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Being Strong: Edmund Wilson’s Letters

Letters on Literature and Politics: 1912-1972

by Edmund Wilson, edited by Elena Wilson, introduction by Daniel Aaron, foreword by Leon Edel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 768 pp., $20.00

The blurb on the jacket that characterizes the author as “this era’s greeatest man of letters” echoes an assumption which will not be challenged here. But what does that really mean? Most likely, an all-round competence in the various genres of literature. However, if he had been more successful than he was as a novelist, a dramatist, or a poet, he might have been saluted first under one of those categories. (On some occasions he wistfully declared that Memoirs of Hecate County was his best book, but any writer may be forgiven for viewing his latest or least appreciated effort as his masterpiece.) Indeed his versatility was such that he once planned a choreography for the Swedish Ballet which would have starred Charlie Chaplin. Voltaire was for many years regarded as a greater playwright than Racine; Johnson wrote a mildly interesting novel and a terrible play; both of them achieved their central positions as “men of letters.” Edmund Wilson has been their worthiest successor in our time.

There can be little question, when it comes down to letters in their more literal sense. Correspondence has become a losing—if not a lost—art during our century of dictaphones and long-distance telephone calls. Wilson was enough the child of his natal century (b.1895) to have kept the art under cultivation, and much of what is printed in these pages was transcribed from holograph. It represents a salient part of a much larger totality, which should all be published at some future date, when matters of privacy can be ignored. Presumably it will be; and this should mean that ellipses will be filled in, correspondents’ letters will be printed, and what is now monologue will become dialectic. Wilson, though a great talker, was also—being an experienced reporter—a shrewd questioner and a sympathetic listener. When he describes a visit from Isaiah Berlin, he reports tongue-in-cheek that “We spent the whole time talking brilliantly, covering rapidly, but with astonishing knowledge, sure intelligence, and breathtaking wit, an incredible variety of subjects.”

If Wilson is to be categorized as a critic, it must be as a critic at large, a critic of everything. The balance between literature and politics in the title of this liberal selection turns out to be closer than it might have initially appeared. Some of his incidental commentary, on the two world wars, the Depression, the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the impact of socialism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, let alone the cataclysmic changes in the American way of life (titularly referred to as Jitters and then Earthquake), may well prove to be more penetrating in the long run than the comments of his stuffier colleagues on The New Republic, Herbert Croly or Walter Lippmann. His pamphlet on the income tax and the cold war may not have been “the hottest thing since Tom Paine,” but significantly he turned its royalties over to A.J. Muste’s peace movement. Though his ultimate concern was with the individual expression that lay “behind politics,” he consistently refused to station himself au-dessus de la mêlée.

Indeed it was his engagement in so many of the cultural struggles of his long era that has given this testimony its enormous breadth and continuous vitality. Within one early sentence he couples Heine’s enlistment as “a soldier in the war for human liberation” with Ibsen’s announcement that “the younger generation is knocking at the door.” His best-known book, Axel’s Castle, for all its elucidation of post-Symbolist subtleties, is a valedictory to the “resignationism” of Proust, Joyce, and Eliot. His other two major works, To the Finland Station and Patriotic Gore, deal respectively with communism and with the Civil War. Truly he could say that his “single aim [had] been literature.” Yet, as he tells James Branch Cabell, of all people, “everything of mine…is rather heavily social-historical.” Hence he detested the rarefactions of New Criticism, deprecated a study of Yeats for seeming to take place in a political void, and even suggested that Max Beerbohm’s dandyism should be examined from “a social slant.”

One of these letters is a kind of socialist manifesto, written after his experience with the miners’ strikes at Harlan County, Kentucky, in collaboration with Lewis Mumford, Sherwood Anderson, and others, though evidently unpublished. Moving leftward from the wartime idealism of his presidential namesake, through the ideological infighting of the Stalinists and the Trotskyites, he preserved his Yankee common sense and radical independence. He was never so directly involved as John Dos Passos; neither did he recoil to the right, like his disillusioned friend. That friendship must have been severely tested by the series of letters criticizing Dos Passos for his apostasy (calling him “a hot-air artist” who sounded, on the subject of Goldwater, “like a teenager squealing over the Beatles”). Since Wilson also presented more reasoned arguments, it is too bad that this important dialogue must stand incomplete; but one looks in vain for some of the counterarguments in Townsend Ludington’s inadequate collection of Dos Passos’s letters and diaries.

