Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 1930s: The Shores of Light, Axel's Castle, Uncollected Reviews

By Edmund Wilson

Edited by Lewis Dabney

(The Library of America, 958 pp., $40)

Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 1940s: The Triple Thinkers, The Wound and the Bow, Classics and Commercials, Uncollected Reviews

By Edmund Wilson

Edited by Lewis Dabney

(The Library of America, 979 pp., $40)

Edmund Wilson, a man of idiosyncratic temperament and unpredictable taste, has solidified in retrospect into a marmoreal figure, a sort of jowly Supreme Court justice of the literary imagination, issuing measured opinions from the chambers, successively, of The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books. In achieving something like the "consecrated authoritative role" that he ascribed to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the culminating chapter of Patriotic Gore, his marvelous book on the literature arising from the Civil War, Wilson was, as he himself observed, filling his father's shoes. Edmund Wilson Sr. was a gifted courtroom antagonist and gentleman reformer who, as attorney general of New Jersey, had cleaned up the political racket of Atlantic City and sent several hundred men to jail. For this achievement, President Woodrow Wilson, a Jersey man by adoption, had let it be known that a position on the Supreme Court might be in the offing should a vacancy arise.

After his father's death in 1923, Wilson went through his professional papers and realized that his own prose, hammered out on yellow legal pads, owed more to his father's arguments--what he called in a poem "his scornful tone, his eighteenth-century words"--than to Henry James or any of the other writers he was coming to admire. The austere style and capacious scope, the probing for illuminating precedent, the personal touch without personal affect--these were traits of Wilson's book reviews from the start. In a discouraging time like our own, when book reviewing is regarded as the equivalent of a haphazard Consumer Reports for casual readers, it is bracing to read someone for whom the reviewing of books was a central, intellectually rigorous, exciting, and concentrating act of the civilized world.

One might say of Wilson's written opinions what he said of Justice Holmes: "that he never dissociates himself from the great world of thought and art, and that all his decisions are written with awareness of both their wider implications and the importance of their literary form." To achieve such a thing in journalism, as in the law, required some ingenuity, as Wilson noted in his "Thoughts on Being Bibliographed":

You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings; you have to develop a resourcefulness at pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitous subjects; and you have to acquire a technique of slipping over on the routine of editors the deeper independent work which their over-anxious intentness on the fashions of the month or the week have conditioned them automatically to reject, as the machines that make motor parts automatically reject outsizes.

In reissuing nearly two thousand pages of Wilson's literary writing from the 1920s through the 1940s, the Library of America--which owes its existence in large part to Wilson's lobbying for a sort of national Pleiade of standard editions of American classics--has provided both a monument to Wilson's commanding achievement and a provocative goad for future reviewers, if that endangered species should survive in its steadily shrinking habitat. The first volume consists mainly of The Shores of Light (1952), which Wilson described to Nabokov as "a gigantic book containing ninety-two of my articles, mostly written in the twenties and thirties," and Axel's Castle (1931), Wilson's influential study of the playing out of Symbolism in modern writing. The second volume is built around two seminal collections of longer essays, The Triple Thinkers (1938) and The Wound and the Bow (1941), along with Classics and Commercials (1950), Wilson's grab-bag slumming in popular genres such as detective fiction ("Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?") juxtaposed with more elevated excursions into the reputations of canonical figures like Samuel Johnson (a perennial favorite of Wilson's) and Jane Austen.

In the Jazz Age pages of Shores of Light, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Wilson's Princeton classmate) and Ernest Hemingway emerge as polar opposites, the unruly child versus the stern and seasoned professional. Finding in "almost every fault and deficiency that a novel can possibly have," Wilson concluded that Fitzgerald "has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express." Fitzgerald cavalierly butchered the English language, misspelling "juvenilia," confusing "flare" and "flair," and guessing, wrongly, about the meaning of "vicarious." As for the chaotic romance and emotional excess in Fitzgerald's narratives, Wilson allowed as how moral balance could not be expected from "young men, however able or brilliant, who write books in the year 1921: we must remember that they have had to grow up in, that they have had to derive their chief stimulus from the wars, the society, and the commerce of the Age of Confusion itself."

