Edmund Wilson vs. America
The United States is not a nation in the sense that England or France is. It is a society, a political system, which is still in an experimental state. Hence our panics of various kinds.
—Edmund Wilson, A Piece of My Mind
Edmund Wilson is not an easy writer to get in clear perspective, and most of those who have discussed him in recent years have chosen instead to envelop him in a hagiographical haze. He was, so the litany runs, “the most important American critic of his generation,” or, in a still more ubiquitous formula, “our most distinguished man of letters.” The large volume just published of Wilson’s Letters on Literature and Politics: 1912-19721 sheds a good deal of light on the truth and half-truth of both those labels, but reviewers in general have responded chiefly by echoing the blurbs, apparently dazzled or daunted by the teeming variety of Wilson’s intellectual interests in half a century at the writer’s trade.
Wilson was, to be sure, a deservedly commanding presence in American intellectual life from the late 20’s onward, but, paradoxically, there is also something ultimately manqué about his literary career. He achieved much that was impressive, but never—on the evidence of his own early letters—what he had initially aspired to achieve. The fault was partly in the nature of his talents, partly in the nature of his relation to American culture.
The issue of Wilson’s talents has been touched on discreetly and perceptively by Harry Levin in a review of the Letters in the New York Review of Books. Levin notes the extent to which Wilson’s letters show him a person at least as engaged in social, political, and historical problems as in literary matters, and proposes that “If Wilson is to be categorized as a critic, it must be as a critic at large, a critic of everything.” This is not meant to damn Wilson by prodigal praise, for, with his formidable intellectual resources, he did astonishingly well as a “critic of everything.” Nevertheless, the remark brings one up short, makes one realize that in fact the specifically literary aspect of Wilson’s large production was relatively modest. As literary criticism that has more than merely journalistic or antiquarian value, one could confidently designate a single book, Axel’s Castle, and perhaps ten essays, most of them from The Wound and the Bow and The Triple Thinkers. Levin also observes that to call Wilson a “man of letters” rather than a novelist, poet, dramatist (or even, I would add, a critic) is to concede that he failed to accomplish all he would have wanted to in any single department of literature. To cite the contrasting instance of Stendhal, a figure who was one of Wilson’s own touchstones of literary excellence, here was someone who wrote thousands of pages of travel books, music history, art history, journalism, autobiography, literary and political pamphlets, while also maintaining a voluminous correspondence and journal; yet we do not speak of Stendhal as a great 19th-century “man of letters” because, beyond all this activity, he produced two novels that are among the supreme masterpieces of European fiction.
The hopes that the young Edmund Wilson had for his own writing were of course bound to be limited by the reach of his talent. The hopes he entertained for American culture involve more complex and shifting issues, and it is those I would like to explore, particularly in the light of his letters.
As early as his freshman year at Princeton, in 1913, Wilson was self-consciously looking for the emergence of a worthy literary culture in America and was already speaking of what he read in the authoritative tones of an arbiter of taste. “In my present search,” he writes a prep-school friend, “for American literary art, I have discovered two masterpieces—Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.” (A quarter of a century later, he would produce celebrated critical essays on both writers.) Wilson had a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin literature, and at Princeton, under the tutelage of Christian Gauss, he did extensive reading in modern French and, to a lesser degree, Italian, but he often seems to have regarded European literature before all else as a necessary frame of reference and judgment for seeing American literature in proper perspective.
After graduating from Princeton and serving during the war in France in the medical corps, Wilson came to New York to launch his literary career, working briefly first at Vanity Fair, then at the New Republic in 1920-21. By the spring of 1921, he concluded that he needed more time in Europe to prepare himself for his future endeavors, and so he went off on a six-month tour of France, England, and Italy. A letter written in Paris (July 5, 1921) to his fellow Princetonian, F. Scott Fitzgerald, is particularly revealing about Wilson’s stance between the Old World and the New:
In America I feel so superior and culturally sophisticated in comparison to the rest of the intellectual and artistic life of the country that I am in danger of regarding my present attainments as an absolute standard and am obliged to save my soul by emigrating into a country which humiliates me with a solid perfection of a standard arrived at by way of Racine, Molière, La Bruyère, Pascal, Voltaire, Vigny, Renan, Taine, Flaubert, Maupassant, and Anatole France. I don’t mean to say, of course, that I can actually do better work than anybody else in America; I simply mean that I feel as if I had higher critical standards and that, since in America all standards are let down, I am afraid mine will drop, too; American savant and artist should beware of falling victim to the ease with which a traditionless and half-educated public . . . can be impressed, delighted, and satisfied.
