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by LOUIS MENAND
Edmund Wilson and American culture.
Issue of 2005-08-08 and 15
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.
Wilson’s professional life has three chapters. In the beginning, he was a player in the drama that he wrote about, a commentator on times that he wa helping to shape. He not only explained contemporary writing in “Axel’s Castle”; he knew and advised many contemporary writers, among the Fitzgerald (a Princeton classmate and close friend), Dos Passos (another close friend), Hemingway, Cummings, Bogan, Millay, Farrell, Nabokov. H published Eliot in Vanity Fair; he met Joyce in Paris. His other big book of this period, “To the Finland Station” (1940), explained the Marxist revolutionary tradition. In the decade during which he worked on the book, Wilson reported on the condition of life in the Depression (his pieces were published as “The American Jitters,” in 1932); he engaged in political activities and drew up a radical manifesto; he guided the editorial direction of The New Republic until the magazine’s loyalty to Stalin drove him away. He published two major collections, “The Triple Thinkers” (1938) and “The Wound and the Bow” (1941); a number of the essays in them—on Dickens, James, Wharton, Kipling, Pushkin, and Flaubert—changed the reputations of their subjects.
The books and essays of this phase have a special charge, given to them by Wilson’s notion of writing as an arena where there is the possibility of heroic performance—and by the hope, or the desire, that his own books and essays might be performances of this kind. Many of them were read that way. Alfred Kazin, whose first book, “On Native Grounds,” was passionately indebted to Wilson’s prose, and his friend Richard Hofstadter used to read aloud to each other the famous ending of the chapter on Proust in “Axel’s Castle”:
Proust is perhaps the last great historian of the loves, the society, the intelligence, the diplomacy, the literature and the art of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture; and the little man with the sad appealing voice, the metaphysician’s mind, the Saracen’s beak, the ill-fitting dress-shirt and the great eyes that seem to see all about him like the many-faceted eyes of a fly, dominates the scene and plays host in the mansion where he is not long to be master.
The tribute to Hemingway—in an essay, in “The Wound and the Bow,” that was so critical, in parts, that Hemingway threatened to file a lawsuit over it—produces the same sort of effect:
Hemingway has expressed with genius the terrors of the modern man at the danger of losing control of his world, and he has also, within his scope, provided his own kind of antidote. This antidote, paradoxically, is almost entirely moral. Despite Hemingway’s preoccupation with physical contests, his heroes are almost always defeated physically, nervously, practically: their stories are moral ones. He himself, when he trained himself stubbornly in his unconventional unmarketable art in a Paris which had other fashions, gave the prime example of such a victory; and if he has sometimes, under the menace of the general panic, seemed on the point of going to pieces as an artist, he has always pulled himself together the next moment. The principle of the Bourdon gauge, which is used to measure the pressure of liquids, is that a tube which has been curved into a coil will tend to straighten out in proportion as the liquid inside it is subjected to an increasing pressure.
And there is the one-sentence paragraph that comes at the end of the terrible catalogue, in “To the Finland Station,” of the misfortunes and the deaths of Marx, his wife, and their children:
Such pain and such effort it cost to build a stronghold for the mind and the will outside the makeshifts of human society.
It was an entire generation’s romance of Marxism in a sentence.
Then, around 1945, Wilson walked out of the arena. Many of his literary friends had died or were, creatively, past it; possibly the chronic catfight that was his third marriage, to Mary McCarthy, wore him down. (“Two tyrants under a single roof” is how one writer described them. They were married for seven years, and separated in 1945.) He continued to review for The New Yorker and to maintain extensive literary and intellectual friendships. But he abandoned his dream of a great American culture. He had imagined himself a soldier in the struggle to create a literature that could stand on equal terms with the literatures of Europe, and he had always, at heart, imagined that one writer in particular would fulfill this hope. That writer was Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald’s burnout and death seemed to confirm, for Wilson, everything that Shaw and Mencken had predicted about the fate of culture under bourgeois capitalism. “There has come a sort of break in the literary movement that was beginning to feel its first strength in the years 1912-1916, at the time I was in college at Princeton: the movement on which I grew up and with which I afterwards worked,” Wilson wrote in 1944, four years after Fitzgerald’s death. Writers had been corrupted, he believed, by “the two great enemies of literary talent in our time: Hollywood and Henry Luce.” It was not that the movement had died. It had never happened.
