Lessons of the Master

Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson; drawing by David Levine

The remarkably prolific Edmund Wilson has now written, or rather assembled, his thirty-first book. As its subtitle implies, The Bit Between My Teeth belongs with Wilson’s other “chronicles,” The Shores of Light and Classics and Commercials—collections of book reviews and occasional essays which, taken together, display the range of his interests from the 1920s to the present. That range remains dazzling; no critic in this century has been so versatile. Nor, despite a marked slackening in intensity and morale from each of Wilson’s chronicles to the next, has he lost his gift of communicating a disciplined enthusiasm for unfashionable books and ideas. In an age of cautious specialization he is a genuine man of letters; indeed, without Edmund Wilson we could hardly recall what that term is supposed to convey.

Despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, Wilson himself is out of fashion in the academic world. Professors who may well have formed their taste on Axel’s Castle and their politics on To the Finland Station are now sufficiently wise to call Wilson superficial. It is not a simple case of ingratitude; in a limited sense the professors are right. Wilson’s talent has always been more for introducing men and movements than for analyzing them. He has rarely tried to do more than register the encounter of his sympathetic and judicious mind with alien materials—to jog a pleasant mile with the bit between his teeth. This latest book makes explicit his affinity with Van Wyck Brooks and Newton Arvin and Mario Praz—civilized, omniverous impressionists who are largely unencumbered by theory. His patient recitals of biographical facts, his plot-summaries, his assurances that the work under discussion is good bedtime reading have always been characteristic of his method; it is only recently, under the ascendency of more systematic modes of criticism which Wilson finds contemptible, that these practices have been widely interpreted as padding and evasion.

With its recollections of literary friends, its sampling of such varied fare as the Holmes-Laski correspondence and the writings of Sade, its generous praise of George Ade and James Branch Cabell, and its almost total silence about the postwar writers who are usually given top billing, The Bit Between My Teeth is exactly the miscellany one might have expected: personal, appreciative, occasionally fussy and irate, always a bit idiosyncratic in taste. I confess that the book in itself interests me less than the questions it calls to mind about Wilson’s reputation, first as a literary critic, then as a figure in his age. A new book by Sherman Paul entitled Edmund Wilson: A Study of Literary Vocation in Our Time (University of Illinois Press, $5.75) goes into these matters, but in a spirit of premature elegy that does insufficient justice to the chief misgivings that have been voiced about Wilson’s stature.

If Wilson’s criticism is to represent something more permanent than a record of great industry…

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