Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson; drawing by David Levine

This volume is a re-issue—with alterations and omissions duly acknowledged in the Preface—of a book made out of the author’s experiences in Europe (chiefly England, Italy, and Greece) during the final terrible months of the Second World War. The writing of it was undertaken on assignment for The New Yorker and the results were first published as a volume in 1947. To this series of vivid “sketches among the ruins,” as Wilson calls them, are now added some Notes From a Diary of 1963-64: Paris, Rome, Budapest. The Notes were also published, quite recently, in The New Yorker. But they show less of the alertness of someone writing on assignment, more of the fatigue of an ageing—though far from moribund—tourist writing on his own. Piecemeal, often imprecise and cranky, the Notes are, conspicuously, from a diary. Occasion is nevertheless found for including in them a lengthy account—more like a good encyclopedia article than a diary entry—of puppeterring.

First mention is here given to Wilson’s book rather than to Wilson himself for a special reason. Increasingly, it seems to have become impossible for anyone to write about any of his books without remarking at length on his “reputation,” a looming phenomenon. The causes of the Reputation, and the value of it relative to the value of that widely despised commodity, literary criticism in general, is one of the stock subjects of the higher journalism at present. Sometimes the much eulogized Reputation is dis-eulogized, declared to be overblown. By and large, however, it forms a spectacle that excites only praise—praise, moreover, of the peculiarly gratifying kind that appears to give pleasure to the giver, as well, presumably, as to the receiver and to that part of the public which, to its credit, rejoices in a well-earned success story.

With a single reservation, the present writer is at one with the praisers. To me Edmund Wilson has been an indispensable figure almost as far backward in time as my literary memory extends. Yet—here is the reservation—Wilson is frequently eulogized, not only on his own merits but at the expense of other, lesser critics. Exclusiveness reigns here as it does not reign, to any such extent, in the departments of fiction, poetry, or drama. The implication seems obvious: Criticism is tolerable. In fact admirable, only insofar as it is represented by the work of a single major figure; otherwise it is suspect.

ONE RURAL EDITOR put the matter graphically when he wrote that, compared to Edmund Wilson, all other living critics are as mice scampering around the Master’s feet. Wilson was evidently sent a copy of the editor’s remarks, for he replied (the reply was promptly published). “Thanks for the plug.” No doubt he thought the occasion too trivial for further comment, thus failing to disassociate himself from the vulgar invidiousness of the “plug.” Yet the rural editor was only doing what, as I say, other writers have done repeatedly with more finesse: elevated Wilson, that is, while humbling most others of his profession. Generally the humbled are said to belong to some narrow, conspiratorial circle, say the “New York Critics” or the “new Critics”—the latter group, incidentally, a collective dead horse which continues to be flogged, so persistently and with so little discrimination that it has acquired the status of an immortal scapegoat, flayed all over, the life long since gone out of it, but still good for a passing kick. How seriously is Wilson himself involved in this process of making him into a Moloch or Minotaur? One can’t confidently say, except to note that he has given tacit consent to the process and even at times gone victim-hunting on his own. A habit of swagger, often recklessly cruel, is common among longtime survivors who have made it. The aged Yeats, Shaw, Churchill, and Gertrude Stein afford precedents, not to mention the abominations in this line of the ageing, but as we now know, half-demented, Hemingway.

What is most disturbing about Wilson’s attitude, as I understand it, is the extent to which it seems to represent a concession to present-day literary attitudes and manners and thus to be at odds with the attitudes and manners of Wilson’s own literary generation in its prime. On the whole, literary manners today are awful—virile and exciting, yes, but absurdly vindictive, self-advertising, and in the long run self-destroying. Dog eats dog, or at least cat cat, only to find that he has made an unappetizing spectacle of himself. (Truman Capote’s overblown campaign of self-publicity for In Cold Blood accounts for many of the equally silly and quite irrelevant attacks on his fine book.) Contemporary literary manners rest on assumptions peculiar to this inflationary age, an age habituated to the imminence of “explosions” in all things, from culture in general to literary reputations in particular. To expect immediate recognition is common; to develop acute paranoia when recognition fails to materialize in full and without qualification is not uncommon. The times are, or seem to be, magnificently astir; anything can happen, and does, with consequences, for writers, that are about equally inspiriting and demoralizing.


