Train of Thought

The occasion for this conversation is the publication by the Library of America of two volumes of Edmund Wilson’s literary criticism, from the 1920s through the 1940s. They include five complete books: his two best-known collections of literary journalism, Classics and Commercials (1950) and The Shores of Light (1952), his influential study of the new modern writers of the 1920s, Axel’s Castle (1931), and his two most important collections of longer essays, several of them definitive classics, The Triple Thinkers (1938; revised 1948) and The Wound and the Bow (1941). In addition, each volume contains half a dozen previously uncollected essays on writers like W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Dawn Powell, and H. L. Mencken, pieces that could easily have made another critic’s reputation. The two volumes are edited by Lewis Dabney, a longtime professor of English at the University of Wyoming, whose biography, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2005 and recently released in paperback by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Edmund Wilson, 1936.
Edmund Wilson, 1936.

BOOKFORUM: I’ve always felt that Edmund Wilson’s desire to be a novelist is expressed more fully in his criticism and historical writing than in his attempts at fiction. Of course, this approach is rather unusual, something we associate more with the nineteenth century than the twentieth, which at the very time Wilson was starting out was becoming more technical and analytic and a good deal less narrative. Interestingly, he came to fame by writing so receptively about the new and difficult modernists of the ’20s. How would you reconcile the traditional elements in his approach and his style with his responsiveness to the cutting-edge new modernists?

LEWIS DABNEY: A generation shared this responsiveness. Think of the burned-over country in Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” and the valley of ashes in Gatsby, presided over by the bespectacled eyes of T. J. Eckleburg, who was something of an inside joke. Wilson’s passion for literature and his background and training, along with his fascination with the life around him, enabled him to explain the power of The Waste Land and Ulysses and Proust, helping people to read them as he learned how to do so. He was an educator on the page rather than in the classroom.

BF: Compared to more technical criticism, Wilson’s approach certainly did a great deal to clarify those difficult writers for readers. I was struck by the uncollected pieces you included in the Library of America edition because they showed such fresh and immediate responses to poems like The Waste Land. We already know that Wilson was one of the first to respond to Hemingway’s early writing, because that piece was included in The Shores of Light. In Axel’s Castle, he provided a superb introduction to the great modernist writers in general. But it was only from your uncollected pieces that I saw how quickly and immediately he made sense of works that might have been confusing or challenging or off-putting to so many others.

LD: Absolutely. And I’m glad you liked these early pieces. Each is a match for the best things on their subjects in his earlier collections of essays.

BF: He’s also remarkably personal. I think it’s only in the last couple of decades, as people have learned more about the life of T. S. Eliot, that we’ve begun to understand the personal situation out of which a poem like The Waste Land emerged. Wilson is surprisingly personal in sensing what the human grasp or human feel of a poem is. This is not the way we were taught to read The Waste Land. Wilson seemed to have grasped intuitively an approach that only began to be common in the 1970s and ’80s, which is to understand Eliot’s personal and historical situation and not simply his position in literary history.

LD: The uncollected pieces in volume 1 give us perspective on some of the portraits in Axel’s Castle.

BF: Some of the uncollected pieces that you include, such as the ones on Eliot and Yeats, challenge the general assumption that Wilson was simply not that good on poetry.

LD: It was easier for him to engage major verse written in the literary tradition of the Old World than to come to terms with more specifically American figures half a generation before his own—Frost, William Carlos Williams. And no one then knew how Pound had influenced Eliot and Yeats. Wilson doesn’t engage in explication de texte, another reason he is underestimated on poetry. He quotes, appraises, places passages historically. In his own old-fashioned verse, he is committed to rhyme scheme and meter.

I like our early Mencken piece a lot, by the way. It’s amazing this had never been reprinted. The early essay, written at the moment that Yeats was at the height of his importance to Wilson’s generation, contains some lasting insights. Mencken is set in the evangelical tradition he affected to despise, and Wilson sees how his satiric commentary inverts Whitman’s affirming catalogues.

