Review of Lewis M. Dabney’s Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature

by Morris Dickstein

Review of Lewis M. Dabney’s Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature.
639 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35.

Published in the Times Literary Supplement, March 3, 2006

Apart from his collection of long stories, Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), which was banned for obscenity in the State of New York, Edmund Wilson’s books were never widely read. But for upwards of half a century they had an incalculable impact on readers. Several generations of American intellectuals not only cared what he thought about literature and politics but used his career as a model. They admired his restless curiosity, omnivorous reading, sharp literary judgment, and grasp of culture as a living entity. They envied the unforced clarity of his style. He was hardly more than a decade older than the writers who founded Partisan Review in the mid-1930s, and his deep-dyed American background was different from their immigrant roots. Yet, as Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin testified, they looked to him as their difficult-to-please mentor. Other sources of inspiration for the PR circle were distant figures, but Wilson actually married into the family when he took Mary McCarthy, their scarlet princess, as his third wife.
The same chemistry of warm admiration and crusty independence can be observed in his relations with writers and editors in the 1950s, especially Roger Straus and Jason Epstein, who encouraged him to collect his earlier journalism and reissued his books as upmarket paperbacks. Not long afterward, the more literate radicals of the 1960s rediscovered To the Finland Station (1940), his galvanizing history of revolutionary ideas and personalities, and were cheered by his critique of the cold war, which he saw as a byproduct of America’s imperial designs. In “The Metropolitan Critic,” published anonymously in these pages shortly before Wilson’s death in 1972, a young Clive James took the measure of his whole career, singling out literary chronicles like The Shores of Light (1952) as keystones of the critic’s trade, and paid tribute to the insight of his deceptively plain style. Finally, a generation of public intellectuals who emerged in the 1980s, including historian Sean Wilentz, cultural critics Andrew Delbanco and Louis Menand, political essayist Paul Berman, and art critic Jed Perl, were drawn to Wilson’s example as a counter to specialized academic work, with its restricted language and limited audience, particularly in the social sciences and literary theory.

As early as 1943, in one of his first autobiographical essays, “Thoughts on Being Bibliographed,” Wilson vented his ambivalence about young writers who vied for his approval, wanting “to thrust him into a throne and have him available as an object of veneration.” (CC, 109) Being canonized, he thought, would make him the object of attack and lock him down to work he had already done. (The attack, a sweeping and dismissive one, came a few years later in Stanley Edgar Hyman’s skewed book on modern criticism, The Armed Vision.) Wilson’s generation, including friends like Fitzgerald and Nathanael West, had begun dying off along with their elders in the modern movement. “Yeats, Freud, Trotsky, and Joyce have all gone in so short a time, it is almost like the death of one’s father,” he wrote in 1941. (277) His actual father, Edmund Wilson senior, had been a brilliant trial lawyer and prosecutor whom Woodrow Wilson considered appointing to the United States Supreme Court, but he was also a hypochondriac who spent his later years in a twilight of psychosomatic fears. The elder Wilson had a horror that his only son, with his rich assortment of interests, would not make his mark, and so urged him to “concentrate on something.” Wilson replied, persuasively, that “what I want to do is to try to get to know something about all the main departments of human thought.” (A Piece of My Mind, 227)

When his father died in 1923 he had already set about to accomplish this, not in the cloistered world of scholarship but in the cultural marketplace. He grew famous as a journalist covering popular culture from the Ziegfeld Follies, vaudeville, and burlesque to silent movies, and as an up-to-minute literary critic introducing his readers to difficult modern writers, such as Joyce, Proust, Hemingway, Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. He also wrote poetry, plays, and fiction, including a novel set in Greenwich Village, I Thought of Daisy (1929), in which he tried, like his college friend Fitzgerald, to sum up the restless mood of the 1920s and the experience of his generation. Like so many first-rate critics, he wanted to be a writer, not a conduit of other people’s writing. But the terse, classical manner that served him so well in his essays fell flat in his fiction, where it seemed like evidence of emotional disengagement. Wilson had sometimes patronized Fitzgerald, who looked to him as his “intellectual conscience.” But rereading The Great Gatsby as he revised the proofs of his novel, Wilson grew depressed to realize “how much better Scott Fitzgerald’s prose and dramatic sense were than mine. If I’d only been able to give my book the vividness and excitement, and the technical accuracy, of his!” (Letters, 173)