Quite different literary manners still prevailed when, in the Thirties, I first knew Edmund Wilson. They prevailed, I mean, with him and, I would guess, with other of his contemporaries such as Cummings, Stevens, Tate, Dos Passos, and—despite their resounding public roles—Pound and Eliot. Not that these writers were merely “modest.” Inwardly, at least, they seem to have felt immense pride, the natural concomitant of their shared ambition to make new the fiction, poetry, or criticism of the English-speaking world. The very size of their ambition nevertheless qualified their expectations of immediate fame. Nor did their intense rivalries and loyalties take the form of public feuding and acts of mutual demolition to the extent that similar rivalries and loyalties (if any) do today. Yet each of those older writers—the good ones—gave the impression of being a fully self-made self. Marvels of individuality, intricate, prickly, often hermetic, they confirmed Hopkins’s claim that every first-rate literary talent “is like a species in nature, and never recurs.” Even so, most of them conceived of the literary life as an affair, so to speak, of adjoining ateliers, in each of which the single talent thrived in proportion as it gave assent and aid to a common cause, that of remaking, as I say, art and literature. D.H. Lawrence was the great exception, a genius trapped in an age of genius; and it is Lawrence’s pugnacity, or a travesty of it, along with Hemingway’s more visceral approach, that has helped to fix the literary tone of the present age.

LIKE OTHERS of his generation, the Wilson I knew in the Thirties and early Forties showed a marked diffidence towards public opinion, friendly or hostile. The “atelier,” his and that of the rest, was open to qualified outsiders. There you could spend an entire evening in distinguished company without once mentioning—as today it would be fatal to fail of doing—the “work” of one’s host or hosts. The diffidence was charming, merely assumed though it may often have been in conformity with the prevailing manners. It was also, possibly, a useful form of self-restraint. As a member of a younger generation. I recall the times when, on making the acquaintance of one or another of those older writers, I violated the code. Warned though I had been, for example, against referring to Dos Passos’s work in his presence, I found Dos Passos so friendly and in his bashful way so communicative on our first meeting—again in the Thirties—that the warning was forgotten. While talking alone with him about a woman we both knew I let fall the suggestion that she reminded me of a certain character in U.S.A. With that the author of U.S.A. turned crimson and stammered something unintelligible. To the distress I already felt was added the pang of realizing that Dos Passos was exerting himself just in order to spare me distress.

With Wilson, whom in those years I saw more often, the diffidence was less pronounced though in its own way it was inescapable. When, occasionally, he spoke kindly of something. I had written, he spoke with conviction but very quickly, as if any talents I might possess were to be taken for granted. When, however, I undertook to review To the Finland Station and found little in it to object to, he sent me a postcard saying that he would have appreciated more criticism. Had I been guilty in his eyes of the unpardonable sin, as it then was in the best literary circles, of log-rolling? Another time, talking with him about Yeats, I said that the chapter on Yeats in Axel’s Castle, which I had just been re-reading, had survived very well all the more recent hullabaloo about that poet. “No, no,” Wilson replied, again with conviction but quickly, “It’s very dated. It won’t do at all.” And just as I had not meant to log-roll before, so now the intention of flattery was far from my mind. In fact, our conversations had by this time become difficult, even slightly irascible, owing to my inability to cope with Wilson’s conversational tactics—those habits of flat contradiction and of one-upmanship to which he has since confessed, not at all ruefully, in print.

He several times conveyed dissatisfaction with other of his writings, doing so, however, always with authority, even with pride, never as if asking for reassurance or offering extenuation. In short, the dissatisfaction was genuine beyond a doubt. And whatever it may have owed to literary manners, it owed more to his now celebrated pioneering spirit. As his eulogists have often noted, Wilson’s pioneering spirit manifests itself in numerous ways. He continually explores and settles new literary territory. He also re-visits, scrutinizes afresh, and alters for republication, the quite sizeable world of his own past writings.


