“Old age is a shipwreck.” Like many a ground soldier, General de Gaulle was drawn to maritime metaphors. Of course shipwrecks are not like happy families. There is the Titanic-swift departure in the presence of a floating mountain of ice, as the orchestra plays the overture from Tales of Hoffmann. There is the slow settling to full fathom five as holds fill up with water, giving the soon-to-be-drowned sufficient time to collect his thoughts about eternity and wetness. It was Edmund Wilson’s fate to sink slowly from 1960 to June 12, 1972, when he went full fathom five. The last entry in his journal is a bit of doggerel for his wife Elena: “Is that a bird or a leaf? / Good grief! / My eyes are old and dim, / And I am getting deaf, my dear, / Your words are no more clear / And I can hardly swim. / I find this rather grim.”
“Rather grim” describes The Sixties, Wilson’s journals covering his last decade. This volume’s editor, Lewis M. Dabney, starts with an epigraph from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” thus striking the valetudinarian note. New Year 1960 finds Wilson at Harvard as Lowell Professor of English. He suffers from angina, arthritis, gout, and hangovers. “At my age, I find that I alternate between spells of fatigue and indifference when I am almost ready to give up the struggle, and spells of expanding ambition, when I feel that I can do more than ever before.” He is in his sixty-fifth year, a time more usually deciduous than mellowly fruitful. But then he is distracted by the people that he meets and the conversations that he holds, all the while drinking until the words start to come in sharp not always coherent barks; yet the mind is functioning with all its old energy. He is learning Hungarian, as he earlier learned Hebrew and before that Russian, a language whose finer points and arcane nuances he so generously and memorably shared with Vladimir Nabokov, unhinging their friendship in the process.
During his last decade, Wilson published Apologies to the Iroquois, a project that he had set himself as more and more he came to live in the stone house of his mother’s family at Talcottville in upstate New York. Although brought up in New Jersey, Wilson himself was a classic old New York combination of Ulster and Dutch; and so, in a sense, he had come home to die. Also, to work prodigiously. He made his apologies to the Indian tribes that his family, among others, had displaced. In O, Canada, he paid belated attention to the large familiar remoteness to the north which he had visited in youth with his father. He wrote book reviews; spent time at Wellfleet where he had a house; visited New York; went abroad to Israel, Hungary.
The decade was made unpleasant by the fact that he had neglected to file an income tax return between the years 1946 and 1955. The Internal Revenue Service moved in. He was allowed a certain amount to live on. The rest went to the Treasury. He was also under a grotesque sort of surveillance. Agents would ask him why he had spent so much money for a dog’s cushion. Wilson’s response to this mess was a splendid, much ignored polemical book called The Cold War and the Income Tax, which he saw as the two sides to the same imperial coin. The American people were kept frightened and obedient by a fear of the Soviet Union, which their government told them was on the march everywhere, as well as by the punitive income tax, which was needed in order to pay for a military machine that alone stood between the cowed people and slavery. It was better, we were warned, to be dead than red—as opposed to in the red.
Maximum income tax in those days was 90 percent. Wilson’s anarchic response was later, more slyly, matched by the Reagan backlash; instead of raising money to fight the enemy through taxes, the money was raised through borrowing. The result is that, today, even though we have not only sailed to but made landfall in Byzantium, the economy remains militarized, as Wilson had so untactfully noted. At sixty-eight, his present reviewer’s green age, he writes, “I have finally come to feel that this country, whether or not I live in it, is no longer any place for me.” Not that he has any other country in view: “I find that I more and more feel a boredom with and scorn for the human race. We have such a long way to go….” He, of course, was a professional signpost, a warning light.
Despite boredom and scorn Wilson soldiered on, reading and writing and thinking. He published his most original book, Patriotic Gore. He acknowledges a critical biography of him. The book has a preface by a hack of academe who refers to Patriotic Gore as a “shapeless hodgepodge.” Since remedial reading courses do not exist for the tenured, Wilson can only note that his survey of why North and South fought in the Civil War
is actually very much organized…. I don’t think that Moore understands that with such books I am always working with a plan and structure in mind. As a journalist, I sell the various sections to magazines as I can…. He is also incorrect in implying, as several other people have, that I studied Hebrew for the purpose of writing on the Dead Sea scrolls. It was the other way around: it was from studying Hebrew that I became curious to find out what was going on in connection with the scrolls.
