Bad news starts small. The first sign of cancer is sometimes a cough; the first sign of an impending cultural earthquake is sometimes a tiny crack in the sidewalk. I saw just such a crack the other day at my neighborhood bookstore: The Barnes & Noble executive in charge of which books go where has shut down the "Literary Criticism" section. All books about literature are now lumped under "Literary Theory."
For those not in the know, literary theory is the latest monstrosity cooked up in the laboratories of America's colleges and universities, a spectacular perversion of taste and truth in which free speech is oppressive, all art is about power and privilege, all books are "texts" and all texts are equal (though some are more equal than others, most notably the jargon-clogged books of literary theorists).
Under this noxious rubric, Barnes & Noble now lists the "texts" of such distinguished critics as Samuel Johnson, H. L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson, shelving them cheek by jowl with the likes (( of "Interpreting Interpretation: Textual Hermeneutics as an Ascetic Discipline" and "Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture." Mencken might well have found this funny - after all, he found politicians funny - but Wilson would surely have emptied a double-barrelled load of buckshot into the backside of anybody caught trying to cram him into a pigeonhole with a mob of culture-hating professors.
Not that Edmund Wilson was any kind of conservative. As Jeffrey Meyers reminds us in "Edmund Wilson: A Biography" (Houghton Mifflin, 554 pages. $35), the first full-length biography of the author of "The Wound and the Bow," "Classics and Commercials" and "The Bit Between My Teeth," Wilson was a Lenin-loving libertine who famously compared the United States and the Soviet Union to a pair of sea slugs seeking to devour each other and who, when the IRS noticed that he hadn't bothered to file any tax returns between 1946 and 1955, sought to excuse his delinquence by claiming that it was not a garden-variety case of tax evasion but a principled protest against the Cold War.
But Edmund Wilson's ideology stopped at the library door. Unlike today's tenured radicals, who see art as a means to a left-wing end, Wilson saw it as a noble end in itself. A village atheist who signed his Christmas cards "Hiram K. Antichrist," books were his religion. He read them, savored them, compared them - and, most important, wrote them. His own books include literary criticism, cultural history, novels, plays, short stories, poetry, parodies, anthologies - everything but biography, all of it written in a crisp, compelling prose that puts today's pseudo-critics to shame.
Wilson was, in short, an old-fashioned man of letters. He sought deliberately to try his hand at every job of work available to a literary journalist; he no less deliberately shunned the academic life, preferring to put his thoughts before the widest possible audience in the clearest possible way. During his 29-year-long tenure as a regular contributor to the New Yorker, his uncompromisingly sharp and serious criticism appeared alongside the stories of James Thurber and the cartoons of Peter Arno, and held its own with ease.
Wilson was sometimes knocked for choosing to sell his wares in the magazine bazaar, usually by professors whose own feeble attempts at popular journalism recalled the knock-down-drag-out retort of the British music critic Ernest Newman: "So few authors have brains enough or literary gift enough to keep their own end up in journalism that I am tempted to define 'journalism' as 'a term of contempt applied by writers who are not read to writers who are.' "
In fact, Edmund Wilson was read more widely and closely than any other American critic of his time. What H. L. Mencken was to Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, Wilson was to a staggeringly long list of authors: Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Max Beerbohm, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis - the list goes on and on. Nor was his critical commitment solely to the living. Wilson's essays on Rudyard Kipling and Charles Dickens were substantially responsible for reviving American interest in those authors. And as a bare-knuckled controversialist, he was rivaled only by Mencken himself. Fifty years after their original publication in thes, his essays "Why Do People Read Detective Stories?" and "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" are still capable of reducing mystery addicts to sputtering rage.