A good deal of Wilson’s future enterprise is adumbrated in these sentences. “Emigrating” of course refers to intellectual tourism and is not intended to suggest an actual change of residence: though this was the great decade of American literary expatriates, Wilson urgently needed an American climate in which to flourish, needed, in fact, the exasperating challenge of that traditionless, half-educated public whose mentor he, with his higher critical standards, could become. Perhaps he was too confident, both at this juncture and later, in assuming there were objective critical touchstones, of which he himself had taken possession, and so did not allow sufficiently for the role of personal sensibility in critical judgment. His brief catalogue of French classics, which is actually something of a hodgepodge, is a case in point, mingling as it does Vigny and Voltaire, setting Maupassant and Anatole France on a level with Flaubert. (Such anomalies of judgment were by no means limited to Wilson’s early years: much later, for example, he would praise Malraux in his correspondence as the great successor to Proust in the French novel.)
But the quirkiness of these “higher critical standards” was the defect of a virtue, for Wilson was inclined to overvalue writers who exhibited the qualities of clarity, stylistic felicity, and scrupulous craftsmanship which American literature commonly lacked, and was particularly receptive to writers who addressed themselves directly to the sorts of social and cultural questions he meant to confront as the catalyst of an American renaissance. For if Europe provided the standards, he imagined America as the place of fermentation for a vital new literature in this early postwar period. In the same letter to Fitzgerald, though he recognizes the enormous disadvantages of a country that has only “one layer of 18th-century civilization on the East Coast,” he also expresses “a great hope for New York as a cultural center; it seems to me that there is a lot doing intellectually in America just now—America seems to be actually beginning to express herself in something like an idiom of her own.”
It was Wilson’s self-appointed task over the next three decades to prod, badger, scold, and encourage the American literary world into having the resolution and patience to fashion an idiom of its own. One of the most admirable things about his letters is the way he persisted, as literary editor of the New Republic and as the friendly correspondent of so many poets, novelists, and critics, in demanding precise and clear writing, rigorous fidelity to whatever were the facts under discussion, and a firm sense of appropriate form. “You have never quite mastered a satisfactory expository style,” he roundly rebukes R.P. Blackmur in a 1930 letter, and goes on to offer him some plainspoken advice—alas, ignored—about how to correct his engimatic terseness: “I wish you would take more words and say what you mean more exactly.”
In a 1943 letter to Morton D. Zabel, a critic who was also a close personal friend, he is no more sparing. Shrewdly citing a passage from a piece by Zabel on Graham Greene in which the argument is obfuscated by intellectual phrase-making, Wilson frankly describes it as “an example of brilliant writing running aground in abstraction,” and proceeds to analyze it phrase by phrase in order to show exactly how the writing has run aground. He cajoles another friend, Alfred Kazin, for saying Trotsky was assassinated with a pickaxe instead of an ice axe and for other blemishes of imprecision in his writing. (The admonitions seem not to have stuck: in a recent memoir in the New Republic, Kazin reports Wilson as “once writing that he had lost himself in five thousand years of Jewish history,” though Wilson, with more careful attention to historical chronology, actually wrote, and more than once, three thousand years.) A relentless emender of his own texts—the New Yorker used to send him proof after proof to revise, and he sometimes found himself correcting his prose in his dreams—he tolerated neither local sins of commission in English usage nor, at the other end of the scale, the omission of the most esoteric information if it were relevant to the subject at hand. A characteristic measure of his seriousness in these matters and the learning he brought to bear on them is a 1949 letter to Gilbert Highet in which he chides Highet for failing to mention in The Classical Tradition the 10th-century German nun, Hrotswitha, who wrote Latin plays modeled on Terence.