Lewis M. Dabney’s definitive and unfailingly intelligent biography of Wilson, more than twenty years in the making, is especially good on the turning points in Wilson’s life – his experience as a soldier in Europe, which separated him from his narrow, privileged background; his eager embrace of sex and alcohol in the carnivalesque years of the 1920s; his conversion to left-wing politics after the stock-market crash, which confirmed his patrician distaste for America’s “business civilization”; his tempestuous marriage to McCarthy and withdrawal to Cape Cod; and his explorations of the American past, his own life, and other cultures – French Canadian, Iroquois, Haitian, Israeli, Zuni Pueblo – in his last decades. During those years he no longer felt connected to contemporary life as he encountered it in the pages of Life magazine, but felt stranded, like his father, in “a pocket of the past.” (PM, 239)

Dabney stresses the effects of Wilson’s Puritan background but also his serious effort to declass himself, partly through an allegiance to art and culture. He recoiled from Christianity but was drawn to Jews, ancient and modern, for their peculiar moral urgency. His mother was a collateral descendent of Cotton Mather, his paternal grandfather a learned Presbyterian minister, yet Wilson made the leap from Victorian gentility to 1920s bohemianism. He opened himself to fresh experiences, first in the army hospital corps in France, where he rubbed shoulders with people he could not have known at boarding school or Princeton. He plunged into popular culture, which was so remote from his classical education, into “dissipation” and sexual experimentation (reported in his journals with almost clinical precision), and then into politics and Depression journalism, focusing on the travail of ordinary Americans. His travels across America were followed in 1935 by a five-month trip to the Soviet Union, where, during a long hospital stay, he read Marx and Engels by day, Gibbon at night. He was exploring radical movements from the French to the Russian Revolutions and, after this failed him, began searching for a republican ideal of virtue and character in figures like Grant, Lincoln, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. If Wilson’s course of downward mobility at first resembled Orwell’s, by the end he sounded like Henry Adams, a sardonic observer formed for a different world, a disaffected link to an almost forgotten past.

Since Wilson’s father left him no money directly, and his mother tightly controlled the purse strings, he spent much of his adult life in genteel poverty. Along with his ferocious work ethic, this constant need for cash helped democratize his point of view. So did his passionate affair with a working-class woman, Frances Minihan, between 1927 and 1933. As described in his journals and his sexually explicit novella “The Princess With the Golden Hair,” it became the most tender experience of his life, the notable exception to his many destructive relationships with women of his own class. She was utterly devoted to him, tolerant of his affairs, and sexually uninhibited in a way that delighted him. She loved him unconditionally and marveled at his intelligence, but the social gap they tried to bridge kept them from marrying. Instead Wilson had a breakdown, at almost the same moment as the larger breakdown of American society.

Wilson’s personal crisis and the relative failure of his novel shook his confidence as a writer and made him fear that he would go the way of his father. His parents’ marriage was a union of opposites. His father grew neurotic, solitary, and reflective, spending his happiest hours amid the woods and streams of upstate New York; his mother was gay, social, anti-intellectual, and felt constantly thwarted by her husband’s self-absorption. As if in protest she suddenly went deaf on the way back from a trip to Europe, and she came to think that brilliant people, her husband and son among them, “always had something wrong with them,” a notion that may have contributed to the thesis of one of his best collections, The Wound and the Bow (1941). Largely written during his marriage to McCarthy, the book was anchored by two long biographical essays on Dickens and Kipling, both studies of the effect of childhood trauma on the writer’s creative life.

