“I was born an American; I will live an American; I shall die an American.”
In the spring of 1963, my sister and I were invited, along with my parents, to a dinner party given by White Russian friends at their penthouse apartment in Manhattan, whose tall mahogany-framed windows overlooked lower Central Park. During the cocktail hour, the Kluge daughters played Beethoven duets at two Steinway pianos set opposite each other at either end of the living room. Following the concert, a sumptuous Russian meal was served. Then, after dinner, we all went round the corner to a nondescript sort of place on West 64th Street that looked like a small, shabby apartment but was really a puppet theater. The puppets performed on a little stage set up in a room with a seating capacity of perhaps 20 people, where the audience sat on folding chairs arranged in careful rows. They performed scenes from Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and other of Shakespeare’s works and concluded the evening with duets from La traviata. As Traviata was (and remains) one of my favorite operas, I was especially delighted by what the puppets managed to do with Verdi’s score.
So enthralled was I, in fact, that I barely noticed the dumpy little man, dressed in a brown suit and with the wide, tight mouth and generally unprepossessing expression of a snapping turtle, seated immediately to my left. When, after the show, my father asked me if I knew who that man was, I had to be told he was Edmund Wilson, a name quite unfamiliar to me. It was nearly a decade before I got round to discovering Wilson’s books, and another five years before I chose one of his last (Upstate) as the rough model for my own initial effort (Saltbound). In the four decades-plus since then, I’ve often wondered whether Wilson succeeded in communicating something to me by contagion during our prolonged though unacknowledged meeting, so deeply has his work resonated with me since. (From reading Lewis Dabney’s excellent biography, I take the added satisfaction of knowing that La traviata was a great favorite of Edmund Wilson’s, also.)
“If [emphasis mine] there is an American civilization,” the obituarist for the New York Times opined in 1972, “Edmund Wilson has helped us to find it and is himself an important aspect of it.” Among the many differences that come to mind between the critic and the Times are that Wilson was certain that a uniquely American civilization exists (or, anyway, did); that, consequently, he was never in personal need of help in discovering such a thing; and that, indeed, he was integral to that civilization, being himself a sterling product of it. Professor Dabney forthrightly acknowledges Wilson as an American patriot and Old Republican who recovered from his delusional Marxism of the 30’s to locate the true America in the antebellum era and, in his own time, as American institutions collapsed about him, to find “through his art the balance of life and death in the very landscape.”
Edmund Wilson was at bottom an American Whig, whose life bears comparison with that of the English Whig historian G.M. Trevelyan—Wilson’s contemporary—in respect of their shared, tragic experience in being forced to watch, over a lifetime, as the secular-progressive ideas and ideals that had formed their lives and inspired and guided their careers successively proved either mistaken or futile—while the civilizations behind them decayed and fell apart, contrary to their youthful expectations that all that they stood for would eventually win out. Both men were inherently 18th-century rationalists, children of the Enlightenment, firmly committed to the proposition that, as Wilson expressed it, society could be organized on rational principles as a going concern, a human success. For Wilson, the Republic of the late-18th and early-19th centuries was intimately connected with the frontier, “that brief period of freedom when we were independent men in a new country.” It was by reason of her early history that Wilson was able, for a period in his life, to convince himself that America was perhaps the one place in the world where socialism could be achieved by democratic means, as he wrote in Europe Without Baedeker (1966).
In the struggle to create a rationally organized society that works by serving the cause of human betterment, Wilson believed, literature has a highly important place. Though an elite art, it need not closet or marginalize itself, he argued, maintaining the classical premise (in Dabney’s gloss) “that literature delights and teaches, invigorating the life of society and the language of ordinary men and women.” At the outset of the 30’s, in Axel’s Castle, Wilson acknowledged his fear that “the whole belle-lettristic tradition of Renaissance culture perhaps, compelled to specialize more and more, more and more driven in on itself, as industrialism and democratic education have come to press it closer and closer,” was drawing to its end. He found hope in the prospect of the continued work of writers who could “break down the walls of the present and wake us to . . . the untried, unsuspected possibilities of human thought and art.” Yet by the time of his death in 1972, postmodernism, like a stubby-masted, concrete-hulled Liberty ship, had already heaved its sordid gray bulk above the literary horizon, and Valéry’s gloomy prediction of literature in the age of television and the mass media being ruined by introspection and novelty seemed already far more justified than Edmund Wilson’s brighter one. Indeed, Wilson himself could not ignore what he called the worldwide elimination of the old literate class coincident with “the swift transience of everything in the United States,” epitomized for him by the style and content of Life magazine. (“I do not belong to the country depicted there . . . I do not even live in that country.”) And so, this man of the 20’s in old age “came full circle,” as Lewis Dabney says, “embracing ‘the old provincial America’ that the family home in Talcottville, New York, represented.”
