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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there was much in it that was valuable (see enclosed poem [“A House of the Eighties”]) which has gone and has never yet been replaced by anything else equally sound and human.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.

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.

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. 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.

  3. 3

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

  4. 4

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

  5. 5

    Russian language.

  6. 6

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

  7. 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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