“Work” is a central concept for Wilson, his favored term for all forms of intellectual activity—it figures importantly in the passage above from the 1921 letter to Fitzgerald—and his lifelong insistence on its salutary value may reflect his most substantial legacy from his Calvinist forebears. He tended to admire writers like Joyce whose books showed the effects of painstaking work in their composition, and it is characteristic that in his later years he should dismiss most of Gertrude Stein’s writing after Three Lives because her fictional experiments reflected “very little at all exacting work.” Writing to Louise Bogan in April 1931, after she had suffered a nervous breakdown, Wilson recalls having undergone a similar ordeal two years earlier (he actually was pushing ahead with a chapter of Axel’s Castle at the sanitorium to which he was sent!), and urges her to go on with the work of writing which is her overriding responsibility to society as an intellectual:
We have to take life—society and human relations—more or less as we find them—and there is no doubt that they leave much to be desired. The only thing we can really make is our work. And deliberate work of the mind, imagination, and hand, done, as Nietzsche said, “notwithstanding,” in the long run remakes the world.
One way of describing the curve of Wilson’s career from 1931 onward is as a gradual fading of this faith in work’s power to remake the world while he remained steadfastly committed to exacting intellectual work as a practical ethos. The 20’s were still a time of multifarious possibilities both for himself and for American culture as he imagined it. In addition to his criticism, he was writing plays, poetry, a novel—I Thought of Daisy, his first book which was neither a compilation nor a collaboration, did not appear until 1929, when he was thirty-four—and even a ballet, in which he vainly tried to persuade Charlie Chaplin to star, written for “full orchestra, movie machine, typewriters, radio, phonograph, riveter, electromagnet, alarm clock, telephone bells, and jazz band.” Beyond such schemes for creating an American Jazz Age Gesamtkunstwerk, he was encouraging and exhorting Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Hemingway, John Peale Bishop, Allen Tate, Rolphe Humphries, and others to produce the exemplary new American fiction and poetry that he had dreamed of since his days at Princeton. By 1928, he had clearly formulated the project for his first integrally conceived critical book, the study of major English and French modernists that would appear in 1931 as Axel’s Castle.
The book did a great deal to consolidate Wilson’s intellectual authority, and it has rightly been regarded as a landmark in the critical assimilation of literary modernism. His ability to define the common enterprise of these writers, scarcely half-a-dozen years after the initial publication of Ulysses, The Waste Land, Yeats’s “The Tower,” and the concluding volumes of Proust, still seems altogether remarkable. Placing his writers in a large literary-historical and conceptual framework, Wilson imparted through his argument a vision of what serious criticism might do to explicate and evaluate the difficult new literature of an innovative age.
Even though Axel’s Castle does include in its final chapter a direct critique of the divorce of literature from life in the modernists, a reader is more likely to come away from this pioneering exposition with a sense of the intricate formal complexity and imaginative richness of the writers Wilson discusses and in many ways admires. His correspondence is therefore especially instructive about Axel’s Castle, because in several letters he makes clear that he intended the book largely, as an attack on European modernism in behalf of indigenous American literary values which he still hoped were in the process of emerging. The most revealing of these statements occurs in an undated 1928 letter to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, which was meant to serve as a prospectus for the book. While expressing his high esteem for Yeats, Proust, and Joyce, among his six chosen authors, Wilson complains about the “resignationism in regard to the world at large” which all of them exhibit. “I believe that any literary movement which tends so to paralyze the will, to discourage literature from entering into action, has a very serious weakness; and I think the time has now about come for a reaction against it.” Such a sense of moral exhaustion, he suggests, is understandable in postwar Europe but utterly inappropriate to Americans. “I believe—or rather, I hope—that the reaction of which I speak may come first in the United States. I seem to see certain signs of it: in another generation or two, we may be leading the world intellectually.”
