The Unquiet American
A review of Edmund Wilson:
A Life in Literature, by Lewis M. Dabney
In May 1945, Edmund Wilson called upon George
Santayana at the Hospital of the Blue Nuns in Rome. The meeting did not
begin well. Before leaving America earlier that year to report on the "wreckage"
of the war for The New Yorker, Wilson had received an inscribed
copy of the first volume of Santayana's memoir Persons and Places;
his review of the second volume appeared in America while he was in Europe.
But the Spanish-born philosopher, who had left America in 1912 after almost
four decades in the Boston area, appeared not to know who Wilson was.
Wilson was, as he confessed in Europe Without
Baedeker (1948), initially "nonplussed." A friend and often mentor
to Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos, Wilson was
a well-known writer at the time. He had introduced a generation of Americans
to the writers of European modernism, describing in Axel's Castle
(1931) how Joyce, Eliot, Proust, Yeats, and Valéry had broken down
the "walls of the present" and uncovered the "untried, unsuspected possibilities
of human thought and art." Traveling to Southern mining towns and New England
mills, he had described for readers of The New Republic the effects
of the Depression—suicide, poverty, malnutrition, and the lure of militant
socialism—on the most vulnerable Americans. In To the Finland Station
(1940) he had provided what remains the most accessible account of the
tradition of radical thinkers in modern Europe seeking to interpret and
Wilson took Santayana's ignorance of him with
good grace. He had visited London just before Italy, and it may be that
after his encounters with upper-class British people, whom he thought were
unreconciled to the postwar diminishment of Britain, Wilson could only
find refreshing Santayana's modesty—an attitude which, Wilson wrote, is
"rather rare with the literary and the learned," and which is "simply that
of a man in the world who was trying to make some sense of it as you were."
And Wilson, who was born in 1895 in Red Bank, New Jersey, seems also to
have cherished the austere Santayana for his connection to the American
past. Born in 1863, Santayana had known, however briefly, an American life
not shaped by industrial capitalism, or dominated by big business and corrupt
party machines—a pre-modern America, which Wilson revered, even romanticized,
and which he saw as symbolized by his old stone family house at Talcottville
in upstate New York.
In 1955, Wilson would read The Last Puritan
(1935) and remark on the resemblance between his friends at Princeton and
Santayana's hero, who struggles to reconcile his genteel idealism with
the aggressively commercial culture of post–Civil War America. Wilson,
who partly blamed this culture for the mental instability of his father,
a distinguished lawyer, knew that Santayana in Europe was an exile from
the new America, which he had left after an unsatisfactory academic career
at Harvard, where he claimed President Eliot had turned education into
preparation for "service in the world of business."
But now the new America was, unexpectedly,
the supreme power in the world; and meeting in a Europe ravaged by war,
Wilson and Santayana inevitably discussed the changes within the United
States. Sitting on a chaise longue in his bare, dark room, with a blanket
over his legs, Santayana spoke of the "great role" in world affairs that
America was called upon to play—a role he would regard with skepticism
in his last book, Dominations and Powers (1952), the manuscript
of which Wilson saw sitting on a table in Santayana's room.
Slightly unsettled by the "spooky" atmosphere
of the convent and the dark room, Wilson wondered about Santayana's solitude,
and then concluded:
I do not imagine he is troubled by
the thought of death or that it even impinges as a shadow.... Nor is he
really alone in the sense that the ordinary person would be. He is still
in the world of men, conversing with them through reading and writing....
While others, in these years of the war, have been shaken by the downfall
of moralities or have shuddered under the impact of disaster, while they
have been following the conflict with excitement, his glass has scarcely
clouded or brightened; but the intelligence that has persisted in him has
been that of the civilized human race—so how can he be lonely or old? He
still loves to share in its thoughts, to try on its views. He has made
it his business to extend himself into every kind of human consciousness
with which he can establish contact, and he reposes on his shabby chaise
longue like a monad in the universal mind.
Writing about the solitary but self-contained
Santayana in 1945, Wilson seems to be addressing himself as much as his
readers. He was fifty years old then, and, as Lewis Dabney describes in
his comprehensive and engaging biography, "at loose ends in his career,"
resembling in "the isolation of the Cape" (where Wilson owned a house in
Wellfleet) the "Philoctetes of Sophocles' play, the alienated possessor
of a magical instrument."
As Dabney describes it, Wilson had never had
much money. The foundations, awards, grants, fellowships, academic positions,
and other forms of cultural philanthropy that now keep many American intellectuals
solvent developed too late for Wilson—in Upstate (1971), his record
of life in Talcottville, he remarks on the postwar "cultural explosion"
in the country sparked off by "federal handouts and foundation grants."
