The Fifties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period
Readers of Edmund Wilson’s diaries for the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s may have regretted that in these volumes Wilson omitted sustained accounts of the literary life in which he had been immersed for thirty years, and supplied only glancing sketches of such youthful companions as John Bishop, Edna Millay, and Scott Fitzgerald. Wilson’s diaries for those decades were remarkable mainly for their descriptions of his many love affairs, pursuits for which this distinguished and reputedly austere literary personage was not widely known. One reviewer has recently gone so far as to call the erotic passages in these diaries pornographic, and even for Wilson’s less easily inflamed readers his amatory descriptions must have come as something of a shock, for Wilson’s candor is as defiant, as limitless, and as innocent as Stieglitz’s in his erotic photographs of Georgia O’Keefe. Perhaps for this reason these amatory writings have not received their due, particularly the long elegiac piece on his second wife, Margaret Canby, in The Thirties.
Though Wilson had been taken seriously as a critic almost from the time he began to write, he was not the personage he would become by the 1950s, when he was in his own fifties and sixties, and usually described as America’s leading man of letters. Nor did he write his earlier diaries for eventual publication as he seems to have done the present ones. Compared with the earlier volumes, the current installment is the largely finished work of a successful literary man at the height of his powers and reputation, disillusioned but still intensely if rather more narrowly than before practicing the haute vulgarisation that had by now become his specialty. No longer primarily a literary critic, Wilson by the 1950s had become a cultural journalist of an incomparably high order.
A virtue of these diaries is their record of Wilson’s encounters with what would prove to be the last group of writers still on easy terms with the language and culture of the last century, the century in which Wilson himself was rooted: such writers as Max Beerbohm, E.M. Forster, Cyril Connolly, W.H. Auden, and Vladimir Nabokov. But for all the care that Wilson has taken with his often biting portraits of these figures this volume nevertheless represents its author domesticated and at ease. Wilson is less interesting in these pages for his intellectual discriminations, which he saved for his more formal writings, than for what he reveals, often without quite meaning to, about his state of mind as he comes in his sixth decade within sight not only of his own death but of that of the Edwardian literary generation by which he had been formed, and of which he was to be the last important American example.
As for his amatory career, Wilson is now married to his fourth wife, the former Elena Thornton, with whom he is much in love, and with whom he is much in love, and with whom he quarrels only over her reluctance to accompany him on his summertime retreats from their house on Cape Cod to Talcottville, his ancestral village in upstate New York. Elena finds Wilson’s Talcottville house almost unbearably gloomy and thinks it may be haunted, but Wilson, a respectful husband in many ways, has become stubbornly, and in Elena’s view inexplicably, attached to this uncomfortable relic. Throughout the decade Wilson’s love-making will be confined to Elena, and amply described in these pages, but he will also become ever more dependent on Talcottville with its atmosphere of dead forebears, and the marriage will be strained accordingly.
Wilson’s obsession with Talcottville began in the 1930s and by the 1950s he has come to rely heavily upon the illusion which this village offers him—and him alone—of old-fashioned republican virtue even though this part of upstate New York has become rather run-down both physically and morally, as Wilson himself in his candid moments admits. Nevertheless, Talcottville permits him to turn his attention backward and inward toward the America of Lincoln, Grant, and Holmes, the vanished America of Wilson’s parents and grandparents—a country whose qualities he will brilliantly reconstruct in the series of literary essays relating to the Civil War that will eventually become his masterpiece, Patriotic Gore.
The poor old [Talcottville] house run-down, grass and vines and shrubbery all grown up around it…moldy smelling inside—so much of the stuff seemed cheap and rubbishy. But I have very ambitious ideas about it—shall preserve it, yet make it something different, my own. Though I always at first find it smaller and less distinguished than I expected, I now get into the spirit of it and feel that it has its dignity and its amplitude, as I go from room to room…. It always bucks me up to go there; partly the nobility and beauty of this country, partly because it brings me closer to Father, who enjoyed it so much and did it so well.
These journals have barely begun when Wilson writes, “Nothing but deaths around here.” “I can hardly believe,” he writes in October 1950 when he hears that Edna Millay has died, “that it is irrevocably impossible to write to her…she is not there.” Four months later his mother dies: “Strange to think that the mold of her features had been printed by those of my grandparents, born in 1828 and 1833…and that she had been born in 1865.” And soon Christian Gauss, Wilson’s old teacher, collapses in Penn Station on his way to Princeton.
