Edmund Wilson and American culture
August 25, 2005 7:21 PM   Subscribe

"When I read his work, I forgive him all his sins". Edmund Wilson disliked being called a critic. He thought of himself as a journalist, and nearly all his work was done for commercial magazines, principally Vanity Fair, in the nineteen-twenties; The New Republic, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties; The New Yorker, beginning in the nineteen-forties; and The New York Review of Books, in the nineteen-sixties. He was exceptionally well read: he had had a first-class education in English, French, and Italian literature, and he kept adding languages all his life. He learned to read German, Russian, and Hebrew; when he died, in 1972, he was working on Hungarian.
Edmund Wilson and American culture. (more inside)
posted by matteo (12 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
His friend John Dos Passos, who was well acquainted with his penchant for conversations like those recorded in the book, joshed him with a limerick:
``He says he's the Talcottville squire
But the facts will prove him a liar
He don't plow, he don't harrow
He don't push no wheelbarrow
He juss sits and holds forth by the fire.'
also of interest:

The Smartest Guy in the Room

Oolong fans and MetaChat readers will be happy to know that Wilson's nickname was Bunny
posted by matteo at 7:25 PM on August 25, 2005

In Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History, one of the main characters goes by the nickname "Bunny," but his given name is Edmund. He's a total asshole and his friends murder him.

Not sure what all I should read into this.
posted by Clay201 at 8:28 PM on August 25, 2005


I hear from people who have seen you that you are becoming stout, optimistic and genial--in other words, Americanized. I believe that I had already noticed traces of this in your letters, and I’m not sure that I entirely approve.


I detest Plato, I loathe Lacedaemon and all Perfect States. I weigh 195 pounds.
posted by freebird at 8:51 PM on August 25, 2005

Not sure what all I should read

Tartt's book is full of those little hommages. Henry looks and dresses like a young TS Eliot and comes from the same city and his name is Henry like TS Eliot's brother, the Albermarle Inn has the same name of the Margate hotel where Eliot wrote The Waste Land, etc. the entire book's full with these little tricks, I don't remember them all anymore because I read it when it came out, but ehere were dozens

posted by matteo at 9:19 PM on August 25, 2005

when he died, in 1972, he was working on Hungarian.

Enough to kill anyone.
posted by semmi at 9:57 PM on August 25, 2005

Nice post on an almost forgotten fellow. Thanks, it reminds me to go back and reread him.
posted by Wolof at 1:31 AM on August 26, 2005

I confess when I saw this post I glazed over a bit—Edmund Wilson? let the dead bury the dead!—but your links quickly reminded me of what a wonderful critic and writer he was, how powerfully To the Finland Station affected me when I read it in college, how sad (and inevitable) it was that he and Nabokov had such a falling-out. These excerpts from Wilson's correspondence (in the NYRB selection oddly linked to "commercial magazines") give a sense of both his keen critical faculties and the warmth and intellectual compatibility of their relationship, and his strictures on the New Yorker are remarkably timeless:
October 20, 1941

Dear Vladimir:

I've just read Sebastian Knight, of which Laughlin has sent me proofs, and it's absolutely enchanting. It's amazing that you should write such fine English prose and not sound like any other English writer. You and Conrad must be the only examples of foreigners succeeding in English in this field. The whole book is brilliant and beautifully done, but I liked particularly the part where he is looking up the various Russian women, the description of the book about death, and the final dreamlike train ride (as well as the narrator's long dream). It makes me eager to read your Russian books, and I am going to tackle them when my русский язык is a little stronger.

I hope you will get somebody at Wellesley to read your proofs—because there are a few, though not many, mistakes in English. You tend to lean over backward using as instead of like and sometimes use it incorrectly. The critic's remark about Sebastian's being a dull man writing broken English, etc., is not a pun, but rather a bon mot. If the conjuror with the accent is supposed to be American, he would never say I fancy, but probably I guess. I am sure that your phonetic method of transliterating Russian words is one of those things that you are particularly stubborn about: but I really think it's a mistake. It looks outlandish to people who don't know Russian and is confusing to people who do. [...]

I haven't really told you why I like your book so much. It is all on a high poetic level, and you have succeeded in being a first-rate poet in English. It has delighted and stimulated me more than any new book I have read since I don't know what.

Our best regards to you both.

