Edmund Wilson: His Life and Books

by Alfred Kazin

ON MAY 8, Edmund Wilson was seventy-two years old, and on June 21 he published his twentythird book, A Prelude (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the first volume of the journal he idly began as a boy on his first trip to Europe, 1908, but started keeping as a methodical historical record in 1914.A Prelude ends with Wilson getting out of the Army in 1919, and it is “unlikely that very much more than this volume, with perhaps a second volume, can be published till after my death.” The entries made in this first volume are still pretty scrappy, says Wilson, and he has had to fill out these notations with “something in the nature of reminiscences. Later on, I came to develop this chronicle on a very much larger scale, and even to some extent to organize it in the form of episodes that consisted of interwoven elements of experience.”

Since I heard of “this chronicle” as the source of all his writing long before I met Edmund Wilson twenty-five years ago, and more recently have heard him hint of the problems involved in publishing it during his lifetime, it is inevitably disappointing to be put off just now with this first volume. The best things in it are the reminiscences added to the youthful record; these are carefully set within brackets, are in Wilson’s most mature style, and are only the latest examples of his fascination with his own family, his need to involve himself with other people, and the extraordinary effort he can put out, by words alone, to free himself from bookish solitude. These reminiscences are very closely written, but are highly selective family history by a writer even more reticent than he knows himself to be, one whose most personal material has always been portraits of his family. They become in the reader’s mind postscripts to the autobiographical essays he has already published on his father in A Piece of My Mind, on New Jersey nobs at the turn of the century in “At Laurelwood,” an essay in Night Thoughts, on an old Hill School master in the revised edition of The Triple Thinkers. The actual journal is tight, sparse, and very literary; it consists, in childhood, of conventional travel notes of a first trip to Europe, and at Princeton and in the Army, of literary exercises, set pieces of writing, anecdotes, quotations, lists of words; most of the entries are really études, attempts to practice certain forms of writing, and the style is already so impeccable that it closes the door to any human cry from below.

The most significant thing about A Prelude, at least to an old admirer, is not what is new or distinctive in it — there are really no surprises — but the fact that these sparse early records, filledout reminiscences, have gone to make still another workmanlike performance, a book that exists as an overture to Edmund Wilson’s life, full of silent connections with all his other work, rich in suggestions about what must be an extraordinary historical chronicle erected on personal experience. At seventy-two, with some pretty skimpy childhood diaries to start from and a determination not to publish anything too revealing during his lifetime, Edmund Wilson can still make a book out of material that might well have discouraged anyone else. But perhaps no one else would have tried. The book, some book, has been his gift, his obsession, and the secret of our connection with him.

A musician who played in the Boston Symphony Orchestra for many years once said that the late Serge Koussevitzky’s approach to music was not always authoritative, but that he knew “just how an orchestra should sound.” One can say of Edmund Wilson that whatever the honesty, learning, and restriction of his critical intellect — and this is a subject to be discussed in itself, one that has always been obscured by Wilson’s intense grasp, as a writer, of any subject that interests him — the important thing is that he knows how to make a book. Even when he presents ideas that are familiar to scholars, the book becomes everybody’s personal discovery of symbolist literature, Axel’s Castle. Even when he presents the history of socialist ideas by identifying himself with the lives of socialism’s prophets and heroes, the book becomes To the Finland Station, which still vibrates, as no more technical book does, with the passion of that secular religion which has remade the modern world. Even when he writes a book utterly different from what its angry preface promises it will be, and from what Wilson presumably wanted it to be — an attack on the conceit of national “destiny” that brought the Civil War to a head — the book becomes that unique valedictory to the classical republic, Patriotic Gore. Edmund Wilson has made books out of his intellectual fiction, out of the light verse he sends his friends at Christmas, out of his New Yorker her book reviews, out of his hatred of Robert Moses, out of his aversion to the Internal Revenue Bureau. He has made books out of virtually everything that has crossed his mind — only, certain subjects never just cross his mind: they stay there, decade after decade, to be used as articles after they have been (I presume) first sketched in his journals. Then they get rewritten for his books and are rewritten still again for new editions of those books. No one else I know has so much patience with his own writing, can recast it so many times — or has the same impulse to rewrite everybody else. No one else I know with his kind of mind — critical, historical, scholarly, one that naturally expresses itself in reactions to reading and to personal experience — has been able to make so many different books out of so many fragmentary responses.