Wilson himself was an unhappy child, shy, bookish, and socially awkward. All his life he was a disaster as a lecturer or teacher. “He was an uncomfortable man, uncomfortable with himself,” according to his friend Isaiah Berlin. Edna St. Vincent Millay, who epitomized the sexual freedom of the Village, relieved him of his virginity in 1920, when he was 25, and he spent decades making up for lost time. Though never a theorist, he grew as hungry for new ideas as for new sexual encounters. His work became an adventure in crossing boundaries: between national literatures, between the classics and the moderns, between journalism and criticism, literature and history, writing and politics. His formation as a critic was Victorian. An early reading of Taine’s History of English Literature introduced him to the historical approach to literature in terms of time and place, narrative and portraiture. Beginning with his celebrated study of modern writers, Axel’s Castle (1931), he never wavered from this model, even when the new technical criticism made it unfashionable. The great 19th-century critics, including Taine, Michelet, Georg Brandes, and Matthew Arnold, oriented Wilson’s work towards history and biography, but his own mentors were crisp cynics like Shaw and Mencken, who favored witty broadsides over lengthy tomes and brought criticism closer to the common language. Concision became his watchword. From his teacher at Princeton, Christian Gauss, he learned the Coleridgean principle that “every word, every cadence, every detail, should perform a definite function in producing an intense effect.”(Classics and Commercials, 15) And he praised George Saintsbury and Ford Madox Ford “because they found out how to manage a fine and flexible English prose on the rhythms of informal speech rather than on those of literary convention.” (CC, 307-8)

As early as the late 1920s, Wilson worried that criticism was growing too abstract and academic. As literary editor of The New Republic, he groused to one his reviewers, R. P. Blackmur – already a formidable intellectual at 25 – he that “there has lately been such a reaction against the impressionistic criticism of the day before yesterday that there is a tendency entirely to eliminate any intimation of what the work under consideration looks, sounds, feels, or smells like.” (Letters, 170) The New Criticism, a discursive, pedagogical offshoot of modernism, did not yet exist, yet Wilson was already instructing it in the exigencies of literary journalism, insuring that scholastics would dismiss him as an “introductory critic” writing for the uninitiated.

But Wilson’s intellectual ambitions went far beyond book reviewing. He looked to “general ideas” to place each book in a larger context – social, biographical, comparative. Just as he’d turned to French Symbolism as a way of framing his approach to the writers in Axel’s Castle, he relied on a psychoanalytic template for The Wound and the Bow and a Marxist framework in his other major collection of essays, The Triple Thinkers (1938, 1948). By interweaving personalities and ideas, he lent drama to the development of Marxism in To the Finland Station. But he made use of these systems in the most undogmatic manner imaginable, never subsuming his feeling for art or forcing his response to the works themselves. Mining Dickens’s fragment of a memoir, especially his early experience in the blacking factory, and working his way through every one of the novels, he created the modern Dickens out of whole cloth, just as he rescued Kipling from being dismissed as a bluff imperialist. His Dickens was much darker, more haunted, his Kipling more damaged and divided than their contemporaries could have realized. All through his essay, Wilson blends Marx with Freud to make sense of Dickens’ class-consciousness:

His behavior toward Society, in the capitalized sense, was rebarbative to the verge of truculence; he refused to learn its patter and its manners; and his satire on the fashionable world comes to figure more and more prominently in his novels. Dickens is one of the very small group of British intellectuals to whom the opportunity has been offered to be taken up by the governing class and who have actually declined that honor. (WB, 43)

He goes on to show how Dickens, like his admirer Dostoevsky, gained from his “social maladjustment,” for it gave him a privileged vantage point outside or between the social classes. Elsewhere he sees how writers, including some of his Princeton contemporaries, lost their edge when they married rich women and settled back into a life of comfort. Writing in the throes of the Depression, Wilson cherishes his own independent position.