Hemingway was another, weightier matter, and a touchstone for the effects that Wilson was trying to achieve in his own writing. In his review of In Our Time, the first in an American magazine, Wilson welcomed Hemingway's vignettes of World War I as "a distinctively American development in prose." Behind the book's "cool objective manner" he discerned "a harrowing record of the barbarities of the period in which we live," executed with the "dry sharpness and elegance of the bull-fight lithographs of Goya." Such a passage offers a glimpse of what Jed Perl has called the "visual flexibility" of Wilson's mind. Wilson appends Hemingway's very Hemingway-esque letter of thanks for the review: "It was cool and clear minded and decent and impersonal and sympathetic. "

Going back through these vivid and varied pages, where articles in praise of Houdini and Henry Miller are interspersed with dismissals of Kafka, one comes to realize that the foundation of Wilson's remarkable coverage of his own time was a deep preoccupation with the preceding Gilded Age. Axel's Castle is subtitled "A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930," and Patriotic Gore began as a study of American literature "between the Civil War and about 1910." Early and late, Wilson was a historical critic: his interest in Marxism, all but eclipsed by 1940, was as much a commitment to interpreting writers in historical context as to any particular political position. In his political writing as well, which will surely fill future volumes in the Library of America, Wilson looked to the past, and hence to the library, for guidance-- what he called "equipment for life." To the Finland Station (1940), his magisterial and conflicted intellectual history of revolutionary thought from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution, begins with a scene of sympathetic reading, as Michelet experiences a shock of recognition in reading Vico.

Wilson was determined to avoid the joylessness of his father's generation, blighted, he believed, by Calvinism, Big Business, and the lingering effects of the war. The disappointed hope for a Supreme Court appointment joined others in the life of Elgrim Sexton, as Wilson called his father in a story--implying, none too subtly, that grim sex was another. As a shy boy growing up in Red Bank, Wilson listened for the nonexistent conversation between his hypochondriac father, reduced for long periods to bedridden gloom, and his deaf and status- conscious mother, who took him to polo games and belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Wilson wrote so well in The Wound and the Bow about childhood trauma in the lives of Dickens and Kipling that biographers have been quick to look for some lingering scar in his own upbringing. The book takes its title from Sophocles's account of the peerless archer Philoctetes and his suppurating wound, a symbol for Wilson of the deep linkage of suffering and creativity. But every childhood is unhappy, and Wilson's parents were hardly conspicuous in their momentary monstrousness. The "spoiling and controlling" mother that Lewis Dabney describes or the cold woman isolated by deafness in Leon Edel's account are hardly ogres out of Dickens. Wilson's childhood left the ordinary scars of loneliness, which he analyzed so well in the lives of Housman and Edna Millay. If Wilson's mother, two of whose brothers were distinguished physicians, once assured him that brilliant men "always had something wrong with them," it is just as true that plenty of mediocre men do, too.

Wilson's interest in wounds probably had as much to do with growing up in a family of doctors (a favorite cousin, Dorothy Mendenhall, was a pioneer in pediatric medicine who had studied at Johns Hopkins with Gertrude Stein) as from anything special suffered in his childhood or during his apparently placid stints at the Hill School or Princeton. Like other members of his supposedly lost generation, Wilson got a second education in horror on the battlefields of Europe. Serving as a medical orderly in a hospital in France in June 1918, he treated victims of mustard gas, their throats and genitals horribly burned.

Wilson's own generation experienced plenty of damage, self-administered and otherwise, after the war. In an invitation to a hard-drinking weekend at his estate in Delaware, Scott Fitzgerald promised that "the stomach pumps are polished and set out in rows." But it was the ills of the truly lost previous generation, the men and women who had beaten their heads "against the gilt of the Gilded Age," that most interested Wilson. He believed that his own generation had little to learn, except as a cautionary tale, from this earlier period of American writing. In a tribute to Christian Gauss, with whom he studied Dante and Flaubert at Princeton, Wilson reports with amusement Gauss's hostility to American literature, his view that William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham "wasn't much of a rise."

Wilson's review of Thomas Beer's biography of Stephen Crane is a typical example of his own dismissal of the "barren decades" of the 1880s and 1890s in America, when "the State became identified with Business" and "ideas were shot on sight." Wilson expresses surprise that Crane "had arrived in prose, apparently without having read Maupassant or knowing anything of the school of Flaubert, at precisely their objective method and their ironic point of view." Much of Wilson's work during the 1920s and 1930s seems an attempt to repair this omission, and to make available to writers of his own generation the best that has been thought in France. For it is almost the primary argument of Axel's Castle that modern writers can learn precisely nothing from American models and had better look to Paul Valery and Marcel Proust instead.