Since Wilson was himself a veteran editor, who had shored up Scott Fitzgerald’s fragments with The Crack-Up, and taken on the vested cohorts of the MLA in a controversy over editing, we have some notion of the treatment he would have preferred for himself. Elena Mumm Wilson has brought to her editorial task those qualities of understanding and devotion which gave him twenty-five years of happy marriage. Annotation is reduced to a minimum, and most correspondents are identified by quoting Wilson’s references to them elsewhere. The sequence is roughly chronological, decade by decade, with occasional rearrangements for thematic continuity. On the whole, it is remarkable that so rich and copious an accumulation could be gathered and selected within five years of the author’s death. Naturally, there are lacunae: surely the correspondences with Mary McCarthy and Edna St. Vincent Millay must have had literary and political, as well as personal, interest. It would have been enlightening to recover some of the many letters to Biblical scholars, such as the late W.F. Albright. And there might have been written communication with Svetlana Alliluyeva.

But here is God’s plenty, as Dryden said of The Canterbury Tales. And if Mrs. Wilson has had to be highly selective in representing such fascinating interlocutors as Vladimir Nabokov, it is good news that all of Wilson’s 140 letters to him, together with Nabokov’s reciprocal part in the exchange, will be published in a separate volume to be edited by Simon Karlinsky. This should help to dispel some of the numerous inaccuracies currently being circulated by Andrew Field’s glib and capricious biography. Moreover, it should bring out much that was delightful and stimulating—not only to the two principals, but to those of us who had the privilege of being friends with both—which has been overclouded by later polemics. Another clouded record is set straight by the reference—albeit not by title—to Matthew Josephson’s Life Among the Surrealists. In this attempt to work up a set of memoirs by dropping the names of more talented contemporaries with whom the author had marginally associated, Wilson felt himself traduced. Lawyers agreed to corrections in further printings, for which there seems to have been little opportunity.

His letters also clarify his part in bringing out Fitzgerald posthumously. Therein Wilson’s admitted toughness with publishers served his deep loyalty to his friend’s work. For putting The Last Tycoon into publishable shape, he received an honorarium of $500, which he donated to the Fitzgerald estate. Extraordinary as it may seem today, Scribner’s was allowing Fitzgerald’s books to go out of print, and Wilson had great difficulties in finding a publisher for The Crack-Up. In a gossipy book which reflects the corporate superciliousness of its theme, Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill has insinuated that Wilson sought financial advantage for himself in the arrangements he finally made with the more receptive firm of New Directions. The correspondence with Fitzgerald’s executor makes clear that Wilson received the modest fee of $200 for the whole thing, and shared half of it with other contributors. The fact that $100 should be the compensation for this labor of love by an outstanding talent, carried out over months of intermittent endeavor, merits more than malicious anecdote.

Mrs. Wilson’s edition is enhanced with an apt and amusing montage of illustrations. Daniel Aaron’s lucid and thoughtful introduction is worthy of Wilson himself, in relating his development to the socio-cultural currents of his times. There is an additional one-page foreword by Leon Edel, the General Editor of the Edmund Wilson Papers now in the Beinecke Library at Yale. He gives his imprimatur to this project, and acknowledges the sponsorship of his own contribution by the National Endowment for the Humanities; but he does not tell us what we would like to know about the extent and character of the papers or his plans for putting the rest of them into print. It should be remembered that the sixty years of the letters are also covered by intimate journals. Wilson had begun to publish these in A Prelude, which conveyed him from juvenilia through the First World War. He had likewise dipped into fairly recent notebooks to eke out his celebration of ancestral terrain, particularly his reoccupation of the old stone house at Talcotville, New York, in Upstate.

But the main installment to appear thus far has been The Twenties, edited largely by Wilson at the end of his life and completed by Professor Edel, whom we trust to follow it with volumes out of the successive decades. I should very strongly like to agree with him that it constitutes “perhaps the largest authentic document of the time.” Furthermore, in a brief memoir for The Times Literary Supplement, I actually voiced an expectation that the Wilson diaries might turn out to be an American counterpart for what Gide and the Goncourts had recorded about French literature. It is therefore saddening to admit, though there are others who have reacted similarly, that this particular volume has left me with an anticlimactic impression. Much of it is devoted to what Professor Aaron, in a tactful phrase, has termed “disciplined dissipation.” Though there were bound to be valid insights and suggestive jottings, a good deal of the narration seems preoccupied with psychological tensions, erotic experiments, and the search for identity that was to be resolved in the Thirties.

The Twenties were, of course, by no means so ebullient as the image they present in popular legend, and Wilson’s letters about both The Great Gatsby and The Big Money emphasize their tragic view of human nature. Professor Edel’s “portrait” in The Twenties applied to Wilson his own formula of The Wound and the Bow, and counterpoised his private anxieties with his professional accomplishments. Lacking the fuller information that we may hope to gain from subsequent volumes, we may question the General Editor’s relegation of these letters to “the margin of [Wilson’s] posthumous papers.” Given Wilson’s long-range commitment to the life of the mind, as contrasted with his frenetic strivings and strayings during the Twenties, there is substantial reason to infer that the emphasis should be placed on his letters, and that his diaries may belong in the background. He was not, after all, a highly creative writer, so that the wound-bow problem applies to him in a limited degree. Living within the high jinks of Greenwich Village, he remained a lonely man, whose relations best expressed themselves in his intellectual correspondence.