He ends, nicely, with a list of errata, even “though I doubt whether your book will ever get into a second printing.”
In the introduction to Patriotic Gore, Wilson broods on the self-aggrandizing nature of nation-states, one of which, he is sad to note, is the United States, in all its unexceptionalism. A propos our wars,
Having myself lived through a couple of world wars, and having read a certain amount of history, I am no longer disposed to take very seriously the professions of “war aims” that nations make….
We Americans have not yet had to suffer from the worst of the calamaties that have followed on the dictatorships in Germany and Russia, but we have been going for a long time now quite steadily in the same direction.
Why did North want to fight South? And why was South willing, so extravagantly, to die for what Seward had scornfully called their “mosquito republics”? Through an analysis of the fiction and rhetoric of the conflict, Wilson presents us with a new view of the matter while dispensing with received opinion. He also places his analysis in the full context of the cold war just as it was about to turn hot in Vietnam. Before anyone knew precisely what our national security state really was, Wilson, thirty years ago, got it right:
The Russians and we produced nuclear weapons to flourish at one another and played the game of calling bad names when there had been nothing at issue between us that need have prevented our living in the same world and when we were actually, for better or worse, becoming more and more alike—the Russians emulating America in their frantic industrialization and we in imitating them in our persecution of non-conformist political opinion, while both, to achieve their ends, were building up huge governmental bureaucracies in the hands of which the people have seemed helpless.
Predictably, this set off alarm bells. At the Algonquin, May 15, 1962, Wilson meets Alfred Kazin. “I took Alfred back to a couch and talked to him about his review of Patriotic Gore. He showed a certain indignation over my Introduction: I and my people ‘had it made’ and didn’t sympathize with the Negroes and people like him, the son of immigrants, who had found in the United States freedom and opportunity. He is still full of romantic faith in American ideals and promises, and it is hard for him to see what we are really doing.”
In Patriotic Gore, Wilson questioned the central myth of the American republic, which is also, paradoxically, the cornerstone of our subsequent empire—e pluribus unum—the ever tightening control from the center of the periphery. Wilson is pre-Lincolnian (or a Lincolnian of 1846). He sees virtue, freedom, in a less perfect union. Today’s centrifugal forces in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia he anticipated in Patriotic Gore where, through his portraits of various leaders in our Civil War, he shows how people, in order to free themselves of an overcentralized state, are more than willing, and most tragically, to shed patriotic gore.
To be fair, Wilson set off alarm bells in less naive quarters. As one reads reviews of the book by such honorable establishment figures as Henry Steele Commager and Robert Penn Warren one is struck by their defensive misunderstanding not only of his text but of our common state. At times, they sound like apologists for an empire that wants to present itself as not only flawless but uniquely Good. Commager zeroes in on the Darwinian introduction. He notes, as other reviewers do, Justice Holmes’s Realpolitik: “that it seems to me that every society rests on the death of men.” But Commager is troubled that Wilson “does not see fit to quote” the peroration to “The Soldier’s Faith,” Holmes’s memorial address, with its purple “snowy heights of honor” for the Civil War dead. Yet Wilson quotes the crux of Holmes’s speech,
There is one thing that I do not doubt, no man who lives in the world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he little understands.
Surely, that is quite enough patriotic tears for spilled gore.
In 1963, as pontifex maximus of the old American republic, Wilson is speaking out with a Roman hardness and clarity, and sadness at what has been lost since Appomatox. Our eighteenth-century res publicus had been replaced by a hard-boiled soft-minded imperium, ever eager to use that terrible swift sword, presumably forever, unless, of course, we are struck down by the current great Satan who threatens our lives and sacred honor in the high lands of Somalia. Wilson has no great sentimentality about the Indian-killing, slave-holding founders but he is concerned by the absolute loss of any moral idea other than Holmes’s bleakly reductive “every society rests on the death of men.” It is not this sad truth that Wilson is challenging, thus causing distress to the apologists of empire; rather it is their clumsy ongoing falsifications of motives, their misleading rhetoric all “snowy heights of honor” (try that one on a Vietnam veteran), their deep complicity in an empire that is now based not only on understandable greed but far worse on a mindless vanity to seem invincible abroad and in full control of all the folks at home. Just as the empire was about to play out its last act in Southeast Asia, Wilson’s meditation on the Civil War and war and the nature of our state was published and: “There is shock after shock,” as Penn Warren put it, “to our official versions and received opinions.” But, surely, shock is what writers are meant to apply when the patient has lost touch with reality. Unhappily, many others are in place to act as shock-absorbers. They also shroud the martyred Lincoln with his disingenuous funeral address at Gettysburg in order to distract attention from the uncomfortable paradox that his dictatorship—forbidden word in a free country—preserved the union by destroying it.