Axel’s Castle, then, is not only a summing up of the great literary production of the 20’s but also, through its negative critique, an intimation of the hopes for a literary future that Wilson had nurtured during the 20’s—a book which, despite its European horizon, is urgently American in its intention and perspective. These American hopes, however, were becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. To begin with, the writers, many of them Wilson’s personal friends, who he thought might create a powerful American antithesis to European modernism simply did not live up to what he had imagined to be their promise. By the end of the 30’s, most of their careers were stranded on the various shoals of alcoholism, emotional crack-up, ideological stridency, self-indulgent mannerism, or plain intellectual lassitude.
There was, of course, vital work going on in these years in American literature, but it seems to have been largely outside the purview of Wilson’s sensibility, or outside his Princeton-based Northeastern set of social and cultural connections, or both. The most original American novelist of this period was Faulkner, and Wilson somewhat grudgingly recognized him as that, but he disapproved of Faulkner’s “carelessness” and could only have regarded his Southern-Gothic doomsaying as an American version of European resignationism. Robert Frost he “never cared for at all” (letter to Christian Gauss, May 15, 1944), and Wallace Stevens (surely our major modernist poet as Faulkner was our one modernist master in the novel) Wilson tended to discount, admitting only that Harmonium was a fine achievement of a rather minor sort, and disapproving on principle of what he regarded as the slippery ambiguity of Stevens’s symbolism.
Meanwhile, by the end of the 20’s, Wilson’s energies and attention, like those of so many American intellectuals, were increasingly deflected from literature to politics. The beginning of this shift was triggered by the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. “I grow more interested myself in American affairs every year,” he wrote John Peale Bishop in 1928, and speculated that the ideal vehicle for an expression of this interest might be a book on the Sacco-Vanzetti affair, a project he was not quite prepared to undertake. With the onset of the Depression, Wilson plunged into political journalism, traveling around the country to meet with militant union leaders, covering the labor disturbances in Harlan County, and assembling a book on the troubled state of the nation which he called The American jitters.
At the same time, predictably, he was applying himself to the study of Marxist literature, and by 1934 he had conceived the idea of the book that would become To the Finland Station. It seems to me important to underline the peculiarity of Wilson’s involvement with the radical Left, for it exhibits a perfect continuity of outlook and sensibility with the positions he took both before and after the 30’s. He was attracted to Marxist thought for the possible alternatives it could suggest to the gross inequities and the shambling ineptitudes of the prevailing American system, but he was never “radicalized,” as the idiom of the 60’s would have put it, with the unpleasant implication of total transformation through some sort of industrial processing. The point is not only that Wilson, as he makes clear in a late letter, never seriously contemplated becoming a member of the Communist party, but that he strenuously preserved an inner distance as an American from Marxist doctrine. Writing to Allen Tate (May 28, 1930), he states this position through a shrewd comparison:
I am going further and further to the Left all the time and have moments of trying to be converted to American Communism in the same way that Eliot makes an effort to become converted to Anglo-Catholicism. It is not that Communism in itself isn’t all right, but that all that sort of thing in America seems even more unrelated to real life than Catholicism does in England.
After six months in Russia in 1935 studying at the Marx-Engels Institute as part of his work on To the Finland Station, he also rapidly revised his assumption that Communism on European soil was “all right.” Shortly before the trip, he was willing to defend Stalin as a principled Marxist leader who for that reason alone could never be guilty of “megalomaniac imperialist ambitions” like those of Napoleon (letter to Dos Passos, January 11, 1935), but after his return, his letters to his friends, many of whom were fellow-travelers publicly justifying the Moscow Trials then unfolding, contain forthright denunciations of totalitarian repression in the Soviet Union and of the naiveté of American intellectuals. He now recognized Stalin as a sinister and reactionary figure, but, what is more significant, he also perceived a causal connection between the climate of classic Marxist thought and the horrors of Stalinist practice. “Certainly Marxism itself is partly to blame,” he wrote A.J. Muste (December 31, 1937), alluding to the strategy of character assassination inaugurated by Marx to discredit his ideological rivals, and then speculated further whether the perversion of justice might be a direct consequence of a basic Marxist doctrine: “The Marxists have been—and are still being—sadly misled through believing in the dialectic as a supernatural power which will bring them salvation if they trust in it, without the necessity of thought or virtue on their part.”