Though he spent his working hours on his public writing, his epistolary habits were confirmed by his first marriage to the actress Mary Blair, inasmuch as his wife’s schedule was regulated by her theatrical engagements (several of them in O’Neill’s earlier plays). “Having, as a rule, no one to talk to at the cocktail hour,” he wrote a school-and-college friend in 1925, “I have formed the habit of pouring it all into my correspondence to avoid the necessity of talking to myself.” Another precondition for the letter-writer is the itinerary of his career. Though Wilson never underwent an expatriate phase, his horizons were always widely cosmopolitan. Even when he presages “a shifting of the capital of the world’s culture from Paris to New York,” he warns Fitzgerald against the limitations of American provinciality. Nor did he ever feel quite at home in New York, where publishers were turning literature into a “cloak and suit business,” fellow critics like Burton Rascoe and Gilbert Seldes were succumbing to the marketplace, and levels of taste were being set by “the Van Doren trust.”

Regular jobs with Vanity Fair, The Dial, and The New Republic seem to have kept him somewhat unwillingly in the metropolis. He was in his late thirties when he detached himself to become a freelance; he was not to be free from financial insecurities until his late sixties. Making his base of operations in an early nineteenth-century farmhouse just off the Mid-Cape Highway at Wellfleet, he lived from one roving assignment to another: occasionally a reluctant term at a college or university, often an exploratory tour of cultures ranging from Iroquois to Israeli. This semi-peripatetic mode of existence, besides providing much occasion to correspond, helped him to maintain his broad perspective and his critical distance. For several years he sent out printed holiday letters in humorous verse to his widely scattered circle of friends. These were termed New Year—rather than Christmas—greetings; for, though he was deeply interested in the origins of Christianity, he personally rejects it as “the worst imposture in history.” (Old Voltairean that he was, he needles Allen Tate and W.H. Auden about their religious conversions.)

Wilson was frustrated in what he could have fulfilled superbly: his desire to edit a first-rate highbrow general magazine, such as has not existed in this country since The Dial. Curiously enough, it was his approach to Harold Ross, seeking practical advice in this matter, which brought about his appointment to “Clifton Fadiman’s job reviewing books on The New Yorker.” He commenced with misgivings, expecting it to last no longer than a year. In fact, the connection lasted for almost thirty years; and though he now and then chafed against editorial conformities, the editors allowed him a free hand in sponsoring his cultural explorations afield, and allowed them plenty of space amidst the fall advertising. Having wielded the blue pencil himself, he was twice-trained professionally, and his relations with publishers’ editors—notably Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s—show both astuteness and adaptability. He had been helpful with his own contributors, and adept at recruiting talents. It is too bad he could not persuade Hemingway to do a piece on Mussolini for The New Republic.

His principles of reviewing come out in letters to R.P. Blackmur, whose stylistic prolixities he gently but firmly emends. Blackmur’s doubtful access to Dante or the symbolistes in their own languages prompts Wilson’s patient correction. His literary standards put to shame the scholarship of latterday academics. Thus he can point out omissions, in acknowledging Gilbert Highet’s survey, The Classical Tradition. He discusses the niceties of translation from Latin with Rolfe Humphries and Erich Segal, and delivers a damaging report to a publisher on Lionel Abel’s versions of Rimbaud. Characteristically, the opening letter, addressed to a schoolmate who would become a classical scholar, Alfred Bellinger, puts down the latest Kipling by holding up the model of Homer. With his principal mentors at Princeton, Dean Christian Gauss and the Scottish philosopher Norman Kemp Smith, Wilson stayed in touch throughout their lives. But, on later encounters, he has surpassed them: he cannot interest Gauss in Joyce or Hemingway, and he fears that Kemp Smith’s rationalism is deliquescing into mysticism.

His acquaintance with the ancients and with continental culture lent a special authority to his reception of the modernists, at a moment when they were shocking most other readers who happened to be well versed in the classics. The counter-shock of recognition was electrically registered when he reviewed Ulysses at its quasi-surreptitious publication and The Waste Land from proofs in the same year. Writing to John Peale Bishop about Eliot’s poem, he labels it “the greatest knockout up to date,” and he uses a similar epithet five years later in congratulating Hemingway upon The Sun Also Rises. There are frequent expressions of acknowledgment to the leading writers of the period for copies of their books. Few of these do not mingle hard-headed counsel—not to say instruction—with perceptive appreciation, and some of them contain lists of detailed errata. While accepting an early accolade from H.L. Mencken, which must have meant a lot to him, he cannot desist from a postscript questioning one of that amateur linguist’s solecisms: the habitual misuse of the adjective jejune.

