The principal critical works of Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), the foremost American literary critic from the 1920s into the 1950s, have recently been published in the Library of America, which should call forth enthusiastic reviews, because he was quite popular, uniquely so for a critic, and 35 years after his death he is still highly regarded. Literary criticism, however, is a very perishable product, and while I think there are still a few of his books that can be read with pleasure, it would be pointless to resurrect him in these pages -- except that there is an unacknowledged reciprocity between Wilson and his audience that is grimly fascinating, a case study of the development within a class of elite intellectuals who reject their nation and embrace nihilism.
He made his name as the literary editor of the New Republic in the 1920s and 1930s, writing thoughtful reviews, eagerly heralding the advent of the new American writers (he was the first to notice Hemingway). His prose was clear and clean, a pleasure to read, and he looked at books much as any literate person would; they were not labyrinthine puzzles. Here is a work to be examined and understood and evaluated. He was not writing to curry favor or show off, he said what he thought, and his writing was lively and consistently interesting. He was a member of the new cultural elite forming after the war under the aegis of H. L. Mencken, who led the attack against the old guard, so his opinions meshed with those of the sophisticated, arty crowd of the time. Elite formation and consolidation is a lengthy process (it began in the 1890s), so the cognoscenti were not very numerous at first, but it expanded greatly after the war, so when Wilson came on the scene, his audience was growing. Soon it went beyond a metaphorical Greenwich Village to the generally enlightened, and by 1940 he was writing for the New Yorker. (By "enlightened" I merely mean those individuals who are regarded as leaders in thought, those who are closest to the reigning ideas and attitudes of the moment. It should be kept in mind throughout this essay that even when I speak of high culture, the intellectual level is not high.) His best book, I think, is The Shores of Light (1952), a collection of his New Republic pieces. A similar collection from the New Yorker Years, Classics and Commercials (1951), while less lively, is still very good. I should mention here The Shock of Recognition (1943), an anthology of pieces by writers, mostly Americans, on other American writers, with Wilson's introductions.
His three books of literary criticism, Axel's Castle (1931), The Triple Thinkers (1938), The Wound and the Bow (1941), long essays on individual writers, secured his reputation at the higher (or professorial) cultural levels, but the essays, with a few exceptions, are not nearly so interesting as his short reviews. In longer forms he tended to wander, so the writing lacked point and force, and also he had room to ride his hobby horses, which could be boring. There is another, more basic reason to be found in his function as a critic, a sort of "village explainer" who interprets the news from the big world for his less sophisticated fellows. So his first book, Axel's Castle, explains modernism in writers like Yeats and Joyce by an elaborate (but muddled) exposition of French symbolism in the 19th century. It seemed brilliant at the time, a clear articulation of the attitudes and half-formed ideas of the moment, but after the years dispelled the magical aura surrounding the modernists, the book seems pretentious and irrelevant. The critic's function is to interpret works of the moment in terms of the moment; as time passes the interpretations fade. That's why literary criticism is so perishable. Wilson was very sensitive to literary currents of the day, but for that very reason they are not very readable today. The Wound and the Bow, however, contains one of the best things he ever wrote, a long essay on Dickens. The pieces are based on psychological analysis, a very tricky method which only works with Dickens. It leads him badly astray with Kipling, and hasn't much to do with Edith Wharton (a very good essay) or Hemingway, at least as Wilson reads him -- but he's very good on Hemingway's early writings.
Wilson was smitten by Communism in the 1930s, traveled in the USSR in 1935, and wrote a naive and less than honest (he suppressed his misgivings) book about it, Travels in Two Democracies (1936). But he was soon disenchanted by the purge trials, although he thought them only the product of Stalin, and Lenin remained a hero to the end of his days. He always thought Communism was a good system, but the Russians were the wrong people to manage it. From his book on the history of revolutionary ideology, To the Finland Station (1940), it is clear that he understood neither Marxism nor Leninism.
His fellow traveling was not a response to the Depression. More than a decade before, just after the Armistice, as he tells us in A Prelude (1965), a sketchy account of his life from 12 to 23, he sent a manifesto to his friends in which "I indicted the institutions of the Western world and suggested a way out in the direction of socialism." Now why would a secure upper middle-class young man who'd spent the war far behind the lines as a hospital orderly write that?
A constant theme of Wilson's from first to last, is his detestation of business, of commercial life, and it takes particular historical form in his condemnation of the post Civil War era, the so-called Gilded Age, reputedly a vulgar display by social upstarts of the wealth generated by great commercial and industrial development, a desecration of the noble simplicity of the antebellum republic. This notion was (and is) not at all uncommon -- after all, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote a comic novel, The Gilded Age, about it -- but it is a caricature, it reveals an extremely shallow understanding of American history, and its bitter moralizing seems excessive -- until you realize that many of the people who believed it, like Wilson, thought of themselves as among the losers.
He belonged to a class of people who could trace their American lineage back to the 17th century, a line of ancestors who had been (or who were remembered as being) substantial farmers and preachers and lawyers, prominent members of provincial communities now pushed aside by vigorous newcomers in a growing, changing economy. And the family stock was running down. His father, attorney general of New Jersey during Woodrow Wilson's governorship, was a neurotic semi-recluse, and although some of his uncles were professional men, only one went into business and made money (leaving a trust fund which helped to support Wilson for the rest of his days). The point is that he had a grievance, picked up from his family, against business and the hustle of the commercial republic, and he absorbed the radicalism that was then current as an expression of that grievance.
