During the 1920s Edmund Wilson created for himself a special position in the republic or anarchy of American letters: he became the Sainte-Beuve of a new literature. From his editorial desk first at Vanity Fair—where he shared it with John Peale Bishop, a gifted friend from Princeton—then after 1926 at The New Republic, he scanned the horizon for new talents and wrote perceptive comments on each of them. Sometimes his comments were the first, as in the case of Hemingway. He took a special interest at the time in writers of his own generation, the ones that served briefly in the Great War, and he did a great deal to shape the public images of Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Wilder, Cummings and the Fugitive group.
Writers listened to Wilson as they did not often listen to other critics, and many of them tried to meet his difficult standards. At Princeton (class of ‘16) Dean Gauss had inspired him with the ambition to create “something in which,” as he says in his tribute to Gauss, “every word, every cadence, every detail, should perform a definite function in producing an intense effect.” The effect was what he hoped to find in new writers, and he scolded them, if in reasonable terms, when they fell short of producing it. He helped to keep his brilliant contemporaries up to scratch. “For twenty years,” Fitzgerald was to write in 1936, “a certain man had been my intellectual conscience. That was Edmund Wilson.”
Curiously he hadn’t planned to be a critic primarily; he had dreamed of having all literature as his imperium. Perhaps he wanted most to be a dramatist, but he also hoped to distinguish himself as a novelist, a poet, a publicist, ahistorian and, in general, as a man of letters. That he became a critic was largely by popular demand. His contemporaries realized quite early that he read more books more understandingly and expressed more opinions about them than anyone else of his era. Sometimes in other fields than criticism, as notably fiction and the drama, his knowledge of books turned out to be a handicap, by making him self-conscious.
He had the tireless intellectual energy that is perhaps the better part of genius. Once—it was in 1930—I asked him envyingly how he managed to write so much in so many different areas. Wasn’t he ever hung up on the first sentence? “Yes, but it’s this way,” he said. “I decided finally just to write the first sentence, whatever it was, and go on from there.” He went back in his mind to his first and only novel, published the year before. “I Thought of Daisy was the hardest to write,” he mused, “but I found that whisky helps in a pinch.”
I knew him best when we were both on The New Republic in the early depression years. He had persuaded the other editors to take me on three weeks before the Wall Street crash; I must have been one of his enthusiasms. In those days he was a rather short, square man of 35 who always wore brown suits to match his eyes and to set off his shortcut sorrel hair. His big head with its firm jaw sat closely on his shoulders. He wasn’t handsome, but “Isn’t Bunny intelligent!” the girls always said of him behind his back, as if intelligence were a secondary sex characteristic like a peacock’s tail. Only college friends and ninnies called him Bunny to his face. He had even then an air of authority, as if he were saying by his brisk walk and erect posture that his opinions on any subject carried weight.
“How are things shaping up?” he would say as he walked briskly into the office. That year things were shaping up badly for the country at large. Wilson himself, well in advance of other writers, was undergoing a spiritual and political crisis. He had been staying home to finish Axel’s Castle, a book on the Symbolist movement and his first large-scale work of literary scholarship, while the magazine was printing it by installments. Now he began reading history and economics instead of Symbolist poetry and fiction. His second wife complained to the girls that he used to wake her in the middle of the night to discuss the political situation. “You see, it’s this way,” he would tell her as he paced up and down the bedroom and his wife, who had no opinions, tried hard to keep awake.
In the fall of 1930 Wilson announced to his New Republic colleagues that he was going to travel over the country and send back a series of reports on the depression. I doubt whether he had been west of Pittsburgh before that time. He had always been sedentary, a reader first of all (and truly the best in America), then a writer bent on making his mark in all fields, and only in the third place, so it seemed to me, a man in the world of living creatures. Inclined to be shy then brusque with strangers; used to getting his information from print rather than people, so that he often paged through a book while asking questions to which one suspected that he wouldn’t hear the answers (but write him a letter and he could read one’s message between the lines); an innocent in politics because he never bothered to understand how people act in groups, he seemed the last person, at the time, whom a sensible magazine would have chosen as its roving reporter. Yet partly because of that innocence, his reports had a freshness of detail and a vigor of interpretation that nobody else could have achieved. They were later published as a book, The American Jitters (1932), and they are still the most vivid picture of the country in those years when everything was sliding downhill.
The American Jitters also revealed a change in the author’s thinking. Wilson had started on his travels as a progressive who more or less agreed with the notions that Herbert Croly, founder of The New Republic, had advanced in The Promise of American Life. Croly had put forward a new democratic goal, which he pictured as a return to the strong centralized government advocated by Alexander Hamilton, but administered as Jefferson would have liked it to be, in the interests of the people as a whole. He had thought that such a return might now be accomplished without violence, by an orderly series of reforms. Wilson, as he traveled from city to city, came to feel that capitalism would never reform itself. Nothing short of a new system would save us from “the abyss of starvation and bankruptcy into which the country has fallen, with no sign of any political leadership to pull us out.”
