Cultural Cohesion, p.46Clive James
Only the European panoptic scholars come near matching Wilson for learning, and for sheer range of critical occupation there is no modern man to match him, not even Croce. If Upstate tends to give the impression that his wonted energy now only faintly flickers, the reader needs to remind himself sharply that the mental power in question is still of an order sufficient to illuminate the average city. Seemingly without effort, Wilson dropped A Piece of My Mind (1957) somewhere into the middle of all this hustle and bustle, and in the chapter entitled “The Author at Sixty” announced:
I have lately been coming to feel that, as an American, I am more or less in the eighteenth century—or, at any rate, not much later than the early nineteenth. . . . I do not want any more to be bothered with the kind of contemporary conflicts that I used to go out to explore. I make no attempt to keep up with the younger American writers; and I only hope to have the time to get through some of the classics I have never read. Old fogeyism is comfortably closing in.
Taking him at his word on this last point, most critics and reviewers were relieved, which was very foolish of them.
But on the first point, about feeling himself to be an eighteenth-century or nineteenth-century figure, Wilson was making a just estimate, even if he meant only that he didn’t drive a car and couldn’t bear to pronounce the word “movies.” As Alfred Kazin argued in his review of The American Earthquake (collected in his fine book Contemporaries), the men to compare Wilson with are the literary artists driven by historical imaginations—men like Carlyle.
The third thing which lightens the darkness of Upstate is the author’s gradually revealed—and revealed only gradually even to himself—interest in a local young woman striving to better herself. Perhaps without really willing it, Wilson is telling a subtle story here: flashes and fragments are all we get. But by the time the book is over, we are convinced that her story is the story of the book, and that the story has gone against the mood. Kazin suggested that Wilson’s secret was to gaze at America with a cold eye without being cold on America. The American Earthquake inexorably recorded the shattering effects of industrialism and the spiritual confusion of the New Deal, but it was not a hopeless book—it responded to the period’s vitalities, even (while castigating it) the vitality of Henry Ford. Upstate very nearly is a hopeless book, and for a long while we suspect that Wilson has gone cold on America. But finally we see that he hasn’t, quite: as the girl Mary works to establish herself in a way that her European origins would probably not have allowed, the American adventure haltingly begins all over again, at the eleventh hour and in the fifty-ninth minute.
Against the Stygian background of the book’s accumulated imagery it is not much hope to offer, but it is not nothing, and Wilson was never in the consolation business anyway. Which leaves us—as we shelve Upstate beside A Prelude and prudently leave room for the books dealing with the thirty uncovered years between them—with the question of what business Wilson has been in.
What does Wilson’s effort amount to? Is there an atom of truth in his dispirited suggestion that his books have dated? Supposing—as seems likely—that Wilson belongs with the great, copious critical minds like Saintsbury, Sainte-Beuve, Croce, Taine: is he doomed to survive like them only as an emblem of the qualities a mind can have, Saintsbury for gusto, Sainte-Beuve for diligence, Croce for rigour, Taine for drama? Wilson makes Van Wyck Brooks’s output look normal, Eliot’s look slim, Empson’s, Trilling’s and Leavis’s look famished. Just how is all this avoirdupois to be moved forward? We need to decide whether critical work which has plainly done so much to influence its time vanishes with its time or continues. To continue, it must have done something beyond maintaining standards or correcting taste, important as those functions are: it must have embodied, not just recommended, a permanent literary value. And we do not have to re-read much of Wilson’s criticism—although it would be a year of perfect pleasure to re-read all of it—to see that it does embody a value, and embodies it in a way and to a degree that no other corpus of twentieth-century work has approached. But this value, so easily sensed, is very difficult to define, since it must perforce reside in whatever is left after opposing high estimations of Wilson have cancelled each other out. Lionel Trilling (in “Edmund Wilson: A Background Glance,” collected in A Gathering of Fugitives) says that an interest in ideas is the very essence of Wilson’s criticism. Alfred Kazin, on the other hand, says that ideas are things Wilson is not at home with. If both these men admire the same thing in Wilson, what is it?
The answer is that Wilson has a mental style—a mental style which reveals itself in the way he writes. He is proof by nature against metaphysics of any kind (sometimes to the damaging extent that he cannot grasp why men should bother to hold to them), and this characteristic gives his work great clarity. He never has to strive towards perspicuity, since he is never tempted even momentarily to abandon it. And in more than fifty years of activity he has put up such a consistent show of knowing what he means—and of writing it down so that it may be readily understood—that he has invited underestimation. The most difficult escape Houdini ever made was from a wet sheet, but since he was in the business of doing difficult-looking things he had to abandon this trick, because to the public it seemed easy. What Wilson was doing was never easy, but he had the good manners to make it look that way. If he could only have managed to dream up an objective correlative, or a few types of ambiguity, or if he had found it opportune to start lamenting the loss of an organic society, he would be much more fashionable now than he is. But we can search his work from end to end without finding any such conversation-piece. What we do find is a closely argued dramatic narrative in which good judgement and misjudgement both stand out plainly. The dangerous excitement of a tentatively formulated concept is absent from his work, and for most of us this is an excitement that is hard to forgo: the twentieth century has given us a palate for such pepper.
