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Edmund Wilson On Writers and Writing

My opinion, in general, of Hawthorne’s novels is just the reverse of the usual one: taking them in chronological order, I like each one better than the one before—so that I admire The Scarlet Letter least and The Marble Faun most, and The Blithedale Romance more than The House of the S.G. It seems to me that in his later books the backgrounds become less shadowy and the characters live with an intense life. I should like to talk to you about The M.F. If the denouement has a deeper meaning in respect to the poetic fate, I don’t think I understand what it is. Henry James throws no light on the subject, and I don’t think he gives the book enough credit—especially since, in something like Roderick Hudson, he obviously owed it so much.

Best regards,
Edmund Wilson

TO VLADIMIR NABOKOV

October 20, 1941
Wellfleet

Dear Vladimir:

I’ve just read Sebastian Knight, of which Laughlin has sent me proofs, and it’s absolutely enchanting. It’s amazing that you should write such fine English prose and not sound like any other English writer. You and Conrad must be the only examples of foreigners succeeding in English in this field. The whole book is brilliant and beautifully done, but I liked particularly the part where he is looking up the various Russian women, the description of the book about death, and the final dreamlike train ride (as well as the narrator’s long dream). It makes me eager to read your Russian books, and I am going to tackle them when my русскиӣ язык5 is a little stronger.

I hope you will get somebody at Wellesley to read your proofs—because there are a few, though not many, mistakes in English. You tend to lean over backward using as instead of like and sometimes use it incorrectly. The critic’s remark about Sebastian’s being a dull man writing broken English, etc., is not a pun, but rather a bon mot. If the conjuror with the accent is supposed to be American, he would never say I fancy, but probably I guess. I am sure that your phonetic method of transliterating Russian words is one of those things that you are particularly stubborn about: but I really think it’s a mistake. It looks outlandish to people who don’t know Russian and is confusing to people who do. I boggled for some time over your version of А у неӣ на шеӣку паук.6 Combinations like neigh and sheik (and do these really represent the Russian vowels?), into which I fear you have been led by your lamentable weakness for punning, are not the logical phonetic way of representing these sounds; they introduce irrelevant ideas. You were right in thinking I should object to smuggled smugness, though in other cases your sensitivity to words provides you with some admirable observations and effects. I agree about the word sex—it is an awful word. But what about Geschlecht—das Geschlecht!

Now, can’t you and your family come up here and spend Thanksgiving (the third Thursday in November) with us, staying on afterwards? We’d love to have you and have plenty of room for you all. If you’re tied up for the holiday at Wellesley or otherwise, perhaps you could come up some weekend—almost any after the first of November? In the meantime, we may be in Boston some weekend before then, and we might have lunch or something…

I haven’t really told you why I like your book so much. It is all on a high poetic level, and you have succeeded in being a first-rate poet in English. It has delighted and stimulated me more than any new book I have read since I don’t know what.

Our best regards to you both.

As ever,
Edmund Wilson

TO KATHARINE WHITE7

November 12, 1947
The New Yorker

Dear Katharine:

I have read the Nabokov stories, and I think they are both perfect. Not a word should be changed. From the way you talked about “Signs and Symbols,” I had imagined something like the work of the French naturalists at their most malodorous and ghoulish; but the details in Nabokov’s story are of the most commonplace kind. The point is that the parents of the boy are getting “ideas of reference,” too, and without these details the story would have no meaning. I don’t see how anybody could misunderstand the story as you people seem to have done or could object to the details in themselves, and the fact that any doubt should have been felt about them suggests a truly alarming condition of editor’s daze. If The New Yorker had suggested to me that the story had been written as a parody, I should have been just as angry as you say he was (I’m surprised that he has not challenged somebody to a duel), and as I should be every time I get a New Yorker proof of one of my literary articles, if I thought I was obliged to take seriously the ridiculous criticisms made in the office and did not know, having once been an editor myself, that they were the result of having read so much copy that the editors could no longer pay attention to what was being said.