Since his radicalism was never a positive value in itself but a function of his negative view of American history, so his Marxism in the 1930s only objectified, gave what looked like logical structure, to his prejudice. When Stalinism forced him to drop it, he retained the prejudice.
He went overseas at the end of the war as a correspondent for The New Yorker, and the book he made of it, Europe Without Baedeker (1946), is a nasty performance. At the time his anglophobia and leftist delusions (siding with the Greek Communists) were noticed, but so far as I know, no one remarked on the really chilling passages. Although he was cheered by Labor's victory in the 1945 elections, the vague socialist ideal he hoped would replace capitalism seemed less and less attainable, so he frankly gave up on humanity, as presently constituted, to advocate eugenics, remarking that it would be "foolish" to allow the Nazi experiments to deter us.
He followed that by a discussion of research into the capabilities of primates, stressing their close affinity with mankind, foreshadowing the reductionists of our own day as well as more degrading ideas of his own. I should note here, because it jibes so well with animal reductionism, that Wilson was not merely an atheist, but a real hater of Christianity, a coarse bigot always on the alert for Catholic conspiracies.
His magnum opus, Patriotic Gore (1962), a huge book about the literature of the Civil War era, is very uneven. The book suffers from a lack of editing, a recurring problem with his books because no one seemed to dare to edit his work. So there are interminable chapters of no interest to anyone on second rate novelists and poets of the period, and the book is blighted by his historical ignorance and prejudices: the Gilded Age bugaboo is ever present, he believes the Southern version of Reconstruction, and he is generally partial to the Southern point of view on the war. The chapters on the memoirs of Sherman and Grant, on Lincoln, and on Oliver Wendell Holmes are the best things in the book, but they fall short of the excellence their subjects require because he could never quite understand them (significantly, he hardly wrote a word about our greatest -- and most American -- writers: Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Frost). But the real meaning of the book, the reason for its final incoherence, is to be found in the extraordinary preface, in which he boldly states his stunningly silly view, prefigured in Europe Without Baedeker, that nations are organisms like sea slugs which eat everything in sight, constantly aggrandizing themselves, so the ideas we live by are really meaningless rationalizations, fig leaves to cover our appetites. The Civil War was not about slavery, or the preservation of the Union, or State's rights -- it was only a power grab. It is not always clear if he believes the leaders, like Lincoln, are hypocrites or self-deluded, but when he asserts that F.D.R. lured the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor so we could go to war and expand our empire, we can only shake our heads in disbelief. He makes an extended comparison between Lincoln and Bismarck and Lenin, all of it reminiscent of schoolboy cynicism. The rest of the preface is a raging diatribe against American history. The whole performance is embarrassing, but it explains the inadequacies of the text: men like Lincoln and Grant and Sherman believed, consciously or instinctively, that they were historical actors, that their words and actions were meaningful, and like most Northerners and Westerners in the l9th century, the Union was for them an almost mystic entity, the culmination of the promise of the Revolution, the embodiment of the American spirit stretching from coast to coast. Wilson cannot see that, so he cannot finally understand these men -- or history itself. In any case, under the sea slug regime there is no history.
My readers will already have seen what is obvious: that the opinions of the enlightened corresponded, with some time lag, with Wilson's, from the mild radicalism of the 1920s, the Communism of the 30s, the disillusionment and disaffection of the 40s and 50s, to the poisonous nihilism of the 60s, flourishing now as never before. His intellectual trajectory was ever more radical, ever more stupid. Perhaps because its overt expressions are largely confined to his prefaces, his radicalism is almost never mentioned; he is praised for his independence, his intelligence, his curiosity, and his staying power, but the fact that he pointed the way down the Gaderene slope for a whole class of supposedly enlightened Americans is ignored. I do not mean that he actually led them -- he picked up and articulated the intellectual trends of the moment, defined the inchoate thoughts of others, planted the signposts for others to discover, thinking they had posted them themselves. That's the function of a cultural elite, to say what others are only beginning to feel. Edmund Wilson was the perfect paradigm.
There is a final question which has bothered me since I began rereading Wilson's work for this essay: how could such a sophisticated, well-read man be so stupid and ignorant about history as well as contemporary events, and how could such a curious person learn so little about people? The answer, I think, is to be found in the account of his family and early life as he renders it in A Prelude. Although it contains notes and interpolations from the 1960s, most of it comes from his notebooks of the time, from his adolescence into his young manhood, a period when we would expect some expressions of feeling -- But that is just what we don't get. The overwhelming, and depressing impression is of a desiccated life, a family without feeling, and as we read on about his school and college life, we see that he has been formed by that emotional blight. That's why he's so stupid about history, the reason he knows so little about people: he is unsympathetic, he lacks the capacity to understand another's point of view. We can never see exactly as others do, but without some fellow-feeling, some recognition of commonality, we are locked within our own world. He was famous for his curiosity, but I think it really was a poor substitute for sympathy, and was confused with it: he could not understand people instinctively (as we all do all the time) so he had to probe and pry. His final paradigmatic meaning is that he points the way to a cultural elite who have lost all their fellow-feeling. *
"In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give to the other." --Voltaire, Dictionnaire, Philosophique, Money.