What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.
Occasionally, as his death became imminent, I would find myself, most unwillingly, imagining Edmund Wilson’s funeral. It would be at a hilltop cemetery in Wellfleet in spring or early fall. The sky would be clear and the sea, through tall grass and bent pines, would be blue in the distant curve of the Truro beaches. There would be a circle of family and friends—about twenty or so—and, as I imagined the scene, I would stand just outside this ring so that I could see the drawn shoulders and bent backs of the mourners. It was a sentimental picture that kept coming to mind, something that a forgotten expressionist might have painted years ago.
Beside the grave someone would be reading, but his text—which Edmund himself would surely have chosen—was more than I could guess, though no doubt it would be something very humane, very unyielding, a text that would put death in its correct, inevitable, not very terrible place. The residual emotion would be less a sense of loss than of continuity. The spirit of the occasion would be that we must get together and do this again soon.
Except for minor topographical differences, this was pretty much how it happened. It was a bright day in June, clear, humid, and windy. I could feel the wind bend the pine that I was leaning against. We were not on a hilltop, as I had imagined, but in a sort of sandy clearing amid sparse trees, slightly below the main part of the tiny Wellfleet cemetery, and well out of sight of the sea. There were moments of humor that I had not anticipated: the young Orleans curate, like a scrubbed Beatle, shyly adjusting his lacy canonicals beside his blue Volkswagen in the Wilsons’ driveway, as if he were hanging curtains; Edmund’s daughters, Rosalind and Helen, his son, Reuel, and Elena’s son, Henry, smiling as they took turns shoveling sand back into the grave where Edmund’s ashes had been placed, like children playing at the beach. Death seemed incidental to the occasion, and compared with the life that Edmund had led and the work he did, his death really was only an incident, a detail of no great moment, except for those who had known him well enough to love him.
In his last years Edmund was often in great pain. Once last summer when I visited him in Wellfleet for what I assumed would be the last time, he asked me to help him out of his chair. Though he was fully alert to the end of his life, there were days when he lacked the strength to dress himself and could hardly move from room to room without help. I took him by the elbow, but as I began to lift him as gently as I could he fell back into his chair and cried out, as when one stubs a toe. By this time he had moved permanently downstairs, accompanied by two alarming green iron bottles of oxygen, to his study in the beautiful frail old Wellfleet house. Actually he had settled himself in the most recent annex to this study, since this part of the building, for the past ten years or so, has been regularly expanded by the addition of ells and wings to accommodate his proliferating collections of Russian, Hebrew, Hungarian, and the usual Western literatures, collections that grew and spread through the house as if they were alive.
A year ago I noticed on one of his shelves a set of Scott. Since I had never seen these books in his study before, I asked him what he planned to do with them. I suppose I meant to find out whether he was thinking of writing about this subject, but as I asked the question I realized how rude it must have seemed. Edmund was plainly close to death and the set must have contained forty volumes. “I am going to read them,” he said, a snapping turtle’s gaze of unruffled malevolence momentarily crossing his face.
After the funeral, when we sat in the blue and white living room, Elena showed me a volume of Balzac, opened and folded back, a large silver magnifier resting on it. “He was reading that last week,” she told me, “and he asked me such hard questions about those old-fashioned agricultural words that Balzac used.” Last winter in Naples, Florida, he read through nearly all of Balzac and I learned from his old friend Morley Callaghan, who had come down from Toronto for the funeral, that on the advice of the Naples librarian he had also taken an interest in Robertson Davies, the Canadian writer, whose books he then proceeded to read and with whom he began to exchange letters.
During this same winter he finished his book on the 1920s, put together a collection of his Russian pieces, and finished his revision of To the Finland Station. In April, when I saw him in New York on his way up from Florida to Wellfleet, he seemed surprisingly more vigorous than he had been the summer before on Cape Cod. Even so he remained, during my brief visit, propped up in his bed in the Plaza Hotel and he seemed to have more than his usual difficulty understanding what I said to him. “Tell me what he said,” he would demand of Elena. “I can’t hear what he’s saying.” I swallow my words, and this difficulty had plagued my recent meetings with Edmund, whose hearing had begun to go, so that Elena, in her mélange of accents, had to interpret for me. Yet Edmund refused to use a hearing device and, more seriously, would not let his doctors install a pacemaker, which might have kept his heart going a while longer.
He was a Darwinian fundamentalist in this respect and at an earlier time in his life had even held out against vaccination because it interfered with nature’s superior wisdom in matters of selection and survival. He had, he told me some years ago as we walked along Forty-third Street on a rainy winter day, no interest in abstract ideas. This was in answer to my effort to interest him in Thomas Mann, a writer he claimed, with some pride, never to have read, but whose vaporous metaphysics seemed to me, at the time, just fine.
