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Edmund Wilson On Writers and Writing

TO JOHN PEALE BISHOP

April 25, 1935
Red Bank, N.J.

Dear John:

I’ve just read Act of Darkness with great interest, but some disappointment before I’d finished it. It’s the only thing of yours that I remember that seemed to me to be carelessly executed. I believe you ought to have spent another year on it.

I began by being enchanted by your evocation of the American small-town-and-country life of thirty years ago. What you describe in West Virginia is very like what I remember myself up here, and I have never read any book which brought me back as yours did into that world of large old houses away in the woods and fields or in little countrified towns where rather a high degree of civilization flourished against a background of pleasant wildness. I had been thinking a lot lately about this life, which as a boy after a certain age I was anxious to get away from, and it seems to me that there was much in it that was valuable (see enclosed poem [“A House of the Eighties”]) which has gone and has never yet been replaced by anything else equally sound and human.

Of course, by the time you and I came along it was breaking up or in a state of decay and the people, as you represent them (they were under a more immediate pressure from the big money-making era in the North than in the South, but the effect, as I remember the country life here, was not so different as I might have supposed) were getting neurotic or withering up; and it seemed to me later that the new and bright and more or less generally suburbanized life of the Boom was much better for people and that more people got something out of it, than the in some ways rather dreary life of my boyhood. This was true, I believe, in the towns around here; but I come to feel more and more as I grow older that even the tail end of the old culture and family life, which was all we really got, was worth having. And when I started reading your book, I found myself entering the houses you describe as if they were houses that I had known myself. I remember perfectly that picture of Charlotte Corday in prison in some relative’s house that I used to visit (in upstate New York, I think). The scene that I liked best in the whole book and which seems to me the most successful is the scene where the boy goes to his grandfather’s, when the latter tries to tell him the facts of life. (I was going back after the same sort of thing in this poem.)…

As ever,
EW

TO CHRISTIAN GAUSS

May 15, 1944
Wellfleet [Massachusetts]

Dear Christian:

It was very kind of you to do that little memoir for the Library Chronicle, which has just reached me.1 It is sad to think of those “frohe Tage” today when Teek Whipple, Scott, and John [Peale Bishop] are all dead and Stan Dell seems to be a confirmed neurotic who does nothing but translate Jung. I miss John terribly, coming back up here this year, as he lived down the Cape at South Chatham, and I had seen a lot of him in recent years. His life was a tragedy, like Scott’s, and it gives me the deep sense of a loss that can never be retrieved to read your description of him—so vivid to me—of the impression he made in his undergraduate days. He underwent a rapid and dreadful change in his late years and was really prematurely senile when he died—yet he saved his art through it all and, at the time he made his elegy for Scott’s death, struck a fresh vein which flowed for some time. I believe that some of his best work was written then.

I have been thinking about the whole group, and I believe that, in certain ways, Princeton did not serve them very well. I said this to Mary [McCarthy], who has had considerable opportunity to observe the men from the various colleges, and she said: “Yes, Princeton didn’t give them quite moral principle enough to be writers.” Instead, it gave you too much respect for money and country-house social prestige. Both Scott and John in their respective ways, I think, fell victims to this. I don’t want to be pharisaical about them: I was more fortunate than either of them, not in gifts, but in the opportunity to survive, because I had enough money for study and travel in the years when those things are most valuable, but not so much that—like Stanley—I didn’t have to think about earning some. One’s only consolation is that Princeton did give us other things that were good—a sort of eighteenth-century humanism that probably itself was not unconnected with the rich-patron relationship of the university to somebody like M.T. Pyne. And then if we had gone to Yale, though we should probably all have survived in the flesh, we might never have survived in whatever it is that inspires people not to take too seriously the ideal of the successful man.