The stress on the necessity of thought and virtue gives us the quintessential American Wilson, insisting on the sturdy moral values of his Protestant ancestors while firmly rejecting their system of belief or any modern substitute for it. (By now, that comparison of Communism with Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism had assumed more extensive ramifications for him.) This stalwart secularist’s critique of the deification of the dialectic in Marxism becomes a major thrust of To the Finland Station. That book had initially been conceived as a sympathetic exposition of the Marxist intellectual heritage, an attempt, as Wilson wrote Dos Passos early in 1935, “to see Marx and Lenin as part of the humanistic tradition which they came out of.” A certain sympathy of historical imagination is evident in the book, but what may have been begun as something of a celebration proved to be a good deal more like a refutation. In following the socialist tradition from the French Revolution to Lenin, Wilson clearly wants to cling to the ennobling vision of a society more egalitarian and more humane than our own, but he is keenly aware of how easily such ideologies can provide the justification for barbarism. “There is in Marx,” he writes in To the Finland Station, “an irreducible discrepancy between the good which he proposes for humanity and the ruthlessness and hatred he inculcates as a means of arriving at this—a discrepancy which, in the history of Marxism, has given rise to much moral confusion.” The judiciousness of the perception and of its formulation shows Wilson at his best as a “critic of everything,” and illustrates the enduring strength of this book which he published in 1940 as the summation of a decade of political involvement.
Curiously, Wilson characterized To the Finland Station in a letter to Allen Tate as “a sort of companion piece to Axel’s Castle,” but the bracketing of these two disparate books may make more sense than is first apparent. The two studies, of course, stand symmetrically at the end of the 20’s and 30’s respectively as intellectual stock-takings of what engaged the attention of the intelligentsia in those two very different decades. More substantively, just as Axel’s Castle is ultimately a critique, undertaken from the perspective of an old-fashioned American morality, of the devolution of Europe’s literary enterprise from the aesthetic tenets of Romanticism through Symbolism to the modernists, To the Finland Station is much the same sort of half-admiring but finally negative critique, adopting a similar American perspective, of the devolution of European political thought from the forerunners of socialism to Lenin. In both books, Wilson tends to identify with the adversary point of departure of the movement he is following, seeing both Symbolism with its offshoots and Marxism as grand strategies of assault against the decaying intellectual foundations of bourgeois society. In each instance, however, his sympathies are frustrated, for each of the two revolutions ultimately fails: the literary effort to turn away from the deadening bourgeois world results in an atrophy of the will, “a sullenness, a lethargy, a sense of energies ingrown and sometimes festering,” while the political effort to remake the world through an act of rational will leads to a hypertrophy of that faculty in the brutal imposition of tyranny.
The crucial point of divergence in the analogy between Wilson’s two intellectual projects is that by 1940 he had none of the hopes he had had in 1930 for an “American reaction” to the European tradition which seemed to have worked itself into a historical cul-de-sac. He had placed behind him both modernism and Marxism, and he was now left contemplating an American landscape in which he could discern no major developments, either literary or political, for which he could feel much affinity.
The poignant paradox of Wilson’s career is his having achieved his greatest intellectual authority at the very moment when he was bereft of a compelling subject. He remained, as I have said, committed to the practical ethos of a working writer constantly striving for the highest standards, and in article after article, book after book, for the next thirty years he demonstrated the remarkable intelligence and stylistic control with which he could handle virtually any topic. But he was a writer with no more major books to write. Some would make an exception for Patriotic Gore (1962), the large study of Civil War literature to which he devoted nearly fifteen years of research, but that book strikes me as an instance of a first-rate mind mesmerized by the literary detritus of third-rate scribblers. Wilson’s two important critical-historical books before this one had confronted challenging original writers, but here one must wade through hundreds of pages, often preponderantly quotation and synopsis, dedicated to the work of obscure diarists, pamphleteers, concocters of ephemeral novels and hackneyed verse.
