Unwrapping Edmund Wilson

The Forties

by Edmund Wilson, edited with an introduction by Leon Edel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 369 pp., $17.95

The Portable Edmund Wilson

edited by Lewis M. Dabney
Viking/Penguin, 647 pp., $6.95 (paper)

The journals and papers which make up The Forties are of great interest—coming from Edmund Wilson, it would be very odd if they were not—but taken as a whole the book is not really in the same class as The Twenties and The Thirties. For one thing, as Leon Edel makes clear in his excellent introduction, it lacks the advantage of Wilson’s own preliminary editing, and of the retrospective passages that he would have added if he had lived. For another, the material that Mr. Edel has had to work on—the more intimate and informal material, at least—is relatively skimpy. During the first half of the 1940s, while he was still married to Mary McCarthy, Wilson scarcely kept a personal diary at all. He slipped back into the habit from 1946 onward, but on a much less substantial scale than before; and as a result, the greater part of The Forties is taken up with first drafts of material that has already appeared elsewhere, often in very similar form—principally in Europe Without Baedeker and in his accounts of the Zuñi Indians and his visit to Haiti, the “red” and “black” sections of Red, Black, Blond and Olive.

The book does naturally provide some sense of the course that Wilson’s life took during the decade, in particular of the happiness which his fourth and final marriage brought him. But there are some very obvious gaps and omissions as well. To stick to literary matters, for instance, there is next to nothing about his reviewing for The New Yorker, little of note about Memoirs of Hecate Country, not a single mention of The Shock of Recognition—although that very active anthology, so much more than a mere compilation, was not only the most solid piece of critical work that Wilson published in the mid-1940s, but must surely have played a major part in the shift of interests which led eventually to Patriotic Gore. And if The Forties is only to a very limited degree a chronicle of Edmund Wilson’s 1940s, still less can it pretend to be a chronicle of the 1940s. For much of its length—in marked contrast, here, with The Thirties—politics and public affairs scarcely impinge.

As far as the new material goes, then, the book is a collection of fragments. A few of them are rather boring—I must admit that by the end I found all the neat, conscientious descriptions of pond life and wildlife beginning to pall—and some of them no longer have much point, but for the most part they bear the unmistakable stamp of Wilson’s vigorous and invigorating personality. Again and again, whether he is describing a journey out west or the death of an old friend, or mulling over subjects as far apart as aviation (its constricting effect on our view of the world) and early nineteenth-century prose (its peculiarly “viscous” quality), he succeeds brilliantly in hitting the nail on the head and pinning down the elusive shade of feeling. Even the casual observations of…

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