In Edmund Wilson’s assertion (A Piece of My Mind, 1956) that “The Republic has . . . had to be saved over and over again, and it continues to have to be saved,” Professor Dabney discovers the “Calvinist urgency of his father,” Edmund Wilson, Sr.—a distinguished lawyer in Red Bank, New Jersey, whom President Wilson once considered nominating to the U.S. Supreme Court—and a long line of Wilson forebears. Wilson Sr. was also a severely neurotic hypochondriac, whose illness his son speculatively attributed in part to the Calvinist fear of damnation. Wilson Jr., who lost his Christian faith in prep school, remained the rest of his life an atheist-agnostic for whom, Dabney suggests, “Literature became the source of light in [his] Protestant ethic, the aura of guilt and sin setting off the vitality of books and ideas,” as well as “a way to give life meaning and point.” A pragmatic aesthete, Wilson considered artists the antennae of their race and, therefore, in some sense, its priestly class. As he wrote in “The Historical Interpretation of Literature,”
With each such victory of the human intellect, whether in history, philosophy, or poetry, we experience a deep satisfaction: we have been cured of some ache or disorder, relieved of some oppressive burden of uncomprehended events.
For Dabney, Edmund Wilson was “a propagandist for humanity,” who intended his criticism to forward “a larger historical project.” Too conscientious an artist and thinker, even in his Marxist period, to pursue “a literary career under the impression that one is operating a bombing-plane,” “Wilson,” writes Dabney,
would remain in Arnold’s sense a Hellenist, yet his evocation of the shaping of God’s institutions from the things of this world marks the Hebraism that would be liberated when it appeared to him wrapped in the flag of Marx’s scientific socialism.
There seems a sense in which Protestantism represents a reversion to Judaism, which Edmund Wilson perhaps exemplifies. (Referring to Patriotic Gore, Dabney comments, “From Stowe at the beginning to Justice Holmes at the end, those [the author] most admires are imbued with a Hebraic Protestantism.”) Wilson was honest enough to be able to perceive communism as his own form of religious temptation. Even so, in Dabney’s view,
the dialectic became for him a religious myth, a secular Providence displacing “man’s conscious creative will.” . . . Although Marx was an atheist who considered the Jews moneylenders and usury the essence of capitalism, Wilson saw him drawing on his heritage, reviving the fervid vision and righteous wrath of the Old Testament. “Nobody but a Jew in that middle nineteenth century could have commanded the moral weapons to crack the fortress of bourgeois self-satisfaction,” Wilson declares [in To the Finland Station].
For Edmund Wilson, the author of Das Kapital was “the great secular rabbi of the 19th-century.” Reflecting on the legacy of his Protestant inheritance, Wilson cited what he described as
the assertion of moral authority, the affirmation of the power of the spirit, in indifference to, if not in defiance of, what may be called the worldly situation—that is, of the mise en scène, the conditions of life, the amenities.
This inheritance, recast in secularist terms, comported well with Tolstoy’s belief that “The vocation of us artists and poets is to instruct the world”—a notion the Russian saw through after he became a Christian but which Wilson never really repudiated. Throughout his life, he remained not so much God-haunted as haunted by the absence of God, for Whom he sought a substitute faith: always in literature, sometimes in someone else’s religion, whether that of the Zuni Indians—about whom he wrote at length following a visit to New Mexico—or of the ancient Jews, which he considered in two books about the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Wilson, as Professor Dabney perspicuously notes, was at once a compulsive mythologizer and demythologizer.) In this way, he kept religion at a distance by intellectualizing and anthropologizing it, while, through the process of intellectualization, he managed to escape (as he thought) its moral strictures, very much including negative ones against alcoholism, fornication, and adultery, along with other, positive requirements such as profession of belief, prayer, and formal worship. The personal cost of toasting “the Holy Spirit of Humanity” in the course of a visit to Israel is no more than the price of a bottle of good wine, which Edmund Wilson, in the course of a long and bibulous life, never begrudged himself.
