The likes of Edmund Wilson may never be seen again

The Argument

He was the greatest of the modern determined amateurs of literary criticism -- a bane to academic pomposity.

July 28, 2002|By John E. McIntyre | By John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff

Edmund Wilson died 30 years ago this summer, but his shade lingers over those who write. Some weeks ago, after reviewing a book on Rudyard Kipling's political attitudes for these pages, I picked up Wilson's The Wound and the Bow to read his essay on Kipling. In "The Kipling That Nobody Read," written more than 60 years ago, Wilson hit the big points: the miserable childhood, the ear for vernacular, the technical mastery, the hatred, the subordination of literary gifts to hidebound political views.

The Wound and the Bow takes its title from the story of Philoctetes in Greek legend, the warrior possessed of a "bow that never missed its mark" and cursed by an incurable wound. The title essay expands this myth into a psychological account of the artist, who draws power as a writer from lingering psychological wounds. The essays on Kipling and Dickens in that collection memorably illustrate the concept.

A writer approaching a subject on which Wilson wrote must wonder whether there is anything useful to be said beyond what the American polymath already uttered. Wilson was a determined amateur, one of the last before the nation succumbed to the mania for credentials. Seeing himself as primarily a journalist he tackled subjects with avid curiosity and prodigious energy, writing about them in lucid English.

Axel's Castle, his book of 1931 on symbolism and literary modernism, may not compete with the vast literature on Yeats, Eliot and Joyce published in the 70 years since, but his essay on Joyce shows a strong mind grappling with the first half of Finnegans Wake, which had then been published serially.

One of his most substantial works, Patriotic Gore, is a panoramic examination of the literature of the American Civil War. (Its title is taken from Maryland's state song: "Avenge the patriotic gore / That flecked the streets of Baltimore.") What fascinates about that work is not only his efforts to disinter half-remembered authors -- Sidney Lanier, George W. Cable, Thomas Nelson Page -- but also his efforts to understand in both literary and historical perspective such figures as Abraham Lincoln and the younger Oliver Wendell Holmes.

His essay on Lincoln shuns the national mythologizing ( "... one is tempted to feel that the cruellest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg"). Instead, he focuses on the young Lincoln's freethinking and its metamorphosis into a deeper if somewhat inchoate spirituality during the presidential years, the legal precision of the prose, and the relentless underlying ambition.

His Justice Holmes is not the genial figure of Catherine Drinker Bowen's Yankee from Olympus, but a man whose legal philosophy, rising from his experience in the brutality of the Civil War, is basically that law reflects the interplay of forces in society, with the stronger forces prevailing. The South may have had a cause, but it lost; law, over time, reflects the winner's views.

When he took on a subject, he tackled it fearlessly. After teaching himself Russian, one of his several languages, he had the audacity to enter into a highly public dispute over Russian prosody with Vladimir Nabokov.

With Vladimir Nabokov!

In the 1950s he wrote about the Dead Sea Scrolls in The New Yorker, subsequently publishing the material in a book. A subsequent book, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 1947-1969, expanded on the earlier volume, including an account of its reception, with mordant satisfaction at the distortions and intellectual dishonesty displayed by academic scholars and religious figures.

Perhaps the best example of his amateur's scorn for the excess of the professoriate is to be found in the essay "The Fruits of the MLA," reprinted in the posthumous collection The Devils and Canon Barham. "The Fruits of the MLA" is a broadside against the Modern Language Association, a professional organization of academic scholars of literature, for its needlessly cumbersome procedures in editing the classic American authors: "It seems that eighteen of these Mark Twain workers are reading Tom Sawyer, word by word, backward, in order to ascertain, by this drudgery by attention to the story or the style, how many times 'Aunt Polly' is printed as 'aunt Polly,' and how many times ssst! is printed as sssst!'"

What Wilson was campaigning for was an American version of the French Pleaide series -- reliable texts in readable type, published without burdensome scholarly apparatus. Such editions now exist, in the Library of America series, and it is a great pity that Wilson did not live to see them. It is also a pity that we cannot see what Wilson would have made of the even greater obscurantism that now dominates what used to be called English departments in the universities.

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