As all about us has risen, in journals like associated with the early Wilson, a complacent and ugly liberalism which sanctions war crimes, torture and a collapsing of ancient civilizations under the boots of American marines, it would be good to see how it all began, and find out whether it could have ended differently.
Edmund Wilson’s father, a prominent lawyer and supporter of progressive Democratic Party forces under Woodrow Wilson as New Jersey’s Governor, gained fame cleaning up the rackets in Atlantic City.
Today, when leading critics set texts adrift in a sea of signification free of reference and write a pre-literate prose under a post-modernist dispensation, it is good to read someone who writes lucid prose and makes literature come alive as a shared experience, each review a little drama of intellectual ideas upon historical or psychological circumstances of artistic production, all in the vivid, alive style of magazine writing, the path Wilson created by walking it in the period between two terrible World Wars.
There are three distinct phases in this intellectual journey: a bohemian phase in Greenwich Village after the first World War, when Wilson introduced modernist literature in its earliest heroic phase to a newly prosperous and more sophisticated American audience; a period in the Hungry Thirties when he rode various leftist currents as a socially engaged writer seeking to firm up his liberalism with an admixture of Marxism; and, finally, starting with his classic study of the historical roots of the Russian Revolution, , published in 1940, the abandoning of his hopes for culture as an instrument of social change over a period of the remaining decade covered by the two-volume Library of America collection.
Their publication may help dispel the mausoleum feel to the comments Wilson receives with every appearance of his own writings or writings about him.
He was, many reviewers insist, America’s preeminent “man of letters,” with the word “last” added to drive the final nail in the coffin housing a man of action, as he was in reality for the early, most productive and interesting decades of his life.Wilson sat down with James Joyce for a chat in a cafe and rushed into print to explain to an audience growing in sophistication and self-confidence.He saw writers participating in a worldly activity as part of a community, and believed that modernist literature, even in its most extreme innovations of Joyce and Gertrude Stein, is not so much difficult to read, as that we have not learned to read it with care as a social exchange within a marketplace of ideas.In his sunset years, Wilson seduced age-appropriate women in the first ranks of literary and cultural life, and dwelt on obscure personal interests ranging from forgotten American Civil War literature and Canadian literature before there was much of it, to Iroquois land claims and the Dead Sea Scrolls.He was studying Hungarian at the end of his life to read Endre Ady in the original.It would have been a typical stepping-stone to political power had he not come down with a debilitating depression that afflicted his son as well at various times in his life.In 1925, carrying on the progressive family tradition, Wilson joined as editor and writer for the newly founded , the magazine an attempt to give voice to a more sophisticated and newly rich middle-class which elbowed out the patricians with a social conscience of an earlier age, like Wilson’s father.“The stock market crash was to count for us,” Wilson wrote, “almost like a rending of the earth in preparation for the Day of Judgment.” Wilson couches in religious terms the experience of a devastated economy bringing social and cultural institutions to financial ruin that came to him as a bolt from the blue, an apocalyptic event.In a period eerily reminiscent of the one we are entering, progressives, now liberals, looked into their bag of reform tools and found it empty.We still talk in his terms about Proust, Joyce or Dickens and owe him gratitude for launching the careers of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Henry Miller.He contributed to our understanding of modernist literature in more ways than it is possible to thank him.