Besides this, there is, however, the whole question of New Yorker fiction—about which I hear more complaint than about anything else in the magazine. It is appalling that Nabokov’s little story, so gentle and everyday, should take on the aspect for the New Yorker editors of an overdone psychiatric study. (How can you people say it is overwritten?) It could only appear so in contrast with the pointless and inane little anecdotes that are turned out by the New Yorker‘s processing mill and that the reader forgets two minutes after he has read them—if; indeed, he has even paid attention, at the time his eye was slipping down the column, to what he was reading about. The New Yorker has got to the age when magazines get hardening of the arteries: it thinks it is obliged to supply something that it thinks its public likes and is continually afraid of jarring that public, though the only thing that any public wants is to be interested. It is also, as a humorous magazine specializing in comic newsbreaks, morbidly afraid of printing anything that could possibly seem unintentionally funny.

I am speaking mainly of the fiction; the nonfiction side, it seems to me, has been lately a little bolder. But I have a personal interest in the fiction side, too, because I have felt that there were stories in both my last two books that might perfectly well have appeared in The New Yorker and that the only thing that kept them out was that they were done from a sharp point of view, that they were not pale and empty and silly enough.

I have written this out at length so that you could show it to anybody who objected to the Nabokov story and use it perhaps in your anti-editing campaign.

I have just read “My English Education,” and it, too, seems to me perfect for The New Yorker. I can’t imagine what doubts you would have about it. It doesn’t get anywhere, it is just a little reminiscence, but in this respect it doesn’t differ from Mencken’s childhood memories, of which The New Yorker printed any number. If it’s a question of writing, as I thought you implied, I am not sure what is meant by the word raiser in the fourth line of page 5, but otherwise I don’t see anything to which exception could possibly be taken. And since I have become aroused, I might go on, in this connection, to protest against the New Yorker‘s idea of style. The editors are so afraid of anything that is unusual, that is not expected, that they put a premium on insipidity and banality. I find, in the case of my own articles, that if I ever coin a phrase or strike off a picturesque metaphor, somebody always objects. Every first-rate writer invents and renews the language; and many of the best writers have highly idiosyncratic styles; but almost no idiosyncratic writer ever gets into The New Yorker. Who can imagine Henry James or Bernard Shaw—or Dos Passos or Faulkner—in The New Yorker? The object here is as far as possible to iron all the writing out so that there will be nothing vivid or startling or original or personal in it. Sid Perelman is almost the sole exception, and I have never understood how he got by.

Edmund Wilson

TO LOUIS KRONENBERGER

June 24, 1947
The New Yorker

Dear Kronenberger:

I was very much interested in your piece about Max Beerbohm, because I have just been rereading him with the idea of writing something about him. I am so glad you had the courage to insist on the defects of Zuleika Dobson. You say just the right thing about it. The trouble is that, though it’s full of amusing moments and patches of brilliant writing, it’s not clear precisely what he’s trying to do and the whole thing seems rather pointless. I think in general that these fairy-tale fantasies are the weakest part of his work. It seems to me that The Dreadful Dragon of Hay Hill is the only really bad thing he has written.

My only complaint about your essay is that you don’t bring out quite enough his sound and sensible side, with its strong independence and audacity—which, for some reason, appears in his caricatures and in his dramatic criticism more plainly than in his other writing. His caricatures, too, constitute a social criticism in a way that most of his writings do not (the John Bull series, for example, done at the time of the Boer War)—so much so that it was possible for Shaw to say that he was “the most savage radical cartoonist since Gillray,” or something of the kind. (The real reason that we call him Max is that he has always signed his caricatures so.) It would be interesting to consider his work from the point of view of the “social slant.” In spite of his exploitation in the writings of his youth of the glamour of the Regency and all that, he has always loved to kid the royal family, and not always altogether good-naturedly; and in his caricatures up through the end of the First World War there was a pretty consistent bias in the direction of middle-class liberalism. After that, he seems to have been scared by the Russian Revolution and the rise of labor. The fact that he is half English, half foreign, has complicated his talent and his point of view; and his work is full of what the Marxists call contradictions which would require a delicate analysis. It is significant that in his essay on servants he should call himself a “Tory anarchist.”