“Too many of my friends are insane or dead or Roman Catholic converts,” he writes a few years later, and he himself is of two minds about whether to go on. “Alternate appetite and tiredness: desire still for more falls and summers and willingness at last to call my life a day.” On balance, however, these deaths of figures from his childhood and youth liberate Wilson and assure him of his independent powers. Nevertheless he tells a young critic that “getting older for a writer does not necessarily give you self-confidence.” There are times when he gets up at four in the morning to read old reviews of his books.
As for love affairs, now when he sees “a pretty girl I no longer have the need to make her acquaintance. I am blocked by thinking I am a fat old man.” In a Paris café he finds himself beside a full-length mirror, “so that every time I looked aside I saw myself, from head to foot, sitting at a table, and was horrified at my big bellied presence and my red and swollen face, with a not too pleasant expression around the eyes and mouth—and Elena’s slimness and delicacy.”
“At my age,” he wrote a few days later, “sex becomes less importunate, in the sense that you don’t need it so often, and the impulse comes to seem less important. You even become impatient with the biological instinct, with its pleasure bait, which asserts itself so much more often than is necessary. It sometimes becomes nagging: you think, ‘Oh, yes, there you are again—I know all about it. You just want me to go to bed with some woman so that more human babies will be born, and I have quite enough children already. I want to dedicate myself now to more intellectual and dignified things.”
But Wilson was that sort of literary person who, having been denied the affection of an aloof father and an uncomprehending mother, thereafter required the alternate worlds provided by books and the intimacy of women whom he could love and instruct as he had been unable to love and instruct the mother who had preferred that he accompany her to Princeton football games. For all his protests, and despite his successful marriage to Elena, he will continue to rise to this pleasure bait to the end of his life. In his diary for 1958 he describes the “snub nose” of a woman who lives in the same Cape Cod village, “her glittering blue eyes, her square face, boyish cheeks, straight up-and-down figure, and ‘sensible’ unfeminine shoes…. ‘You’re entirely a lesbian?”’ he asked her. “I wouldn’t say that,” she replied. “The next time I saw her, I said to her, ‘Are people always falling in love with you?’ She said ‘Yes,’ and added some matter-of-fact remark about it which I am sorry I can’t remember.” Fourteen years later, as he leaves Cape Cod for the last time on his way to Talcottville, where he will die a few days later at seventy-six, he writes to this woman that “I still look longingly at your house when I pass it and wish you were still there.”
In the 1950s Wilson was at work on several large projects in addition to the reviews that he was writing for The New Yorker. By the first half of the decade he had published his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, an outgrowth of his study of the Hebrew language. By the end of the decade he was well into his work on the Iroquois of upstate New York, who were opposing attempts by the state to build a dam on their ancestral land, another subject which, like the Essenes of ancient Israel, allowed Wilson to study a minority culture at odds with an oppressive larger one.
Meanwhile he was continuing the work that he had begun in the 1940s on the writers of the Civil War period, many of whom carried on sectarian debates with what Wilson liked to call the “large power unit” which the United States was then becoming. And he was preparing for publication the personal diaries which he had been keeping since he was nineteen. He was also collecting and revising the literary and political journalism that he had been writing since the 1920s for such papers as Vanity Fair and The New Republic, having decided by the 1950s that it was time to take stock of what he had done and prepare his legacy. Meanwhile he was urging that the collected works of important American writers be brought together and published in a uniform edition, a project that would eventually become The Library of America.
Wilson had always wanted to be an imaginative writer and in these years, in addition to his other projects, he was planning a novel and some plays. Though nothing came of these efforts, the strategies of storytelling were always on Wilson’s mind. In 1950 he wrote to Arthur Mizener, who was writing his biography of Scott Fitzgerald,
It is important in writing a biography to remember that you are telling a story and the problems of presenting the material are in many ways just the same as those of presenting a subject of fiction. You cannot take for granted on the part of the reader any knowledge of your particular subject. You will have to introduce it to him so that he will understand it every step of the way, and you have to create your characters and backgrounds and situations just as you would those of fiction. You must put yourself in the reader’s place…and calculate the tone of every sentence.
What Wilson is advocating here is his own critical technique, with his emphasis on narrative and explanation and his belief that ideas are not free-floating abstractions but embedded in and formed by character and event. What he was warning Mizener against is the kind of professorial writing that he found in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Yeats, “which all takes place in a void, an abstract, psychological analysis with no conception of the Dublin background or of the passionate, dramatized personality of the people he is writing about. Every time he quotes from Yeats, you are startled and ask yourself what the poetry is doing there.”
