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Edmund Wilson On Writers and Writing

One question which has still to be disentangled is the relation of the Russian Communist influence to the tradition of true American radicalism which you will encounter when you go back of the twenties. This influence has sometimes been seen in work that was distinguished and sincere, but it has sometimes nourished writers who might lend themselves to something like fascism with a readiness in proportion to the closeness of the approximation of Stalin to Hitler—which is a good deal more readily than I can imagine that patriarchal old Southern landowner Faulkner doing.

All this doesn’t mean that the story you tell doesn’t have its validity as an account of what went on in fiction during the period with which you are dealing. It is only that I am not quite sure that the work got intellectually and artistically better as the writers got more socially minded. You already know how well I think you have told this story.

Best regards as ever,
Edmund Wilson

TO VAN WYCK BROOKS

October 6, 1957
Wellfleet

Dear Brooks:

…I have been brooding on Eliot since our conversations. He has lately been involved in a curious controversy in the London Times Literary Supplement, which it might interest you to see (I think it was all during August). The writer of an anonymous leader called Classic Inhumanism charged him with anti-Semitism and Fascist sympathies, and Eliot replied, denying these as well as a number of statements about his relations with Pound and [T.E.] Hulme. The author of the article demonstrated that Eliot was in error about the facts of his own life and cited his favorable references to Fascism. He did not return to the anti-Semitic charge but would have had no trouble in producing evidence. Aiken tells me that Eliot has now made an ineffective rebuttal (by the way, it is only lately that it has dawned on me that Myra Buttle = My Rebuttal).3

What is curious here is that Eliot be so vague about himself. My explanation is this. As I was saying to you, I think, there is a scoundrel and actor in Eliot. It was the young scoundrel who wrote the good poetry and it is now the old scoundrel who is putting on the public performance. In private, he is humorous and disarming about his reputation, but the performance still goes on; and just as his poems are all dramatic monologues, so all of his public utterances, except when he is writing about literature—and sometimes even then—are in the main merely speeches for one or other of his dramatic “personae.” When he is writing for clerical papers or addressing a Conservative dinner, he allows himself reactionary audacities which he rarely hazards with his larger audience. (He did let some of these loose in the lectures collected in After Strange Gods—delivered at the University of Virginia, where I suppose he thought it was safe to let his snobberies and antiquated loyalties rip—but when hostile repercussions reached his sensitive ear, he did his best to suppress the volume.) But these dramatically slanted opinions are so dim and make so little sense that I don’t see how they can do much damage.

I was talking about this just now with Arthur Schlesinger, usually an up-in-arms liberal, and—rather to my surprise—he anticipated my opinion by saying that all this side of Eliot didn’t matter. In his poetry and in his personal relations, he is sensitive, gentle, and rather touching. In spite of his assertion to the contrary when I talked to him years ago, he is ready to converse with unbelievers, and he is not disagreeable to Jews; and he makes fun of all the old gentilities that he otherwise pretends to represent. The shrewd Yankee operator who always remains discreet but gets away with murder is balanced by the Yankee idealist who—in literature, the only thing about which he feels intensely—is able to stand by his convictions and, on occasion, without sticking his neck out (as Lewis and Pound habitually did), to show a firm courage. In his tiresome performances as the humble great man, he is more and more betraying his vanity: he talks about his own work in far too many of this last collection of essays. He is absurd in his pretensions to pontificate—did you know that he has recently announced that it is proper not entirely to despise Longfellow? But the literary and academic worlds are apparently full of people who want nothing better than to follow his directives. He enjoys his conspicuous position, and I imagine that this has been one of the few compensations in a life of which the sufferings and conflicts have been finely and frankly expressed in his poetry.

But I know that you regard him as a more sinister figure. This long letter is due to my not having had a chance to talk with you, when you were here, as much as I should have liked. I hope that you will come to see us in Talcottville. Love from us both to Gladys.

Sincerely,
Edmund Wilson

TO ELIZABETH HULING

July 4, 1945
Rome

Dear Betty:

…Am going to wind up my work here in Italy and take two or three weeks in Greece, then go home. Europe, though interesting, is disgusting at present, and, as the swimming and bicycling season wears on, I think more and more longingly of God’s country…

I saw Evelyn Waugh again. The great topic of conversation was his new novel [Brideshead Revisited] which I guess hasn’t come out yet in the United States. It is partly extremely trashy and unintentionally—which is sad for Waugh—comic, so that the malicious London literary world were having a field day about it. He wallows in his snobbery to an unbelievable degree (having married a wife from the Catholic nobility), and shows off his inside knowledge of how things are done in the great houses, and his aristocratic friends were making him miserable by telling him that he had everything all wrong.

