Being Strong: Edmund Wilson’s Letters

Letters on Literature and Politics: 1912-1972

by Edmund Wilson, edited by Elena Wilson, introduction by Daniel Aaron, foreword by Leon Edel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 768 pp., $20.00

Edmund Wilson
Edmund Wilson; drawing by David Levine

The blurb on the jacket that characterizes the author as “this era’s greeatest man of letters” echoes an assumption which will not be challenged here. But what does that really mean? Most likely, an all-round competence in the various genres of literature. However, if he had been more successful than he was as a novelist, a dramatist, or a poet, he might have been saluted first under one of those categories. (On some occasions he wistfully declared that Memoirs of Hecate County was his best book, but any writer may be forgiven for viewing his latest or least appreciated effort as his masterpiece.) Indeed his versatility was such that he once planned a choreography for the Swedish Ballet which would have starred Charlie Chaplin. Voltaire was for many years regarded as a greater playwright than Racine; Johnson wrote a mildly interesting novel and a terrible play; both of them achieved their central positions as “men of letters.” Edmund Wilson has been their worthiest successor in our time.

There can be little question, when it comes down to letters in their more literal sense. Correspondence has become a losing—if not a lost—art during our century of dictaphones and long-distance telephone calls. Wilson was enough the child of his natal century (b.1895) to have kept the art under cultivation, and much of what is printed in these pages was transcribed from holograph. It represents a salient part of a much larger totality, which should all be published at some future date, when matters of privacy can be ignored. Presumably it will be; and this should mean that ellipses will be filled in, correspondents’ letters will be printed, and what is now monologue will become dialectic. Wilson, though a great talker, was also—being an experienced reporter—a shrewd questioner and a sympathetic listener. When he describes a visit from Isaiah Berlin, he reports tongue-in-cheek that “We spent the whole time talking brilliantly, covering rapidly, but with astonishing knowledge, sure intelligence, and breathtaking wit, an incredible variety of subjects.”

If Wilson is to be categorized as a critic, it must be as a critic at large, a critic of everything. The balance between literature and politics in the title of this liberal selection turns out to be closer than it might have initially appeared. Some of his incidental commentary, on the two world wars, the Depression, the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the impact of socialism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, let alone the cataclysmic changes in the American way of life (titularly referred to as Jitters and then Earthquake), may well prove to be more penetrating in the long run than the comments of his stuffier colleagues on The New Republic, Herbert Croly or Walter Lippmann. His pamphlet on the income tax and the cold war may not have been “the hottest thing since Tom Paine,” but significantly he turned its royalties over to A.J. Muste’s peace…

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