John Donne: The Critical Heritage

By Barry Maine | Go to book overview

CHOSEN COUNTRY

October 1951

57.

Edmund Wilson, letter to Dos Passos

27 November 1951

From Edmund Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics 1912-1972, ed. Elena Wilson (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), 503-40

We’ve just read Chosen Country and were fascinated. I find it rather hard—which happens rarely with me—to judge it as a book, because, knowing the originals or components of so many of your characters, I keep seeing the real people and get partly thrown off the track of what you are trying to do. What comes through to me is the Peter Pan fantasy of the Smoolies or the horrors of life with Griffin Barry, which seem to me wonderfully caught, but I can’t gauge the effect of all this on a reader who hasn’t known them. I will hazard, though, a few specific criticisms. Negative: colorless title—you seem to be getting addicted to them—which doesn’t convey the idea you intend (till I read the book, I thought it meant Choice Country—i.e., country appropriate for farming or something) and isn’t likely to lure the reader; dependence in conversation on clichés—you are here at last dealing with people who are supposed to be clever and charming and sometimes profound and brilliant, yet you still make them carry on even among themselves an exchange of catchphrases and platitudes. You do get away from this to some extent, and at moments very successfully, in the case of Jay and Lulie 1 and the elder Pignatelli—but I think you still a little give the impression that the guy who is writing the book is the only master of language in the United States, a country where the language of everybody else is a tissue of the ready-made phrases that go with his profession or milieu. And this brings us to the positive remarks: you have never written more beautifully or

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