BF: I’ve always felt that Axel’s Castle is one of the few of Wilson’s books that has dated somewhat, not so much because it was written just on the cusp between the ’20s and ’30s and, as Malcolm Cowley was one of the first to point out, was written with a somewhat divided consciousness, but because it was one of the few of his books that was ridden by a thesis: the relationship between the modernists and the French Symbolists. This is not an uninteresting thesis, but it is one that doesn’t seem to account for many of the good things he talks about in the book. The Joyce and the Proust essays are quite wonderful, but the relationship with Symbolism seems extremely tenuous.

LD: Agreed. The other reason Axel’s Castle has dated is that it’s about a historical movement then in midpassage. The only one of the great moderns whose career hadn’t yet to unfold was Proust, who was dead. I think of the book as a struggle for an integrated perspective by a man on a train traveling from the literary world of 1922 to 1932, while his own interior landscape is also changing. Different values argue it out in young Wilson as he absorbs these writers. As a Romantic, he believes that the artist should lead a vital human life, be a social being and an activist; he’s neoclassical in his artistic standards and in setting the order of form against the confusion of reality; as a realist, he demands that our writers not fool themselves about the nature of the commercial-industrial civilization they confront, without succumbing to its cheapening of culture. But the train is moving . . .

BF: That’s a wonderful image.

LD: Where in 1929, he thinks Dos Passos was as deluded that American workers will become class-conscious Marxists as is Eliot about the intellectual possibilities of Anglo-Catholicism, by 1931, as Axel’s Castle appeared, he called on progressives to “steal Communism from the Communists,” and in 1932, he was more of a believer than Dos Passos. Wilson’s train was now en route to the Finland Station, from which he would return via the essays of The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow. “The slump was like a flood or an earthquake,” he recalls in “The Literary Consequences of the Crash,” “and it was long before many things righted themselves.”

BF: Exactly, and I think that image led to his putting together his earlier pieces in a later book called The American Earthquake [1958].

LD: Writers have their times, and in the ’20s, two-thirds of Shores reflects what Wilson later knew had been his time, when brilliant writing was an uninhibited exchange of ideas accompanied by the excitements of liquor and sex, before the economic collapse hardened imaginative positions into dogma and the survival of society was in question. By Classics and Commercials, Wilson’s literary generation was fading, Marxism had lost its moral authority through the Moscow Trials, and the nations were on the path to a second world war. Wilson falls back on British literature, on the solid traditions of British comedy and satire, while expressing his own satiric inclination at the expense of novels manufactured for the mass market, a popular culture quite different from the work of creative individuals he had cele­­-brated in the ’20s—Houdini is its representative in Shores.

BF: The piece he included on Dos Passos from the early period, from 1929, just before the crash, is a particular favorite of mine, because he nails in advance the problems that would be faced by all the radical writers of the ’30s. You’ll recall that he says that Dos Passos seems to feel that the dehumanizing effects of capitalist society dehumanized virtually every single individual within it. Wilson at that point is still faithful, as I think he would ultimately remain, to the culture of the ’20s, the enjoyment culture. He argues that there are still many satisfactions in individual lives even when society is going to hell.

LD: Wilson instinctively distrusts ideologues and abstractions. For me, Shores is rooted in the enjoyment of the variety of literature and the imaginative power it reaches for, in the solidity for him of the republic of letters, in the role of the intellectual avant-garde of bourgeois society before this faded during the Depression.

BF: If Wilson fell out of touch in the 1940s, how much of that would be because the culture of the ’40s lacks such a vital center? Others would argue that there was a whole generation of new writers, especially novelists like Norman Mailer and James Jones, who represented a new postwar sensibility.

LD: Well, it’s both, but let’s recall that three-quarters of Classics and Commercials were written before 1946. And more than half before the 1943 memoir of his generation’s experience called “Thoughts on Being Bibliographed,” which looks back on the ’20s and ’30s as if from the moon. All this was well before the new literary generation arrived.

