The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period
by Edmund Wilson, edited by Leon Edel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 753 pp., $17.50
On February 2, 1821, gin-drinker Lord Byron wrote in his Ravenna Journal: “I have been considering what can be the reason why I always wake at a certain hour in the morning, and always in very bad spirits—I may say, in actual despair and despondency, in all respects—even of that which pleased me overnight…. In England, five years ago, I had the same kind of hypochondria, but accompanied with so violent a thirst that I have drank as many as fifteen bottles of soda-water in one night, after going to bed, and been still thirsty…. What is it?—liver?”
In Edmund Wilson’s journal, published as Upstate, he wrote, in 1955: “One evening (August 13, Saturday) I drank a whole bottle of champagne and what was left of a bottle of old Grand-Dad and started on a bottle of red wine—I was eating Limburger cheese and gingersnaps. This began about five in the afternoon—I feel asleep in my chair, but woke up when Beverly came, thinking it was the next morning. I decided to skip supper; and felt queasy for the next twenty-four hours.” The sixty-year-old Wilson does not ask, what is it? as Byron did. Wilson knows. “This kind of life,” he writes, rather demurely, “in the long run, does, however, get rather unhealthy.”
About the time that Wilson was munching on those gingersnaps and Limburger cheese, washed down with fiery waters, I received a letter from Upton Sinclair (whom I had never met), asking me about something. Then, obsessively, from left field, as it were, Sinclair denounced John Barleycorn. In the course of a long life, practically every writer Sinclair had known had died of drink, starting with his friend Jack London. Needless to say, this was not the sort of unsolicited letter that one likes to read while starting on one’s fifteenth bottle of soda water, or to be precise and up-to-date, Coca-Cola, Georgia’s sole gift to a nation whose first century was recently described in a book titled, eponymously, The Alcoholic Republic…of letters, I remember adding to myself when I first saw the book.
In this century, it would be safe to say that a significant percent of American writers are to a greater or lesser degree alcoholics and why this should be the case I leave to the medicine men. Alcoholism ended the careers of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, to name three fashionable novelists of our mid-century. Out of charity toward the descendants and keepers of the still flickering flames of once glorious literary figures, I shall name no other names. Heavy drinking stopped Hemingway from writing anything of value in his later years; killed Fitzgerald at forty-five; turned the William Faulkner of As I Lay Dying into a fable.
Meanwhile, the contemporary of these three blasted stars, Edmund Wilson, outlived and outworked them all; he also outdrank them. Well into his seventies, Wilson would march into the Princeton Club and order a half dozen martinis, to be prepared not sequentially but simultaneously—six shining glasses in a bright row, down which Wilson would work, all the while talking and thinking at a rapid pace. To the end of a long life, he kept on making the only thing he thought worth making: sense, a quality almost entirely lacking in American literature where stupidity—if sufficiently sincere and authentic—is deeply revered, and easily achieved. Although this was a rather unhealthy life in the long run, Wilson had a very long run indeed. But then he was perfect proof of the proposition that the more the mind is used and fed the less apt it is to devour itself. When he died, at seventy-seven, he was busy stuffing his head with irregular Hungarian verbs. Plainly, he had a brain to match his liver.
Edmund Wilson was the last of a leisurely educated generation who were not obliged, if they were intellectually minded, to join the hicks and hacks of Academe. Wilson supported himself almost entirely by literary journalism, something not possible today if only because, for all practical purposes, literary journalism of the sort that he practiced no longer exists. Instead, book-chat is now dominated either by academic bureaucrats, crudely pursuing bureaucratic careers, or by journalists whose “leprous jealousy” (Flaubert’s pretty phrase) has made mephitic the air of our alcoholic literary republic. But then Flaubert thought that “critics write criticism because they are unable to be artists, just as a man unfit to bear arms becomes a police spy.” Wilson would have challenged this romantic notion. Certainly, he would have made the point that to write essays is as much an aspect of the literary artist’s temperament as the ability to evoke an alien sensibility on a page while sweating to avoid a double genitive. In any case, Wilson himself wrote stories, plays, novels. He knew how such things were made even if he was not entirely a master of any of these forms.
