Commentary Magazine

Classics and Commercials, and The Little Blue Light, by Edmund Wilson

American Humanist

Classics and Commercials.
by Edmund Wilson.
Farrar, Straus. 544 pp. $5.00.

The Little Blue Light.
by Edmund Wilson.
Farrar, Straus. 163 pp. $2.75.


“He has a genuine classical taste, he is not often influenced by fads, and he reads, and writes about what he reads, because he honestly enjoys doing so. Literature is for him not a pretext for an impressive article but a strong taste which he cannot help indulging and which he likes to talk about.” These are words that Edmund Wilson applies to Cyril Connolly in one of the essays in Classics and Commercials. I do not know just how accurately this description fits Connolly, but it does state very well the qualities of learning, unpretentiousness, and love of letters that have made Edmund Wilson America’s foremost literary critic.

There are, it would seem, two main kinds of criticism. The first is an ally (occasionally a betrayer) rather than a child of literature, and ranges from the imaginative to the academic. On the one hand, it leads to rhetorical, historical, and philological scholarship, which can only be appreciated after a careful reading of the text itself, and from which we learn things about the text that we were incapable of seeing for ourselves. On the other hand, it leads to a commentary that can stand, and is usually read, independently of the text, for its moving power consists in certain ideas or general insights to which the critic has been prompted or which he has taken this opportunity to reveal. A second kind of criticism meets journalism part way, is a genuine introduction to the writer in question, and often spends itself in getting the reader of criticism to read the book criticized and in advising him what it is he should be careful to keep in mind. It is this sort of thing that makes up the bulk of Classics and Commercials, a collection of Wilson’s essays from the New Yorker and other periodicals. (The book also contains a series of sketches of California writers which were previously published as The Boys in the Back Room.)

With the accentuated cleavage between “highbrow culture” (that is, what used to be called culture, plain and simple) and “popular culture” (the modern equivalent of the Roman circus), the second kind of criticism has fallen out of respect and into disrepair. So it is possible for Stanley Edgar Hyman to refer to Wilson as a “writer of epistles to the philistines”—a philistine remark if ever there was one. What it is now the fashion to regard as literary criticism serves more often than not as a vehicle for philosophical, theological, and moral discourse, or for scholarly exhibition. There is nothing improper in this; philosophers must have occasion to speak and scholars to publish, and some truly impressive writing has been born of it. But the price has been costly: it has meant that the literate but non-literary public (including not a few professors) has been banished from the paradise of letters. For almost three decades Wilson has been one of the valiant few in this country who have been fighting the widening division between sacred criticism and the profane reader. It has been a losing fight, if a very good one. Wilson’s essays served to acquaint a generation of readers with such writers as Joyce, Proust, Valéry, as well as Dickens and Kipling. One wonders how, in the days to come, without the assistance of this kind of literary journalism, readers and writers will get to know one another.

The qualities that made Wilson’s previous books so successful are abundantly in evidence in Classics and Commercials. He is an enthusiastic bookworm and—what is becoming more rare—a profoundly educated man, knowing classical and modern languages and their literatures. His prose is fine, lucid, cultivated yet colloquial (sometimes, perhaps, too colloquial, as in his use of “awful” and “terrific”). He is expert at plot-synopsis at the same time that he can reach down to the root metaphor of a writer, as in his essay on Steinbeck in which he demonstrates Steinbeck’s obsession with humanity as pure biological process. He has an astounding ability to discuss the totality of an author’s work, picking parallels from various novels, contrasting plot situations, etc., and since he says somewhere that he hardly ever re-reads a book, he must have the benefit of an extraordinary memory. Added to this is an authentic humility in the face of the literary experience: “But there really is no way of considering a book independently of one’s special sensations in reading it on a particular occasion”—what a relief from those immortal verdicts to which contemporary critics, following T. S. Eliot, are moved!



Wilson’s opinions on the relation of literature and criticism to life have remained stable throughout his career, in spite of significant shifts in emphasis. One of the essays in Classics and Commercials is entitled “Thoughts on Being Bibliographed.” In it Wilson makes a distinction between the “writers” of the ‘teens and 20’s and the “intellectuals” of 30’s and 40’s, and sees himself as one of the former, belonging to “a kind of professional group now becoming extinct and a legend, in which the practice of letters was a common craft and the belief in its value a common motivation.” He continues: “The journalist of the later era is troubled at the thought of a writer who works up his own notions and signs his own name; and for the literary man in a college . . . the literary man of the 20’s presents himself as the inhabitant of another intellectual world. . . . The young men of our earlier classes saw in literature a sphere of activity in which they hoped themselves to play a part. You read Shakespeare, Shelley, George Meredith, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, and you wanted, on however infinitesimal a scale, to learn their trade and have the freedom of their company.”