No abstract ideas. No pacemaker. No vaccination. The point was not to tamper with the marvelous arrangements worked out at such length by nature and history, but to try to understand them well enough to live in their midst without presumptuously violating them. Edmund was very much an Old Testament man, for whom the concreteness of things was sacred. In politics it was the same. Large power units, as he called such countries as the United States and the Soviet Union, were like metaphysical propositions. They blocked true comprehension and led to deadly error. To put one’s trust in them was as much an intellectual fault as to accept as true the ontological propositions of formal religion.
Even the American Civil War was fought, he believed, in the name of a mystical proposition—the abstract idea of Union. But why Union? he asked in his masterpiece Patriotic Gore. Was it worth that terrible struggle so that the United States could become still another large power unit, along with Russia, Britain, and Germany? So that Lincoln, like Bismarck and later Lenin, could contrive an empire whose fate was inevitably to collide with those other empires that were monstrously growing in the world, like great biological malformations? Wasn’t the idea of Union yet another of those religious frenzies that, at various times, sweep across history and by which political leaders justify their aggrandizements and their need for power, while the lives of ordinary people are needlessly disrupted or destroyed?
It was this old republican skepticism that led Wilson, in his later years, back into what he called a pocket of the past, to the old Talcottville house in upstate New York, that Transylvanian fastness where he was sometimes able to imagine that the presumed virtues of the old republic may once have prevailed, though in fact he knew better than to take such myths literally. But his reclusiveness, to those who knew him, was half-hearted. As eagerly as he would retreat to Talcottville, he would restlessly emerge from it, and even when he was in residence there he would coax his friends to visit him with literary news and gossip. His interest in the world was broad and passionate. For the last month, Elena told me, he had been wearing a McGovern button.
That this stubborn old republican should once have considered himself a Marxist must seem puzzling, but the Marxism was an aberration, a plausible, but false, inference from the optimistic rationality of those writers of the last century whom he admired in his youth—Anatole France, Ernest Renan, Hippolyte Taine, Sainte-Beuve. Occasionally in his last years he would say how fortunate he was to have been born in the 1890s, a time of relative optimism when the human condition still seemed something of an adventure and when sensible men believed that through their enlightened efforts the social world could be improved upon. He disliked Kafka for inventing heroes who were mainly victims and who never seemed to find the energy to defend themselves against—much less to understand—the outrageous things that were happening to them.
One of Edmund’s gambits was to impute to his friends knowledge that, in fact, they did not have. What he wanted was an opportunity to explain something that currently interested him to a competent listener or, if he really had an expert in his grasp, to learn something from him. In my own case, he never accepted the fact that I knew nothing about Hebrew. “You know Hebrew, don’t you?” he would ask whenever I visited him, and when I said that I didn’t his face would fall. “Oh, I thought you did,” he would reply in surprise. With less recondite subjects, he risked no such disappointments. “Have I told you about Swinburne?” he would ask as he proceeded toward his study. “Well go on in there and let me tell you,” and for an hour or more the lecture would go on in his high, somewhat breathless, exquisitely articulated voice, until after much whisky it eventually subsided.
Edmund was shy and impatient with small talk. These lectures were his chief way of communicating, even with close friends. One New Year’s Eve we were together on the old Ile-de-France. At the ship’s gala we found ourselves at a table with Buster Keaton, who was on his way to Paris to perform in the Medrano Circus. The swirl of the gala surrounded us, music, streamers, dancing couples. There was a wild storm that night to enhance the occasion. But at our table no one could think of what to say. Keaton in real life turned out to be as taciturn as he appears in his films.
Soon, however, he began to fidget with a couple of those little cotton balls—the size of golf balls—that ships supply for the merriment of their passengers, who are supposed to throw them at each other. Eventually Keaton began to juggle his, silently, his gaze straight ahead, the corners of his mouth turned down. No sooner had he begun, however, than Edmund found three such balls of his own and, in the same expressionless way, began juggling too. My memory of the occasion, after so many years, is imprecise, but I seem to recall that before they abandoned this odd dialogue they may each have had as many as four or five balls in the air at a time. It wasn’t much, but it was as good a conversation on the subject of Keaton’s expertise as Edmund could manage. On the following day Edmund, who was on his way to Israel to work on his study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, met an Israeli businessman and for the rest of the trip could not be found.
