The Indecent Edmund Wilson

I am (very slowly) making my way through the Library of America’s two-volume collection of works by Edmund Wilson, so I was at least curious to see the essay on Wilson by Algis Valiunas in the Claremont Review of Books. Sure, it’s published by a conservative think tank that spends a lot of time thinking about missles, but there has to be an oasis of high-minded lit crit somewhere in its pages, yes?

Well, first comes the cheap shot at genre writing:

What is not such a good thing is the Library’s tasteless inclusion, in the name of postmodern expansiveness, of such trivia and grotesquery as the works of George S. Kaufman, H.P. Lovecraft, and James M. Cain, all of which Wilson dismissed as low, wretched stuff, bound to offend a palate of any discrimination.

But even if we take Valiunas’ word that Wilson did dismiss those writers, the remainder of the essay is a creaky attempt to point out Wilson’s awkward embrace of Marxism to reach the assertion that Wilson was a failed moral writer—that his disinterest in Christianity and his study of Communism damns him (even if he later renounced Communism). Valiunas ultimately works himself into a lather, driving in the final stake by noting Wilson’s alcoholism and infidelities:

The poet Delmore Schwartz paid tribute in a 1942 essay to Wilson’s “fundamental decency,” a phrase that would “do very well if it reminds the reader of the heroes of Henry James,” and a quality that was “a living remnant perhaps of Christianity.” Both Henry James and Jesus Christ would frown at the comparison.

It’s entertaining, if nothing else, to see a critic use an ideological filter to accuse somebody of being a foolish ideologue. To clear my head, I went to Alex Ross‘ excellent 2003 New Yorker piece on To the Finland Station. Ross’ essay captures the nuances of what was running through Wilson’s mind when he was studying Soviet Russia:

What is most characteristic in American criticism is something that Wilson had plenty of. He was a literalist and a skeptic. He believed, when he started his book, that Marx and Engels were the philosophes of a second Enlightenment. The notion appealed to him because he himself was, in many respects, a man of the eighteenth century (and liked to say so in later life). The pose of seeing through other people’s fancy phrases was part of this persona. Empiricism and common sense—Hume and Johnson, the reporter and the critic—were all the philosophy that Wilson required. What he most admired about Marxism was the practical side: people were suffering under the conditions of industrial capitalism, and something needed to be done for them. He thought of the theory as simply an interesting example of the use of ideas as a spur to action.

George Scialabba has an assessment of Edmund Wilson, whose essays and criticism are now available in a twovolume Library of America set, up at the Nation’s Web site. Wilson’s statement about the critic’s responsibilities is at once simple as a pile of rocks and intimidating as Everest:

A reviewer should be more or less familiar, or be ready to familiarize himself, with the past work of every important writer he deals with and be able to write about an author’s new book in the light of his general development and intention. He should also be able to see the author in relation to the national literature as a whole and the national literature in relation to other literatures.