The novels, plays, and poems that Wilson had been trying throughout his life to write usually turned out badly, if they turned out at all, and little of this work is likely to survive. Except in the best of these efforts—for example the long preface in verse to the collection of Fitzgerald’s writing which Wilson edited and called The Crack-Up—Wilson’s voice can be heard lecturing the reader from outside the work and these repeated didactic intrusions undermine whatever illusion of independent reality he tries to create. Though he urged Mizener to write biography as if he were telling a story, Wilson in his own imaginative work often wrote as if he were also producing a critical gloss or simultaneous critical translation lest the reader miss the literary effect that he was trying to convey.
But the imagined worlds that Wilson tried and usually failed to bring to life in his fiction he often achieved in his critical and journalistic work, as well as in his notebooks, for it was the essence of Wilson’s critical technique, as he advised Mizener, to tell a story, to reconstruct in his own voice the art and the life he was trying to convey. In this respect among others Wilson found himself by the 1950s isolated from other contemporary critics, who then as now were preoccupied with systematic approaches to literature or were depending upon literature to sustain this or that moral or political theory. Eager to confirm this isolation he retreated to Talcottville which he thought of as a “pocket of the past” or in less sanguine moments as “cold storage,” and which Elena associated with death.
By the 1950s the personage that Wilson has become likes to refer to himself as a “back number” and is seldom seen without his ancient brown Brooks Brothers suit, the soft, button-down white shirt, the red paisley tie, the slightly crushed Stetson, someone who now “finds it more difficult to respond to new situations. So I sometimes make speeches that are really old phonograph records with no particular relevance to the person or situation.” These monologues often turned out to be excerpts from Wilson’s work in progress, so that an after-dinner lecture on Swinburne would eventually appear in much the same form in The New Yorker. But another effect of these monologues was to forestall normal conversation, for as Wilson grew older his single-mindedness had become geological. If a companion had nothing to offer on a subject that Wilson was working up, then Wilson would feel free to expound on whatever happened to be on his mind at the moment. The result was often stimulating, though inevitably one noticed, as one notices in these diaries as well, Wilson’s determination to limit the world to his own, increasingly obsessive preoccupations.
There is nothing these pages on the American writers who were emerging in the 1950s and though Wilson now and then mentions such topics of the day as the Rosenbergs, John Foster Dulles, and Senator McCarthy, his observations are perfunctory. In England he prefers the company of Compton Mackenzie to that of the younger writers, except for Angus Wilson, whom he admires, and in France, though he finds Genet’s Pompes funèbres a “work of genius, much better than Sartre”; and while it “makes homosexuality much more attractive than either Proust or Gide, to read about it at length gives an impression of futility and silliness—which they try to offset by brutality and dirtiness.” As for Genet himself, “it indicates a rottenness of Europe that he should be nowadays one of its great writers.”
When he is not abroad or in Talcottville, Wilson lives with Elena and their young daughter in a green-trimmed, white clapboard house of the 1820s in Wellfleet, a sea-swept village toward the end of Cape Cod, a part of the world to which Edna Millay had introduced him in the 1920s and which still in the 1950s bore traces of a summertime Greenwich Village. Elena had made the Wellfleet house a miracle of uncomplicated domesticity after the disarray of his previous arrangements, and it was now possible for him to lead the life of the Edwardian literary man whom he had always imagined himself to be. Occasionally he feels that he is “still a man of the Twenties…expecting something exciting: drinks, animated conversation, gaiety, brilliant writing…. I have never had quite the expectation of Scott Fitzgerald’s character that somewhere things are ‘glimmering.’ I always thought life had its excitements wherever I was. But it was part of the same Zeitgeist.” Now, however, he tries to “discipline” himself “not to be so silly in depending…on things that are transient and superficial. I try to diet and cut down on drinking and not look forward to sprees. I hope I am on the way to becoming a sedate old gentleman.”
Though Wilson was entirely American in his sensibility and even something of a frontiersman in his disdain for the authority of “large power units,” he was no redskin. His culture was European, grounded in the Greek and Latin that he had got at the Hill School and the Italian and French that he learned from Gauss at Princeton. When he wrote on American subjects he did so as if they were inseparable from the older and larger culture from which they had partly sprung. But his outlook remained American, concentrated more on the possibilities of human autonomy than on the satisfactions of settled tradition. “The great difference between Europe and America,” he writes in 1956, is that “we have always had something to build, to win, whereas they have too much to look back on.”
