Commentary Magazine

The Twenties, by Edmund Wilson

The Twenties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period.
by Edmund Wilson.
Edited with an introduction by Leon Edel. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 608 pp. $10.00.

Few writers have been so compelling that everything they wrote was certain to be of interest; and of those, even fewer have been critics. The current fashion of unearthing and publishing a great author’s every scrap has been brought about primarily by academics requiring new texts to edit. No doubt the notebooks of Coleridge, Hawthorne, or Henry James provide invaluable evidence about their imaginative lives; even so, our interest in them depends on a knowledge of the finished works to which they act as corollaries. It would be hard to imagine a critic, whose writing generally constitutes another sort of corollary, leaving notebooks of any great literary value. Except, of course, for Edmund Wilson.

But then, Wilson was an exception in virtually everything he did. A man of letters during an age which had no place for such occupations, a journalist more learned than most of those whose books he reviewed, and a multilingual scholar in a culture devoted to specialization, he was an extraordinary character besides. His personality was everywhere in his writings, bantering, rhapsodizing, endlessly curious. The extravagant temperament displayed in his two (largely unread) novels, I Thought of Daisy and Memoirs of Hecate County, was less invented than autobiographical, as a reading of his notebooks will reveal. The narrator in these novels, whose pursuit of women and consumption of alcohol Wilson registers with the same tireless avidity he always applied to literary subjects, relates his adventures in a voice of authorial impersonality; in the notebooks themselves, it is Wilson whose revelations, while still impersonal, provide a document of the 20’s in some respects more vivid and intimate than Fitzgerald’s famous books.

Part of Wilson’s interest as a writer derived from his beliefs that literature was a direct celebration of experience no less than an aesthetic enhancement of it. He was never much taken with elaborate theories of criticism or the relation between literature and culture, preferring to read and write about men’s activities in the world. What fascinated him above all was what he so appreciated in Michelet, “the expansion of a limited individual experience into a great work of the imagination”; and he was so conscious of the living force behind such works that he would often draw attention to the states of mind revealed in supposedly neutral historical prose, like Francis Parkman’s (discussed in O Canada) or Michelet’s. Wilson himself was capable of writing in any genre, and incapable of being commonplace, so that to think of him primarily as a critic is to deprive him of the classification he really deserves: he was one of the greatest imaginative writers America has ever produced.

Some of the clearest evidence of his achievement can be found in A Prelude and Upstate, those remarkable autobiographies designed “to catch sur le vif things that struck me as significant or interesting.” Such a modest evaluation, from the first page of A Prelude, should be supplemented by the closing sentence of Upstate, where he noted, “I am glad to have had some share of the life of this planet and of northern New York.” This descent from the largest generality to the biographical particular seems somehow fitting; he was devoted to just such mediations, observing in a specific work or situation its relation to the life of society. Wilson had a novelist’s eye for detail, and could render a casual remark or scene with such muted effectiveness that it seldom required commentary. In these journals, a profusion of poems, anecdotes, conversations, and asides mingles democratically with passages of polished recollection and impeccably composed social history. Now that the first of several posthumous volumes has appeared, we can take up this history where it left off, at the end of A Prelude.



The inexhaustible Leon Edel (he is preparing a four-volume edition of the letters of Henry James as well) was appointed by Wilson to be his literary executor, and there could have been no better choice than the author of one of the principal literary biographies of our time. If there is any single important fault in Edel’s five-volume life of Henry James, it is in his overly Freudian approach to James’s family relations; and this tendency to dwell on childhood experience mars what is otherwise a masterly portrait of Wilson. For those familiar with A Prelude, much of what Edel has to say in his introduction about Wilson’s father will seem rather speculative, a too classic instance of rejection by a remote and troubled figure. Moreover, there is always the danger of condescension in such accounts, especially with a subject like Wilson, whose work was devoted to socializing the interior life of the artist, dramatizing its public background. (He once noted that Taine had been his earliest model.)

Edel is surely right to concentrate on the myth of Philoctetes which Wilson popularized in his famous essay, “The Wound and the Bow,” here made to serve as the titles of his two-part introduction. Having emphasized “the Wound,” symbolic of the psychic trauma of separateness all writers experience (and a favorite theme in his biography of James), Edel turns to “the Bow,” Wilson’s chosen emblem of the artist’s craft, coveted by society while its creator is ostracized and feared. Ingeniously, he identifies Wilson not with Philoctetes himself, but with Neoptolemus, the youth sent to steal the archer’s bow, who becomes converted to Philoctetes, a collaborator in his exile. For Edel, Neoptolemus is “the archetypal critic,” an agent of mediation who “reflects, even more than the archer, the image and vocation of Edmund Wilson.” In reading “The Wound and the Bow” as a concealed autobiography, Edel discovers “the Edmund Wilson whose wound prevented him from being poet, playwright, novelist on the scale of his contemporaries,” and whose vocation of critic was his “particular bow, the one right instrument created by the necessities of his particular life experience.”

That Wilson was unwilling to relinquish entirely the creative arsenal of Philoctetes is apparent in these notebooks, which are largely devoted to various exercises in rendering landscapes, character, dialogue: in brief, the lineaments of the novel. There is a great deal of nature description in the manner of Wordsworth and Hopkins, not all of it particularly striking. He was essentially urban in temperament, and at his best when evoking the qualities of New York in the 20’s, the speakeasies, Washington Square and Greenwich Village, the experience of riding through Central Park in the horse-drawn carriages that now stand idle in front of the Plaza. There are fine vignettes about the circles he traveled in, which consisted not only of writers, but a whole assortment of bibulous, manic, unhappy people who would have remained forever anonymous had it not been for their appearance in the pages of these notebooks. Occasionally, we have a glimpse of celebrities about whom too much has been written, like the Algonquin Round Table and the Fitzgeralds, here treated with the casualness and even disrespect of a contemporary to whom they were simply friends. Dos Passos and Edna St. Vincent Millay are shown much as they appear in Wilson’s novel, I Thought of Daisy, but his portraits of Scott and Zelda will no doubt be read with great curiosity in this time of obsession with their lives.