I agree that his coyness is sometimes trying—a queer weakness in his admirable taste—as well as with most that you say on the positive side. I’m sure he’ll outlive Chesterton and a lot of others.

I hadn’t meant to write at such length, but it is so rare to find anything nowadays—especially in The Saturday Review!—that shows any real interest in writing as writing that your essay seemed extravagantly stimulating.

Yours sincerely,
Edmund Wilson

TO ELENA WILSON

March 15, 1954
Rapallo

…We went to Max’s villa this afternoon. It is pretty, looks right down on the sea, has a pleasant sunny terrace. He has just recovered from flu and received us in a bathrobe, sitting up in a chair. He makes an extraordinarily distinguished impression, and his head and face have more weight and strength than I had gathered from photographs of him and from his caricatures of himself. He talked extremely well and is not in the least gaga, remembered with perfect accuracy every detail of his own and other people’s work. He gave us a long physical description of Bernard Shaw as he had looked when Max had first known him in London that showed how minute his observation of people is. He hadn’t cared for Virginia Woolf’s diary, had been struck, as I was, by her preoccupation with her own worries and her lack of consideration for other people—but then he doesn’t in the least appreciate the things that are good about her, can’t see anything in her books. He said a lot of amusing things; but there is a mischievous-small-boy side of him that finally becomes a little tiresome—not in his conversation, but in the innumerable books (of other people) that he has doctored in various comic ways, and too many of which we were shown, not at his instance, but by the faithful Mme. Jungmann (a very able, amiable, and well-read German, who came to his rescue after his wife’s death—she had before that taken care of [Gerhardt] Hauptmann). He has lived here for forty-four years, lately on a diminishing scale—Sam [Behrman] says that he is now very poor, and that it is hard to do anything for him: he has refused a large fee to appear on television, etc.

I felt that it had been worthwhile to come here to see him (may go back tomorrow if she phones that he is up to it). He is certainly a remarkable person, more continental than English (he has charming portraits of his grandparents that make them look like idealized characters in eighteenth-century operas, the eye in both cases espiègle and the mouth as if it were just about to smile). Seeing him out here makes you feel that he is independent and self-sufficing, quietly and scrupulously devoted to his own ideals. He said that most caricaturing nowadays was ugly, whereas “though I am not the person to say it—and I had half a mind to leave it unsaid—my drawings are pretty and agreeable to have around.” He showed us a little watercolor in pink and blue that he had lately made of Edward VII and said, “Now, you see that’s a pretty little drawing.” He told us that he had stopped doing caricatures when he came to the time of life at which he realized that what he was producing were simply painstaking likenesses that showed pity for their subjects instead of making them amusing. “Pathos,” he said, “is no quality for a caricaturist.” He was interesting about Walter Sickert, whose painting he does not think successful: he had too much theory, would have made perhaps a good critic: “A painter ought not to be too clever in that way. He should be a passionate gaze, putting down what he sees or what he thinks he sees”….

Thanks and acknowledgments are given to the Princeton University Library for the letters to John Peale Bishop and Christian Gauss; Maxwell Geismar and the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University; Mrs. Carey McWilliams for a letter to Elizabeth Huling; the Charles Patterson Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania for a letter to Van Wyck Brooks; the Smith College Library for a letter to Newton Arvin; Vladimir Nabokov; Celia Goodman for letters to Mamaine Paget and Louis Kronenberger.

  1. 5

    Russian language.

  2. 6

    Ah-oo-neigh na sheiku pah-ook: There is a spider on her neck.

  3. 7

    Katharine White was Edmund Wilson’s first editor at The New Yorker, long before the period when he began to write regularly for the magazine, which he did from 1943 up to the time of his death.

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