The great naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote a book about the whole cosmos, but someone had to tell him that he knew everything except how to make a book. Edmund Wilson certainly knows how to make a book; he has made one twenty-three (and actually more) times by now. And it is this instinct for making a book, this paramount lifeneed and particular life-skill, both already symbolized by his lifelong concern with his journal as a formal work of history — it is this that interests me most about A Prelude, not anything about himself that he wants to, or even can, “confess” to his readers. He says in this book, “. . . in all my early life, before I went away to school, I was preoccupied with the members of my family as I imagine few people can be today. The fact was that I knew almost nobody else. . . . My parents and my grandparents had been the molding influences of my early life . . . preachers and lawyers and doctors. ... I knew they had their doubts about me, and that in order to prove myself I should have to show that a writer could become a successful professional. . .” Wilson is such an extraordinarily professional human being, the writer in him seems so overwhelming a part of the man, that one can accept his need to “prove myself” without forgetting that it was probably his precocity, his intellectual solitude, that first created “doubts” in his family. However this was, the reader who knows all his other work and now comes to his earliest journal cannot help noticing that his life-strategy has always been to find the word, to make connections with an obscure and unfriendly universe by choosing the right word. He says that he used to make up lists of topics to discuss with his mother (who was deaf), that he and his friends used to make lists of dirty stories; in A Prelude he has many lists of words — new words, strange words, vulgar words.

IT is this unremitting daily training, the extraordinary amount of professional strategy behind the journal that he began in youth and has now reconceived in his seventies; it is this gift for articulating his life without telling it, this instinct for a book as the essential form of himself, that explains the connection that so many readers have made with his austere mind. It is really as a craftsman, as a maker of books, as an expressive force, that Wilson has reached so many people. And it follows that the most important thing in life is actually this gift of articulation, for building up a structure. And indeed, Wilson knows this, judging from the number of exercises, set pieces, “landscapes,” and word lists he has put into his journal.

Wilson’s purpose in keeping what is clearly to be an ambitious historical chronicle, a novel of fact, is clearly not to bewail his conflicts, not to lay his heart bare, as Baudelaire said he would do in his journal. Wilson’s need is nevertheless to turn his life into a book. He involves himself in experience by recording it. By turning every day to account, into an account, writing becomes a happier form of life, the writer takes over, and the fretfully balanced sentences, so carefully worked out in the writer’s elegantly precise hand — these become the act of life, the excitement of the one book the author never has to give up writing, the day as its own subject, its own expressive task.

There are writers who, in order to make a book, invent a world. Wilson, who has composed some haunting fiction in I Thought of Daisy and Memoirs of Hecate County as part of his lifelong history of American intellectuals, is like all significant critics a frustrated inventor of fictional worlds, for these worlds lie so close to his mind that he cannot see what separates him from them. For him, too, every piece of writing is an urgent task committed for the sake of imagination; in him, too, experience is always an inner dream that he tries to bring into form, to make a living reality. The difference between the thinker-moralist-critic-memoirist and the freely inventive storyteller with whom Wilson’s literary passion can be compared is that in Wilson the predominating historical urge, the overriding sense of fact, the need to fall into the traces left by actual experience, depends on style. For Wilson the classical authority derived from rhetoric, the authority of being a right example, is as necessary as the articulation of the bones to the movement of the body. This classical correctness — as of a judge or minister or national leader in the days when a few intellectual patricians molded this culture — is not merely the style of his intellectual vocation; it is basic to the sense of his role in American life. Wilson depends on “style” in the aristocratic sense of the word, on the immediate authority that his formal correctness brings, as many a carelessly inventive storyteller, happily absorbed in his characters, does not. Sometimes the pressure to write well is so grinding that, as is noticeable about several terribly deliberate landscapes in A Prelude (this is also a feature of Wilson’s later travel writing, presumably taken from his journals), one sees not a view but his own effort. “The ice-house door held a little rectangle of winter: infinitely pale sky above the pale dry brown of hills and the gray roofs and towers of the town.”

Now behind this pressing personal urge to make order, I see the moral significance of the right words to Wilson’s class — the professional gentry of lawyers, preachers, educators, scientists, which from the time of New England’s clerical oligarchs has been the sustaining class of American intellectual life. There was a time, not so long ago, when several leading colleges and universities in New England were simultaneously headed by descendants of Jonathan Edwards. Despite the growing contributions of intellectuals from the “newer” stocks, it is interesting how many of the dominant figures in American professional life still represent, as Wilson does, the old American clerisy. These are the policy makers, the éminences grises who, no matter how many billions heaped up by the old robber barons they give out as heads of the great foundations, as advisers to government, feel quite detached from the oiliness of American business, except as economists and administrators. These professionals, who belong to a traditional American caste of professional diplomats, missionaries, educators, judges, museum curators, have remained the standard bearers, the lawgivers, the Noah Websters and Oliver Wendell Holmeses. They are “the capable,” as Sinclair Lewis (a doctor’s son) admiringly called the lonely doctors, philosophic lawyers, and scientists who in his work resist the bitch goddess. Though business still rules the roost and money is more important to everybody, it is “the capable,” who come from a long American tradition of professional concern, who still, as intellectual specialists, keep up the standards they grew up with.