The specific working company that Wilson chose was that of Mencken and Shaw, and, further back, Poe and De Quincey—journalists all, who made their living writing for periodicals. In a larger company he is (somewhat more loosely) associated with Ruskin, Taine, and Sainte-Beuve, of whose criticism he has written that it “was also the vehicle for all sorts of ideas about the purpose and destiny of human life in general.” For Wilson is a humanist, and so profoundly one that he is among the very few literary men whose talents were not damaged either by his conversion to Marxism or his disillusionment with it. He has never permitted his theories to dictate his taste. He has always regarded himself as a “historical critic” but he has almost never pretended that history could solve the problem of value; that remained for the critic.

For a humanist, literature is an art, that is, a tool for better living. This is too frequently a catastrophic bias, for it leads the humanist critic beyond literature to some elevated prominence from which the “direction” of literature can be determined and, more often than not, condemned. Wilson has not completely escaped this temptation. Thus in Axel’s Castle (1931) he announced: “I believe therefore that the time is at hand when these writers [i.e., Joyce, Valéry, Yeats, Proust, etc.] who have largely dominated the literary world of the decade 1920-30, though we shall continue to admire them as masters, will no longer serve us as guides.” To this one may reply that these men came to serve us as writers not as prophets—not even as false prophets—and it is the critic who has made them into something they are not in order to render a dogmatic verdict; or that, if masters, it is inconceivable that they should not be also guides. Still, it says much for Wilson’s critical gifts, as well as for the nature of his humanism, that Axel’s Castle is to this day the best introduction to Symbolist literature.

Perhaps the saving feature of Wilson’s “historical” approach has been the fact that its categories were not general and philosophical but passionately moral and peculiarly American (though this has its own hazards, as we shall see below). In an essay in The Triple Thinkers (1938) on his former Greek teacher at the Hill School, Wilson wrote: “Mr. Rolfe . . . represented both the American individualistic tradition which has cultivated the readiness to think and act for oneself without looking to God or the State . . . and the older humanistic tradition: the belief in the nobility and beauty of what man as man has accomplished, and the reverence for literature as the record of this.”

It is this reverence for man and literature that informs the best of Wilson’s work. His fierce American individualism helps explain why his most penetrating studies are of writers like Dickens and Kipling who are (according to his interpretation) rebels against, and outcasts from, a class-ridden society. It also helps explain what can only be called his Anglophobia, for he regards as one of the “basic English qualities” the passion for social privilege. And, finally, his American individualism and his humanism together account for the pride he takes in his profession of literary journalism: if America is not like unto the nations but is a “society in course of construction,” then the literary journalist has a role as middleman for civilization’s past treasures.



There are several relatively minor respects in which Wilson’s criticism has given cause for dissatisfaction: his erratic taste in poetry, his interest in “content” over “form,” an occasional clumsiness in the historical approach. His essay that provoked the greatest heat—“Is Verse a Dying Technique?” in The Triple Thinkers—stands up well upon re-reading. It is true that poetry flourishes today despite Wilson’s dim view of its prospects, but it is a poetry that has gone underground, losing in scope while gaining in intensity, a poetry that is the function of individual self-consciousness rather than of a society as a whole, that no longer records, celebrates, enchants—and it is this latter kind that Wilson was talking about.

The most serious flaw in Wilson’s criticism, however, is one that he shares with most American intellectuals: a laxity of intellect, a certain obtuseness in handling general ideas, a helplessness and suspicion before anything resembling the “metaphysical.” (This cast of the American mind has been acutely analyzed by Lionel Trilling in the concluding essay to his The Liberal Imagination.) Usually, this results from the fact that American intellectuals are lazy or smug or simply ignorant. Wilson is none of these, so his failing is all the more inexplicable.

This intellectual inadequacy was displayed in his discussion of Marxism in To the Finland Station. It is not, by far, one of the worst books on the subject in English, and there are chapters (on Michelet, for example) that are excellent. But Wilson obviously cannot see how anyone could take Hegel seriously, and since Marx took Hegel very seriously indeed, Wilson can only react with petulance and look upon Marx’s thought as a specimen for pathology. It is not surprising that, in Classics and Commercials, he has high praise for Max Eastman’s very superficial books on Marxist theory.

In the same volume, the essay on Kafka is another case in point. Wilson says that Kafka was “psychologically crippled”—which is as banal as it is false. He complains that Kafka can “in the end only let us down”—as if it were Kafka’s job to sustain us when we cannot sustain ourselves. Wilson expressly withholds comment as to whether Kafka’s works “represent a retrogression or a progress in the development of modern literature”—a superfluous and thereby unconvincing disclaimer of omniscience with regard to the ends of history. He even takes seriously the comments on Kafka of the English critic D. S. Savage, whose outstanding claim to attention is his hatred of writers and writing. What Wilson omits to say is that Kafka was a sensitive and great artist, even if he did not bring a message to 20th-century man. (I happen to think he brought a message to men of all centuries.) One cannot help but feel that Wilson’s animosity to Kafka is somewhat extraliterary. And when one sees Wilson in his fiction wrestle with the very theme that Kafka so brilliantly explored, there is reason to believe that his dislike for Kafka is precisely a hatred for the world that Kafka exposed and which Wilson now inhabits.