That this expansiveness takes its toll in the form of occasional superficiality and poor judgment is equally a feature of the legend. While bestowing honors on some second-rate Sicilian or Canadian writer, Wilson is capable of ignoring or condescending to the first-rate talents that exist—literally—under his nose. This limitation has had its advantages; it has made work for less ambitious critics. To poor Richard Blackmur, for example—“poor” because so often associated with the New Critics and sacrificed with them to Moloch Wilson—was left one of the essential critical jobs of the century. I mean the making more or less accessible to the common reader of the American modernist poets—poets who, in certain cases, were once Wilson’s neighbors and acquaintances in the Village and who wrote for the same periodicals. To them he never really gave the time of day. Yet theirs turns out to have been probably the most substantial achievement of his generation, their very modes of life testifying to the kind of moral character, the capacity for long and sustained efforts against odds which, in other instances, have so often fired Wilson’s critical imagination. Yet his expansiveness is a prime reason for his indispensableness. To it he owes, above all, the forceful narrative momentum of his essays, that effect of a venturesome critical expedition whose outcome is the more eagerly awaited because not readily foreseen.

EUROPE WITHOUT BAEDEKER made little stir in American its first publication; it is nevertheless indispensable Wilson. Here as in his other travel books he is, most literally though in his own fashion, the pioneer. His fashion is the opposite of those travel writers, from Gautier and Stendhal to Doughty and the two Lawrences, who deliberately visit and write up places which tend to be highly exotic and which therefore require of the traveler and writer that he submit his usual sense of himself to the exquisite ordeal of transplantation or at least of adaptation. The exotic in this sense interests Wilson little, and the perilous luxury of self-surrender even less. Rather, it is in places that Jay claim to a considerable culture, old or new, fine or foolish, and that therefore stimulate the social critic’s faculties, rather than the impulses of the seekers of self-knowledge, which form the subjects of his travel books: those about the Soviet Union in the Thirties, the American hinterlands during the Depression, or the new state of Israel. And it is not surprising to find him describing, in Europe Without Baedeker, his encounters in war-demoralized London with a French prostitute who, unlike her bedraggled and bedevilled English co-professionals, preserved the self-esteem and decorum of a native Parisienne. “Odette was in good shape and handsome, and conducted her commerce with men with the same sort of efficiency and dignity with which she would have run her shop. She was scrupulously hygienic, and availed herself of every resource to eliminate both squalor and risk.”

Thus Wilson in his best eighteenth-century manner. In fact, and for reasons to be considered later in this review, his well-known affinities with the writers of the English Enlightenment are very much to the fore in Europe Without Baedeker. Thus women of all ages and degrees of respectability make frequent and candid appearances in the book, chiefly for the simple reason that women strongly attract Wilson. Essentially, though, he remains the social critic where women are concerited. Their condition as affected by the War is an enticing clue to the condition of Europe’s culture in general; and it is the conjunction of the two, wretched Europe and wretched if often courageous women, that brings the cool pathos of the book to a not infrequent simmer. For the rest Wilson here takes sexual passion for granted. It is a Ding an Sich just as sex probably was for Hume when he wrote that “the two greatest pleasures of life are study and society,” doubtless including in the word “society” his relations of all kinds with women.

One reviewer of Europe Without Baedeker has politely noted that the book is “dated in several particulars.” The truth is that the book is dated in a great many particulars—so radically dated that it is no mere period piece but a historical document of lasting merit and interest.

