Edmund Wilson's reflections on the writing life

August 29, 1993|By Vincent Fitzpatrick


Edmund Wilson; edited by Lewis M. Dabney

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

968 pages. $35 "It sometimes seems to me strange," Edmund Wilson reflected in 1969, at the age of 74, "that I am still alive and writing in this diary." His tumultuous and eclectic career had already stretched over more than 50 years and was distinguished by millions of words in a variety of books and periodicals. Always curious, he went everywhere, talked to everyone of consequence, read everything and remembered it all. According Leon Edel, the distinguished biographer of Henry James, Wilson was "America's outstanding man of letters."

Born in 1895, during that wondrous decade that produced Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Wilson was disappointed that he failed to achieve more success as a writer ** of fiction. However, he succeeded entirely at something of equal importance. In the words of Lewis Dabney, Wilson's biographer and editor of this volume, he emerged as "his generation's artistic and intellectual guide."

In 1931, Wilson's interest in literature led to the publication of "Axel's Castle." This remarkable volume traces the origins of literary modernism and, despite the proliferation of commentary

since that time, remains as essential critical study. Wilson discusses, among others, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and Marcel Proust. All except Proust were still alive and writing.

Nine years later, "To the Finland Station" (a reference to Lenin's arrival in Petrograd in April 1917) guided readers through the complicated history of socialism. Ranging through the centuries, among the countries and their various languages, this is Wilson's most ambitious book and, perhaps, his best.

This Renaissance man was learned but not stuffy, serious about his subjects but never too serious about himself. Writing without self-consciousness or preciosity, he was simultaneously understandable to the layman and informative to the scholar. No other American critic, it seems to me, has done this difficult but essential job as well. When I first read Wilson more than 20 years ago, I was amazed at how easy he made it seem. Now I understand only too well just how difficult it was.

"The Sixties" is the fifth volume of Wilson's journals and notebooks to be published posthumously. Its predecessors, edited by Leon Edel, appeared between 1975 and 1986. Dr. Dabney provides the appropriate editorial apparatus: a chronology; thorough annotation; an informative, skillfully written introduction; photographs apposite to the text, and the pertinent appendixes. In brief, he demonstrates the unobtrusive expertise his predecessor.

As the editor explains, this volume proves "the most wide-ranging of the journals." Much of the volume is set in America -- upstate New York, New York City, and Massachusetts -- but Wilson also traveled to Canada, Jamaica, Europe, Israel and Jordan. Intellectually, he journeyed just as far.

An honest man who was not afraid to admit that he'd been wrong-- he reminds me a bit of George Orwell in this regard -- Wilson changed his mind about a number of things. In the end, he proved a classicist in literature, a liberal in politics and an agnostic in religion.

In considerable part, "The Sixties" offers the working papers of a professional writer with these attitudes. Wilson's entries differ widely in frequency, length (from the aphorism to the essay), tone (from the congenial to the caustic) and language (from the ** earthy to the erudite).

Part of the volume proves introspective. From the height of his years, the old master looks back and explains, to our edification, $$TC how he has tried to write. Even a writer this distinguished admits to times of self-doubt; he gets up in the middle of the night to read old reviews of his books. Moreover, the volume portrays, sometimes quite graphically, a man coming to terms with mortality.

Friends are aging or absent. Plagued by gout and heart trouble, he can't eat and drink as he once did. He has difficulty getting around, and writing exhausts him quickly. He experiences periodic episodes of incontinence and impotence. Acknowledging "the flimsiness of human life," Wilson calls himself, at 68, a "porcelain teacup that [has] already been cracked and mended."

However, unlike some others who keep journals, Wilson does not err by talking too much about himself. A variety of famous figures, literary and otherwise, populate these pages: Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, Faulkner and Frost, Auden and Spender, Stravinsky and Nabokov. Wilson expounds upon food and film, religion and fashion, philology and prosody and theories of translation. As expected, he is highly opinionated.

About human suffering he is never indifferent. He details the difficulty of life in Hungary under Communism and laments the poverty of American Indians in upper New York state. One advertising man had suggested that they create an "Indian Williamsburg."

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