Commager was also dismayed by Wilson’s “odd interpretation of World War I—that we were seduced into it by British propaganda, and the assertion that had we but stayed out we could have ‘shortened the war and left Europe less shattered and more stable?’ Or the astonishing statements that we ‘were gradually and furtively’ brought into World War II by President Roosevelt who ‘had been…pretending…that he had not committed himself’ [italics mine].” I happen to agree with Wilson but I acknowledge that others hold defensible contrary views. But, surely, Commager might have refrained from pretending (italics mine) to be “astonished,” even in innocent 1962, at hearing Wilson state views that many others have held about our wars, but then we must recall that both historians were writing not so many months after we had all been assured, most attractively, on a snowy day at the Capitol, that we would bear any burden to make sure that something or other would prevail somehow somewhere and in this process each of us might have the opportunity to become truly adorable.
In these last years Wilson returns to Jerusalem for an update on the Dead Sea Scrolls; he leaves the city on the day before the 1967 war starts. Meanwhile, he revises and reissues earlier books, writes regularly for The New Yorker and this paper; he settles with the IRS largely, one suspects, because he was quirkily honored by President Kennedy at the White House in 1963 with a Freedom Medal. In Upstate, Wilson writes that the bureaucracy objected: “When Kennedy saw the man who remonstrated, he said, ‘This is not an award for good conduct but for literary merit.”‘ When Kennedy asked Wilson what Patriotic Gore was about, Wilson told him to go read it.
I have sometimes lately had the impression that my appearance and personality have almost entirely disappeared and that there is little but my books marching through me, the Indian book, the Civil War. They live, I am ceasing to live—But this is partly due to too much drinking, reading and thinking at night….
That he could do all three suggests an ox-like physical structure.
Throughout this period as friends die off and new people tend to blur, certain figures keep recurring. There is quite a lot of Auden in and out. Also, Robert Lowell; also, an unlikely but intense friendship with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who were then enjoying a success with their comic sketches and improvisations in a series of smoky Manhattan caves. Wilson is plainly smitten by Elaine May: “It is a good thing I am too old to fall in love with her. I’ve always been such easy game for beautiful, gifted women and she is the most so since Mary McCarthy in the thirties. I imagine that she, too, would be rough going.”
Anaïs Nin, muse to Henry Miller, Olive Oyl to his Popeye, returns, hustling her jams and jellies. In the forties Wilson had praised her in The New Yorker. He had an endearing—to some—habit of falling in love with the work of a woman writer whom he would later want to meet and seduce. Like Montaigne, he thought that a mind and talent of the first order, associated for Montaigne and, perhaps, for Wilson, only with men, should it be combined with a woman’s beauty might produce the perfect other half of Plato’s whole, to be desired and pursued with ardor. Sometimes this longing had comic results. Wilson once praised a novel by what he took to be a young woman of the highest sensibility, Isabel Bolton. In due course he contrived to meet her. Bolton was indeed intellectually everything that he had ever desired in a woman. She was also a serene dowager of seventy, disinclined to dalliance.
Ms. Nin was of sterner stuff. In her diaries she is kittenish about Wilson and herself. In life she told me that they had never had an affair, which—in Nin-speak—meant that they did. But he did not do enough for her work and so she wrote bitterly about him in the diaries that she was now preparing for publication. Since the publishers had insisted that she get a written release from each person mentioned, she writes Wilson, who sees her; finds her enchanting. In the next room, her long-suffering husband, Hugo Guiler, is editing a film. “What about?” asks Wilson. “Me,” she replies. Then
she leaned down and put her cheek against mine. She told me that she would send me the first volume of the diary—in which, I believe, I don’t appear….I don’t know how much her reconciliation and the favorable picture of me may have been due to an eye to publicity on the publication of the diary…. She gave me a copy of her last book, Collages, and told me it was her first “funny” book. It is actually not much different from her others: stories about exquisite women told by an exquisite woman.