Wilson at fifty-five is a rather misanthropic humanist, though his years have not been without honor and he is still published, read, and respected. Times have changed since he entered the literary world in the 20’s, and not, he thinks, for the better. In a review of Dorothy Parker, he writes of “how much freer people were in their emotions, in their ideas, and in expressing themselves.” “The idea of the death of a society had not yet begun working on people to paralyze their response to experience.” There has been a noticeable shift in emphasis in Wilson’s criticism during the past fifteen years from the social-historical to the psychological. Where, in Axel’s Castle, art was to overcome the frustrations of capitalist society, in The Wound and the Bow art’s purpose is to overcome the frustrations of the individual. The historical critic, pledged to the improvement of humanity, has seen history lose its sense and humanity its dignity. No wonder he is bitter.

This bitterness is more apparent in Wilson’s fiction than in his criticism. What, to my mind, is his best short story, “Ellen Terhune,” is about frustration and madness, the lovelessness of life and the cruel inexorability of history. Sometimes his fiction has an edge that almost cuts the very thread of the narration, so it is quite difficult to know when he is being serious and when he is mocking the whole business.

I must say, frankly, that Wilson’s fiction has always baffled me. He has a sense of the burlesque so fine as to be often invisible. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that Wilson seems to have no sense of humor at all, so that his parody might often pass for high seriousness. Such a story as “The Princess with the Golden Hair” outraged the critics (to say nothing of the censor) by its seeming pomposity and smugness. But if it is taken as satire, it is a skilful tour de force. (The question, however, remains: is it really satire?) And Wilson’s solemn preoccupation with sex, and his detailed descriptions of sexual encounters, become more meaningful when they are taken as detached, near-clinical analyses of that paralysis of experience he feels humanity to have suffered.

The bitterness is particularly marked in his new three-act play, The Little Blue Light. The drama takes place in the “not-remote future” at a country house near New York. It concerns a magazine publisher who represents, in a corrupt and decadent way, the once great American ideals of individualism and honest journalism, and tells of his hopeless struggle against the Teniakis gang, a soulless and ideology-less political machine which has infiltrated all other parties (by this time all unprincipled cliques) and which rules ruthlessly for the sake of efficiency and power. The “little blue light” is a symbol of the evil demiurge who holds the modern world in his grip and assumes concrete shape in the form of the secret weapon of the Teniakis gang: a flashlight attuned to the brain’s electric waves so that when it is near a person who experiences anger or hate or fear (but not love) it sends forth a little blue light that electrocutes the victim. There is a gardener who is Italian in the first act, Irish in the second, Scottish in the third, and who, in the play’s concluding peroration, reveals himself as the Wandering Jew. In this peroration he presents the play’s message:

We, the Children of Israel, gave you the God of the Old Testament, and you judged and punished like him. We gave you the God of the New Testament, and you tried to forgive and love. We gave you the Social Revolution, and you tried to judge the men of the present and to love the men of the future. But . . . I have lived through two thousand years to see all these moralities fail. Even Israel has forgotten its prophets. . . . They will never give me a passport to Palestine. And in your country who will receive me? . . . What you trust in, for all your techniques, for all your mechanisms of industry and politics, is simply the brute vitality that animates the universe.

The final paragraph of the peroration, it is true, relieves the gloom slightly, for in it the Wandering Jew promises that he shall bring God’s word to men “though the Heavens be darkened.” Yet the overwhelming effect is one of desolation, as in the Kafka who can “in the end only let us down,” and as in that other despairing book by a great humanist man of letters, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It is not easy to know what to make of this. As in most of Wilson’s fiction, the publisherhero is ambiguous, giving voice to the author’s opinions in a curiously refracted way, so that the measure of identity is never certain. And if it is the Wandering Jew who is the real hero, is the religious symbolism at all meaningful or is it mere conventional dramatic ornament? This is, after all, the same Wilson who once wrote that he never thought of religion “save as a delusion entertained by other people which one has to allow for.” One remembers that in a story, “Mr. and Mrs. Blackburn at Home,” the Devil is introduced as Mr. Blackburn, whose appearance and accent also vary with the occasion—he and the narrator even merge identities for one part of the story—and that the Devil laments the “progress” of humanity beyond good and evil and his consequent technological unemployment. Are the Devil and the Wandering Jew only the tools of a literary fantasy at work? Or is Wilson trying to say something more than the humanist vocabulary permits?

Whatever the case, the portrait of America and the modern age that emerges from The Little Blue Light is a disheartening one. We have come a long way from the expectant humanism of Axel’s Castle: it is one thing to shoo decadent aesthetes from the castle of art, and quite another to expel real ghosts. The one consolation—not to be minimized—is that, in the effort, Wilson continues to strew the stone-cold floor with illuminating literary fragments.



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