Edmund Wilson On Writers and Writing

Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson; drawing by David Levine

TO JOHN PEALE BISHOP

April 25, 1935
Red Bank, N.J.

Dear John:

I’ve just read Act of Darkness with great interest, but some disappointment before I’d finished it. It’s the only thing of yours that I remember that seemed to me to be carelessly executed. I believe you ought to have spent another year on it.

I began by being enchanted by your evocation of the American small-town-and-country life of thirty years ago. What you describe in West Virginia is very like what I remember myself up here, and I have never read any book which brought me back as yours did into that world of large old houses away in the woods and fields or in little countrified towns where rather a high degree of civilization flourished against a background of pleasant wildness. I had been thinking a lot lately about this life, which as a boy after a certain age I was anxious to get away from, and it seems to me that there was much in it that was valuable (see enclosed poem [“A House of the Eighties”]) which has gone and has never yet been replaced by anything else equally sound and human.

Of course, by the time you and I came along it was breaking up or in a state of decay and the people, as you represent them (they were under a more immediate pressure from the big money-making era in the North than in the South, but the effect, as I remember the country life here, was not so different as I might have supposed) were getting neurotic or withering up; and it seemed to me later that the new and bright and more or less generally suburbanized life of the Boom was much better for people and that more people got something out of it, than the in some ways rather dreary life of my boyhood. This was true, I believe, in the towns around here; but I come to feel more and more as I grow older that even the tail end of the old culture and family life, which was all we really got, was worth having. And when I started reading your book, I found myself entering the houses you describe as if they were houses that I had known myself. I remember perfectly that picture of Charlotte Corday in prison in some relative’s house that I used to visit (in upstate New York, I think). The scene that I liked best in the whole book and which seems to me the most successful is the scene where the boy goes to his grandfather’s, when the latter tries to tell him the facts of life. (I was going back after the same sort of thing in this poem.)…

As ever,
EW

TO CHRISTIAN GAUSS

May 15, 1944
Wellfleet [Massachusetts]

Dear Christian:

It was…


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