Later Wilson reads her account of him: “she found me aggressive, arrogant, authoritative, like a Dutch burgher in a Dutch painting, and with shoes that were too big. She had become frightened of me and had had to escape…. I made her correct a few details about Mary [McCarthy] and a few characteristic inaccuracies. She had said that I had given her a set of Emily Brontë—as if there could be such a thing, actually it was Jane Austen—and she had been offended and sent it back—which was not true, she had kept it.”
The relationship between Wilson and Elena, his wife, is occasionally stormy: she prefers her Wellfleet garden and Manhattan to rough Talcottville. Wilson’s description of a dinner at the Kennedy White House shows him at his journalistic best and Elena, his handsome German-Russian fourth wife, at her most grand. Wilson’s cold eye analyses her. “I had never before been with her anywhere remotely resembling a court, and wasn’t prepared for her stiffening attitude. The first sign of this was her ‘squeamishness,’ as she calls it—this Russian groping for brezglivost…in the presence of Tennessee Williams—after all he had been in our house at Wellfleet,” but, as they stood in line behind Williams, Elena tells Wilson in Russian that she “feels such physical repulsion that she…cannot stand to be near him.” One would like to think that this was due to his drunkenness.
James Baldwin, as writer and as a black, appeals to both of them. He makes a successful visit to Talcottville Wilson thought him “one of the best writers that we have,” though “when Elena left the table to go into the kitchen, he turned on his adjectival ‘fucking’—like the people in his novel…. I have been wondering whether ordinary people really talked to one another in that way now. I reflected, after seeing later in New York Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, whether most of the dirty language in fiction and on stage didn’t occur in the work of homosexuals? Albee, Tennessee Williams, Isherwood, Baldwin, Genet, and the beatniks Ginsberg and Burroughs.” Actually, this is off-the-wall. A degree of candor about same-sexuality is the most that these writers have in common. Four-letter words seldom occur in Tennessee’s “poetic” dialogue nor do they in Isherwood or even in Genet except when he is rendering underworld argot where such words are a normal part of speech. Actually “fuck” entered the general language as ubiquitous epithet thanks to World War Two, in which 13 million Americans served. If Wilson had bothered to read The Naked and the Dead or From Here to Eternity he would have noted the sea-change in language from Hemingway and Dos Passos to our time. But then he liked to say that he himself was a man of the nineteenth century.
Wilson writes a propos Elena’s “theory that Jews are bitterly jealous of the attention that Baldwin and others are directing towards the Negroes”:
I did not take this seriously at first, but I now think there’s something in it: Podhoretz’s article in Commentary about his having been persecuted in his childhood by the Negroes, Lillian Hellman’s play with its white boy who champions the Negroes, then is robbed by the Negro to whom he has been making an impassioned speech. Elena’s conversation…with the young Jewish Greek teacher from Brandeis—when Elena asked this young man if he had heard Baldwin’s lecture at Brandeis, he had answered certainly not: he had been to school with Baldwin. The Negroes were inferior, they had never produced anything. Why associate with them, or brother about them? They were making capital out of their sufferings, but the Jews had suffered much more. One does get the impression that the Jews regard themselves as having a monopoly on suffering, and do not want the Negroes to muscle in.
Wilson’s eye is not only on the great of the world but on those who attract him as well, like Mary Pcolar, who lives in the Talcottville region; she is married with two children and holds various jobs that he describes with Balzacian precision. He is sexually drawn to her but notes his debility in these matters; nothing much happens but then, unlike in the early journals with their sexual graphicness, Wilson seems unable to perform the act to which he had devoted so much time in the past—not to mention so many words; yet, every now and then, oddly there will be a description of a sudden lust for Elena which ends in a successful coupling despite “half-mast” erections.