When Wilson detects a Proustian influence in Thornton Wilder's Cabala and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, we are persuaded that Wilder is a deeper, more interesting novelist than we may have thought. But when Wilson takes on Proust and other French writers whole hog, he is less convincing. The introductory essay on Symbolism is one of the rare moments in Wilson's work when he sounds professorial, and it is interesting to learn from Dabney's biography that much of the argument was worked up in a sanatorium, where Wilson had gone for treatment of alcoholism. What he has to say about an elusive writer such as Valery seems often tone-deaf and provincial. He thinks that Valery is a stronger poet than his precursor Mallarme, a minority opinion based on his paltry sense of Mallarme as a verbal watercolorist and calligrapher on ladies' fans. He quotes line after line of Valery, asserting without analysis their evident beauty--"In the reproduction, in beautiful verses, of shapes, sounds, effects of light and shadow, substances of fruit or flesh, Valery has never been surpassed"--then announces that Valery's long poems do not hold up. Wilson is on firmer ground when he questions the high estimate of Valery's prose, pointing out how much prestige Valery achieved by sprinkling his abstract meditations with metaphors from modern science--a practice that T.S. Eliot indulged with similar success.

Among American writers, Henry James is one of the few who survive Wilson's wholesale condemnation of the Gilded Age, and rather equivocally at that. The books Wilson likes best are the sharp-edged novellas of the 1880s and 1890s, The Aspern Papers and What Maisie Knew, and the social satire of The Bostonians. He was pleasantly surprised to find in James's late travelogue The American Scene a savage assessment of the Gilded Age that matched his own. "He is not at the mercy of his wincings and shrinkings from the elements that are alien and vulgar." But he was troubled by what he called, in an essay in The Triple Thinkers, an "ambiguity" in James's procedures, effective in a gothic teaser like The Turn of the Screw but annoying in novels built around unresolved human relationships. He traced James's opacity to the same source as Gertrude Stein's "vagueness"; both writers, he concluded, were concealing homosexual themes. Stein, in a work such as Tender Buttons, did so deliberately: "She has outdistanced any of the Symbolists in using words for pure purposes of suggestion--she has gone so far that she no longer even suggests."

James, by contrast, seemed to Wilson a victim of his own repressions. In The Sacred Fount, with its clueless narrator speculating about possible sexual relationships among his acquaintances, Wilson concludes: "It is as if at this point he had taken to dramatizing the frustrations of his own life without quite being willing to confess it, without fully admitting it even to himself." When Wilson, toward the end of an otherwise admirable essay in Axel's Castle, sniffs out the same conflict in Proust, he resembles those detectives he lampooned in his amusing demolitions of the genre, where the revelation of "a sensational secret does not really account for the incidents" that have come before.

What is best in Wilson's longer essays--on such complex figures as Housman, Flaubert, and the essayist-reformer John Jay Chapman--is not mechanical problemsolving but rather the immediacy, even the intimacy, in the presence of the writer under the spotlight. Wilson's ideal of literary criticism was a human relationship--the "shock of recognition" around which he built, in 1943, his wonderful anthology of American writers in dialogue. He wrote approvingly of how, to Chapman (himself grievously injured when he thrust his own arm into a fire in a romantic feud),

the great writers of the past were neither a pantheon nor a vested interest. He approached them open-mindedly and boldly, very much as he did living persons who he thought might entertain or instruct him. Not that he judged them by contemporary standards; but he would go straight to them across the ages in the role of an independent traveler, who was willing to pay his toll to the people that kept the roads but wished to linger with them as little as possible.

The road-keepers here are the academic scholars, for whom the open-minded critic has little time to spare in his quest for a living relationship with the writers of the past.

It is in this light that we should read the culminating paragraphs of Wilson's remarkable essay on the Philoctetes of Sophocles, which he tells us is "a parable of human character":

I should interpret the fable as follows. The victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also the master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs. A practical man like Odysseus, at the same time coarse-grained and clever, imagines that he can somehow get the bow without having Philoctetes on his hands or that he can kidnap Philoctetes the bowman without regard for Philoctetes the invalid. But the young son of Achilles knows better.

Neoptolemus realizes that "the bow would be useless without Philoctetes himself. It is in the nature of things--of this world where the divine and the human fuse--that they cannot have the irresistible weapon without its loathsome owner, who upsets the processes of normal life by his curses and his cries." How can the beleaguered Greek army get both the bowman and the bow? "Only by the intervention of one who is guileless enough and human enough to treat him, not as a monster, nor yet as a mere magical property which is wanted for accomplishing some end, but simply as another man, whose sufferings elicit his sympathy and whose courage and pride he admires."

This extraordinary passage has been treated, predictably, as some kind of personal confession on Wilson's part. Leon Edel, who edited Wilson's journals, reached for Wilson's own favorite solution to such puzzles, ferreting out a latent homosexuality in the bond between Neoptolemus and Philoctetes, and by extension in Wilson himself. Lewis Dabney thought the passage showed instead a resolution to Wilson's Oedipal tensions: "Implicit in his interpretation of Sophocles' play is the wish to have reached out to his father sooner, somehow drawing him from isolation."