His only commercial success was Memoirs of Hecate County (1946),
a collection of interlinked stories. Before that, he had struggled to make
a living through his books and by writing for Vanity Fair, The
New Republic, and The New Yorker.
Wilson had been less preoccupied in the Twenties
and Thirties with money than with the question "whether it is possible,"
as he wrote in Axel's Castle, "to make a practical success of human
society." His optimism about modernism and Marxism derived from the Progressive-era
belief that human beings could use art and reason to change or transcend
their unsatisfactory circumstances. In 1931, Wilson had scolded Allen Tate
for refusing to believe in progress, "the faith on which my own ideas are
based." "I can't see," Wilson wrote, "that people who don't think so and
are not religious are ever able to give life any meaning at all." In 1940,
he had asserted that "all our intellectual activity, in whatever field
it takes place, is an attempt to give a meaning to our experience."
But meaning was hard to find in 1945. Wilson's
tumultuous marriage to Mary McCarthy had just ended. Many of his friends,
including Scott Fitzgerald, whom he had first met at Princeton, had died.
His faith in the redemptive power of reason and art was challenged not
only by the successive disasters of the Depression and the two world wars
but also by what he identified as the "two great enemies of literary talent
in our time: Hollywood and Henry Luce."
John Updike expressed an influential view
of Wilson's later career when, reviewing the journals, he wrote that after
the Thirties Wilson chose to "hole up in Wellfleet and Talcottville and
relinquish commentary on the present American scene," renouncing "the hope
of a civilized intelligence to identify itself with America." Reviewing
Patriotic Gore (1962), Wilson's study of the literature of the Civil War,
Norman Podhoretz claimed that while Wilson is "still functioning as a first-rate
intellect" he is "no longer able to do so without the help of isolation
and pessimism." "From now on," Podhoretz declared, "we shall have to look
elsewhere for the kind of guidance that it was once his particular glory
Certainly, Wilson's political views looked
extreme at a time when America seemed to be leading a moral and ideological
crusade against Soviet communism. He had served in the First World War
as a private in the hospital corps in France; and his experience of the
cruelty of war and the mendacity of politicians had bred in Wilson an instinctive
distrust of the high-minded aims offered by warring parties. He had also
challenged the British and American claim to represent civilization in
the Second World War by pointing to the alliance with Stalin, the destruction
from the air of German cities, and the atomic bombing of Japan. In Patriotic
Gore Wilson attacked the moral rhetoric of the Unionists in the Civil War,
and blamed it for the later national conviction that America's cause is
always just: "Whenever we engage in a war or move in on some other country
it is always to liberate somebody."
Wilson no longer admired the human ability
to change history; the defeat of his radical hopes and the standoff between
the American and Soviet military machines had made him particularly alert
to the human capacity for deception and self-deception. He now saw the
lust for expansion and power as explaining much of modern European and
American history. "The wars fought by human beings," Wilson asserted in
his introduction to Patriotic Gore, "are stimulated as a rule primarily
by the same instincts as the voracity of a sea slug," even though "man
has succeeded in cultivating enough of what he calls 'morality' and 'reason'
to justify what he is doing in terms of what he calls 'virtue' and 'civilization.'"
Writing a preface to a new edition of Europe Without Baedeker during
the Vietnam War, Wilson claimed that "our talk about bringing to backward
peoples the processes of democratic government and of defending the 'free
world' is as much an exploit of Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy as anything ever
perpetrated by the English."
By the 1950s Wilson was a national cultural
institution, and his apparently bitter commentaries on the American scene
dismayed even many of his admirers, such as Alfred Kazin. But they were
of a piece with his background and education—a perspective Kazin himself
had described, in On Native Grounds (1942), as "deeply anticapitalist,
with a distaste for the values and exhibitions of an acquisitive society
that went back to a family tradition of scholarship and cultivation, of
gentlemen's politics and community."
"We are all," Wilson once wrote to a contemporary
of his, the writer Louise Bogan, "more or less in a position of having
been brought up in one kind of world and having to adjust muscles, socially,
sexually, morally, etc., to another which is itself in a state of flux."
Wilson seems to have made the adjustments without abandoning the ethical
and spiritual commitments of his superseded world; it is what gave him
his extraordinarily cohesive sensibility, and made him appear so rooted,
confident, and therefore, in postwar America, increasingly rare.
Wilson knew of the risks and temptations an
increasingly affluent society posed to writers and intellectuals; and he
believed that many in his own generation had succumbed. Scott Fitzgerald,
he wrote to Lionel Trilling in 1953, "was early bedazzled by the plutocratic
society of St. Paul and Chicago and could never quite get over the idea
that serious literature did not provide a real, or a sufficient career."