What he deplored in Eliot was the converse of what led him to underestimate Frost. Eliot had forsaken his American character for what Wilson considered a pretentious devotion to alien mannerisms while Frost, at the opposite extreme, was pretending to be an American primitive, as if the larger culture hardly existed for him. Wilson’s disdain for Eliot in these years was unrelenting, but in the case of Frost, a personal encounter at a party given by Robert Lowell supplied agreeable new evidence.
I had told [Lowell, who was in one of his manic phases] that I didn’t much believe in Frost’s poetry—in fact, that I thought him a “dreadful old fake”; but—or perhaps, in consequence—he called up the Frosts and invited them to dinner. He told Mrs. Frost over the phone that I was a great admirer of Frost’s, and Mrs. Frost said that her husband would be so glad to hear it because he had thought I wasn’t. When Frost was there…[Lowell] said to Frost that I wanted to ask him how his reputation had become so exaggerated. [Frost] looked like a clever old elephant. I realized, in talking to him, that as a writer he was serious. We talked about the New England poets, about whom he was quite good; greatly admired “Snowbound;” said that E.A. Robinson’s favorite poem of his own had been “Flood’s Party.”
Wilson’s literary encounters in these journals are often enlightening in this glancing way. Occasionally he will be blunt. After a visit to Oxford he wrote,
the things that they think about and their way of thinking about them seemed to me to be so removed from everything that is going on. I thought, at the end of the war, that the British intellectuals had been made more provincial by their isolation; but they seemed now to be even more so. It seemed all very stale and unreal. I kept thinking how different the things were that had been going through my head from the things that were going through theirs….
[Oxford’s] intramural spites and grudges, cliques and snobberies, celibate jealousies, rather sickened me—along with the monastic staleness—even in that short time. Of course, it was an unattractive season: it had been summer when I had been there before; but it seemed a long time ago, unrecapturable and unrevisitable, that I had sat on a bench in Magdalene Walk and read English poetry: Ionica and J.E. Flecker, or composed bouts-rimés in the parlor of the Mitre… Though…nowadays 80 percent of the dons are married, there is still a definite feeling of women having been excluded, of places where women have never lived, that rather got me down: When I got back late to London I leapt on Elena, who had gone to bed.
In Paris, Wilson asks Malraux whether he would be coming to America. “He had replied emphatically, Je l’espère bien! But I am not sure that his kind of mind can accommodate itself to us: he would be likely to spend all his time making a series of formulations that would become more and more incoherent.”
Despite his European disappointments, it is only in London and Paris, and, of course, in Talcottville, that he “can [any longer] find the things [he] knew in [his] youth,” and it is in these places therefore that he feels “most at home.” He returns from Europe to find Wellfleet “something of a void,” and Cambridge, where he spends a winter at Harvard, he finds “almost unmitigated hell, constant nervous strain in connection with the income tax [Wilson had not filed his returns for several years and was now in difficulty with the government] and with the struggle between Elena and me as to where we are going to live—we had only made love twice…. The teeth in my upper jaw have suddenly been falling out. Bambi [an old spaniel] died—he just faded out, his heart ran down. Reuel [Wilson’s son by Mary McCarthy] and I dug a grave in the corner of the back yard and I buried him there the next morning in a basket with a blanket around him.”
The decline that Wilson foresaw in the 1950s of Paris and London as literary capitals and the narcissism, paranoia, and materialism that seemed to him to be getting out of control in the United States, together with the coarsening of literary life that he sensed in Cambridge, drove him further into the American past and into his own past, regions of the mind that he was able to cultivate in the otherwise unremarkable backwaters of upstate New York. Thrown back upon himself and upon this recollected and imagined past, Wilson in the 1950s increasingly withdrew from the everyday world and produced a body of work whose constant theme was the opposition by surviving remnants of particular cultures—Hebrew, Iroquois, and that of his own preindustrial America—to the unmanageable power systems and their coercive ideologies that were now everywhere on the rise. Yet these diaries show that Wilson retreated without bitterness or despair and with his forces intact or even invigorated. His admirers might like to think of him alone in Talcottville on “a delightful day (in May) sitting out on the lawn in the delicious sun,” presumably in his habitual brown suit and paisley tie with the Stetson on the grass beside him, reading the letters of James Joyce which had just been published and finding them “so dynamic, high aiming, uncompromising and so tragic at the end.”