Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Edmund Wilson got it right, most of the time

[The recent discussions about literary blogging as potentially a form of popular literary criticism have got me thinking about precedents for this sort of thing. In our own era, the best-known semi-popular critic is Louis Menand, but even he is rather rarefied. However, there are in fact numerous models available to us for consideration. Some are academics (see my recent entry on Northrop Frye), but others are professional journalists with no specialized training in literature. One of the latter is Edmund Wilson.]

Edmund Wilson was one of the great journalistic literary critics of the 20th century. He was born in New Jersey in 1895, went to Princeton, and then enlisted in the Army during World War I. When he came back he started a career that would keep him writing reviews, criticism, and plays for more than forty years.

I've been reading through a number of his essays in The Portable Edmund Wilson, and I'm struck by how often his readings of the modern writers continue to be salient today. In his reviews of contemporary writers he seems to have had a clear vision of what was and what wasn't important. He amply praised James Joyce's radical Ulysses, though that did not stop him from praising and writing on Dickens on many occasions (an account of one essay -- not the essay itself -- is at the Atlantic). He was also highly critical of T.S. Eliot, for instance, for the latter's conversion to Anglicanism in 1928. Wilson knows where Eliot is coming from, and rejects the measure nevertheless:

The answer to Mr. Eliot's assertion that 'it is doubtful whether civilization can endure without religion' is that we have got to make it endure. Nobody will pretend that this is going to be easy; but it can hardly be any more difficult than persuading oneself that the leadership of the future will be supplied by the Church of England or by the Roman Catholic Church or by any church whatsoever. . . . [T]o argue . . . that, because our society at the present time is badly off without religion, we should make an heroic effort to swallow medieval theology, seems to me utterly futile as well as fundamentally dishonest.

Wilson is responding to Eliot's general sense that western civilization was in decline -- a common perception of the time, after the devestation of World War I and the cynical capitalism of the 1920s. More specifically, Eliot had claimed that liberalism, as a weak ideology, was insufficient to counter the ideologies of fascism or communism (Eliot would only spell this out directly in The Idea of a Christian Society, which would be published a decade later). The answer for Eliot (raised a Unitarian) was to 'return' to the Church of England. Wilson's response to Eliot: baloney. It is not the singularity of an ideology (i.e., the intoxicating logic of fascism, or the hierarchy of a Church) that makes it work, it is the willpower of the people who believe in it. Democracy only dies if we let it. As Wilson puts it: "we have got to make it endure."

Wilson loved literature and had a profound respect for the writerly vocation. But he was highly aware that literary criticism cannot be performed in a vacuum, without reference to the social and political problems of the day. During the 1930s he wrote his share of book reviews for The New Yorker. But he also traveled around the country and wrote first-hand journalism on what was happening to the American worker during the country's worst depression. Wilson was generally a leftist in his political orientation, but in 1940 he distanced himself from Stalinism after seeing firsthand the atmosphere of fear and paranoia the totalitarian Soviet regime was creating.

Wilson was a little off on Edna St. Vincent Millay, and on women writers in general. He does praise Millay lavishly, and is significantly ahead of the curve in doing so; after her initial notoriety in the 1910s and 20s, Millay was considered a second-rate writer until only very recently. But Wilson's 1950 essay on Millay in The Portable Edmund Wilson jumbles his personal attraction to Millay with literary praise. He reveals directly that he had a pretty serious crush on Millay in her early New York days. He routinely describes the effect of her reading her poetry aloud with references to her clothes, hair, and complexion as if those were part of her genius. It's unfortunate, as it sullies the contemporary reader's sense of Wilson's reliability (one way to sort it out might be to read his take on writers like Gertrude Stein, which I will endeavor to do).

Normally, however, his judgment is excellent.