Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson; drawing by David Levine

Here are two more of those compact, oblong Edmund Wilson volumes, those books so congenial to the hand and to the eye—un-American somehow in their modest propriety of size and appearance and function. But Wilson’s American publishers for some years now have issued them in this form. By this unobtrusive means, Wilson may yet become one of the very few American writers living or dead whose works exist in print in something resembling a uniform edition—probably as close to a uniform edition, anyway, as American publishers can bear to maintain, unless we could count as books those encyclopedic monstrosities of the university presses, those linoleum-bound monuments to their own footnotes which American scholars are now erecting over the machine-collated remains of our classic nineteenth-century authors.

This row on the Edmund Wilson shelf, sturdy as bricks, now numbers nearly two dozen: fiction, poetry, drama, scholarship, memoirs, travel, anthropology, history, reporting, political pamphleteering; but it would scarcely do to arrange the books in this way. They are all Wilson, and all probably at last criticism. Even though many of them are not examinations of texts, but first-hand reports or original creations, they are all formed by the way the critical mind works. They note the provenance and the surface manner of whatever is being examined, person, place, or thing, and then rapidly, clearly, without any sparring or hesitation or qualification, the underlying structure is exposed and articulated, and its significance stated. This is as true of the slightest book review as of major works of literary history like Axel’s Castle, in which the “Modern Literature” of our century and its roots in Symbolism were first and probably best expounded. Go back now to those essays on Proust, Yeats, or Eliot, and see how much was said there—in 1931—and how all the many volumes on these writers since then can appear to be merely proliferations of some phrase of Wilson’s. We may be aware now of a tremendous lot of twigs, but he saw the woods. Sometimes perhaps he saw the way the woods lay so quickly that he may have missed a good deal: how strange that he never seems to get lost in Proust when he talks about him, and it is hard to imagine how he could not get lost, how he could fail to understand that he ought to have got lost there; but as he says in another connection, he nearly always knew exactly what he wanted and where he was going. When for some reason he couldn’t decide what to do, he cracked up.

ONE OF THE PAIR of books now published is a volume of two fictions, a story called “Galahad” and the novel I Thought of Daisy, both of them first printed in the Twenties. The other volume, A Prelude, has the subtitle Landscapes, Characters and Conversations from the Earlier Years of My Life. This consists of Wilson’s notebooks from the years 1908 to 1919, the author’s present-day comments on these notebooks, his extended sketches of subjects and persons in them, and a miscellany of stories and poems of the period, including some poems by his friends. There are also a number of photographs. When A Prelude ends, with the end of the War, Wilson is about to embark on his career as an editor of Vanity Fair and then of The New Republic, and as the writer who has produced this shelf of books. But A Prelude is also the first of more books. “Later on,” Wilson says, speaking of his notebooks, “I came to develop this chronicle on a very much larger scale, and even to some extent to organize it in the form of episodes that consisted of interwoven elements of experience. It is unlikely that very much more than this volume, with perhaps a second volume, can be published till after my death.” Thus we have not only this book to be grateful for, but the promise of more to come. Wilson should be persuaded to relent on his withholding of them. If the interest of A Prelude is chiefly and happily that it tells us a lot about the author, the other volumes must have, in addition to that, a lot about persons we know of in other connections, persons who are, like the author, of the greatest importance to the history of our times, and we can suppose he had plenty to say about them. Why should posterity have all the fun?

The only thing that might conceivably be regretted about A Prelude, and its promise of volumes to come, is that these seem to obviate a formal and full-scale Education of Edmund Wilson. The later volumes may indeed provide something more like that, with their “interwoven elements of experience.” Yet the scrappiness of A Prelude may not be a bad strategy for an autobiography of early years. The boy’s notebooks, like the photographs of those young faces, so innocent, so unlined, so brave in their archaic costumes, retain that innocence forever in a way that would be very difficult to recreate so quickly and purely; while the present-day comments of the author, looking back over the years, add a poignancy to the boy’s experience that a more ordered presentation might balk at. Neither irony nor tenderness is required here, but only Wilson’s characteristic clearheaded directness, his knowledge of the way things are.


INDEED, at thirteen that was already Wilson’s note. Already he states what he sees, and it is not impressionistic nor is he in any way bowled over. The things are there to be seen, and see them he does, with as good a right as anyone. The book begins with his first trip abroad, in 1908. He was not then, or ever, a Passionate Pilgrim, nor an Innocent Abroad, but neither is he, for all his American independence, scornful or sadly impertinent as an American boy might well be, as was Daisy Miller’s little brother Randolph, for instance.

At the station at Venice we were met by a gondola, which took us to the hotel. The next morning we went around in gondolas and went to the Square of St. Mark’s. This is the public place and at one end of it are tall columns with the lion of St. Mark’s and St. Theodore on an alligator on them. The cathedral of St. Mark’s is also in the square, likewise the Doges’ Palace and the great clock. This clock of course keeps Italian time with a dial of twenty-four hours. Every hour in the daytime two iron men on top strike the hours on a bell and a door opens below from which comes first Gabriel, who raises a horn to his lips, and afterwards several kings, all of which walk around the balcony into another door.