In an essay about his father in 1956, Wilson wrote:
In repudiating the materialism and
the priggishness of the period in which we were born, we thought we should
have a free hand to refashion American life as well as have more fun than
our American fathers. But, we, too, have had our casualties. Too many of
my friends are insane or dead or Roman Catholic converts—and some of these
were among the most gifted; two have committed suicide.
Devoted to the life of the mind, Wilson couldn't
see it flourishing in the isolation of Axel's Castle, the academic
ivory tower, or the research laboratory. Instead he saw intellectual life
as shaping and being shaped by the political and moral health of society
at large. This belief and the related search for what Kazin called "a new
spiritual order"—"a reaching not frantic or explicitly political, but based
upon a deeply ingrown alienation from the culture and prizes of capitalism"—made
Wilson more than a literary critic, although he wrote most often about
Wilson preferred to call himself a "writer
and journalist." The description concealed the range and depth of his interests,
and his polyglot learning. But it served to highlight his contemporary
aims and to state his distance from the kind of monastic, highly specialized
study of literature that fostered, as he claimed in an essay on A.E. Housman,
arrogance and meanness.
It was his engagement with the world beyond
texts that gave Wilson's criticism such clarity and narrative power—and
this is what especially struck me when I first read his books in India
in the late 1980s. For someone like myself, who knew little of the world
apart from his own lowly position within it, and for whom books were primarily
a mode of escape, Wilson's insistence on relating literature to the urgent
questions of life—how it has been lived, how it can or should be lived—came
as a revelation and a surprise.
Compared to him, most literary critics I had
been directed to by my semi-colonial education appeared to be patrician
connoisseurs, creating or up- holding the canons of taste suitable to rich
imperial societies. To read them was usually to be put in one's place.
It was bracing then to encounter Wilson, and his often blunt take on what
to me and others in the former colonies were figures of tremendous political
and literary authority: for instance, T.S. Eliot, whose "utterances on
political, social, and theological questions" Wilson dismissed as "utter
twaddle," or Winston Churchill, whom Wilson thought had "always lived more
or less in an historical novel for boys just as Theodore Roosevelt did."
Wilson's own outlook seemed unimpaired by
the assumptions of his triumphant society. Indeed, his Americanness manifested
itself to me as a democratic curiosity and temperament. He was equally
interested in Michelet, a murder trial, and the Ziegfeld Follies. His tone
suggested not so much an intimidatingly learned and well-connected writer
as a "man in the world who was trying to make sense of it as you were."
Wilson harnessed all his obviously great learning
and powers of explication and summary to bring writers celebrated mainly
for their style into the flow of history. His essay on Flaubert's Sentimental
Education discussed the effect of the failure of the 1848 revolution upon
the apparently apolitical and obsessive seeker of le mot juste. Rescuing
Chekhov from the English fog through which Virginia Woolf saw him, Wilson
showed how the stories of serfs, peasants, landowners, engineers, and officials
illuminated the social world of pre-revolutionary Russia.
His writings on literature not only stayed
clear of academic theory and mere humanistic generalities; they followed
no conventional aesthetic norms of "beauty" or "fine writing." Wilson's
own prose was flexible, clear, and resonant—perfectly suited for exposition
and analysis, if not, as the overexplicit detailing of landscape and sex
in his journals and fiction hinted, for evocation. He was unimpressed by
the kind of linguistic brilliance which, as he wrote about Nabokov's Ada,
"aims to dazzle, but which cannot but be dull"; and he rarely paused in
his reviews to savor individual sentences or phrases. "The purely impressionist
critic," he claimed, "approaches the whole of literature as an exhibit
of belletristic jewels, and he can only write a rhapsodic catalogue."
Wilson had a keen eye for individual prose
styles, but he tended to move quickly beyond them to their geographical
and historical conditions of being. In Patriotic Gore, he tried
to explain why Hawthorne and Poe often wrote dense prose:
In the case of all these writers,
the relative lack of movement is quite in keeping with the tempo of secluded
lives, of men in a position to live by themselves, usually in the country,
to write about country manners which they try to think traditional and
stable; to idealize historical episodes; to weave fantasies out of their
dreams; to reflect upon human life, upon man's relation to Nature, to God
and the Universe; to speculate philosophically or euphorically, to burst
into impetuous prophecy on the meaning and promise of the United States.