EDMUND WILSON, as the years have gone by, has become more and more the incarnation of the oldfashioned American who used, on his own, to compose dictionaries, to write a “scientific prospectus” of the West, to make archaeological finds in Egypt, to scorn the generals and businessmen occupying high places in Washington. His whole intellectual being, held together with such fierce competence, has over the years become more and more authoritative, formal, finicky, outrageable. He has steadily become, to the delight of all those who know him to be the most formidable literary persona since the late Dr. Johnson, a model of high and fussy correctness, of “republican” directness, of absolute fearlessness before the mighty, and of absolute contempt for mass prejudices, tastes, and fears. Perhaps most of the really interesting American thinkers until recently have come from the nonbusiness class. America being America, the conflict with the business culture — Henry Adams said that his family had one long quarrel with State Street — becomes, as Wilson has always seen it, the social drama behind his life.

In A Prelude Wilson’s most fascinating additions to the skimpy youthful record are about his mother’s family, the Kimballs, who were related to the Mathers and who produced many doctors. His paternal grandfather, Thaddeus Wilson, was of North Irish stock (like the James family), a Presbyterian minister, a graduate of Amherst and of the Princeton Theological Seminary. His father, Edmund Wilson, Sr., was one of the best lawyers of his day in New Jersey, at one time attorney general of the state, and though a Republican, was invited by Woodrow Wilson to join his Cabinet in 1913. Edmund Wilson, Sr., was a passionate admirer of Lincoln the lawyer (the tragedy of Lincoln runs through several of his son’s books as the tragedy of the superior man in America), and he identified with Lincoln the melancholic. Though a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Railroad and able to give his less finicky relatives valuable advice about the stock market, he himself would not buy a share of stock — he regarded all these transactions as a form of gambling. Like many brilliant men of his generation, he regarded his life as forfeit to the big-business spirit in America; he was a lifelong “neurasthenic,” a total hypochondriac; his professional career yielded to his concern with his own symptoms.

Despite his many books and his long record of production, Edmund Wilson has stated in his books just how little money he has accumulated; as anyone can see from The Cold War and the Income Tax, it has become a point of pride with him not to have amassed much money and to be against the government. At several periods in his life, he says in his journal, he has felt impelled to write protests against various officials of the United States government; he first wrote one as a sergeant in the A.E.F. Medical Corps. As if he were one of his own forebears, he lives in two “old-fashioned country towns,” Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and Talcotville, New York; he depends on a small inherited income derived from one of his few relatives who went into business; he does not drive a car or use a typewriter; he does not teach, give lectures, join honorary societies that want to honor him. As he meticulously notes in a printed postcard answering inquiries, he does not read manuscripts for strangers; he does not write articles or books to order; he docs not write forewords or introductions; he does not make statements for publicity purposes; he does not do any kind of editorial work, judge literary contests, give interviews, broadcast or appear on television; he does not answer questionnaires, contribute to or take part in symposiums, and so on. But as everyone knows, he has taken the trouble to learn Hebrew, Russian, Hungarian, in addition to his earlier Greek, French, Italian, German (this last the only language he admits not having fully mastered); at one time, I recall, he set himself to learn Yiddish. He has made personal explorations of many countries, many cultures, many periods; what he knows, he knows; what he has read, he has remembered. As the contrast deepens each year between Wilson and the America “I see depicted in Life magazine,” his concern with right words and standards seems to have become more intense, his irritation with sloppiness and misuse even more pronounced, his sense of his own intellectual honor loftier and yet more anguished.

Wilson insists in A Prelude, as he does throughout his work, that his fate, like his father’s, has been to fight the money-makers, the big-power spirit in America. He is always vivid on this subject, and what is true for him has been and will be true for many other intellectuals, though it is harder for them to find family tradition as a source for their opposition. Wilson certainly makes the most of his family as hero. But what supplies the human drama in A Prelude — and will probably be a major theme in his later journal — is the writer’s personal struggle to get down into the crowd; to make friends with ordinary people; to lose his solitariness with people as he has lost it in his books. There is always a human cost for his high and lofty Puritan trauma, and Wilson has been preoccupied in his works of fiction, as he is in the army sections of A Prelude, with the intellectual’s peculiarity and isolation on the American scene. Wilson’s father was deeply, grievously neurotic; his mother, a heartier type, not “intellectual,” nevertheless went completely deaf under the strain of her husband’s breakdown. Wilson himself— how I wish he could have described this more directly — was a redhead, an only child, who had to communicate with his mother despite her deafness, and who may have formed his idiosyncratic, ponderously distinct method of oral delivery in this way. But it is also safe to assume that anyone so extraordinarily gifted, and obsessed with words, must have grown up deep inside the shell that his own gift created around him. Then, when the journal began to absorb him, he must surely have felt that transcribing experience directly, taking life without fear, in a notebook, would make the first contacts for him, would get him out of that shell. By methodically describing people, landscapes, schools, teachers, friends, he felt that he was already humanizing the world, lightening it of its difficulty. By familiarizing himself with the world, he would make it accept him. In this first volume, one sees the mighty effort he trained himself to, by words — to recognize the world, to divest it of its strangeness, to make it ready for him.