Disaffection became Wilson’s customary response to contemporary life and literature. He claimed, only a little hyperbolically, that the only American novelist whose work he followed was J. D. Salinger. In his journalism, he turned to the old, the marginal, the neglected, and the obscure. The period begins with his reporting for The New Yorker from the ruins of Europe, collected in “Europe Without Baedeker” (1947), and includes “The Scrolls from the Dead Sea” (1955); “Red, Black, Blond, and Olive. Studies in Four Civilizations: Zuñi, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel” (1956); “Apologies to the Iroquois” (1960); the third of the major works, “Patriotic Gore” (1962), a study of the literature of the American Civil War, most of it by minor writers; a book on Canadian literature, “O Canada” (1965); and “A Window on Russia for the Use of Foreign Readers” (1972). There are also two classic cases of late-life peevishness: “The Cold War and the Income Tax” (1963), which arose out of Wilson’s failure to file income-tax returns from 1946 to 1955, an act of carelessness to which he attempted to give the glow of principle; and “The Fruits of the MLA,” a two-part article for The New York Review of Books designed to vaporize a harmless and well-intentioned cottage industry, the publication of scholarly editions. (The articles did prepare the way for the Library of America, an enterprise that Wilson conceived.)
In his last years, he turned to autobiography, and this marks the third phase of his career, much of which is posthumous. Wilson completed two volumes of memoirs, “A Prelude” (1967), covering his life through the First World War, and “Upstate” (1971), about Talcottville, a remote New York town, where he spent part of the year alone in an old house that had belonged to his family. (His fourth wife, Elena, called the area a “kingdom of asbestos shingle and patched and mended asbestos shingle,” and she refused to spend much time there.) Five more autobiographical volumes appeared after Wilson’s death, each named for a decade, beginning with “The Twenties” (1975). That’s seven volumes, and they are not slim. “The Fifties” (1986) is six hundred and sixty-three pages; “The Sixties” (1993) is nine hundred and sixty-eight. A volume of selected correspondence, “Letters on Literature and Politics,” came out in 1977, edited by Elena Wilson, with the assistance of Daniel Aaron. It is the best window on Wilson and his times, and one of the great editions of twentieth-century letters.
Unlike some posthumous productions, the memoirs are not merchandise cobbled together by the estate. Wilson wanted them published, and h engaged a distinguished biographer, Leon Edel, to handle the job after his death (against the recommendation of Roger Straus, Wilson’s publisher, wh thought, given the material, that Edel was too much of a prude). Wilson’s model, apparently, was Casanova’s “Memoirs,” the subject of an essay in “The Wound and the Bow”; he may also have had in mind the journals of Gide and the Goncourts. His books are not in that class. Their chief problem—to invoke what, under the circumstances, seems the fair standard—is that they do not read as literature. They are drawn mostly from Wilson’ notebooks, which he used as, simultaneously, a diary, a verbal sketchbook, a repository for anecdotes and recollected party talk, and a reporter’ notebook. A lot of the diary entries reappeared in Wilson’s fiction, “I Thought of Daisy” (1929) and “Memoirs of Hecate County” (1946); a lot of th reporting reappeared in books like “Travels in Two Democracies” (1936), about his first visit to the Soviet Union, and “Apologies to the Iroquois. Though Wilson obviously planned all along to make the journals public, since he used pseudonyms when writing about his affairs, they are mostly unprocessed notes. They need someone like Wilson to explain what it all means.
This last phase of publication has made things difficult for biographers. A life of Wilson by Jeffrey Meyers came out in 1995. A new one, by Lewis Dabney, more than twenty years in the making, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this summer. A much shorter book, called “Critic in Love: A Romantic Biography of Edmund Wilson,” by David Castronovo and Janet Groth, is scheduled to appear in the fall. A biography of a highly guarded writer—Saul Bellow, for example—has an obvious appeal, since there are self-presentations to unravel and secrets to reveal. But Wilson was one of the most unguarded of men. He was often brusque and aloof with people, but he spoke his mind, sometimes imprudently and frequently in print; and in his diaries he does not seem to have censored much. Unlike, say, Bellow, he gave no time or consideration to the project of crafting a personality. Kazin once teased Wilson about wearing a dress shirt when he went to the beach in Wellfleet, which is where he spent the parts of the year that he was not in Talcottville. “I have only one way of dressing,” Wilson said. It is a challenge, in other words, to find much to say about Wilson’s private life that has remained, in fact, private.