Perhaps one might best view Patriotic Gore as a kind of anthology of historical documents arranged in approximately narrative form. If it is thought of as historiography, it is historiography of a narrowly tendentious kind, quite lacking in the breadth of historical imagination that informed To the Finland Station. For all the documents are marshaled in order to demonstrate the reductive thesis of the book’s introduction—that the Civil War was fought not in the least to free the slaves but as all wars, whatever the ideological claims made for them, are invariably fought, to satisfy the blind biologically conditioned instinct of gluttony that drives one power-unit to swallow up another. It is tempting but a little imprecise to describe Patriotic Gore as Wilson’s effort to come to terms with America in the era following World War II (the cold war visibly looms behind the Civil War in the book), but it is even more the expression of an unresolved ambivalence, embodying both the author’s abiding fascination with American culture and his profound disaffection from it.
Wilson’s mind was so lively and continually curious that a reader may not immediately notice an element which becomes increasingly pronounced in his later career, surfacing in the introduction to Patriotic Gore and, nine years later, entirely taking over Upstate, the last book he lived to see into print. The element I refer to is the dyspeptic vision of an authentic American crank. History had skidded on past him with an impudent noise, like the motorcycles of the teenage hooligans roaring past his house in Talcottville, New York, and he was prepared alternately to lambaste it for the ruinous career it had taken or to remove himself as much as possible to less abrasive objects of contemplation. If Wilson became more conservative in his long last phase, the term must be construed culturally rather than politically, as a pronounced preference for a more hopeful time in American life, before technological growth and centralized government began to run out of control. It is a conservative stance very much in an American tradition of stubborn individualism, profoundly suspicious of collective allegiances and governmental authority, that goes back at least to Thoreau.
The suspiciousness in Wilson’s case actually becomes an uncompromising cynicism about the whole realm of politics. Russia and America are seen as equally, mindlessly, imperialist, but if Wilson in principle damns both impartially, it is toward America, as the outrage near at hand, that he particularly directs his vehemence. Daniel Aaron, a little confusingly, has described Wilson politically as an “unspecified radical independent,” a characterization which makes sense if one stresses the first and the last of the three terms. The isolationist thread in the later Wilson’s thought sounds like the Right, but his heated opposition to the military establishment and to chauvinist nationalism sounds more like the Left. His notion of the fundamentally sinister nature of American government, sketched out in the introduction to Patriotic Gore and argued for in The Cold War and the Income Tax (1963), the pamphlet he wrote after his troubles with the IRS, is reminiscent of both the Right and the Left.
As early as the beginning of the 50’s, Wilson was articulating in a letter to Dos Passos (November 27, 1951) a sense of having been left behind by the times: “I’m feeling as I never have before that I belong to a past era from which I’m not sure I’m capable of emerging, as I see myself in relation to the rest of the world as a probably rather moldering and mellow old codger from the frivolous 20’s who looks back on a world they can never know.” This mildly ironic self-designation as an old codger became a frequent persona of Wilson’s in the ensuing years, and by the 60’s mellowness was often not part of it. There was little of American literature or American culture at large that emerged after the 20’s which in any way spoke to him, and by the time he wrote Upstate, he found himself going back before the 20’s—by now manifestly the age of a renaissance that had failed—to family antecedents amid American beginnings in the hardy rural civilization of the 19th century.
This growing identification, however, with the vanished and vanishing past did not prevent Wilson from continuing through the last two decades of his activity to be the finest intellectual journalist we have had. If he could no longer get his bearings on the mainstream of contemporary life, he was able to make himself a brilliant guide to its obscurer tributaries. He himself notes in his letters that he seems to have become obsessed with minorities—the Jews, the Iroquois, the Haitians, the Canadians, the Hungarians. In the light he threw on these groups through his writing, based on sedulous reading as well as on astute personal observation, he was in effect buttressing his own adversary sense of American identity, implicitly arguing for a civilization on this continent that could accommodate variety and quirky individuality, that could resist the terrific pressures of conformity and centralization which he detested and feared. That ideal, as some of the more polemical stances of his later years illustrate, could have a cranky side, but in an age of mass societies and global communications it provides a context of attentiveness to the divergent and the peculiar, and as a realized imaginative quality it marks much of Wilson’s best writing in his last two decades.
