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The Unquiet American


In May 1945, Edmund Wilson called upon George Santayana at the Hospital of the Blue Nuns in Rome. The meeting did not begin well. Before leaving America earlier that year to report on the “wreckage” of the war for The New Yorker, Wilson had received an inscribed copy of the first volume of Santayana’s memoir Persons and Places; his review of the second volume appeared in America while he was in Europe. But the Spanish-born philosopher, who had left America in 1912 after almost four decades in the Boston area, appeared not to know who Wilson was.

Wilson was, as he confessed in Europe Without Baedeker (1948), initially “nonplussed.” A friend and often mentor to Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos, Wilson was a well-known writer at the time. He had introduced a generation of Americans to the writers of European modernism, describing in Axel’s Castle (1931) how Joyce, Eliot, Proust, Yeats, and Valéry had broken down the “walls of the present” and uncovered the “untried, unsuspected possibilities of human thought and art.” Traveling to Southern mining towns and New England mills, he had described for readers of The New Republic the effects of the Depression—suicide, poverty, malnutrition, and the lure of militant socialism—on the most vulnerable Americans. In To the Finland Station (1940) he had provided what remains the most accessible account of the tradition of radical thinkers in modern Europe seeking to interpret and change history.

Wilson took Santayana’s ignorance of him with good grace. He had visited London just before Italy, and it may be that after his encounters with upper-class British people, whom he thought were unreconciled to the postwar diminishment of Britain, Wilson could only find refreshing Santayana’s modesty—an attitude which, Wilson wrote, is “rather rare with the literary and the learned,” and which is “simply that of a man in the world who was trying to make some sense of it as you were.” And Wilson, who was born in 1895 in Red Bank, New Jersey, seems also to have cherished the austere Santayana for his connection to the American past. Born in 1863, Santayana had known, however briefly, an American life not shaped by industrial capitalism, or dominated by big business and corrupt party machines—a pre-modern America, which Wilson revered, even romanticized, and which he saw as symbolized by his old stone family house at Talcottville in upstate New York.

In 1955, Wilson would read The Last Puritan (1935) and remark on the resemblance between his friends at Princeton and Santayana’s hero, who struggles to reconcile his genteel idealism with the aggressively commercial culture of post–Civil War America. Wilson, who partly blamed this culture for the mental instability of his father, a distinguished lawyer, knew that Santayana in Europe was an exile from the new America, which he had left after an unsatisfactory academic career at Harvard, where he claimed President Eliot had turned education into preparation for “service in the world of business.”

But now the new America was, unexpectedly, the supreme power in the world; and meeting in a Europe ravaged by war, Wilson and Santayana inevitably discussed the changes within the United States. Sitting on a chaise longue in his bare, dark room, with a blanket over his legs, Santayana spoke of the “great role” in world affairs that America was called upon to play—a role he would regard with skepticism in his last book, Dominations and Powers (1952), the manuscript of which Wilson saw sitting on a table in Santayana’s room.

Slightly unsettled by the “spooky” atmosphere of the convent and the dark room, Wilson wondered about Santayana’s solitude, and then concluded:

I do not imagine he is troubled by the thought of death or that it even impinges as a shadow…. Nor is he really alone in the sense that the ordinary person would be. He is still in the world of men, conversing with them through reading and writing…. While others, in these years of the war, have been shaken by the downfall of moralities or have shuddered under the impact of disaster, while they have been following the conflict with excitement, his glass has scarcely clouded or brightened; but the intelligence that has persisted in him has been that of the civilized human race—so how can he be lonely or old? He still loves to share in its thoughts, to try on its views. He has made it his business to extend himself into every kind of human consciousness with which he can establish contact, and he reposes on his shabby chaise longue like a monad in the universal mind.

Writing about the solitary but self-contained Santayana in 1945, Wilson seems to be addressing himself as much as his readers. He was fifty years old then, and, as Lewis Dabney describes in his comprehensive and engaging biography, “at loose ends in his career,” resembling in “the isolation of the Cape” (where Wilson owned a house in Wellfleet) the “Philoctetes of Sophocles’ play, the alienated possessor of a magical instrument.”

As Dabney describes it, Wilson had never had much money. The foundations, awards, grants, fellowships, academic positions, and other forms of cultural philanthropy that now keep many American intellectuals solvent developed too late for Wilson—in Upstate (1971), his record of life in Talcottville, he remarks on the postwar “cultural explosion” in the country sparked off by “federal handouts and foundation grants.” His only commercial success was Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), a collection of interlinked stories. Before that, he had struggled to make a living through his books and by writing for Vanity Fair, The New Republic, and The New Yorker.

