Two Letters by Edmund Wilson

The first of the following letters was written to John Jay Chapman, whose book Lucian, Plato and Greek Morals had just been published. It is printed here by courtesy of the Harvard University Libraries. The second letter was written to the critic Morton Dauwen Zabel and is printed by courtesy of the Newberry Library. Both letters will be included in a collection of Edmund Wilson’s letters,. to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

September 8, 1931,
7 Lingate Lane,
Santa Barbara, California

Dear Mr. Chapman:

I have just read your book with great enjoyment and written something about it for the New Republic. I’m glad you wrote me about it.

I always sympathize with your onslaughts on the scholars—though I do think that in your first chapter you are a little too sweeping. There are surely cases of accurate scholars who are imaginative, too. A. E. Housman, for example. You know that in several cases his proposed readings were justified by texts afterwards found. And his emendations of the Latin poets spring from a kind of divination that only a poet could have. Did you ever read the preface to the first volume of his text of Manilius?—it is a fascinating production. It also contains a fine Latin poem by him.

One gold brick I believe the scholars have put over on you. I think that you have been misled by Jebb about Antigone. So far as I have ever been able to see, all that about Antigone’s crying out the name of Haemon is a pure invention of his. In the original text it is only Ismene who is concerned about Haemon. Antigone is interested only in her brother and never thinks about her fiancé or makes any attempt to see him. Jebb’s assignment of certain lines to Antigone is based wholly on his feeling that Antigone ought to have something to say about Haemon. His emendations are very implausible because they break up the one-line dialogue. Also, there is no textual reason whatever for outlawing the famous passage about dying for a brother but not a lover, etc., which Sophocles evidently intended. Goethe hadn’t been able to understand it and Jebb set out to make the play more acceptable from the nineteenth-century point of view. See how closely certain features of the Electra parallel the Antigone—the contrast between the sisters, for example—and how Sophocles has failed to provide Electra with a husband where Euripides did. Evidently he had a special sympathy for these fierce virgins.

I hope that we can have lunch together sometime in the fall when I get back to New York and you are in town, and discuss these matters.—Your Lucian book makes me want to read him. I agree that Plato is buttered on both sides. No doubt there is a lot to be said about him that has never been said—or at least that I have never seen said. It is interesting to compare Plato’s “sublimation” of love…

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