Yet the absence of sustained portrayal is often disappointing, a demonstration of Edel’s remark that Wilson was “incapable of writing a long and meditated work.” It would be unfair to level such complaints against what are, after all, only the notebooks of a brilliant writer (who in fact did produce a number of book-length studies, not least among them Axel’s Castle, To the Finland Station, and Patriotic Gore); except that some of what is offered in these pages appears to far better advantage elsewhere in Wilson’s writings. For example, we are given many pages of notes on a working-class mistress of his to whom he devoted the longest chapter, nearly a novel in itself, of Memoirs of Hecate County; and some of the material on Edna St. Vincent Millay is to be found both in a memoir included in The Shores of Light and, fictionalized, in I Thought of Daisy. Of course, it has to be remembered that these are the writings of a comparatively young man, and haven’t the more formal shape he was able to give A Prelude before he died. (Those earlier notebooks possess the added charm of naiveté; the notebooks of the 20’s show him to have become rather alarmingly callow in his observations and relationships.) And yet, one ends up longing for the vivid stretches of narrative that distinguish Europe Without Baedeker or Travels in Two Worlds.

Since we are in a period of unprecedented revelations about the private lives of public figures, the many passages dealing explicitly with sex will probably not seem too shocking, unless one’s image of Wilson is drawn from the patrician austerity of his later work. Edel claims, in his gloss of these episodes, that Wilson preceded D. H. Lawrence in attempting “to set down the realities of erotic experience.” It could be objected that Lawrence’s treatment of sexuality occurs within the design of a fictional work, while Wilson’s is in the form of unfinished sketches; still, what the notebooks do establish, and with great originality, is that while there have been significant developments in the literary depiction of sexual relations since the 1920’s, there have been virtually none in those relations themselves. We tend to think of our present period as a particularly decadent one, consecrated to some post-modern sensibility intent on self-liberation. In truth, as Wilson’s panoramic view of the 20’s demonstrates, infidelities, divorce bizarre sexual proclivities are by no means the invention or discovery of the present age. The fabric of social life seems only more worn half a century later; certainly its pattern is familiar.



One thing Wilson could do better than anyone was express a complicated idea simply, and it is in the practice of this gift that the notebooks have their most rewarding moments. Meditating on the impulses that provoke a work of literature, he noted: “The whole literary and artistic process is merely the type of all human activity, which tends inevitably toward the ordering of the disorderly. the harmonizing of the inharmonious, the decoration of the grace less.” Elsewhere, it is

merely the result of our rude collisions with reality, whose repercussions, when we have withdrawn into the shelter of ourselves, we try to explain, justify, harmonize, spin into an orderly pattern in the smooth resuming current of a thought which for a moment has been shattered and torn by them—for even the highest excitement of imaginative vision is a state of reflection and detachment.

To reverse Eliot’s axiom about Henry James, that “He had a mind so fine no idea could violate it,” one could say Wilson had a mind so capacious it could assimilate any idea without violating it. His chapter in Axel’s Castle on Valéry, or the presentation of dialectical materialism in To the Finland Station, recapitulate with grace and simplicity ideas which would otherwise have seemed intimidating. In the notebooks, we can see this method actively at work, and always directed to some immediate purpose, whether it is the understanding of a literary period or the desire to know how literature enacts a writer’s lived experience.

Still, one shouldn’t be too solemn about these notebooks, which veer uncertainly between the casual, episodic entries of a diarist and the higher concerns of a distinguished literary figure. So great was Wilson’s versatility that he could discuss Whitehead on one page, and on the next introduce a hilarious song about dogs composed in collaboration with F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Dog, dog—I like a good dog!
Rover or Fido or Spot—
Clean sort of pleasure—
A four-footed treasure—
And loyal as humans are not!

Sometimes he would entertain fanciful Utopian visions,

impatient for the day when, controlling gravitation as he now controls electricity, mankind, harnessing the worlds, shall drive them around the heavens, master of the solar system and eventually of the whole universe. . . . He will understand everything and have no need of the records of science; and, as he flies, he will naturally and without agonizing his brain sing songs which will make the poetry of Dante and the music of Beethoven seem like the stammering of barbarians.

While waiting for this epoch to arrive, Edmund Wilson was, like everyone else, confined to the realm of human history, a world that often seemed to him “too small, its phenomena too petty and imperfect.” Out of the restlessness that has always irritated artists into producing works capable of transcending such natural limits, Wilson fashioned another world, the world that appears in these notebooks. By turns euphoric, vulgar, and nihilistic, this world of the 20’s was considerably less genteel than the world of the turn of the century portrayed in Santayana’s People and Places. Yet their worlds had much in common, not least a cultural tradition for their genius to compete with and exceed. They both possessed independent minds that were nonetheless characteristic of the era that produced them. Somewhere Wilson compares a writer’s notes to “the instinctive defensive or predatory gestures of the lowest forms of life.” Perhaps, but they are also the record of an evolving sensibility that will always bear, like a fossil, the traces of its origins.


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