[Marxism] Edmund Wilson

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 2 08:33:13 MDT 2005


MISSIONARY
Edmund Wilson and American culture.
by LOUIS MENAND
New Yorker Magazine Issue of 2005-08-08 and 15
Posted 2005-08-01

Edmund Wilson disliked being called a critic. He thought of himself as a 
journalist, and nearly all his work was done for commercial magazines, 
principally Vanity Fair, in the nineteen-twenties; The New Republic, in the 
nineteen-twenties and thirties; The New Yorker, beginning in the 
nineteen-forties; and The New York Review of Books, in the 
nineteen-sixties. Most of his books were put together from pieces that had 
been written to meet journalistic occasions. He was exceptionally well 
read: he had had a first-class education in English, French, and Italian 
literature at Princeton, from which he graduated in 1916, and he kept 
adding languages all his life. He learned to read German, Russian, and 
Hebrew; when he died, in 1972, he was working on Hungarian. He was also an 
extremely fast and an extremely clear writer, talents that, in the magazine 
business, are prized above many others, and that would have made up for a 
number of shortcomings if he had had shortcomings to make up for. These 
strengths, along with an ingrained indifference to material comforts, 
allowed him, from almost the beginning of his career, to write about only 
the subjects he wanted to write about.

Wilson had no interest in criticism as such. He wrote a few essays about 
the critical literature that had influenced him—Marxist and historical 
interpretation—but he paid little attention to the criticism being written 
by his contemporaries unless they were good writers themselves, in which 
case he read their criticism as a form of literature, which is how he 
preferred to read everything. He detested what he called “treatise-type” 
books—theoretical or social-scientific works—and avoided them, unless, 
again, they seemed to him to have literary or imaginative power. He read 
Marx but not Weber; he read Orwell but not Hannah Arendt. It was his 
practice, when he took up an author, to read the whole shelf: books, 
uncollected pieces, biographies, correspondence. When he lost patience with 
a book, he skipped around, and what he ignored he ignored without shame. “I 
have been bored by Hispanophiles,” he wrote in The New Yorker in 1965, “and 
I have also been bored by everything, with the exception of Spanish 
painting, that I have ever known about Spain. I have made a point of 
learning no Spanish, and I have never got through ‘Don Quixote.’ ” Though 
he wrote well-known essays on Dickens and on Henry James, he was 
uninterested in most Victorian fiction and didn’t bother to finish 
“Middlemarch.” He had a good knowledge of the theatre (he wrote a number of 
plays, and his first wife, Mary Blair, was in the Provincetown Players, 
Eugene O’Neill’s company); he had a selective knowledge of art, a very 
selective knowledge of classical music, and virtually no knowledge of the 
movies. He loathed the radio.

“A history of man’s ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions 
which have shaped them”: this was the way Wilson described his ambition in 
his first major book, “Axel’s Castle,” in 1931 (the words appear in a 
dedication to his Princeton mentor Christian Gauss), and he was always 
keenly conscious of the conditions that had shaped his own ideas and 
imaginings. He liked to say that he was a man of the nineteenth century —he 
was born in 1895, in Red Bank, New Jersey—and to explain that his values 
and assumptions, his whole understanding of literary and intellectual life, 
were products of a particular moment. Because “Axel’s Castle” has served 
many readers as a guide to the work of Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Valéry, Proust, 
and Stein, the book’s six subjects, it is natural to associate Wilson with 
the literary modernism that flourished between 1910 and 1930. This is a 
fundamental misapprehension. Wilson was not a modernist (a term he 
despised), as the conventional style of his own poetry and fiction makes 
plain. He admired the writers he treated in “Axel’s Castle”— Joyce and 
Proust especially—but he believed that they were going down a path of 
introversion and art-for-art’s-sake, an honorable path but a wrong one, and 
his hope in writing about them was that the scope and sophistication of 
their achievement would be an inspiration for the more socially engaged 
American writing he envisioned for the decades to come. Wilson was not 
shaped by European modernism; he enlisted European modernism in a mission 
already mounted—the mission to deprovincialize American culture.

Wilson came out of the Progressive era. His father was the New Jersey state 
attorney general under Governor Woodrow Wilson; before his career was 
wrecked by what was then called neurasthenia (meaning, essentially, male 
hysteria), he made a name for himself by cleaning up the rackets in 
Atlantic City. At Princeton, Wilson was taught about the necessary virtue 
of cosmopolitanism by Gauss, a professor of Romance languages and, later, a 
dean, who had known Wilde, and who had a dog called Baudelaire. When the 
United States entered the war, Wilson enlisted and served in Europe as a 
wound-dresser in Army hospitals, an experience, he later said, that knocked 
any social élitism or sense of privilege out of him forever. In 1920, he 
began his journalistic career, with a job at Vanity Fair, followed, soon 
afterward, by a position at the magazine that was born of Progressivism, 
The New Republic, where he was an editor, off and on, for many years, and 
where the essays in “Axel’s Castle” first appeared. By then, Wilson had 
firmly in his sights the twin enemies of every Progressive intellectual: 
unregulated business and the genteel tradition. His vicars were not Proust 
and Eliot; they were H. L. Mencken and George Bernard Shaw, scourges of 
bourgeois smugness and Philistinism. Wilson hated American chauvinism and 
gentility, and everything he associated with them—prudery, pedantry, 
commercialism, and militarism. That hatred is the starch in his prose.

full: http://www.newyorker.com/critics/atlarge/articles/050808crat_atlarge

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