At thirteen, he is no more lost in that great arena of light and history than he ever was in the pages of Proust, and he has no more diffidence about seeing and noting the exact facts as they are.

He was traveling then with his family, at that time rather an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins as well as his mother and father. The boy apparently found little to say about them—they were the world he took for granted, his only world. Later, the man recognizes one branch of that family when he sees the Moscow Art Theatre perform The Cherry Orchard: “the same spirit of family cohesiveness, the same amiable frivolity and futility.” Those were the Knoxes. Other branches were quite different, as the man now recognizes. “The male members of the Wilson and Kimball families were mostly successful—or modestly able—preachers and lawyers and doctors, and I know that they had their doubts about me, and that in order to prove myself I should have to show that a writer could become a successful professional. I was much gratified the other day when a reviewer gave me this title.”

The sketches of his father, his mother, the aunts, uncles, and cousins, are shrewd, affectionate, and not particularly evocative. Wilson knows exactly what their lives seem to have meant to them, to him, and, in the larger view, how they made a part of the social order of their time.

He says that as a boy he was much struck by his beautiful cousin Adelaide and her husband, André Cheronnet-Champollion, a most unusual figure, “half-American but the great-grandson of the well-known Egyptologist who discovered [Wilson should have said deciphered] the Rosetta Stone…a painter but quite affluent, much-travelled, well-read and well-informed, and independent to the point of insolence.” He kept a great preserve in New Hampshire, stocked with buffalo and wild boar and the French and German and Italian classics. He taught Wilson to read Baudelaire, and shocked him with his remarks to the boys: “I don’t mind you fucking Sally on the sofa, but I won’t have you wipe your cock on my best lace curtains!” He turns up here and there in the book. When war broke out he went to France to enlist and quickly became completely disillusioned with the French and with the war. Wanting only to survive, he was sent to the front in March and killed at Bois-le-Prêtre in April. Adelaide was shattered. Wilson tried to be kind to her, back in New York where he was living between Princeton and the Army. Many details of personal style and personal interests suggest that Champollion had a great influence on Wilson. His admiration for him is made clear but the memoir itself, while effective, is cool, scattered, and very brief, considering what must have been the glamour and force of the man.


So the story moves back and forth in time, from school days to the present, then back again. On that first trip to Europe, Wilson’s father is already suffering from the depressions that later disabled him. Uncle Reuel, a physician, makes him drink beer in out-of-door cafes and listen to waltzes. This cures Wilson’s father for the time being but betrays Uncle Reuel into one of his periodic bouts of alcoholism. The successful and able professional class, so solid on the surface, has its hidden places. The tension between his mother and father induces Wilson, while he is in boarding school, to spend vacations visiting his friends. We are given sketches of them, as he sees them now, charming, cultured, rather priggish like the young Wilson, and most of them rich. By the time he is at Princeton, his friends are still of that class, but in his notebook he is shrewd about them. “Mr. Osborn has a slight but almost perpetual irony of manner; and a slight weariness as if it made one a little tired to be always so prosperous and capable and clever and well-informed.” He records the dandyisms of his classmates.

Ebe Faber, asked if he were hungry: “Oh, if sufficiently cajoled, I might be induced to inhale a prune.”

Bill Mackie (upon being asked to describe his missing slippers): “Sir, they had red-morocco heels four inches high. The Birth of Venus was broidered on the toe of one and the Rape of Helen on the other.”

Throughout college—and here we catch a glimpse or two of Scott Fitzgerald, and get a sketch of John Peale Bishop—Wilson does not smoke nor drink nor dance, and has almost nothing to do with girls. But this reserve also served its useful purpose. “The ‘sublimation’…that resulted from my prolonged period of sexual abstinence, though it left me at first inept with women, was rewardingly compensated by an intensified study of the classics which was to stand me in good stead.”

When war came, Wilson already knew, from summer training camp at Plattsburgh, that he could never, become an officer, as his friends were doing, nor indeed be a real soldier at all. He decided to enlist in a hospital unit. He served in France and Germany. The war for him was not an occasion for romantic failure as for Scott Fitzgerald, nor for heroism and trauma as for Hemingway. He took its measure, decided the whole thing was stupid, profited from it to extend his experience, and never worried about it thereafter. Speaking of the two World Wars in A Piece of My Mind, he said, “I have never in later life regretted for a moment that I have been able to get through both of these horrible affairs without killing or wounding anybody and without getting killed or wounded; that I made no serious sacrifices for either of them—causes in which I did not believe—and have survived to occupy myself with something in which I do believe: literature.”

Thus, by 1919, after his experience as an enlisted man, he found that he was able to get along with “ordinary people.” The tongue-tied and blinkered squeamishness of Princeton was replaced by a real curiosity about the other ninetenths of the population. In a somewhat horn-rimmed fashion, he collected Army slang and dirty songs, and relished the rough obscenities of his fellow enlisted men. But it was more than an excursion into low-life for him. He gained a deep sympathy with immigrants and working men, and a distaste for class systems as represented in the Army and in European societies; and thus he learned to see the huge privilege extorted by his own class in America. That one retains forever the spiritual legacy of his own class, whether that of the deprived or of the privileged, is not Wilson’s fault. He placed his intelligence at the service of his new interest, and what more could a man do? All this he was to use when he began his work in literature and in radical politics.

