Literary Companion

How Edmund Wilson made the labor of criticism into an art

Now, when is the last time that you saw that expression in print? Or that you came across a reviewer who tried to make your reading life more exacting rather than less? It is not easy to imagine Mr. Wilson (he almost invariably alluded to other authors as “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss”) sending in his annual recommendation for the summer “beach bag,” let alone responding to the even more rebarbative notion that people should be more likely to buy and enjoy books at Christmas. His famous preprinted postcard, which he sent out to supplicants of all kinds, showed him massively indifferent to the petty seductions of literary celebrity:

Mr. Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to: Read manuscripts, write articles or books to order, write forewords or introductions, make statements for publicity purposes, do any kind of editorial work, judge literary contests, give interviews, take part in writers’ conferences, answer questionnaires, contribute to or take part in symposiums or “panels” of any kind, contribute manuscripts for sales, donate copies of his books to libraries, autograph works for strangers, allow his name to be used on letterheads, supply personal information about himself, or supply opinions on literary or other subjects.

But if this gives the impression of a sort of Jamesian loftiness, then the idea is counteracted by Wilson’s decision to engage with popular fiction. His contempt for the slovenly and disgraceful habit of “reading” detective stories—especially the dismal pulp produced by Dorothy L. Sayers—was offset by an admiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and by his readiness to respond to the many readers who wrote in to disagree with him.

Anyone who has ever tried to digest The Da Vinci Code, for example, or the Left Behind series, will know that bad writing, aimed at a subliterate audience, is actually much more difficult to read than anything by Borges or Kundera. But a certain populism, perhaps, inhibits critics from saying so. I borrow from Jacobo Timerman’s wonderful remark on scanning the Cuban Communist daily Granma (“a degradation of the act of reading”), and I make a bet that the Left Behind books repose, unfinished, on the shelf along with the seldom-opened family Bible. And I draw confidence from Wilson’s admirable pugnacity in “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” In discussing one of the tales of Margery Allingham, he stated baldly, “The story and the writing both showed a surface so wooden and dead that I could not keep my mind on the page.” He defied his correspondents to disagree with him, and many shamefacedly did admit that they, too, found the stuff bad almost beyond endurance, yet clung to it as a pathetic addiction. Generous as (almost) always—he did take a decided whack at the now-forgotten critic Bernard DeVoto (“I hadn’t quite realized before, though I had noted his own rather messy style, to what degree he was insensitive to writing”)—Wilson did show that he could tell gold from dross by praising Raymond Chandler, before ending the essay in this fashion:

Friends, we represent a minority, but Literature is on our side. With so many fine books to be read, so much to be studied and known, there is no need to bore ourselves with this rubbish.

As with the “Republic of Letters,” Wilson was unashamed to capitalize what was worth upholding and defending. The citizens of that putative republic, those who trusted and corresponded with him, knew that they had a stern but staunch friend who might rebuke and reward them in the same conversation. And this companion thought that there was such a thing as taste, and that it was not entirely relative.

One test of un homme sérieux is that it is possible to learn from him even when one radically disagrees with him. Wilson seems to me to underestimate the importance of Kafka in an almost worrying way (worrying because it shows a want of sympathy with those who just knew about the coming totalitarianism), yet I confess I had never thought of Kafka as having been so much influenced by Flaubert. When writing about Ronald Firbank, Wilson seems almost elephantine in his mass. Often somewhat out of sympathy with the English school—and again sometimes for self-imposed political reasons—he was very early and acute in getting much of the point of Evelyn Waugh. He was rightly rather critical of Brideshead Revisited, and it makes me whimper when I see how closely he read the novel, and how coldly he isolated unpardonable sentences such as “Still the clouds gathered and did not break.” Nonetheless, he predicted a big success for the book and, in discussing it and its successor The Loved One, managed to be both coolly secular and sympathetic, pointing out that Waugh was actually rather afraid of the consequences of his own Catholicism. An American critic might have chosen to resent the easy shots that Waugh took at Los Angeles and “Whispering Glades”; Wilson contented himself with indulgently pointing out that Waugh’s Church practiced a far more fantastic and ornamental denial of death than any Californian mortician.

Naturally, much of Wilson’s political material has dated. (He was one of those who combined socialism with snobbery by saying that “the radio and motor industries” prospered only by “selling these articles to many people who didn’t need them.” One wonders whom he had in mind.) And the argument about, say, Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life has long since cooled. But anyone wishing to revisit the intellectual and literary passions of the period will be well advised to do so in the company of someone who could be a Virgil as well as recommend the reading of him. Edmund Wilson came as close as anybody has to making the labor of criticism into an art.

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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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