Dabney is a sure guide to every stage of his long career, but never more than in the early 1940s, when Wilson “entered upon several years without a regular job or salary, adrift in a nation at war, where intellectual life was on the back burner.” (277) He had broken with The New Republic over its support for America’s entry into the war; he thought of the owners as British agents. His marriage to McCarthy was tempestuous, perhaps violent on his part, and punctuated by her breakdowns and repeated efforts to leave him. His drinking led to volatile mood swings and towering rages that made him hard to live with, though it never interfered with his writing. They behaved like two prima donnas sharing the same stage or, as David Laskin describes them, “two tyrants under a single roof, always amazed that they had failed to cow or convince the other.” (280) His life was shifting from the city to the house he bought on Cape Cod and eventually to his ancestral stone house in upstate New York, where he would retreat each summer into an earlier world. He began writing for The New Yorker, longer and less timely pieces than those he had done for The New Republic, and watched his generation unravel. “Too many of my friends are insane or dead or Roman Catholic converts,” he wrote a few years later. (PM, 235) He edited Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel (The Last Tycoon) and his uncollected essays (The Crack-Up), which did much to restore Scott’s faded reputation. “So began the flood of retrospection,” says Dabney, “that included portraits of teachers, family, and close literary friends.”
And so began his work on Patriotic Gore (1962), his retrospective account of American writers in the decades after the Civil War. It proved to be an ambitious and idiosyncratic book, perhaps 200 pages too long and missing the narrative arc of To the Finland Station. Centered on figures like Grant and Holmes, the book was a testament to Wilson’s boundless curiosity and his engagement with the American past. Heedless of its subjects’ literary reputation, it was full of revealing things about neglected or forgotten writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kate Chopin, or Mary Chesnut, whom academics would discover only years later.

With the help of much unpublished material – including some 70,000 letters among Wilson’s papers at Yale – Dabney gives a balanced account of even the most contentious episodes of his life, including his marriage to McCarthy and his friendship and acrimonious quarrel with Vladimir Nabokov. They bonded and broke over Russian literature but the ill will went back to Wilson’s dislike of Lolita and perhaps his envy of the fame and wealth that book brought its author, whom Wilson had long sponsored. The immediate occasion was Wilson’s review of Nabokov’s altogether perverse edition of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, but it led Wilson to overreach his own knowledge of Russian, as it led Nabokov, who had admired Wilson’s essays, to denounce his “old-fashioned, naive, and musty method of human-interest criticism.” (406) Here Nabokov unwittingly put his finger on what was strongest about Wilson’s work. Though his mask as a critic was impersonal, judicial, he always reached for the human center of a book, and always, as Isaiah Berlin pointed out, in a personal way. While other critics wrote “just intelligent sentences,” Berlin told Dabney, “everything Wilson wrote was filled with some kind of personal content.” (6) Frank Kermode took note of his ability to proceed from “passionate identification with the work under discussion” to “detached appraisal” and “historical inference, which does not neglect the primary response.” (158)

Dabney is scrupulously fair about Wilson’s life and character but finds it difficult to say anything unkind about Wilson’s work. He defends even his 1947 assault on Kafka which, he points out, “has been said to mark the outer limits of his sensibility.” (The same could be said of his baffling rejection of Lolita.) Dabney suggests that he “was reacting against the Kafka cult” and that the hero’s helplessness “was remote from Wilson’s Protestant heritage and – though anticipated in Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ – not in the American grain.” (345-46) Wilson, though hardly restricted to the native grain, was put off by his sense of Kafka as “a man constitutionally lacking in vitality.” Along with Max Brod, Kafka’s loyal but obtuse friend, he wonders why Kafka was unable to escape the power of his parents. “Why should he have allowed his father so to crush and maim his abilities?” Wilson’s own fortitude, strengthened by Hebrew scripture, kept him working through long periods of illness and unhappiness. Yet only a few years earlier in The Wound and the Bow, he had shown how great writing could be bound up with neurosis, weakness, and early damage. That book included one of the best essays ever written about Hemingway, gauging the terror at the heart of his best work and its dissolution in the bluster and affirmations of his later writing. Wilson dismissed the “politicos” (read: Marxist critics) who accused Hemingway (as they accused Kafka) of “an indifference to society.”

His whole work is a criticism of society: he has responded to every pressure of the moral atmosphere of the time, as it is felt at the roots of human relations, with a sensitivity almost unrivaled. (WB, 215)

This could not only be transferred to Kafka but read as a credo for Wilson’s own form of “human-interest criticism.” For him the critic, like the artist, is a sensitive barometer of the moral weather of society, best measured not by way of abstractions but in the atmosphere of feeling, the minute pressure of actual human relationships.

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