Wilson had been less preoccupied in the Twenties and Thirties with money than with the question “whether it is possible,” as he wrote in Axel’s Castle, “to make a practical success of human society.” His optimism about modernism and Marxism derived from the Progressive-era belief that human beings could use art and reason to change or transcend their unsatisfactory circumstances. In 1931, Wilson had scolded Allen Tate for refusing to believe in progress, “the faith on which my own ideas are based.” “I can’t see,” Wilson wrote, “that people who don’t think so and are not religious are ever able to give life any meaning at all.” In 1940, he had asserted that “all our intellectual activity, in whatever field it takes place, is an attempt to give a meaning to our experience.”

But meaning was hard to find in 1945. Wilson’s tumultuous marriage to Mary McCarthy had just ended. Many of his friends, including Scott Fitzgerald, whom he had first met at Princeton, had died. His faith in the redemptive power of reason and art was challenged not only by the successive disasters of the Depression and the two world wars but also by what he identified as the “two great enemies of literary talent in our time: Hollywood and Henry Luce.”

John Updike expressed an influential view of Wilson’s later career when, reviewing the journals, he wrote that after the Thirties Wilson chose to “hole up in Wellfleet and Talcottville and relinquish commentary on the present American scene,” renouncing “the hope of a civilized intelligence to identify itself with America.” Reviewing Patriotic Gore (1962), Wilson’s study of the literature of the Civil War, Norman Podhoretz claimed that while Wilson is “still functioning as a first-rate intellect” he is “no longer able to do so without the help of isolation and pessimism.” “From now on,” Podhoretz declared, “we shall have to look elsewhere for the kind of guidance that it was once his particular glory to give.”

Certainly, Wilson’s political views looked extreme at a time when America seemed to be leading a moral and ideological crusade against Soviet communism. He had served in the First World War as a private in the hospital corps in France; and his experience of the cruelty of war and the mendacity of politicians had bred in Wilson an instinctive distrust of the high-minded aims offered by warring parties. He had also challenged the British and American claim to represent civilization in the Second World War by pointing to the alliance with Stalin, the destruction from the air of German cities, and the atomic bombing of Japan. In Patriotic Gore Wilson attacked the moral rhetoric of the Unionists in the Civil War, and blamed it for the later national conviction that America’s cause is always just: “Whenever we engage in a war or move in on some other country it is always to liberate somebody.”

Wilson no longer admired the human ability to change history; the defeat of his radical hopes and the standoff between the American and Soviet military machines had made him particularly alert to the human capacity for deception and self-deception. He now saw the lust for expansion and power as explaining much of modern European and American history. “The wars fought by human beings,” Wilson asserted in his introduction to Patriotic Gore, “are stimulated as a rule primarily by the same instincts as the voracity of a sea slug,” even though “man has succeeded in cultivating enough of what he calls ‘morality’ and ‘reason’ to justify what he is doing in terms of what he calls ‘virtue’ and ‘civilization.’” Writing a preface to a new edition of Europe Without Baedeker during the Vietnam War, Wilson claimed that “our talk about bringing to backward peoples the processes of democratic government and of defending the ‘free world’ is as much an exploit of Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy as anything ever perpetrated by the English.”


By the 1950s Wilson was a national cultural institution, and his apparently bitter commentaries on the American scene dismayed even many of his admirers, such as Alfred Kazin. But they were of a piece with his background and education—a perspective Kazin himself had described, in On Native Grounds (1942), as “deeply anticapitalist, with a distaste for the values and exhibitions of an acquisitive society that went back to a family tradition of scholarship and cultivation, of gentlemen’s politics and community.”

We are all,” Wilson once wrote to a contemporary of his, the writer Louise Bogan, “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.” Wilson seems to have made the adjustments without abandoning the ethical and spiritual commitments of his superseded world; it is what gave him his extraordinarily cohesive sensibility, and made him appear so rooted, confident, and therefore, in postwar America, increasingly rare.

Wilson knew of the risks and temptations an increasingly affluent society posed to writers and intellectuals; and he believed that many in his own generation had succumbed. Scott Fitzgerald, he wrote to Lionel Trilling in 1953, “was early bedazzled by the plutocratic society of St. Paul and Chicago and could never quite get over the idea that serious literature did not provide a real, or a sufficient career.” In an essay about his father in 1956, Wilson wrote:

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