original date; or that Burton Rascoe should be granted “intelligence” in 1926 but “ease” in 1952, still over the old date.
With social and political essays the chance of misunderstanding is greater. “Shut Up That Russian Novel,” one of Wilson’s least fortunate attempts to salvage a shred of his prophetic mantle from the wreckage of Stalinism, was first published in The New Republic April 6, 1938; and over that date it is found in The Shores of Light—but quantum mutatum! Not only are emphases and epithets pervasively altered, but a whole paragraph on Stalin’s administration is dropped, perhaps because it ended with the suggestion that Yezhov might be replacing that “quiet and self-effacing” figure.
Finally Wilson rid himself of the itch to mend our society with Marxism. He revived his early impulse to serve the people by cherishing the strong elements of our highest civilization. He understood that one advances democracy by enriching its culture, and not by celebrating its common denominators.
At the end of I Thought of Daisy the narrator supposes he has broken out of the isolation of the creative spirit by an ideal of making art into a rose-tinted mirror of average America. Thinking of humble people, he says, “What is good for them is good for us.” He was wrong, and Wilson came ultimately to believe that what is good for “us” is good for “them.”
He came to understand that shallow morality and thin culture were privileges shared equally by all strata of the American population, and that to offer any class something less than the Catullus and Dante who rang in his own ears was to show contempt for them. Warner Berthoff called attention to Wilson’s declaration, “There are few things I enjoy so much as talking to people about books which I have read but they haven’t, and making them wish they had”—not a bad definition of an American critic’s responsibility. If our democracy can inspire “hatred, apprehension, or scorn,” the man who refines it must accept the role of fatherly teacher and do for his fellow countrymen what Gauss did for Wilson.
Withdrawal or isolation of some sort is natural to the operation of genius; and a poet must write about what calls out his best energies, not about his nation’s heart. But the critic does have to speak to a nation, to cherish its authors, to build a high, slender bridge between the retired artist and a people spiritually impoverished. It was in the hours of such accomplishment that Wilson liberated his mind from the gloomy self-blame that hovered about him.