But there is another, more durable excitement which Wilson’s entire body of work serves to define. There is a clue to it in Upstate, in the passage where Wilson discusses the different courses taken by Eliot and Van Wyck Brooks:
They were at Harvard at the same time, Brooks of the class of 1908, Eliot of 1910, and both, as was natural then, went, after college, to England. Eliot took root there, but Brooks said that, during the months he spent in England, he found himself preoccupied with American subjects. This difference marks the watershed in the early nineteen hundreds in American literary life. Eliot stays in England, which is for him still the motherland of literature in English, and becomes a European; Brooks returns to the United States and devotes himself to American writing, at the expense of what has been written in Europe. Eliot represents the growth of an American internationalism: Brooks, as a spokesman of the twenties, the beginnings of the sometimes all too conscious American literary self-glorification which is part of our American imperialism
As it happened, Wilson was to go on to cover American subjects with all Brooks’s thoroughness and more; and to parallel Eliot’s internationalism while yet holding to the tacit belief that the American achievement could well be crucial in the continuity of that internationalism; and to combine these two elements with a total authority of preparation and statement. For that preparation, he had the brilliant education available in pre-war Princeton to a young man ready to grasp it. For that statement, he was obliged to evolve a style which would make his comprehensive seriousness unmistakable in every line. Out of these two things came the solid achievement of judgements based on unarguable knowledge ably supplied to meet an historical demand. From the beginning, Wilson was a necessary writer, a chosen man. And it is this feeling of watching a man proving himself equal to an incontestably important task—explaining the world to America and explaining America to itself—which provides the constant excitement of Wilson’s work.
Commanding this kind of excitement his prose needed no other. Wilson grew out of the great show-off period of American style. He could not have
Wilson’s style adopted the Mencken-Nathan toughness but eschewed the belligerence—throwing no punches, it simply put its points and waited for intelligent men to agree. It assumed that intelligence could be a uniting factor rather than a divisive one. In the following passage (from “The Critic Who Does Not Exist,” written in 1928 and later collected in The Shores of Light) this point is made explicitly:
What we lack, then, in the United States, is not writers or even literary parties, but simply serious literary criticism (the school of critics I have mentioned last, ie, Brooks, Mumford and Joseph Wood Krutch, though they set forth their own ideas, do not occupy themselves much with the art or ideas of the writers with whom they deal). Each of these groups does produce, to be sure, a certain amount of criticism to justify or explain what it is doing, but it may, I believe, be said in general that they do not communicate with one another; their opinions do not really circulate. It is astonishing to observe, in America, in spite of our floods of literary journalism, to what extent literary atmosphere is a non-conductor of criticism. What actually happens, in our literary world, is that each leader or group of leaders is allowed to intimidate his disciples, either ignoring all the other leaders or taking cognizance of their existence only by distant and contemptuous sneers. H. L. Mencken and T. S. Eliot present themselves, as I have said, from the critical point of view, as the most formidable figures on the scene; yet Mencken’s discussion of his principal rival has, so far as my memory goes, been confined to an inclusion of the latter’s works among the items of one of those lists of idiotic current crazes in which the Mercury usually includes also the recall of judges and paper-bag cookery. And Eliot, established in London, does not, of course, consider himself under the necessity of dealing with Mencken at all . . . Van Wyck Brooks, in spite of considerable baiting, has never been induced to defend his position (though Krutch has recently taken up some challenges). And the romantics have been belaboured by the spokesmen of several different camps without making any attempt to strike back. It, furthermore, seems unfortunate that some of our most important writers—Sherwood Anderson and Eugene O’Neill, for example—should work, as they apparently do, in almost complete intellectual isolation, receiving from the outside but little intelligent criticism and developing, in their solitary labours, little capacity for supplying it themselves.
Wilson’s innovation was to treat the American intelligentsia as if it were a European one, speaking a common language. “For there is one language,” he wrote in the same essay, “which all French writers, no matter how divergent their aims, always possess in common: the language of criticism.” That was the ideal, and by behaving as if it had already come about, he did a great deal to bring it into existence. The neutral, dignified tone of his prose was crucial here: it implied that there was no need for an overdose of personality, since writer and reader were on a level and understood one another. As Lionel Trilling has convincingly argued, Wilson’s years in an editorial chair for The New Republic were a big help in getting this tone right—he was in action continuously (more than two-thirds of the pieces in The Shores of Light first appeared in The New Republic) before a self-defining audience of intelligent men, all of whom were capable of appreciating that opinions should circulate.