But the autobiographical phase can’t just be lopped off from the rest of the oeuvre. Wilson’s life was one of Wilson’s subjects, and he must have intended that later readers would take him the way he took Proust and Marx and Casanova—as a historical figure, the critical reflector of an age. The disorderliness of the life is almost the reverse image of the work, which is so assured and direct, but it does tell us a few things, one of which is that Wilson’s hostility to gentility and institutional authority was not a literary affectation. He was, in his way, a bohemian, though a bohemian with many firm opinions—“the man in the iron necktie,” Cummings called him. After his separation from Mary Blair, in 1925, Wilson became involved with a taxi-dancer, whom he picked up in a dance hall on Fourteenth Street. Her name was Frances Minihan; she was the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, and married to a car thief. She is Anna in Wilson’s great, unnerving story of erotic obsession, “The Princess with the Golden Hair,” published in “Memoirs of Hecate County”—a woman who was completely outside his social and professional circles, and with whom he seems to have had a uniquely uncomplicated and loving, though ultimately impossible, relationship. Wilson’s second wife, Margaret Canby, died, in a fall at a party, in 1932. They had been married for two years, and lived part of the time, for various reasons, on opposite sides of the continent. The marriage to McCarthy was a mistake that neither side wanted to be first to admit. When they fought, he would retreat into his study and lock the door; she would set piles of paper on fire and try to push them under it. Wilson’s fourth marriage, to Elena Mumm Thornton, came closest to conventional domesticity, but they did not live all the year together, and Wilson still pursued other women, with whom he achieved varying degrees of sexual intimacy.
Wilson was an intent observer of anatomical detail, and he left written records of quite a few pudenda. There is something chilling about the records, and there could be something chilling about the man who made them. It is the opposite of arousing to read Wilson’s description of sex with the unhappy Penelope Gilliatt in the Princeton Club in 1970, when he was seventy-five. But although these passages are not usually moving to read, they represent a moving element in Wilson’s personality. Wilson was not a sexual conquistador. He adored the women he had affairs with; and though he struggled and fought with his wives, he loved them. One of the things we learn from Dabney’s book is that on Valentine’s Day Wilson sent homemade valentines to the women in his life. He was, with them and other close friends, Bunny—a nickname that his mother gave him, and which, despite initial resistance and some obvious incongruousness, he sweetly adopted.
The women and the sex were important to Wilson because everything else in his life was often a mess. He had three children, each from a different marriage. He moved a lot, usually from one shabby rented place to another, and, thanks to the divorces and, later, the negligence about taxes, money was a serious problem right up to the end. He was a functioning alcoholic but an angry drunk (one cause of the problems in the early marriages). His figure was not prepossessing. He was five-six and, by early middle age, stout and habitually short of breath. Isaiah Berlin was startled to meet him, in 1946, when Wilson was fifty-one: a “thick-set, red-faced, pot-bellied figure not unlike President Hoover.” His voice was described by contemporaries as a shrill boom, and he was uneasy in a classroom and a dreadful public speaker (as he was aware). When it came to most physical activities, he was inept. He did not, for instance, know how to drive a car. But he was an ardent lover. Sex seems to have been one place where he felt natural and in control, a zone of wholeness in a world that, for him, was characterized mostly by tension, rupture, and decay. The other place he must have felt that way, of course, was his writing.
People have sometimes looked in that writing for the wrong things. In 1948, Stanley Edgar Hyman published a book on criticism called “The Arme Vision,” which begins with a chapter on Wilson. Hyman was a New Yorker writer who contributed to the Talk of the Town section; he also was a professor at Bennington. The argument of his book was that contemporary critics had developed “a formal methodology and system of procedures that can be objectively transmitted” and that were turning literary study into a science. Wilson figured in the book as an unscientific primitive.
Hyman’s discussion of Wilson’s work suggests an obsession, the kind nursed by a writer who knows himself to have a superior intellect, a person whose teachers have always told him how smart he is, and who cannot understand why everyone is reading this mere plot summarizer who has never bothered to rigorously interrogate the philosophical underpinnings of his discourse. What readers evidently don’t realize, Hyman continually seems to be saying, is that educated people already know this stuff. Wilson’s indifference to theory and methodology “is merely another evidence that the attempt to interpret, ‘translate,’ and promote major literature on no more solid a basis than sharp reading and eclecticism cannot result in more than flashes of insight at its best and in the shoddy popularization of ‘100 Great Books Digested’ at its worst.” He also accused Wilson of borrowing from the work of other scholars and critics without acknowledgment.