Edmund’s interest in Hebrew came partly from his Talcottville ancestors; among whom there had been some Protestant divines for whom Hebrew was a sacred and living language. One of these, I believe, actually wrote a Hebrew grammar. Partly too it came from his preoccupation generally with languages, which supplied him with abundant opportunities for the kind of investigation and discovery that he thrived on. But his main interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls, I suspect, was to see if he couldn’t proceed from where Renan left off: to get to the bottom of the scriptural mysteries. Who, in fact, was Jesus and what, once the mystifications are stripped away, had he been up to? That these mystifications may not have been incidental to the life of Jesus but some of its essential data was a possibility that could hardly have occurred to a mind as practical as Wilson’s. I have always suspected that his interest—often tedious to those who were subjected to it—in performing magical tricks was less to mystify his friends than to show them how easily they could be taken in by deliberately falsified appearances; and, of course, there was always his own interest in learning how these appearances could be contrived.
He put his poems together in much the same way, through the studied application of prosodic tricks—backward rhymes, multilingual puns—that once assembled were meant to create a certain illusion. But these poems, I have always felt, were intended less to be read than to be disassembled. Edmund’s capacities were not especially of the synthetic kind; the author of Axel’s Castle was not much of a symbolist. His gift was in taking things apart to see what made them work. Yet at the end of this dismantling, something whole, and wholly original, would accumulate.
This was his critical technique and his genius, this uncanny power to apprehend the components of a literary or historical process and, in the act of explaining them piece by piece, recreate the work of art or the event so that the reader could see for himself how it worked. It was the way Fromentin described pictures, detail by detail, so that the description itself became a work of art often more intelligible, if less spectacular, than the original. It was only his magical performances that he refused to explicate. On these occasions, and only these, he was content to leave his audience in the dark, as he stagily smirked, brows raised over widened eyes, his hand delicately frozen over the silver tube which clearly had held no string of silken handkerchiefs a moment before. In his journalism and his critical writing he was a passionate expositor of “man’s ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them.”
In 1930 Edmund wrote an account of the old Coronado Beach Hotel in San Diego. This vast and elegant place was opened, he explained, in 1877, the year Geronimo was defeated and the last of the Apaches were put away on reservations; when Standard Oil was “already well embarked on the final stage of its progress; and Edward Bellamy had a huge and unexpected success with his socialist novel, Looking Backward, which prefigures an industrial utopia.”
But in the Coronado Beach Hotel Wilson felt that he could “still enjoy here a taste of the last luscious moment just before the power of American money, swollen with sudden growth, had turned its back altogether on the more human comforts and arrangements of the old non-mechanical world.” This “lovely delirium of superb red conical cupolas, of red roofs with white lace crenellations, of a fine clothlike texture of shingles,” where in the “pavement of the principle entrance have been inlaid brass compass points and brass edges mark the broad white stairs which, between turned banister-rungs, lead up to the white doors of bedrooms embellished with bright brass knobs” and from whose higher galleries “you look out at the tops of exotic tame palms and at the little red ventilators spinning in the sun”; this hotel, “with its five tiers of white railinged porches like decks, its long steep flights of stairs, like companionways, its red ladders and brass-tipped fire hoses kept on hand on red wheeled carts around corners, the slight endearing list of its warped floors,” all of this he describes with something like the passionate curiosity of Proust at Combray and with the same sympathetic accumulation of detail that one finds in his own critical writing about literature.
Though in the last few years Wilson came to be known in the popular press as “the dean of American letters,” he was not much read. As far as I know he had no disciples or even any imitators. His exquisite prose, with its echoes of Sainte-Beuve and Saintsbury, was no longer fashionable and perhaps, for many readers, no longer intelligible. Nor were the subjects that interested him in much favor. An obituarist writing in Time found him “ponderous” and quoted a professor who complained that Wilson avoided “all the really disturbing and aberrant writers of our own time.” What bothers these people, I suppose, is that Wilson, for the last twenty years or so, came to write more and more as if he still lived in the old republic of his imagination, and lately he had come to live there pretty much alone.
Just before we left for the funeral I was sitting in the kitchen of the Wellfleet house remembering how when Edmund laughed he would raise his fist to the side of his mouth and puff and jiggle like an old steam engine starting up. Elena interrupted this reflection to ask if I knew Hebrew. It was only when we got to the grave that I understood why she had asked. I should have known that it was Edmund’s idea to have the language of the prophets spoken at the end. As it turned out, my ignorance didn’t much matter, for Charlie Walker, who had known Edmund for more than fifty years, made a little speech and when he was done took a step toward the grave, flung his arms wide, and said in his bold, quivering, old Yale-man’s voice, “Shalom, old friend.”
July 20, 1972