AS VIEWED BY WILSON in 1945, Europe comes as close to looking like an apocalyptic mess as is compatible with his obvious determination to avoid highkeyed impressionism and blanket judgment. His effort, on the contrary, is to see things one by one, and as in themselves as they really are. Hence the mosaic-like form of the book, the clusters of relatively brief and discrete passages that make it up. Read in succession, these carefully wrought and placed little pieces of observation work both ways upon the reader’s mind. Europe’s misery is seen in all the variety of its kinds and degrees and in all the horror of its appalling generality. The misery manifests itself in the condition not only of single women but of families, and in that of persons and groups undergoing the slow torment of displacement. Here too there are different kinds and intensities of suffering. A White Russian family that Wilson visits several times in Rome has been displaced for decades; homelessness is for them almost a way of life, although one of the sadder ways; and while their eminently refined faces are further emaciated by hunger, the ladies can nevertheless conjure up, when they have to—and as it were out of their recollections of old Russian gentility—a meal that Wilson makes sound attractive. At the other extreme are, for example, the brutalized London prostitutes and the homeless ragazzi of Italy. The latter are not only emaciated; they are white with the papery whiteness of corpses; they beg, thieve, and pimp in a world that is all timeless jungle, without past gentilities or future promises.

Meanwhile, in its political aspect, Europe Without Baedecker is equally devastating although far from perspicuous regarding what have since proved to be Europe’s powers of recovery. Wilson sees the war as having exacerbated the nationalism and racism of Europeans. The worst of their native traits are thus written large as in a caricature. For him, the English in their late-war extravagances of manner are the hardest to take. Englishmen of the upper classes are still determined to run the show in Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia. Those whom Wilson encounters seem, on the average, to be trying to submerge any consciousness they may have of the absurdity involved in their continuing to exercise a power that in fact they no longer possess. The condescension and the hypocrisy with which the English have, in their heyday, treated the peoples of “inferior” nations are thus at present grotesquely exaggerated. On this subject, Wilson is funny in a deadly sort of way. English conversational tactics, which to him resemble a kind of mental judo, are described with special precision and gusto, perhaps because they recall Wilson’s own conversational habits. One of these tactics, however, is certainly not his. It consists in a last-ditch resort to gross irrelevancies or alleged forms of inside dope on the part of those Englishmen whose opinions are seriously challenged. Wilson quotes one such official who, in his efforts to run down Marshal Tito, is finally reduced to saying, “Why Tito’s not even his name! His real name is Josef Broz!”

Here Wilson might have said something not by way of excusing such conduct but of generalizing it. Surely there is a Bull Mall clubman, ready with a snub or a bit of supposed scandal, in almost everyone when he is hardpressed enough. For example, a kindly Yugoslav professor, a woman, whom I first met in her country and saw last year in New York, said of the rebellious Mihajlo Mihajlov, who was on the staff of her own university and whose prosecution by his government I hesitatingly mentioned to her: “Well, you know,” she said, “whatever the rights and wrongs of it all, Mihajlo is a very disagreeable person.” Seeing that she was really upset by “it all” I decided not to ask her if disagreeableness was a criminal offense in Yugoslavia.

Between the seemingly hopeless London, Rome, and Athens of Wilson’s book, and the giddily revived London, Rome, and Athens of the present the contrast is great. But if the book thus appears to seethe with irony, the irony is of course projected on it by the reader as he puts together the two pictures of Europe, Wilson’s in 1945 and the one left in the reader’s mind by his own more recent travels. Looked at together, the two pictures raise strange doubts, not as to Wilson’s veracity but as to the soundness, the very “reality” even, of this resurrected, and swinging, Europe—or of anything.

TO BE SURE, there is something in Edmund Wilson’s temperament that may have made him especially responsive to the catastrophic-seeming aspect of Europe in 1945. That something is an elegiac, even on occasion apocalyptic, strain in him, a strain that has generally mingled oddly with its opposite, the tendency in him to an assertive rationalism and self-reliance. The elegiac note was sounded in his work as early as Axel’s Castle. There the author was not only saying Hail but also Farewell to Proust, Joyce and company and calling Proust’s world, resoundingly, “the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture.” But criticism, not prophecy, is Wilson’s business, in Europe Without Baedeker as elsewhere. His goodbye-to-all-that side has misled him at times. It is nevertheless connected, as a similar among-the-ruins pathos was in Gibbon, with all that is best in his work—the wonder, the richness and, at times, the very glory of it. What I have in mind is his imagination of greatness, a greatness that is not Nietzschean, not the property of a disciplined elite, but that, nourished as it often is on adversity and on the courage and the intelligence ideally called up by adversity, can manifest itself in inconspicuous individuals as in celebrated ones and in any state of culture short of barbarism. Hence, in Europe Without Baedeker, Wilson’s feeling for the aged Lampedusa and his work, a feeling I don’t share. Hence also—to give another dubious example—his comparison of South Wind to The Marble Faun, a comparison which is intended to stress Hawthorne’s sturdy Yankee moralism as against Norman Douglas’s frivolity but which actually arises from a misreading of The Marble Faun in several important particulars, and from an unawareness that Hawthorne raises the most profound questions, moral and theological, but evades them miserably at the end. There the young American hero finally formulates these questions only to back away from them when his beloved Hilda, the “Daughter of the Puritans,” objects. “O Hilda, guide me home!” he then promptly cries, a cry that is about the sorriest surrender to the moral tyranny of the Little Woman in all American fiction.