It is true that Wilson wanted to draw people out of isolation, but the loners he wished to rescue were the writers he admired. He worried that writers such as Sherwood Anderson and Eugene O'Neill (as he wrote in "The Critic Who Does Not Exist") worked "in almost complete intellectual isolation, receiving from the outside but little intelligent criticism, and developing, in their solitary labors, little capacity for supplying it themselves." He worried that the typical professor of literature "would be made most uncomfortable if he had to meet Whitman or Byron; he would not like him--he does not, in fact, like him. " For Wilson, the Philoctetes of Sophocles was a fable for critics. Chapman with his amputated hand; Holmes with his wounds from Ball's Bluff, Antietam, and Fredericksburg; Dickens with his childhood seizures while working in his cousin's warehouse and his burned-out nerves as an overtaxed novelist--these were neither monsters nor magicians but simply human beings, and Wilson "would go straight to them across the ages in the role of an independent traveler."

Toward the end of the period covered by the Library of America volumes, Wilson took to the road. The New Yorker sent him to Europe in 1945 to write about the devastation of the war, and two years later he signed a contract with Oxford University Press to write about the aftermath of the American Civil War. The two wars seemed similar to Wilson, who lamented the "insufferable moral attitudes that appeared to us first to be justified by our victory over the Confederacy in 1865." Ever since, he wrote, "Whenever we engage in a war or move in on some other country, it is always to liberate somebody."

Sickened by all he had seen abroad, Wilson was disheartened by much of what he saw in postwar America as well. He had a longstanding interest in American Indians, and during the fall of 1947 he made a goodbye-to-all-that journey to New Mexico to witness the sacred Shalako rites of the Zuni people. Wilson knew that the Zuni didn't welcome visitors; their hostility to whites, and to Christians in particular, was for him an additional attraction. The most authoritative of the experts on the Zuni was Frank Hamilton Cushing, another of Wilson's scarred victims of the Gilded Age, who as a child had been so weak that he had passed his first three years in bed and had grown up, like Wilson, a lonely child, finding solace among birds and animals and developing "an extraordinary sense of the lives of the departed Indians," amounting to "an alternate world in which he was more at home than in that of Anglo-Saxon America." Among the Zuni, Cushing "approached the Indians as human beings" rather than as scientifically interesting specimens for objective inspection.

Wilson was tremendously moved by the Zuni dances. His re-entry to the East on Christmas Eve, "in order to be with my family for our Christian equivalent of the Shalako festival," is brutal, as he mingles with fellow travelers on the Sante Fe Railroad:

From the moment that the whites of the American West have not had to be hard and alert under pressure of rugged conditions, they have been turning soft, fat and blank to a degree that is disgusting and dismaying. What do these puffy- faced doughbags do? Some, no doubt, are commercial travelers; others, businessmen, well-off and retired, who had bought themselves "homes" in Los Angeles. The women whether squashy or scrawny, are equally charmless and sexless. If the Zunis are human beings, these must be something else.

This is the new Cold War America of empty prosperity, on a fast track to a new Gilded Age.

The 1940s were a valedictory decade for Wilson. Fitzgerald and Anderson died in 1940; Dos Passos's sharp shift to the political right meant the loss of another valued friend; he saw Millay for the last time in 1948, and was appalled by her descent into drugs and infantile dependency.

It was difficult for the romantics of the twenties to slow down and slough off their youth, when everything had seemed to be possible and they had been able to treat their genius as an unlimited checking account. One could always still resort to liquor to keep up the old excitement, it was a kind of way of getting back there; the old habit of recklessness was hard to drop, the scorn for safe living and expediency, the need to heighten the sensations of life.

Millay had been Wilson's first lover, in the summer of 1920, and flush with the excitement of the occasion, he told her: "By the time we're fifty years old, we'll be two of the most interesting people in the United States." Millay responded, "You behave as if you were fifty already."

Wilson really was fifty in 1945, and embarked on a new phase of his life, "organized and grounded," as he wrote in the Millay memoir. He made a stable marriage, his third, with Elena Mumm Thornton. He gave up regular reviewing of those contemporaries who had survived, concentrating on enduring classics instead of ephemeral "commercials." The love affairs of the past, with Marxism ("Is there nothing left of Marxism, then?" he asked in 1941) and other gaudy ideologies, were over. The "butcher's bill" of World War II had been paid. Like Holmes, Wilson found himself "cured for life of apocalyptic social illusions." He sloughed off his youth, but he didn't slow down, not by a long shot. The "prestige of longevity" he ascribed to Holmes would be his as well. Much of his best work was still before him.

Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor at Mount Holyoke College.  His new book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, will be published in the spring.

By Christopher Benfey