Auden had just been through on his way to Germany, where he is to investigate the psychological effects of bomb damage—he is a captain in the American army. When I had been in London before, people were being very mean about him, and Stephen Spender, his old buddy, said to me that he thought it would be the hardest thing in the world for Auden ever to come back to England. A few weeks later, however, he turned up and, as Spender said, took the arrogant line when he might have taken the humble line. Without showing the least embarrassment, he complained about the coldness of English houses, and of other hardships of life in England, and told them that London hadn’t really been bombed. They were speechless with indignation, having, they said, politely restrained themselves, when he explained to them the purpose of his mission, from remarking what a pity that he had had no personal experience of the psychological effects of bombing. He also assured them—being a homosexual chauvinist—that General Eisenhower was queer. I love this story, because the English are such experts at putting other people down that it is wonderful to see an expatriate Britisher coming back and working out on the boys at home….

Love as ever,
EW

TO MAMAINE PAGET

February 4, 1946
The New Yorker

…I’ve been seeing quite a lot of Auden and having a very good time with him. I find him very easy to talk to now and great fun—I think, because he’s been here now so long that he feels at home with Americans—he’s just taking out his second citizen’s papers. He’s gotten away from teaching in little colleges and is living and writing in New York. It’s very interesting about him: I understand better now his coming over here. He told me the other night that he supposed he’d come to America in order to become a good cosmopolitan. In fundamental ways, he doesn’t belong in that London literary world—he’s more vigorous and more advanced. With his Birmingham background and his early training as a mining engineer—in spite of having been to Winchester and Oxford—he is in some ways more like an American.

He is really extremely tough—cares nothing about property or money, popularity or social prestige—does everything on his own and alone. At the same time, he is homosexual to an almost fanatical degree—tells people that Eisenhower is queer and assured me the other day that Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde were really a couple of Lesbians, because a man making love to a woman couldn’t really get into that rapturous state—he would be “thinking about something else.” He has induced me to read Eric, or Little by Little, that old Victorian schoolboys’ book, on the ground that it “contained the key to the English character.” I have found it rather hard going, and suspect that it has for him a kind of erotic interest that it doesn’t have for me.

Connolly sent me The Condemned Playground—I thought the burlesques were terribly funny. I also read and liked Rock Pool—though it is good, not precisely as a straight novel, but more or less in the same way as the burlesques….

TO MAMAINE PAGET

February 23, 1946
The New Yorker

…I’ve been seeing something of Auden lately. I like him very much and he’s awfully interesting about Europe and America—has just written an introduction to Henry James’s The American Scene, in which he discusses the differences. I agree with him as far as he goes, but he has become so much preoccupied with theology that he has rather lost touch with the social-political factors, and it is as if he had never read Marx. He thinks that the United States is the only place where it is possible at present to be truly international, and I have felt this very strongly since I have been back. The intellectual and artistic vacuum that was created over here by the war is beginning to be filled now, and things are becoming more interesting….

TO NEWTON ARVIN

May 24, 1946
Wellfleet

Dear Arvin:

Thank you very much for your letter and the book.4 I have been having a very good time reading it. I won’t discuss it further now, as I’ve written about it in The New Yorker. I’m pleased that you liked Hecate County. It turned out, though I hadn’t planned it so, to be rather in the Hawthorne tradition. I had never had much real taste for Hawthorne, but he has certainly proved, in American fiction, a strangely powerful and lasting influence. Last summer, when I was in Rome, I read The Marble Faun for the first time and thought it a remarkable book—all that he says about the effects on an American living a long time in Rome is equally true today. I found passages that were classical expressions of precisely the same feelings that I had been trying to put into my notebook under the illusion that they were something new. I happened also to read Douglas’s South Wind and discovered, to my surprise, that his theme was very much the same as Hawthorne’s and that he had borrowed Hawthorne’s plot. What is most curious is that Douglas, with his façade of sophistication, is so much more simple-minded and obvious in dealing with the moral situation. Like the moralistic Scotchman that he is, he has arranged to have the killing by the wife of the considerate husband an act to which no blame can possibly attach, so that he really lets himself out of the consequences of the point of view he pretends to present. Hawthorne does not do this: Miriam is a really mixed character, and it is not so easy to judge her.

  1. 3

    The Sweeniad by Myra Buttle (Victor Purcell), a parody of T.S. Eliot.

  2. 4

    Arvin’s edition of The Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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