There are a few things that you say that are inaccurate. I never took economics at Princeton, only at Columbia summer school—and not really economics but a course in “Labor Problems.” My bad grades were chemistry and coordinate geometry in my freshman and sophomore years. My tests in contemporary literature were rather different from the picture of them you give. Shaw and Wells had been my gods at boarding school, and I was still very much under their influence. Don’t you remember those Shawesque articles that I used to write about campus problems? I considered myself a social reformer. Fabian Essays, which I read at college, made a great impression on me. And, whatever I may have said at some point, I very much admired some of Masefield: his sonnets and The Everlasting Mercy, parts of which I used to know by heart. Frost and Amy Lowell I never cared for at all, but I did like Spoon River Anthology. On that first occasion when we met (not at the Nass but somewhere else) we hadn’t asked you to talk about Zola: Zola was merely one of the subjects that came up. In general, though, your description of that period and all of us seems to me absolutely correct. It is interesting to me to see how it looked to somebody who was older than I at the time.

Reading your article has made me want to talk to you about all this. I wish I could have got down to Princeton last winter, but I was working on a book as well as doing my New Yorker stuff, and my mother was very ill, so that I had to be at Red Bank a lot. I have heard good reports of you from several people. I saw Katherine [Gauss Jackson] in the Princeton Club just before I came away, and she told me you were still in doubt as to whether you ought to retire. I should hate to see you go—unless there is something you would rather do. What would the college do without you?

We have just come up to the country here. I am thoroughly glad to get away from New York, which I always find difficult to live in and which nowadays seems strangely empty….

As ever,
Bunny W

TO MAXWELL GEISMAR

May 27, 1942
Wellfleet

Dear Max:

I can give you my impressions of Eliot better in conversation when I see you. He is, as you say, full of contradictions, which are quite obvious when you meet him. His opinions when he writes them always seem judicious and specific, but his personality is really rather incoherent, and that is what his poetry comes out of. But I felt about him that he was probably the most highly refined and attuned and chiseled human being that I had ever met and couldn’t help being rather awed by him. I gave him bootleg gin—he is so shy that you have to drink with him to talk to him—and we both got into bad condition. The next morning he had an awful hangover and said his joints creaked, and I felt as if I had wantonly broken some rare and exquisite vase. I have felt guilty about it ever since.

EW

TO MAXWELL GEISMAR

June 10, 1942
Wellfleet

Dear Max:

I have just read the last chapter of your book [Writers in Crisis: The American Novel, 1925-1940] and have been trying to get an idea of the thing as a whole. Here are certain suggestions I want to make….2

There did, of course, develop out of a period of literary whoopee a kind of general social consciousness in fiction during the period you are writing about; but it seems to me that when you come to write about the immediately preceding period, you ought to take into consideration that there had been a lot of social consciousness during the period between the Civil War and World War [I]. I’ve just read Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes, which, though I think it’s been rather overrated as a novel, is certainly full of socialist social consciousness—as all the later work of Howells was. Edith Wharton’s The Fruit of the Tree was quite Marxist. Upton Sinclair, Edward Bellamy, and Jack London were all socialists of one kind or another. Robert Herrick, Henry B. Fuller, Frank Norris, David Graham Phillips, and Harold Frederic were all, I gather, more or less acutely aware of social problems. So was George Cable, though in connection with a community which may not seem typical of the situation of the rest of the country after the Civil War. The truth is that the fireworks of the twenties were in the nature of a drunken fiesta in the general course of American thinking since the Civil War.

I think, too, that you tend perhaps to overestimate the artistic and intellectual importance of the social consciousness enthusiasm that mounted so rapidly during the thirties. Aren’t MacLeish and Sherwood, whom you cite, as well as most of the other people that you mention on page 288, as well as Steinbeck, perhaps, himself, really second- and third-rate writers? May it not possibly turn out to be true that they represent merely the beginning of some awful collectivist cant which will turn into official propaganda for a post-war state-socialist bureaucracy? With MacLeish and Sherwood at the White House as they are now, the whole thing makes me rather uneasy. It may be necessary for a subsequent set of writers to lead an attack on phony collectivism in the interests of the American individualistic tradition. One hopes not, but we don’t know. You try to forestall this situation by what you say on page 289, and I approve of the ideals which you formulate in this chapter, but I shouldn’t trust the Steinbecks to realize them, let alone that list of fellow-travelers on page 288.

  1. 1

    Edmund Wilson, the Campus and the Nassau ‘Lit,”’ in The Princeton University Library Chronicle.

  2. 2

    Three pages of suggestions, corrections, and errata omitted.

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