The plagiarism charge was nonsense. Wilson wrote the first American review of “The Waste Land”—after the poem had appeared in The Dial but before Eliot published the notes in the book edition which have guided interpreters ever since—and he wrote one of the first reviews anywhere of “Ulysses.” Wilson did not borrow from anyone when he wrote those reviews because there was, at the time, no one to borrow from. The reviews were the basis for the chapters on Eliot and Joyce, nine years later, in “Axel’s Castle,” and they are still remarkable for the accuracy and clarity of the analysis. Wilson had access to Joyce’s private “schema,” a table of the Homeric parallels around which the novel is constructed, but so did Stuart Gilbert, whose later, book-length study of “Ulysses” Hyman accused Wilson of stealing from. Though it’s not part of Hyman’s argument, the essay on James, “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” is an example of Wilson’s habit of acknowledgment. The essay is still often cited for the argument that “The Turn of the Screw” is really a story about the sexual neuroses of the governess, who hallucinates ghosts that no other character can see. In fact, that interpretation had already been proposed by a critic named Edna Kenton, in an essay she published many years earlier in a journal called The Arts. No one remembers Kenton, but Wilson had written to her when her article appeared, and he credited her by name in the first paragraph of his essay. And “The Ambiguity of Henry James” is about much more than “The Turn of the Screw.”
Wilson respected scholars and took scholarship seriously. He did not respect academic literary criticism, and the emergence of the university English department as a home for critics was possibly one of the reasons for the turn in his career around 1945. He found academic close reading, the sometimes fetishistic attention to form and language, insipid. Most academics, for their part, had little use for him. In 1943, Wilson was asked to write an essay on the influence of Symbolist poetry for The Kenyon Review, an organ of the New Criticism. His reaction to the invitation sums up the nature of the antagonism. “It is difficult for me to think of anything I should be less likely to write than an essay on the influence of Symbolist poetry,” he complained in a letter to Allen Tate, a friend who was also a close associate of the editor of The Kenyon Review, John Crowe Ransom. “I will go even further and say that it seems to me absurd in the extreme for The Kenyon Review at this time of day to devote a special number to the subject. And I will even go on to explain that I would not write anything whatever at the request of The Kenyon Review. The dullness and sterility and pretentiousness of The Kenyon, under the editorship of Ransom, has really been a literary crime.” Then the buried lead: “Mary and I have both sent Ransom some of the best things we have written of recent years, and he has declined to print any of them. . . . Of Mary’s book he published a stupid and impudent review apparently composed by the office boy; my books he has not reviewed at all.”
Wilson did not engage well with literature at the level of the text. He was also not at ease or reliable at the meta-level. He had a journalist’s suspicion of abstractions, and he did not think theoretically. When he tried for the broad view—when he undertook to explain the demise of verse as a literary technique, or to describe the alternation of periods of realism with periods of romanticism in modern literature, or to interpret art as compensation for a psychic “wound”—his criticism got reductive very quickly. But he was unsurpassed at the level of the writer and the work. When he gives his tour through “Das Kapital” or “Finnegans Wake” (a book he was excited by) or “Doctor Zhivago” (which he also admired extravagantly), it is as though the book’s interior had suddenly been lit up by a thousand-watt bulb. Even readers who thought they already knew the book can see things that they missed, and they realize how partial and muddled their sense of it really was. And the hyper-clarity of the description is complemented by a complete grasp of the corpus, each of the writer’s strengths and flaws laid out with juridical precision, no matter how large or problematic the body of work. The result is something better than microscopic analysis; anyone can look through a microscope. The result is a satellite picture. This is why Wilson continued to be read long after many of the critics Hyman believed to be on the path of science were out of print: Constance Rourke, Maud Bodkin, Christopher Caudwell, Caroline Spurgeon, I. A. Richards. Brendan Gill, who was a friend of Wilson’s at the time “The Armed Vision” came out, remembered Wilson making only one comment about it, while he was washing his hands in the men’s room at the offices of The New Yorker. “That Hyman is bad news,” he said. When a paperback edition of “The Armed Vision” was published, in 1955, the chapter on Wilson was omitted.
Wilson took literature as it is—that is, he took what the writer was saying to be what the writer was saying, and not something that required extra-literary equipment to decipher. Hyman was perfectly correct in reading Wilson as the anti-type of the advanced sort of critic he respected. Wilson thought that literature is determined by history and by psychology: that was always, to use the journalistic term, the hook in his pieces. But he did not think, or he did not give attention to the idea, that literature is overdetermined, that a text is shaped by forces in the language and the culture that can multiply and ambiguate its meanings, and that can make it a party to the very conditions that its author is attempting to criticize or transcend. From the point of view of contemporary criticism, this was a limitation. Wilson maintained this faith in the literary, though, because he meant his criticism to have, itself, the force of literature. He did not distinguish the duty to explain from the desire to persuade.