Another way to state the contradiction of Wilson’s final phase is that he had become a sage with many admirers but at the same time a cultural mentor without real disciples. He enjoyed administering intellectual reproof and he was uncomfortable when his authority as reprover was not accepted. This, I believe, was the real reason for his rift with Vladimir Nabokov and not the much-publicized difference over Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin. When Nabokov came to this country in 1940, Wilson could generously take him up as a protégé and a friend, seeing in him a talented new English writer with an exotic cultural and linguistic background. Not having enough Russian to tackle Nabokov’s Russian novels, he could not have gauged the extent of his friend’s actual achievement. When, with Lolita and Pale Fire, Nabokov produced English works of real genius, in a range of originality and formal complexity wholly beyond the flawed but “promising” books of Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and their like, Wilson was shut out of the role he must have envisaged for himself (his letters contain not a single response as a reader to either of these books), and he seems to have reasserted his authority by attacking Nabokov’s approach to translation. Once having been opposed, Wilson could be relentless. One of the saddest moments in his correspondence occurs when, after receiving a kind and conciliatory letter from Nabokov, who had heard of his heart attack, he harshly dismisses the gesture of renewed friendship by saying, “it always makes [Nabokov] cheerful to think that his friends are in bad shape” (letter to Helen Muchnic, March 18, 1971).2
There were, as the letters reveal, relationships and occasions of this sort in Wilson’s life in which he was led to mistake his own personal demands for demanding standards, but he was a man of deep, fastidiously acquired culture, and his strong commitment to high intellectual standards for their own sake remains impressive. Toward the very end, in the ante-sepulchral gloom of Upstate, he permitted himself to say that humanity’s eons-slow progress toward the bare approximation of civilization was beginning to “discourage and bore” him. But he was in fact the least bored of modern intellectuals, constantly finding new materials to read and new scenes to explore that powerfully engaged his attention, excited him to further inquiry. In his late years, in connection with making his way through Macaulay’s History of England for the first time, he spoke of undertaking a systematic plan to read “all the celebrated books that I haven’t read.” Perusing some pages of the Talmud in translation, he admits they are “difficult at first to get the hang of” but contemplates settling down to reading the Talmud in its entirety as the only way to understand it properly (letter to Alfred Kazin, October 29, 1954). Perhaps in emulation of his learned ministerial grandfather, but also out of an intrinsic desire to know what the Bible was really like in the original, he began the study of Hebrew at Princeton Theological Seminary when he was near sixty, an intellectual adventure that resulted in his brilliant essay on first reading Genesis in Hebrew and, indirectly, in his book on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Still later, he began Hungarian, and in one letter of his declining years he wistfully regrets that he has not enough time left to acquire Chinese. Even in his most prickly cultural conservatism, he continued to be a passionate humanist, endlessly drawn to the wide spectrum of poetry, fiction, history, philosphy, essays, and memoirs by great figures and small through which people in various times and places have sought to give coherence and permanence to their experience. His plainspoken Yankee individualism at its best shines through his writing in the steady clarity with which, after patient work with difficult materials, he manages to “get the hang of” the most unfamiliar and daunting subjects, for himself and for his readers.
A recurrent formula he uses in his letters to his friends is to report that he has begun reading for the first time some books or series of books—by Macaulay, Gibbon, John Jay Chapman, Kate Chopin, or whomever—which, contrary to prevalent intellectual prejudice, “I find extraordinarily interesting.” It is an assertion, I think, that many future readers will still be moved to make of Wilson’s own far-ranging work, vivified as it is by his deep curiosity about culture and history, about the kaleidoscopic variety of human action and thought. The American efflorescence he had hoped for and tried to encourage in his early years proved to be a mirage, and the fading of the vision left him with a residue of bitterness, but his writing sharply registers his unflagging excitement with the life of the mind, and that is no mean legacy to have given American culture.
1 Edited by Elena Wilson, Introduction by Daniel Aaron, Foreword by Leon Edel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 768 pp., $20.00.
2 The full correspondence between Wilson and Nabokov is being prepared for publication by Simon Karlinsky.