• Last week Mary McCarthy, this week her ex-husband: I’ve been perusing two new Library of America volumes devoted to the essays of Edmund Wilson, who is now remembered chiefly by literary historians and readers of a more-than-certain age but once was America’s best-known literary critic. Between them, Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920’s and 30’s and Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930’s and 40’s contain all of Wilson’s collected literary articles from the first half of his career. Additional volumes are in the pipeline, but these two bring together the bulk of Wilson’s most significant literary criticism in a convenient and attractive format not too far removed from that of the elegant little crown octavo volumes he favored for his essay collections.
I have no doubt that Wilson would have been pleased by these two volumes, for the Library of America was his idea, more or less, and for the most part it has been executed along the lines he had in mind when he envisioned a publishing venture devoted to “bringing out in a complete and compact form the principal American classics.” Yet I wonder how widely they will be read, and I’m not sure that Wilson’s memory will be served best by republishing his original collections in toto, as the Library of America apparently plans to do. Not only did he spend a fair amount of time and energy reviewing books that are no longer of any great interest today, but his work almost always becomes silly, even squalid, whenever it strays from the narrow path of art. In his journals, for instance, he preserved for posterity an enervatingly complete record of his senile couplings, while his political views were left-wing in all the most tiresome ways. Though deeply disillusioned by Stalin, Wilson thereafter embraced the idiot notion of moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States; on one infamous occasion he compared their relationship to that between a pair of hungry sea slugs bent on mutual engorgement.
Fortunately, these two volumes mostly give us the critic to whose infectious gusto I and so many other readers of my generation owe an all but endless debt. Even when he was most spectacularly wrong, he rarely failed to stimulate, and the plain-spoken prose and hard-headed common sense of his best criticism still has a tonic effect:
John O’Hara subjects to a Proustian scrutiny the tight-knotted social web of a large Pennsylvania town, the potpourri of New York night-life in the twenties, the nondescript fringes of Hollywood. In all this he has explored for the first time from his peculiar semi-snobbish point of view a good deal of interesting territory: the relations between Catholics and Protestants, the relations between college men and non-college men, the relations between the underworld and “legitimate” business, the ratings of café society; and to read him on a fashionable bar or the Gibbsville country club is to be shown on the screen of a fluoroscope gradations of social prestige of which one had not before been aware.
Has there ever been a critic who was better at charging such summary passages as these with the force and selectivity that makes them so perennially readable? Or who had a surer grasp of the indispensable critical skill of making his readers want to go out and buy the books he praised? It was The Shores of Light, The Wound and the Bow and Classics and Commercials, all contained in the Library of America’s first two Wilson volumes, that first inspired me to read O’Hara, Max Beerbohm, Cyril Connolly, Dr. Johnson, the later Kipling, Ring Lardner, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, and Thornton Wilder, and it is still possible to read Wilson on these and many other writers with pleasure and profit.
Those already closely familiar with Wilson’s work will be pleased to see that Lewis Dabney, the editor of this series, also plans to include a selection of reviews that didn’t make it into any of his books. These two volumes, for instance, contain Wilson’s hitherto uncollected thoughts on Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man, William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf, Dawn Powell’s My Home Is Far Away, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, plus the best essay Wilson ever wrote on H.L. Mencken. All these pieces are worth reading, and it is a puzzlement why he didn’t think them worth collecting.