While reviewing a book, Wilson usually attempted
to figure out a whole sensibility and world—to show its author as "a real
man dealing with the real world at a definite moment of time." This often
made him tolerate what by high bourgeois standards might seem awkward or
bad writing. Tough on Somerset Maugham's clichés, Wilson could say
this of Theodore Dreiser in 1932: "The style is always collapsing, but
the man behind it remains sound."
Anything too morbid or unpleasant in a writer's
sensibility put him off. He did not warm to the Central European pessimism
of Kafka, disliked Kipling for his worship of power, and found Baudelaire's
personality "unsympathetic and rather uninteresting." His indifference
to abstract ideas kept Wilson from appreciating such contemporaries of
his as Thomas Mann, Karl Jaspers, and Hannah Arendt. And he was confident
enough in the soundness of his own sensibility to hector his literary correspondents
about mistakes he believed they had made. (To George Orwell: "I see that
you persist in the error that I tried to dispel when I saw you in London:
that the various kinds of insects in America are indiscriminately known
Still, the dominant tone of his critical writings,
always surprising in a writer apparently so self-assured, is one of humility.
Meticulously charting the course of a narrative or thought, Wilson made
the renunciation of personal ego a literary virtue. This helped give conviction
to his harshest assessments, which he usually expressed in his letters.
He told V.S. Pritchett that he could not take Graham Greene very seriously;
and he had a low opinion of Archibald MacLeish, Robert Frost, and Carl
Sandburg. If Wilson's summary judgments on canonical or celebrated figures
often persuade, it is largely because they seem untainted by personal insecurity,
resentment, or the whiff of self-aggrandizement that lingers, for instance,
in Nabokov's dismissals of Thomas Mann and Pasternak.
Wilson rarely wrote at length about postwar
American writers, even the ones he liked: Robert Lowell, John Berryman,
James Baldwin, and Randall Jarrell. By the Fifties he seemed to have felt
he had paid his dues to American literature. Nor did his later indifference
to it hinder Wilson from enjoying, after 1945, what Dabney rightly calls
"a second flowering."
"From the mid-1940s until the mid-1960s,"
Dabney says in summary, "Wilson explored non-Christian faiths as well as
minority cultures." He wrote about the discovery of the first- or second-century-BCE
manuscripts that came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. He inquired
into the history of the Iroquois Indians in upstate New York; he became
an expert on the French literature of Négritude, with a special
liking for the poetry of the Martiniquan Aimé Césaire.
Wilson never lost his political instincts,
even when absorbed by new discoveries in Haiti, Israel, French Canada,
and Hungary. In 1949, the energy and confidence of the Haitians made him
wonder about the "wretched life we have made for the Negroes in the States."
In 1954, more than a decade before Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank,
Wilson claimed that "the real unconfessed preoccupation in Israel...is
a kind of imperialistic drive to expand in a territorial way and become
a power in the Middle East."
In the Fifties, he became, as he wrote to
a friend, "obsessed with minorities." Unsympathetic to Christianity (in
1945, Wilson abruptly departed an audience with Pope Pius XII at the Vatican,
exclaiming loudly, "Let's get out of here, for God's sake!"), he observed
with fascination, even reverence, the religious ceremonies and rituals
of the Zuni Indians and the Iroquois. These new interests partly realized
Wilson's belief that "the experience of mankind on earth is always changing
as man develops and has to deal with new combinations of elements; and
the writer who is anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always
find expression for something that has never yet been expressed, must master
a new set of phenomena.... With each such victory of the human intellect,
we experience a deep satisfaction; we have been cured of some ache of disorder,
relieved of some oppressive burden of uncomprehended events."
But Wilson wasn't just interested in collecting
colorfully arcane facts about minority cultures in exotic places. Living
in Talcottville in the late Fifties, he got involved with the legal affairs
of the Iroquois Indians, who were protesting a dam project that threatened
to submerge their reservation. (Wilson's efforts piqued President Kennedy's
interest in the dam, but construction went ahead anyway.) As he wrote to
Compton McKenzie, who had published a novel critical of missile sites being
planted in Scotland, the grinding down of small communities by monolithic,
homogenizing states was "typical of a kind of thing that has been going
on all over the world."
Wilson's concern for older or alternative
modes of being—which anticipates a major theme of the counterculture of
the Sixties—seems to have flowed out of his growing distrust of what he
denounced in Upstate as "the policies of the lying governments; the inevitable
standardization of what we assume to be 'exotic' and 'backward' peoples;
the stupidity of applied ideologies; the competition of 'success' and 'status.'"