Hence, on the other hand, the many instances in Europe Without Baedeker in which Wilson does convincingly depict the triumph, often muted and minimal, of character over circumstance. So doing, he gives the impression, doubtless unintentional, of trying to perpetuate English traditions which the English themselves, he may have felt, are no longer in a position to sustain. So he here combines the common sense of Hume with the moral feelings of Sterne, so delicate, equable, and profound, applying both to a subject, the decline and fall of Europe, that requires for proper understanding something of Gibbon’s complex but forthright fusion of historical and moral judgments.

BY SAYING ALL THIS I may seem to be loading with significance a book that is perhaps only a very good specimen of the higher journalism. For me, however, the book in its present form—with the hasty and sentimental pro-Americanism of the original version partly cut away—is a small but perfect revelation of Wilson’s powers—powers that have, as noted above, been so much eulogized that his “reputation” tends to loom larger than his actual work. Yet Europe Without Baedeker gives much new evidence of Wilson’s powers. Even the glimpses of cities, landscapes, and states of weather, though always brief and restrained, are peculiarly fresh and expert, as when he remarks that one “looks out, in a commanding view…over the infinite lines and planes of Rome, all gray-blues and dry pale buffs, which are matched, during the winter sunsets, by the pale blues and pinks of the skies, in which the eternal swifts restlessly flock and twitter.” (If this recalls the swelling cadences, the dying falls, and the omnipresent relative pronouns of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture, the Proustian influence is nevertheless much less apparent in Europe Without Baedeker than it is elsewhere in Wilson’s writing.)

Rome’s infinite lines and planes are there, immutably one hopes, and so are the swifts, whose twitterings, however, are now apt to be drowned out by the roar of evening traffic. Just as immutably there, in Wilson’s pages, are the figures of human endurance, of greatness in petto, portrayed as they are cannily and without guff or gush: that French prostitute in London, the White Russian ladies in their shabby Gianicolo villa, a pair of Italian youths who, for the equivalent of ten cents a day, make a profession of hunting for mines and booby traps; it is a perilous profession requiring much physical deftness and technical skill, qualities that the youths take considerable pride in displaying. Among the celebrated there is Santayana, whom Wilson, like many other pilgrims of the time, goes to see in his refuge at the Blue Nuns’ convent. Santayana professes to be ignorant of Wilson’s very name, let alone his work: he thus risks arousing in Wilson the impulse to mischief which others have registered apropos of Santayana—those, I mean, who are not moved by him to extremes of piety. Still, Santayana talks, and Wilson talks, and between them they provide the future author of Europe Without Baedeker with material for a portrait that allows for both Santayana’s undoubted splendor of mind as well as his rather self-conscious and exclusive grandezza.

One concludes that Wilson is after all a modified Nietzschean type. The greatness in himself is nourished by his happiness at discovering elements of greatness in others. For Wilson—and never more strikingly than in the gloomy Europe Without Baedeker—people, like books, cities, landscapes, and historical events, exist not merely to be judged, severely critical though he is capable of being. Rather, they are something to get excited about, in however restrained a way, when they give any sign of meriting excitement.

This Issue

November 17, 1966