The book ends, as I have said, with Wilson about to begin his long career. His prelude has served its purpose. Never would it be said of Wilson as he says of the friends of his school days, “It was later to depress me, looking back, to take account of how many of these friends, with excellent training and with so much opportunity, seemed unable to live up to these. I had thought we were all pretty brilliant and were headed for distinguished careers.” Almost alone he is now here to tell us.

THE SHORT STORY “Galahad” takes up the experiences of the boarding school years. Its hero, sixteen or seventeen years old, aspires to the presidency of the school YMCA, which seems to have been, in those days, no joke. Under the inspiration of the headmaster, he wants only to be as pure as Sir Galahad. A friend’s sister offers him a seduction; he is horrified and resists. Then he believes himself to be in love with her, doubts the ideal of Christian purity, is rejected by her, and has to face a world which now seems more complex to him. The story is both straightforward and knowing in its account of the ignorant, miserable struggle of adolescents torn between their instincts and the lies they have been taught. Sensitive and intelligent young men more than others are prone to take seriously the hypocrisies and wishful pieties of their elders, about sex as about other matters. It is a situation of universal reference. The scenes are rendered with conviction and some humor, yet the story is wooden. It is more serious in theme than Scott Fitzgerald’s Basil stories, but its hero has none of Basil’s charm, or for that matter, none of Holden Caulfield’s either, perhaps in part because Wilson neither condescends to his hero nor sees him as preserving some valuable chalice of childish innocence. But his hero remains a prig throughout, and typically, quite as though he were the author himself, at the end he marches off alone, “as if with the energy of some sturdy errand.”

Fiction really is different from criticism. Criticism can count on a reality beyond itself, a reality to which it refers, to which it may bring order and clarity, but which remains out there. Fiction must make its own reality, must be its own background as well as its own foreground. Intelligence, style, experience, are not enough for this. Fiction, in a sense, is faking. Scott Fitzgerald could fake it. Wilson can say supremely intelligent things; Fitzgerald, not really intelligent at all in Wilson’s sense, could make a character sound intelligent, could make a girl sound charming. His Daisy, when first we see her through Nick Carraway’s eyes, lying on a couch as if she “had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house,” is instantly for us a foolish, sad, and delicious creature. Wilson’s narrator tells us of his Daisy, “I found her interesting, attractive, amusing, and profoundly sympathetic.” But this should be for the reader to say. Despite all the cleverness of the observation and the care in the construction of the novel’s events, Wilson’s Daisy fails to be very attractive, amusing, or sympathetic. Rita, the figure clearly modeled on Edna St. Vincent Millay (Wilson says he hates to have characters in his fiction identified with real people), is more successful; but as Wilson says, she doesn’t figure sufficiently in the story.

I Thought of Daisy takes up the years immediately following A Prelude, the early Twenties in Greenwich Village. The narrator is a young man working in a publisher’s office. He visits his friends, goes to parties, talks a great deal about social and intellectual matters. There is one brilliant and hallucinated drunken party, any number of swift and brilliant sketches, and always intelligent language. But my total impression is of a narrator who fails to convince the reader of his own reality, of a series of unrelated and largely static sketches, and of a general thinness of texture, its scene lacking in depth and connection and solidity, lacking the illusion of life that the best fiction gives.

How surprising, then, to find in Wilson’s Foreword to this printing that I Thought of Daisy was “written much under the influence of Proust and Joyce.” For whatever else they may be, are not the novels of Proust and Joyce first of all rich, thick with the detail of life, with local paving stones and elaborate family relations—things quite absent from I Thought of Daisy? As is absent, too, any of Proust’s or of Joyce’s extravagances of language. But what Wilson meant, of course, was none of these things: he meant his book, “like Ulysses and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, to be a sort of symphonic arrangement.” Then follows, in the Foreword, one of Wilson’s expositions of plot and theme, so certain, so clear, so decisive that it is as dazzling as some brilliant acrobatic feat. Here, dealing with his own book, he explains how the narrator represents the American intellectual of the time, and Daisy the American reality. He goes on to explain what each character represents and which stage of the narrator’s development he marks. It sounds extremely interesting, and like some other novel.

But in the end, it is not all that easy to say what makes a novel fail or succeed. That final touch of fakery is not a matter of technique. Perhaps it is not even all that important. The book has an interest quite apart from its success as fiction, just as A Prelude has, aside from its intrinsic testimony in the form of a memoir. Churchill is reported to have said that everything he did was expensive. And Wilson is correct when he supposes that everything he does is interesting.

Then again, perhaps I Thought of Daisy needed only that freezing cruelty of Hecate County to command authority for its narrator’s voice and for his basilisk eye. For instance, if you take this certain late passage from A Prelude and compare it with its earlier version in I Thought of Daisy….But we could go on like this all night.

This Issue

September 28, 1967