Though a man of the Enlightenment, Wilson
seems to have known how the all-encompassing political and economic systems
of the modern world could diminish the life of the mind and spirit. Writing
in 1923 to John Peale Bishop, he praised Thoreau's and Emerson's stress
on individual virtue and self-reliance, which he thought was especially
valuable at a time when the "landslide of American nationalism had already
begun." As early as 1932, he feared that, as he wrote to Allen Tate, "the
United States will develop into a great imperialistic power with all its
artists, critics, and philosophers as ineffective and as easily extinguished
as the German ones were in 1914."
Wilson's mood could only darken during the
years of the cold war, especially after his troubles with the Internal
Revenue Service (he neglected to pay any income tax between 1946 and 1955).
His country had changed, mostly, he felt, for the worse. Writing in 1946
from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Elena Mumm Thornton, a Russian-German
woman whom he married in December of that year, Wilson had described how
"at night, the great 'Rotunda' and colonnaded quadrangle imposes itself
as a realized Jeffersonian dream of liberal learning and classical republicanism."
"Nothing I have seen in this country," Wilson wrote, "has moved me so much
for years." A decade later, he confessed to Dos Passos that "I find—with
a certain surprise—that I am rather out of tune with the US. It has suddenly
come over me that, whatever you are doing, functioning in America is a
terrible struggle —in the long run, it wears you out."
And yet Wilson seems never to have seriously
considered expatriation to Europe. He continued to live in the United States,
if with a deepening sense of exhaustion and melancholy— something very
palpable in Wilson's journals of the Fifties and Sixties, even in the detailed
accounts of an active social and sexual life that Dabney often seems to
embellish redundantly in his biography. Wilson felt his age, and, increasingly,
the "swift transience of everything in the United States." "There's hardly
a house in New York where I ever lived or went in my youth that is still
even standing now!" he wrote.
It was in Talcottville that Wilson still
felt linked to the America of his youth. In spite of a weak heart, he kept
up his work, attacking academic pedantry, learning Hungarian, and supervising
the publication of his books. Faulting Housman for condemning his remarkable
mind to "duties which prevent it from rising to its full height," Wilson
had praised Heine: "There is in his world an exhilaration of adventure—in
travel, in love, in philosophy, in literature, in politics." This was what
Wilson wanted from both books and life. His perennially renewable romanticism
occasionally made Wilson, as Dabney records, an unfaithful husband and
an indifferent father. It also kept him from the complacencies and pieties
of a grand old age; and it seems to have allayed the despair he felt in
his final years.
The first sentence of Upstate, the
last book he published before his death in 1972, is: "I sit here in this
old house alone." But he was no more solitary than the Spanish-American
philosopher he had met in a convent in Rome more than two decades previously.
Wilson, too, had "made it his business to extend himself into every kind
of human consciousness with which he can establish contact." And in the
isolation of his old stone house, most of his friends dead or dying, Wilson
remained "still in the world of men, conversing with them through reading
"He is so echt American," Frank Kermode
once wrote, mildly complaining that Wilson had created a "patrician mythology"
("Red Bank, Princeton, houses, friends, heroes such as H.L. Mencken and
John Jay Chapman") that was "rather like Yeats's."
But Wilson's own identification with America
was no simple thing. Though unhappy about many aspects of modern American
life, Wilson did not wish to resurrect the past—a parochial fantasy that
he thought T.S. Eliot and some Southern intellectuals indulged in, denying
the fact that "all humanity was in the same boat." He looked ahead, if
often too romantically, to the "probabilities of the future." He even refused
to accept his share of the glory of the American literary renaissance of
the Twenties, preferring to see it as "the beginnings of the sometimes
all too conscious American literary self-glorification which is a part
of our American imperialism."
"A critic of his country's mythology," Dabney
suggests, "may be the most orthodox of patriots." But there is also a larger
sense in which Wilson fulfilled the particular obligation that befell American
intellectuals in the twentieth century. "To be an American," Santayana
wrote in 1922, "is of itself almost a moral condition, an education, and
a career." This was never truer than in the century when America broke
free of its genteel traditions, and emerged, after two world wars, as the
richest and most powerful country in history.
With his vivid sense of the past, his active
participation in the present, and his quest for a new order, Wilson not
only managed, in the first half of his life, to create one of the most
wide-ranging and clear-eyed records of this great American transformation—what
makes many of his books likely to endure, and to be valued as both personal
and social history. Enlarging his curiosity and sympathy beyond the modern
West, Wilson also showed how writers and intellectuals of an extraordinarily
successful society may have to "break down the walls of the present"; how
they may have to move beyond the bitter nostalgia and radical optimism
of their native ideologies in order to seek "the untried, unsuspected possibilities
of human thought and art."