For all his curiosity and catholicity, Wilson did not aspire to be a universal mind; on such grounds, he was suspicious of Albert Schweitzer; and he deliberately left out certain interests in order to be conversant with many others. Not reading Spanish, though he mastered more difficult tongues, on principle he never read Don Quixote. He avoided Thomas Mann, and had little feeling for the Germans. Certain of his judgments may strike us as wrongheaded: e.g., Housman as a poet of higher stature than Eliot. In Vanity Fair he started the game of listing the overrated, which has lately been played in the pages of Esquire and The Times Literary Supplement. Certainly he was farsighted in derogating Aldous Huxley at the height of his vogue. In declaring Frost “flat and uninteresting,” he has yet to convince most readers, and he seems to have gone up and down about Stevens, Pound, Cummings, and Marianne Moore. But it is refreshing when he recalls the forgotten felicities of poets like Elinor Wylie or Phelps Putnam. And it was discerning of him to discover so soon that Sartre was more of a journalist than an artist.

The tone of these epistles varies appreciably with the given addressee. Even the salutations and signatures are variously nuanced. Yet anyone who might have been put off by Wilson’s published persona, finding it elusive or overbearing, may now enjoy the uninhibited flow of his candid conversation: responsive, crusty, hortatory, elegiac, jocular, and invariably poised for argument. He drops into parody and hoax, along with ingenious verse; his prevailing insistence upon the highest standards in all fields is alleviated by a sporadic note of ribaldry. The table of contents includes a letter in elementary Hungarian (translated and reproduced in facsimile), a better known letter to a publisher friend proposing an American equivalent to the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, and a characteristic response to John Wain’s request for an interview in The Observer, counterposing questions for Mr. Wain to answer. The scope of interests and initiatives manifested here, or throughout his listed oeuvre, justified Wilson in demurring when he came to be conventionally characterized as “a mediator between artist and public.”

He came an unforeseeable distance since he had professed himself, when he started out, a journalistic middleman. Professor Aaron’s concluding assessment, that “he was the moral and intellectual conscience of his generation,” broadens the testimonial of Fitzgerald which is fully documented here. “Brace up your artistic conscience, which was always the weakest part of your talent!” Bunny admonishes, on the eve of Scott’s first success. “Be strong” is likewise his repeated watchword for their poetic classmate Bishop. Both of them needed, and insufficiently heeded, this admonition. Wilson, surviving both by a robustious generation, went from strength to strength. When he studied Hebrew, he learned that his motto signified an avowal of reinvigoration for the reader turning from one book of the Pentateuch to the next. He had it engraved on a plaque “tacked up over the oxygen tank in my bedroom-study.” Shortly afterward it was inscribed on his gravestone. He had lived up to his own prognosis, after he had told the psychiatrists during a three-week hospitalization in 1929, “I had always thought I was a strong personality.”

What the terse injunction meant to him is spelled out in a letter to Louise Bogan, whom he thought of “as fundamentally such a strong and wise individual,” but who found herself in the same mental situation two years later:

These are times of pretty severe strain for anybody, to lapse into a vein of editorial generalization. Everything is changing so fast and we are all more or less in a position of having been brought up in one kind of world and having to adjust muscles, socially, sexually, morally, etc., to another which is itself in a state of flux. Still, we have to carry on, and people like you with remarkable abilities, even though they’re more highly organized nervously than other people, are under a peculiar obligation not to let this sick society down. We have to take life—society and human relations—more or less as we find them—and there is no doubt that they leave much to be desired. The only thing that we can really make is our work. And deliberate work of the mind, imagination, and hand, done, as Nietzsche said, “notwithstanding,” in the long run remakes the world.

It is a credo for that endangered species, the autonomous individual. Writing within a month or so to Tate, Wilson still affirmed a qualified faith in human progress, to be attained through the gradual collaboration of art and science. This belief grew harder to sustain through the post-Depression years, when it would seem more à propos to read Gibbon and note contemporary analogies. As Wilson’s personal retrospect lengthened, he was amused to watch “one’s own day before yesterday turning up as literary history.” He objected when reviewers called him “mellow,” yet admitted to Dos Passos that he now saw himself “as a probably moldering and mellow old codger from the frivolous twenties,” whose own world was as remote to his juniors as the Civil War had been to him in youth. That he survived such a world so energetically, conveying its dedications and dissidences to ours, and preserving its dynamic impetus in these letters, makes him an exemplar and this book a monument.


E. Wilson, Editor December 8, 1977

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