Wilson was revolutionary in those days. In “An Appeal to Progressives” (NR, January 14, 1931) that has never been reprinted in its original form — don’t trust the edulcorated version that appeared 30 years later in The Shores of Light—he made his position clear. “It may be that the whole money-making and spending psychology has definitely played itself out,” he said, “and that Americans would be willing now for the first time to put their idealism and their genius for organization behind a radical social experiment. . . . I believe that if the American radicals and progressives who repudiate the Marxian dogma and the strategy of the Communist Party hope to accomplish anything valuable, they must take communism away from the Communists, and take it without ambiguities or reservations.”
Thousands of young people listened to his adjuration and subsequently found themselves —as Wilson never did—in the Communist Party or on its fringes. In later years I sometimes felt that he had been the old ram who led the flock into the fold and left them there to be sheared, while he jumped over the fence. Oh, I differed with him often and vehemently in the 1930s, especially toward the end of the decade when he was so much quicker than I to dismiss the Moscow trials as an enormous fraud. We fought about Trotsky, too, but I always respected Edmund’s positions, the logic by which he reached them, and the absolute integrity with which he held them unless events had proved them to be wrong.
Wilson had resigned from the editorial board I don’t remember when, but it may have been shortly after coming back from his travels around the country. For the next nine years he was only a contributor, but the most valued one, paid twice as much as the others and often asking for more. Since he never got along with Bruce Bliven, the managing editor, I had to conduct the negotiations, and they were sometimes difficult. The contributions kept streaming in, though, and they included most of the brilliant literary essays in The Triple Thinkers (1938) and The Wound and the Bow (1941), besides great portions of To the Finland Station (1940), a study of the historians and political theorists who made possible the Russian revolution. Since Wilson had by then lost faith in the revolution, the work exerted less emotional force than it gave proof of monumental scholarship. Still, we printed all of it that he submitted and changed not so much as a comma.
In the fall of 1940 I was taking a three months’ leave of absence to do some writing, and I asked Edmund whether he wouldn’t come back to his old desk in the book department. He accepted the invitation and proved once again that he was a brilliant editor. Besides writing a lively series of articles, “The Boys in the Back Room,” he collected a new staff of reviewers, among whom I note tor the first time the name of V. Nabokov. In other respects, however, his return was not a success. Leonard Elmhirst, whoso wife Dorothy then subsidized the paper, had made a wartime visit from England to discuss complaints that others had made about editorial policy. During his visit, Edmund’s feeling of resentment against Bruce Bliven exploded into an open quarrel, from which Bruce emerged in sole charge of the paper. Edmund resigned as of December 1, 1940, and never again wrote for The New Republic (though he had left a few of his articles in the barrel).
Beginning with the issue of January 1, 1944, he joined the staff of The New Yorker, and the association continued till his death. The New Yorker gave him as much freedom as The New Republic did, though it could hardly give him more, and it gave him more space —sometimes too much, one felt, after deciding that concision was not Edmund’s principal virtue. As time went on, less and less of his work was devoted to contemporary books and authors. One opened the magazine to see what in God’s name he would be doing next. First he sent back some rather crotchety reports from postwar Europe; then, after studying Hebrew, he wrote about the conclusions to be drawn from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Having traveled from reservation to reservation, he described the troubles of the Iroquois, and then, after a great bout of reading, he presented recent Canadian literature. All this time he was studying the writing and correspondence that centered on the Civil War—this for his last monumental work of scholarship. Patriotic Core (1962) and he was fighting some epic battles mostly reported in other magazines; with the Internal Revenue Service, with Nabokov (over Russian prosody), and with the Modern Language Association (over their new editions of the American classics).
He was no longer the Sainte-Beuve of a new literature, but something at once bigger and less definite; perhaps one might speak of him as a mixture of Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, and Burton the traveler. Sometimes his heart wasn’t in his new work, as when he said after Patriotic Core that he was glad to be finished with those Civil War worthies; they weren’t people he could write his best about. There is a difference in quality between Classics and Commercials (1950), a collection of his pieces for The New Yorker, and The Shores of Light (1952), mostly consisting of his earlier work for The New Republic. The earlier essays and reviews are sometimes less mature in judgment, as is to be expected, but they are warmer and compelling.
“I find that I am a man of the twenties,” Wilson says in the last of his books published during his lifetime, Upstate (1971), which also has the most direct appeal. “I am still expecting something exciting: drinks, animated conversation, gaiety, brilliant writing, uninhibited exchange of ideas.” The men of the ‘20s had such good times that later some of them—as Hemingway, for example—fell into a frozen attitude of regret for the past. Wilson was one of the few who continued to grow, chiefly by extending his scholarly interests—during his last years he was studying Hungarian literature in the original—but still he lost something by partly severing his ties with his generation: those were a sort of placental cord that nourished him with convictions and enthusiasms. He judged his contemporaries and liked most of them. “What will Edmund think about this?” they sometimes asked themselves when making a moral decision. At his most influential he had served as a literary conscience not only for Fitzgerald but for the generation as a whole.