Literary Companion

How Edmund Wilson made the labor of criticism into an art

In a beautifully turned reminiscence of Alexander Woollcott published in 1943, and originally intended as a defense of that great critic against an ungenerous obituarist, Edmund Wilson managed to spin what he admitted was a slight acquaintance into a charming portrait of a man and of a moment—the moment being the time when both men’s parents were connected with a Fourierist socialist community in Red Bank, New Jersey. Recollections of Woollcott the man of the theater, intercut with reflections on the arcana of the American left, combine to make a fine profile and a nice period piece: journalism at its best. What caught and held me, though, was an episode in the 1930s, when Wilson, fresh from reporting on the labor front for The New Republic, was invited to call on Woollcott at Sutton Place:

As soon as I entered the room, he cried out, without any other greeting: “You’ve gotten very fat!” It was his way of disarming, I thought, any horror I might have felt at his own pudding-like rotundity, which had trebled since I had seen him last.

This, and other aspects of the evening, make clear that Wilson understood why Woollcott’s personality didn’t appeal to everybody. But the preemptive strike on the question of girth also made me realize that there must have been a time when Edmund Wilson was thin.

This absolutely negated the picture that my mind’s eye had been conditioned to summon. Wilson’s prose, if not precisely rotund, was astonishingly solid. One cannot turn the pages of this heavy and handsome set, produced by the Library of America, without a sense of his mass and weight and gravitas. He was the sort of man who, as people used to say, “got up” a subject. The modern and vulgar way of phrasing this is to say that so-and-so reads a book “so you don’t have to.” Wilson, though, presumed a certain amount of knowledge in his readers, kept them well-supplied with allusions and cross-references, and undertook to help them fill in blanks in their education. An autodidact himself, he seems to have hoped to be the cause of autodidacticism in others.

An excellent instance of Wilson as a sort of co-reader, tutor, and literary adviser comes in his successive discussions of Finnegans Wake. In an essay originally included in The Wound and the Bow, titled “The Dream of H. C. Earwicker,” he guides his audience through the extraordinary density and intricacy of the slumber life of James Joyce’s snoring pub keeper. He furnishes handholds and issues both exhortations and admonitions: Readers are told, in effect, that there will be passages of extreme difficulty and complexity (and of plain longueur), but they are simultaneously assured that the effort will be rewarding and worthwhile. Footnotes are provided, to point them to a collection of essays published by Transition magazine in Paris, which may help to supply a “key.” A learned reference is made to Part III, Chapter III of Max Eastman’s The Literary Mind, which, when consulted, discloses Joyce’s rather daunting ambition: a desire that his readers would devote their entire lives to the scrutiny of his work. Almost as if stiffening himself to accept this challenge, Wilson writes:

Just as Joyce in Ulysses laid the Odyssey under requisition to help provide a structure for his Material—material which, once it had begun to gush from the rock of Joyce’s sealed personality at the blow of the Aaron’s rod of free association, threatened to rise and submerge the artist like the flood which the sorcerer’s apprentice let loose by his bedeviled broom; so in the face of an even more formidable danger, he has here brought in the historical theory of the eighteenth-century philosopher, Giambattista Vico, to help him to organize Finnegans Wake.

At first one is inclined to think that Wilson has become infected by the gorgeous prolixity of his subject, then impelled to invoke that old New Yorker injunction (“Block That Metaphor!”), and only then to suspect that he might be doing it on purpose. And notice the introduction of Vico, whose work served as a kind of template for To the Finland Station, Wilson’s grand study of tele-ology and messianism.

In a subsequent essay, “A Guide to Finnegans Wake,” published in August 1944, Wilson again enlisted his readers in the grand attempt to master the Joycean. This time a new codex, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, written by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, was the spark to his enthusiasm. After advising us that it is better to come to the subject by way of Virgil, Dante, and Milton, he added that the best course of action is to acquire the original, plus “the Campbell-Robinson key,” and

prepare to have them around for years … Joyce worked on it through seventeen years, and it is equivalent to about seventeen books by the ordinary gifted writer.

Having thoroughly challenged his audience in this forbidding yet exciting way (and I recommend heartily that anyone hesitating over Joyce follow Wilson’s counsel), he averred that the co-authors of the guide merited “a citation from the Republic of Letters.”

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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