As ever,
Edmund Wilson

November 12, 1947

Dear Katharine:

I have read the Nabokov stories, and I think they are both perfect. Not a word should be changed. From the way you talked about "Signs and Symbols," I had imagined something like the work of the French naturalists at their most malodorous and ghoulish; but the details in Nabokov's story are of the most commonplace kind. The point is that the parents of the boy are getting "ideas of reference," too, and without these details the story would have no meaning. I don't see how anybody could misunderstand the story as you people seem to have done or could object to the details in themselves, and the fact that any doubt should have been felt about them suggests a truly alarming condition of editor's daze. If The New Yorker had suggested to me that the story had been written as a parody, I should have been just as angry as you say he was (I'm surprised that he has not challenged somebody to a duel), and as I should be every time I get a New Yorker proof of one of my literary articles, if I thought I was obliged to take seriously the ridiculous criticisms made in the office and did not know, having once been an editor myself, that they were the result of having read so much copy that the editors could no longer pay attention to what was being said.

Besides this, there is, however, the whole question of New Yorker fiction—about which I hear more complaint than about anything else in the magazine. It is appalling that Nabokov's little story, so gentle and everyday, should take on the aspect for the New Yorker editors of an overdone psychiatric study. (How can you people say it is overwritten?) It could only appear so in contrast with the pointless and inane little anecdotes that are turned out by the New Yorker's processing mill and that the reader forgets two minutes after he has read them—if; indeed, he has even paid attention, at the time his eye was slipping down the column, to what he was reading about. The New Yorker has got to the age when magazines get hardening of the arteries: it thinks it is obliged to supply something that it thinks its public likes and is continually afraid of jarring that public, though the only thing that any public wants is to be interested. It is also, as a humorous magazine specializing in comic newsbreaks, morbidly afraid of printing anything that could possibly seem unintentionally funny.[...]

I have just read "My English Education," and it, too, seems to me perfect for The New Yorker. I can't imagine what doubts you would have about it. It doesn't get anywhere, it is just a little reminiscence, but in this respect it doesn't differ from Mencken's childhood memories, of which The New Yorker printed any number. [...] And since I have become aroused, I might go on, in this connection, to protest against the New Yorker's idea of style. The editors are so afraid of anything that is unusual, that is not expected, that they put a premium on insipidity and banality. I find, in the case of my own articles, that if I ever coin a phrase or strike off a picturesque metaphor, somebody always objects. Every first-rate writer invents and renews the language; and many of the best writers have highly idiosyncratic styles; but almost no idiosyncratic writer ever gets into The New Yorker. Who can imagine Henry James or Bernard Shaw—or Dos Passos or Faulkner—in The New Yorker? The object here is as far as possible to iron all the writing out so that there will be nothing vivid or startling or original or personal in it. Sid Perelman is almost the sole exception, and I have never understood how he got by.

Edmund Wilson
"The New Yorker has got to the age when magazines get hardening of the arteries"—in 1947!
posted by languagehat at 6:07 AM on August 26, 2005

Very nice post. I've been slowly reading through the Wilson/Nabokov letters, and I've got Memoirs of Hecate County (his one novel) on deck to try sometime soon. I see that Harpers this month has an article on the new bio of him that's just come out. I'll be reading through these links for some time.
posted by OmieWise at 7:00 AM on August 26, 2005

Just two other things: Axel's Castle is really a remarkable book. Although not without flaws, Wilson managed to read and understand a whole current in contemporary literature, digest it and catalog it, before anyone else. We'd be more likely to call it High Modernism now, but Symbolism works just as well.

Also, the book Partisans by David Laskin is really quite good and describes the people in the Partisan Review circle (a magazine for which Wilson also wrote). The book is gossipy, but great fun, and the description of Wilson's marriage to Mary McCarthy is brutal. Amazon has it for 88 cents.
posted by OmieWise at 7:07 AM on August 26, 2005

From Menand's piece, a fitting epitaph:
He wrote in a world where print was still king, and literature was at the center of a nation’s culture—circumstances that gave glamour to literary journalism. He sensed that that world was coming to an end before most people did, and he declined to compromise with the future. In the last week of his life, he was taken to see two movies, “The Godfather” and “The French Connection.” As always, he recorded his observations in his journal. “Bang bang” was all he wrote.
posted by matteo at 8:55 AM on August 26, 2005

Thanks, matteo. I got on something of an Edmund Wilson kick after reading Frederick Exley's Pages from a Cold Island. I'm looking forward to digging through the links.
posted by clockwork at 9:46 AM on August 26, 2005

I just reread the Proust chapter in Axel's Castle this weekend after this was linked...It's quite good as an overview of Proust, he isn't afraid to call Proust boring where Proust is boring. He gets a few things wrong, for instance, he insists that Proust could never have been gay, but that's to be expected.
posted by OmieWise at 7:15 AM on August 31, 2005

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