Edmund Wilson Essays

Edmund Wilson Essays-49
“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.At the height of the Depression, in (1933), Wilson remembered a vow he had made: “I swore to myself that when the War was over I should stand outside of society altogether, I should do without the comforts and amenities of the conventional world entirely, and I should devote myself to the great human interests which transcend standard of living and conventions: Literature, History, the Creation of Beauty, the Discovery of Truth.” Society meant the upper-middle class of Great Neck, New York, where Wilson was raised, the son of a distinguished lawyer, and Princeton, where he was educated among America’s elite, insulated from real life until the carnage of a World War he witnessed as a medical orderly forever changed him.

“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.

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At the end, Wilson wrote exclusively for the and in its style of those years, favoring obscure details on topics of no social relevance to emulate stuffy, late Victorian erudition of the pompous, eccentric and boring with a lot of time on their hands.

But let’s see what it looks like from the other end, from 1920 onwards.

This is the period when modernism in the arts flared before the war and turned into a conflagration after. This was the jazz age youngsters in high school study when they are assigned (1929).

The Edmund Wilson who took up a post editing from its founding in 1920 was, like many of his contemporaries, a “man of 1914,” of “the lost generation,” the jazz age writers shaken out of the windy rhetoric and patrician certainties of their class by the imperialistic slaughter, turning toward bohemian enclaves for shelter, and the international avant-garde culture in its modernist phase for inspiration. Here was the right place and time for a writer inventing a new genre of book reviewing and literary criticism as journalism, more specifically magazine writing.

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.The young Wilson of these volumes is very different from a man of letters, the pose Wilson projected in old age. Mencken, his contemporary, Wilson found in magazines a means to engage and shape a following open to fresh directions in thought and literary expression, especially when delivered by a sleek, new type of publication employing stylish photography, attractive graphic design and an intimate style of address to readers.He was in the twenties and the thirties the most engaged of intellectuals, more like Albert Camus than Samuel Johnson, a whirlwind of activity, a “journalist and writer,” as he liked to think of himself. In his early reviews, Edmund Wilson displayed a wonderful trust sorely lacking in contemporary criticism—trust in the intelligence and interest of his audience, and dislike of the literary pretensions and genteel ways of America’s patrician elite and the nouveau riches, “the boobocracy” as Mencken aptly named them.As we saw, Edmund Wilson and his contemporaries were at first soothed by the pleasures of the jazz age and by the cosmopolitan culture that flared and flourished in New York as Wall Street, flush with cash, spread honey around, at least until 1929.Then came the Headless Horseman of the Great Depression to Sleepy Hollow, and shook America’s liberalism out of its complacency and easy formulations.Wilson’s work had imitators, none successful until the incomparable and unjustly neglected record of the period in James Agee’s also belong to this genre of writing.There was a need for action, Wilson insisted, and any idea that delivers the goods or has cash value, any “myth” that can be believed and taken up by heroic men like Lenin and Trotsky could be of use to liberals who did not know which way to turn. Eliot and the Church of England” (1929) Eliot’s declaration of his political position as a classicist, royalist and Anglican and his proposed solutions to rising social problems.Wilson recorded the cutting of school budgets in Detroit, of wages in Flint, Michigan, rising suicides in San Diego, and working people starving everywhere.His was a stylistic documentation, as if Balzac and Zola had become reporters.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.

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