When Edmund Wilson “missed his target,” he could do so “by many miles,” Berlin once said. He was probably thinking of the portrait of Lenin in “To the Finland Station”: the intellectual as heroic man of action. Wilson subsequently reversed his opinion of Lenin, and then compared Lincoln and Lenin, as types of the modern dictator, in the introduction to “Patriotic Gore.” And though it is subtitled “Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War,” “Patriotic Gore” has little to say about the poetry of Whitman and Melville, and nothing to say about many other important figures, including Frederick Douglass. The comparison of Lincoln with Lenin (and with Bismarck) echoes, of course, the view of Lincoln’s assassin: Sic semper tyrannis. And “Patriotic Gore” fits neatly next to Wilson’s other books of the period—on Zuñi and Haitian culture, and on the Iroquois. It considers the South to be one more little fish swallowed up by the capitalist leviathan. One of the book’s longest and most sympathetic chapters is on Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy. “There is in most of us,” Wilson says, “an unreconstructed Southerner who will not accept domination as well as a benevolent despot who wants to mold others for their own good.” That was apparently his idea of what the Civil War was about.
Though he did study Haitian writing, Wilson showed no interest in African-American writers, apart from some complimentary remarks about Baldwin. Despite his work on Joyce and Stein, he was never a follower of the avant-garde, in literature or in any of the arts. The writers he followed were serious but mainstream, something that is apparent from the collections he made of his book reviews—“Classics and Commercials” (1950), “The Shores of Light” (1952), and “The Bit Between My Teeth” (1965). The figures he wrote about most frequently were Shaw, Saintsbury, Max Beerbohm, Van Wyck Brooks, Thornton Wilder, Elinor Wylie, Evelyn Waugh, André Malraux. His neglect of American literature after 1950, when he had twenty-two years as a reviewer left, is almost fantastic. His neglect of criticism is only a little less so. He reviewed nothing by Cleanth Brooks, Richard Blackmur, William Wimsatt, William Empson, Northrop Frye, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, or Lionel Trilling, except for Trilling’s first book, on Matthew Arnold. These were critics who shared many of Wilson’s interests, but he either regarded them as academic and sterile or considered them unworthy of occupying a portion of the turf he commanded. He told Kazin that he had found nothing of interest in “On Native Grounds.” (This did not prevent their becoming friends.)
His judgments could be as idiosyncratic as anyone’s, and he tended, when negative, toward the absolute. People who were delighted by his blanket denunciation of detective fiction (“As a department of imaginative writing, it looks to me completely dead”) may also have been cheered by his dismissal of “The Lord of the Rings” (“long-winded volumes of what looks to this reader like balderdash”), but they were probably not the people who took satisfaction from his “dissenting opinion” on Kafka (“He is quite true to his time and place, but it is surely a time and place in which few of us will want to linger”). Although he spotted and supported Nabokov’s talent early, he found “Lolita” distasteful—“Nasty subjects may make fine books; but I don’t feel you have got away with this,” he wrote to Nabokov, who was in despair about finding a publisher—and “Pale Fire” made him irritable. The dismissal of “Lolita” was only the beginning of the end of that friendship. Nabokov thought that Wilson’s enthusiasm for “Doctor Zhivago,” which appeared in English translation in 1958, showed a lack of critical refinement; and in 1965 Wilson published a review of Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” in which he recklessly challenged Nabokov’s knowledge of Russian. Nabokov replied in print, and the absurd public feud went on for several years. Two tyrants under a single roof.
Why shouldn’t there be errors and omissions? Wilson was opinionated and arbitrary about the subjects he covered because he was a writer, not a expert. He was not obliged, as professors are, to pick out a single furrow and plow it for life. His whole career was devoted to the opposite principle that an educated, intelligent person can take on any subject that seems interesting and important, and, by doing the homework and taking care with th exposition, make it interesting and important to other people. There is no point in comparing Wilson—either unfavorably, as Hyman did, or favorably as people contemptuous of English professors sometimes do today—with academic critics. He operated in an entirely different environment. “To write what you are interested in writing and to succeed in getting editors to pay for it, is a feat that may require pretty close calculation and a good deal of ingenuity,” he once explained. “You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings; you have to develop a resourcefulness a pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitous subjects; and you have to acquire a technique of slipping ove on the routine of editors the deeper independent work which their over-anxious intentness on the fashions of the month or the week have conditione them automatically to reject.” He wrote in a world where print was still king, and literature was at the center of a nation’s culture—circumstances tha gave glamour to literary journalism. He sensed that that world was coming to an end before most people did, and he declined to compromise with th future. In the last week of his life, he was taken to see two movies, “The Godfather” and “The French Connection.” As always, he recorded his observations in his journal. “Bang bang” was all he wrote.