The literary chronicles, especially The Shores of Light, are commonly valued above Wilson’s more integrated books, and although it seems likely that the people doing the valuing have not correctly judged the importance of the latter, the evaluation nevertheless seems just at first glance. As has often been pointed out, there is nothing in criticism to beat the thrill of hearing Wilson produce the first descriptions and definitions of the strong new American literature that was coming up in the 1920s—the first essays on Fitzgerald and Hemingway will always stand as the perfect objects for any literary journalist’s envy and respect. But here again we must remember to avoid trying to nourish ourselves with condiments alone. What needs to be appreciated, throughout the literary chronicles, is the steady work of reporting, judging, sorting out, encouraging, reproving and re-estimating. The three literary chronicles are, among other things, shattering reminders that many of the men we distinguish with the name of critic have never judged a piece of writing in their lives—just elaborated on judgements already formed by other men.
A certain demonstration of Wilson’s integrity in this regard is his ability to assess minor and ancillary literature about which no general opinion has previously been built up: The Shock of Recognition and Patriotic Gore are natural culminations of Wilson’s early drive towards mining and assaying in territory nobody else had even staked out. Wilson is a memory; he never at any stage believed that the historic process by which writings are forgotten should go unexamined or be declared irreversible. Remembering is one of the many duties the literary chronicles perform: not so spectacular a duty as discovering, but equally important. For Wilson’s self-imposed task of circulating opinions within an intelligent community (a community which depends on such a process for its whole existence), all these duties needed to be scrupulously carried out, and it is the triumph of the literary chronicles that they were carried out in so adventurous a way.
Unless all these things are held in mind, the true stature of the literary chronicles cannot be seen, even by those who value them above the rest of Wilson’s work. In The Shores of Light it is necessary to appreciate not just “F. Scott Fitzgerald” and “Emergence of Ernest Hemingway” but also pieces like “The Literary Consequences of the Crash,” “Talking United States,” and “Prize-Winning Blank Verse.” In Classics and Commercials we need to cherish not only the stand-out hatchet-jobs like “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” and “Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous” but also the assiduous labour of weighing up—never impatient, even when repelled—which went into essays like “Glenway Wescott’s War Work” and “Van Wyck Brooks on the Civil War Period.” And unless we can get rid of the notion that picking winners was Wilson’s only true calling in life, we will have no hope at all of reaching a true estimation of The Bit Between My Teeth—a book disparaged as tired and thin by reviewers who in the full vigour of youth could not have matched the solidity of the least piece in it. “The Pre-Presidential T.R.” and “The Holmes-Laski Correspondence” are masterly examples of what Wilson can accomplish by bringing a literary viewpoint to historical documents; and “The Vogue of the Marquis de Sade” got the whole Sade revival into focus and incisively set the limits for its expansion.
The literary chronicles would have been more than enough by themselves to establish Wilson’s pre-eminence: to a high degree they have that sense of the drama of creativity which Taine had been able to capture and exploit. If people are going to read only some of Wilson instead of all of him, then the chronicles are what they should read. But it is one thing to say this, and another to accept the assumption—distressingly widespread in recent years—that Axel’s Castle and The Wound and the Bow and The Triple Thinkers have in some way done the work they had to do and may be discarded, like used-up boosters. There is not much doubt about how such an idea gained currency, books of long essays being so much harder to read than books of short ones. But there is no reason for anyone who has actually read and understood a book like Axel’s Castle to go along with such a slovenly notion. When, in the Yeats chapter of that book, Wilson compared the Yeats of 1931 to the Dante who was able “to sustain a grand manner through sheer intensity without rhetorical heightening,” he was writing permanent criticism, criticism which can’t be superseded, certainly not by pundits who are boning up their Dante from a parallel text instead of learning it the hard way from a teacher like Christian Gauss. It is barbarism of a peculiarly academic kind to suppose that truths of this order—not insights, explications, or glosses, but truths—can be appropriated to a databank or dismissed as obsolete. A Dantesque “epigra
Wilson paid heavy penalties for being plain—or rather we paid heavy penalties for not seeing the force of his plainness. In the Eliot chapter of Axel’s Castle he said something about Eliot that forty years of theses and learned articles have done their best to bury, something which we are only now capable of seeing as criticism rather than conversation, the intervening hubbub of academic industry having revealed itself as conversation rather than criticism:
We are always being dismayed, in our general reading, to discover that lines among those which we had believed to represent Eliot’s residuum of original invention had been taken over or adapted from other writers. . . . One would be inclined a priori to assume that all this load of erudition and literature would be enough to sink any writer, and that such a production as “The Waste Land” must be a work of second-hand inspiration. And it is true that, in reading Eliot and Pound, we are sometimes visited by uneasy recollections of Ausonius, in the fourth century, composing Greek-and-Latin macaronics and piecing together poetic mosaics out of verses from Virgil. Yet Eliot manages to be most effective precisely—in “The Waste Land”—where he might be expected to be least original—he succeeds in conveying his meaning, in communicating his emotion, in spite of all his learned or mysterious allusions, and whether we understand them or not.
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