BF: I like that essay very much. “Thoughts on Being Bibliographed,” as I recall, does two things. It’s the beginnings of the autobiographical vein of the older Wilson, as well as a kind of generational elegy. He mentions all the writers who had died just between 1939 and 1941, including Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Joyce, Yeats, Freud, and Sherwood Anderson. As I read that essay, Wilson feels orphaned by the deaths of writers who were at the height of their powers when he was coming into his own.

LD: He wrote to John Peale Bishop that it was “almost like the death of one’s father.” But the son would go on to be a synoptic eye on cultures of the present and the past, circling from his own literary generation through the American past and exploring different sorts of minority communities, from the ancient sect who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls into the corners of the modern world.

BF: One of the things that all those later interests show is Wilson’s cosmopolitanism. I doubt that in the twentieth century we had a more cosmopolitan American critic, so interested in different cultures, in learning different languages, and so on. How do you relate Wilson’s broad international interests to the fact that in many ways he was a promoter of American literature at a time when most critics and universities didn’t take the American literary tradition very seriously?

LD: He was a patriot but never a chauvinist. He was a voice of what he liked to call the renascence of the ’20s, when people raised on classics of the Old World rediscovered what became our mid-nineteenth-century American canon. But the American culture Wilson believed in was also international. It absorbed the best of Europe in his friends Auden and Nabokov. He’d have loved the idea of the United States as a world culture. He got nervous whenever American studies seemed parochial, reducing literature to a mirror of our social categories, without that hunger for the best that has been said and thought.

BF: He was certainly critical of the way some people were promoting American literature. For example, he writes a review of virtually every single volume of Van Wyck Brooks’s “Makers and Finders” series, but he’s never really that happy with the pageant element of Brooks’s work. He finds it fascinating as writing and as literary history, but fundamentally uncritical. Wilson’s writing is never like that; even toward the end, when he’s rediscovering minor American realists of the 1890s, he’s not the least bit uncritical.

LD: He was very happy telling people about a book they didn’t know in a language he had worked up in order to read it. I doubt there’s a serious reader of modern literature who hasn’t at some time been indebted to the great paraphrases of Ulysses and the eight volumes of In Search of Lost Time, nobody interested in Russian literature who can’t profit from Wilson’s account of the plot and characters of Eugene Onegin even as he places this narrative poem aesthetically.

BF: Let me turn to the two other major volumes in this collection, The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow.

LD: The unifying theme of The Triple Thinkers is Flaubert’s remark, “What is the artist if he is not a triple thinker?” While setting the novelist’s political development in his historical frame, Wilson among other things points out that he could see the repressive potential of socialism better than Marx. The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow were as influential in their time as either To the Finland Station [1940] or Patriotic Gore [1961]. Frank Kermode told me he thought them greatly neglected in the United States. When I asked why, he spoke of the way in which our literary culture has become subordinated to politics.

BF: In one long essay in The Wound and the Bow, Wilson really created the modern Dickens. This is an extraordinary thing. How many critics can we say really re-created a whole sense of a writer, a writer very well known but really not very well understood? In the same volume, the Kipling and Hemingway essays are close to being among the best essays he ever wrote.

LD: Wilson brings together the classical idea of suffering and wisdom, the Romantic image of the artist outside society, the pragmatic, rather puritanical idea that art ought to be useful, along with the Old World (not very American) idea that it is. Dickens and Kipling are taken back to traumatic childhood experiences of injustice, but Wilson doesn’t use biog­raphy with Joyce, who has no psychic wound, or take it far with Edith Wharton, whose work we sense but still can’t pin down. Nor with Hemingway, though his early stories suggest how his parents wounded him. With Hemingway, Wilson is scrupulously nonreductive. He reads and ranks and relates the books, out of their rapid shifts in quality, creating an influential view of Hemingway the artist’s shaky control of his emotions and his ego. These portraits are held together through the wound-and-the-bow metaphor, which applies as well to several pieces in The Triple Thinkers. Meanwhile, Wilson wrestled with the influences first of Marx and then of Freud in the huge Marx-Engels section of To the Finland Station. The disillusionment with communism that began in Wilson’s trip to Russia in 1935 and was completed with the Moscow Trials significantly deepens his portrait of Marx as a wounded (and wounding) Promethean figure. I think of his Marx as his greatest study of the strengths and weaknesses of the hero as man of letters.