A part-time resident for most of his life of Cape Cod, where he owned a home in Wellfleet, Wilson found the Cape’s illustrious intellectual community increasingly less congenial in the 50’s and 60’s, as the old Bohemian intelligentsia of his youth and middle age was supplanted by the mandarin establishment with one foot in Harvard Yard and the other on Capitol Hill. Candid discussion was necessarily constrained, he discovered, in an intellectual milieu dominated by people on the payroll of the federal government and of academia. Most directly in The Cold War and the Income Tax (1963), more importantly in Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962), Wilson criticized—implicitly and explicitly—the substitution of a superinflated nation-state and bullying empire for the Old Republic of the founding generations. For Edmund Wilson, the War Between the States was fought more to consolidate and expand the central government than to force an end to the Peculiar Institution, “breaking and embittering the South, inflating and corrupting the North,” while disorienting people “whose training had prepared them for a different world from that with which they were later confronted.” In the vitriolic Preface to Patriotic Gore that many of his liberal acquaintances (including Robert Penn Warren, Alfred Kazin, and Saul Bellow) deplored, Wilson compared modern nation-states to sea slugs battling one another in the muck of the ocean floor and concluded that the United States was as susceptible as any to “the primitive animal instinct to challenge, to subdue and, if possible to exploit other groups of human beings,” owing to “the irresistible instinct of power to expand itself, of well-organized human aggregations to absorb or impose themselves on other groups.” Responding in part to the Cold War, in which the United States and the Soviet Union, locked in combat like raging bull elephants, trampled back and forth over the rest of the world, Wilson became an outspoken supporter of “the rights of small nations and cultural minorities, as against all the forces which are driving us in the direction of centralized power that tries to process or crush them.” (Contradictorily—a throwback, perhaps, to his Marxist days—he looked forward to the creation of a European confederation, “with England as [its] Massachusetts and Italy as [its] Louisiana.”) A generation earlier, while President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked to maneuver the country into war, Wilson had derided the war to “make the world safe for democracy” and declared that he smelled “a new set of political slogans . . . ‘declarations of moral purposes,’ to be let loose from the same sort of sources which launched the publicity of World War I.”
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., included Wilson with a group of “old Americans”—Colonel McCormick, Oswald Garrison Villard, Charles Beard, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Amos Pinchot—committed to the republican principles of no entangling alliances and the refusal to venture abroad in search of monsters to destroy established by George Washington and John Quincy Adams. In a nonpolitical sense, too, Edmund Wilson remained an “old American.” None of this is lost on Professor Dabney, as when, noting Wilson’s fervent outburst in his first novel, I Thought of Daisy—“my own, my native land”—he comments on how the modernists of the 20’s, despite the inspiration they received from Europe, were nevertheless bound with the American past to a degree that separates them from their literary successors “in a more fragmented culture.” This, on page 64; nearly 300 pages later, Dabney returns to the theme in his evaluation of American writers after World War II:
diverse, including Southerners, Jews, and African Americans. There were distinguished women writers of fiction, as in the time of Wharton and Cather. Yet this group lacked certain advantages of the major novelists and poets of the early twentieth century, who incorporated the experimentation of Europe in a fresh voice of their native land, emerging from the Victorian age and writing for a still cohesive educated class.
That is perhaps the nicest way possible to state an unpopular truth that badly needs saying today.
Edmund Wilson was a great writer, an accomplished artist, critic, and historian, a learned man, and—as Lewis Dabney insists—a great American figure and a patriot. It is open to doubt, however, whether he was truly a wise man. For all his learning and brilliance, his commitment to the human intellect and to humanity, he managed to miss the foundation of human reality that is also the foundation of existence itself; he did so, moreover, not by failing to perceive, but by dismissing, that foundation. Wilson, who considered metaphysics “the poetry and fiction” of those who do not think in “concrete images,” was dismissive of theology as well. “Do you believe in God?” he asked a friend shortly before his death. “ . . . Neither do I.” “When all our ideas of loyalty and honor,” he wrote in his journal at the end of the Jazz Age and following his own nervous breakdown,
derived from our social class, from our Renaissance education, from our foolish early fantasies of ourselves, have been broken up and carried off by the currents in which we find ourselves drowning, we are at a loss as to what to fall back on, but we are bound to fall back on something; and this is perhaps where the real conscious solidarity of the human race begins.
Wilson, whose vision penetrated the human condition thoroughly enough so far as it went, did not see deep enough to apprehend the bedrock beneath the surface and middling layers. Quintessentially American in his intellectual descent from the Enlightenment, he was equally American in being a product, however distant and diffused, of the Protestant Reformation. For Wilson, good versus evil was a matter of social relationships, not of metaphysical truth—or even, necessarily, of personal conduct. (Hence this lifelong believer in human decency failed to perceive a contradiction between cuckolding his neighbor and condemning the capitalist exploiter of the wage slave, for whose wife Wilson felt a special attraction in his youth.) The Age of Reason has always comported well with the Religion of Reason—and nowhere better than in America, born of a marriage between the two and remaining to this day a creature of Progressive culture in every one of its multifarious pragmatic manifestations, from desiccated Unitarianism through sleek televangelism to the frenzy of the megachurches offering up their cybernetic hosannas to an Unknown God.
[Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, by Lewis Dabney (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 642 pp., $35.00]