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 teleology 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.”

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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