BF: I couldn’t agree with you more. Because of the strength of the narrative power that goes into it, for me To the Finland Station is certainly Wilson’s greatest book. The portrait of Marx is so far beyond the way he was discussed during that period, which was mostly theoretical and ideological, and not personal. Yet Wilson also takes writers whom everyone else wrote about personally and emphasizes their historical situation, though the latter parts of that book, on Lenin especially, are flawed.

LD: They are. As Mary McCarthy put it to me, Wilson had to believe in Lenin in order to think that the Russian Revolution offered something to Depression America. The sources had been censored under Stalin, and Wilson was kept out of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow. But we have to acknowledge that the great student of wound and bow failed to see how Lenin had been scarred by his brother’s execution and other consequences of the failed plot to kill the czar. Wilson was bemused by the piety of Russians toward their dead leader in Stalin’s Moscow, and it was late in life before he knew how coldly oppressive Lenin could be to colleagues. The Freudian analysis of sadomasochism developed for Wilson’s Marx never came into play.

BF: You feel that Wilson was under the influence of Freud and psychoanalysis or that he was simply taking from psychoanalysis what he himself could use?

LD: He had known a number of artists, from St. Vincent Millay, his first love—in portraying her in I Thought of Daisy [1929], he first formulates the correlation of limitations and strengths as the wound and the bow—to McCarthy. She was recovering from a breakdown and taking Freudian therapy for her own traumatic childhood abandonment, one that was much like Kipling’s, at exactly the time Wilson wrote his parallel portraits of Kipling and Dickens. But though he took what he could from Freud, he wasn’t really a Freudian, as Trilling pointed out.

Behind Wilson’s image of the wound and the bow, in my view, was his boyhood experience with his father, a brilliant trial lawyer who gave him his first intellectual standard, as well as a morbid hypochondriac who retreated to his felt-lined room in a fashion that would color Wilson’s account of the personal life of Proust. His father was the first model for the Philoctetes of Wilson’s account of Sophocles’s play in the title essay of The Wound and the Bow.

BF: I never really thought of that in the context of The Wound and the Bow, but it makes perfect sense. It fits with the remarkable portrait of his father in that great essay “The Author at Sixty” in A Piece of My Mind [1956].

LD: At the end of The Wound and the Bow and the center of Wilson’s career, we read about the victim of a “malodorous disease” that drives everybody away who “is also the master of a superhuman art which every-body has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs.” For me, that’s the boy’s image of his father, not only the oddball and isolate among skilled professional men of the old republic—at one time, the attorney general of New Jersey, a man who would take your case if he thought you had a good one, who could not let himself fail in his work, and who in his last years was having his organs taken out for illnesses of what he had no symptoms. Wilson’s mother, who dominated Wilson in boyhood, observed, “These brilliant men always have something wrong with them.” In this reading of Sophocles, Wilson—himself something of a Philoctetes—identifies with Neoptolemus, the honorable youth who decides that the right way to recover the weapon for the Greeks is to persuade the bowman to come back with it, overcoming his alienation. Art and literature compensate for the poignant limitations we all face in life. Wilson con- ­cludes that “in taking the risk to his cause which is involved in the recognition of his common humanity with the sick man . . . he dissolves Philoctetes’ stubbornness, and thus cures him and sets him free, and saves the campaign as well.”

BF: You’ve just shown us how Wilson’s later autobiographical writing flows beautifully and directly from the critical writing that he was doing at the very peak of his career, so that may be a very good note on which to conclude, unless you have any last thing to add . . .

LD: Nothing except to compliment you on your reading of Wilson and your skill in opening up these volumes of his literary criticism for readers.