I suspect that future literacy chronicles will find it odd that the generation of Wilson and Miller and Williams and McCarthy—names more or less taken at random—should have felt dutybound to tell us at length exactly what they did or tried to do in bed. The effect is sometimes bracing, like reading a good description of applied physics, say, but it is never erotic. The thought of Wilson in the act is profoundly depressing D.H. Lawrence—first in this field?—is not much better in his fictive renderings. On the other hand James Boswell delights us with his drunken swoops on complaisant chamber maids, and his poxy member takes on a plangent life of its own: one responds to its rises and falls as one never does to the clinical Wilson’s plumbing.
Wilson enjoys Auden’s company; Auden’s unremitting pedantry matches his own. When they met it was to exchange lectures until, with alcohol, Wilson would start barking and Auden mumbling and wheezing.
Wystan tends nowadays to plug with me that we both belong to the professional middle class, who are the pillars of civilization. There was, he thought, no distinction [in the United States] between professional people and those in trade…I said that when I was in college, there had been a marked distinction and this surprised him. He asked me whether it wasn’t true that I never felt myself inferior to anybody. I told him that in my youth I had rather resented the millionaires. I think that he himself had actually resented being looked down upon as a doctor’s son…. He said that he had regretted not having been sent to Eton.
Auden complains to Wilson that critics never note his mastery of the technicalities of verse.
For example, nobody had mentioned in writing about his last book that it contained a poem in stanzas. I said that I thought William Carlos Williams had ruined American poetry by leading most of the poets to give up verse altogether and lapse into “shredded prose.” He said he didn’t care about the early Williams but that he had learned something from the later Williams. I said I couldn’t see any influence. “It’s there.” “What do you mean?” “Technically.” “How?” “Length of lines.” I still don’t know what he meant.
Glumly Wilson notes, “The last lusts gutter out.” He concludes man-woman sex is nothing to fuss about. “Yet homosexuals don’t seem to have flowered and borne fruit, don’t seem to have fully matured. Auden with his appetite for Tolkien.” Surely, Auden’s poetry is…well, one of the fine mature fruits of this century while a liking for Tolkien can be philological as well as infantile.
What Wilson maintains to the end is a clear eye for what is in front of him, whether a text or a person. Great critics do not complicate a text; they describe it and then report on what they have described, if the description itself is not the criticism. Some of his reports—or even asides—make sense where most readers make none or nonsense. A friend
had just read Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich, which had made a great impression on him. I do not care for this story as much as many people do. I don’t believe that a man like Ivan Ilyich could ever look back on his life and find it empty and futile; I don’t believe that Tolstoy, in the period when he was writing his great novels, would ever have invented such a character.
This is simply put; it is also, simply, true. Ivan Ilyich would not have regarded his past life as empty and futile any more than Edmund Wilson, despite his aches and pains, could ever have found his life anything but fascinating and full, as through him marched the Iroquois, the protagonists of the Civil War, the Dead Sea Scrolls, recollections of Daisy and Hecate County, Axel’s Castle and To The Finland Station, as well as these journals—first begun at Box Hill in Surrey, close to the small chalet where that great lost poet-novelist George Meredith wrote “half a dozen great novels.”
The editor, Mr. Dabney, notes, I think correctly, that Wilson, in his journals, “was creating an art of portraiture in the tradition of Dr. Johnson, Taine and Sainte-Beuve.” He is certainly at his best when he turns the lights on a literary figure whom he knows and then walks, as it were, all around him. He mentions occasionally that he is reading Jules Renard’s journals; it is a pity that Wilson has none of that journalist’s aphoristic wit. But he might have said, with Renard, “Be interesting! Be interesting! Art is no excuse for boring people,” not to mention “I was born for successes in journalism, for the daily renown, the literature of abundance: reading great writers changed all that. That was the misfortune of my life.” But their misfortune is our good fortune. They existed to give the dull a glimpse of unsuspected worlds hidden in the one that we daily look at. One admires in Wilson what he admired in Parkman, “the avoidance of generalization, the description of the events always in concrete detail. The larger tendencies are shown by a chronicle of individualized persons and actions. It is what I try to do myself.” Successfully, one might add. In the four-volume Literary Criticism, A Short History (1957), by W.K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Cleanth Brooks, the Almanach da Gotha of critics, Wilson is cited in three footnotes. Three! Fame!
November 4, 1993