Of what then was Edmund Wilson a master? That is a question in need of an answer, or answers; and there are clues in the book at hand, The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period. At the time of Wilson’s death, eight years ago, he was editing the notebooks that dealt with the Twenties. He had already finished Upstate, a chronicle of his works and days from the early Fifties to 1970. Upstate is a highly satisfactory Wilsonian book, filled with sharp personal details, long scholarly asides on those things or people or notions (like New York religions) that had caught his fancy. Although he had planned to rework his earlier records, he soon realized that he might not live long enough to complete them. He then designated, in his will, that Professor Leon Edel edit the remains, with the injunction that the text be published the way he wrote it, except for straightening out “misspellings and faulty punctuations” (but not, apparently, faulty grammar: Wilson often “feels badly”—it is liver). With The Thirties, Professor Edel had his work cut out for him because, he writes, “It is clear from the condition of the typescript that [Wilson] intended to do much more work on this book.” That is understatement.
At the beginning of the Thirties, Wilson completed Axel’s Castle; at the end, he had finished To the Finland Station. He wrote for The New Republic, supported, briefly, the American Communist party, visited the Soviet Union, Detroit, Appalachia, Scotsboro, and tried a season of teaching at the University of Chicago. The decade, in a sense, was the making of him as critic and triple thinker. Emotionally, it was shattering: in 1930 he married Margaret Canby; in 1932 she died. He also conducted a wide range of affairs, many on the raunchy side.
Professor Edel rather flinches at Wilson’s “record of his own copulations” in general and the notes about his marriage in particular (so unlike the home life of our own dear Master): “some readers may be startled by this intimate candid record of a marriage.” But Professor Edel is quick to remind us that this is all part of “the notebooks of a chronicler, a way of tidying the mind for his craft of criticism…. He tries, rather, to be a camera, for this is what he finds most comfortable.” Well, yes and no.
In 1930 Edmund Wilson was thirty-five. He was a member of the minor Eastern gentry, a Princeton graduate, a World War I overseas noncombatant. In the Twenties, he had lived the life of the roaring boy but unlike the other lads that light-footed it over the greensward, he never stopped reading and writing and thinking. Thanks, in large part, to the Christers who had managed to prohibit the legal sale of spirits, alcohol was as much a curse to that generation as Gin Lane had been to the poor of eighteenth-century London. I suspect that a great deal of the grimness of this volume is a result of hangover and its concomitant despairs. At the same time, it is the record of an astonishing constitution: Wilson would write while he was drinking—something I should not have thought possible for anyone, even his doomed friend Scott Fitzgerald.
From thirty-five to forty-five men go from relative youth to middle age. The transit is often rocky. As a man’s life settles into a rut, in mindless rut the man is apt to go. Certainly, this was true of Wilson, as readers of Memoirs of Hecate County might have suspected and as readers of The Thirties will now know for certain. During the so-called “ignoble” decade, despite constant drinking, Wilson was sexually very active. He enjoyed trade in the form of the Slavic Anna, a working-class woman whose proletarian ways fascinated him. He had sex with a number of those women who used to hang about writers, as well as with ladies at the edge of the great world. He bedded no Oriane but he knew at least one Guermantes before her translation to the aristocracy.
Although Wilson’s bedmates are sometimes masked by initials, he enjoys writing detailed descriptions of what Professor Edel calls his “copulations.” These descriptions are mechanistic, to say the least. Since they are not connected with character, they are about as erotic as a Popular Mechanics blueprint of the sort that is said to appeal to the growing boy. I am not sure just why Wilson felt that he should write so much about cock and cunt except that in those days it was a very daring thing to do, as Henry Miller had discovered when his books were burned and as Wilson was to discover when his own novel, Memoirs of Hecate County, was banned.
In literature, sexual revelation is a matter of tact and occasion. Whether or not such candor is of interest to a reader depends a good deal on the revealer’s attitude. James Boswell is enchanting to read on sex because he is by self, as well as by sex, enchanted and possessed. The author of My Secret Life (if for real) is engaging because he is only interested in getting laid as often as possible in as many different ways and combinations. We also don’t know what he looks like—an important aid to masturbation. Frank Harris (not for real) has the exuberance of a natural liar and so moves the reader toward fiction.
The list now starts to get short. The recently published (in English) letters of Flaubert are interesting because he has interesting things to say about what he sees and does in the brothels and baths of North Africa. Also, tactfully, mercifully, he never tells us what he feels or Feels. The sex that Flaubert has with women and men, with boys and girls, is fascinating to read about (even though we know exactly how he looks). This is due, partly, to the fact that his experiences are, literally, exotic as well as erotic and, partly, to that famous tone of voice. Today one is never quite certain why memoirists are so eager to tell us what they do in bed. Unless the autobiographer has a case to be argued, I suspect that future readers will skip those sexual details that our writers have so generously shared with us in order to get to the gossip and the jokes.