Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Isaiah Berlin on Edmund Wilson

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Isaiah Berlin on Edmund Wilson

Article excerpt

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) and Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) were among the leading figures of 20th-century transatlantic intellectual life, Wilson the American critic and man of letters, and Berlin the British intellectual historian and political philosopher. The two met in 1946, when Wilson, the older by 14 years, was just over 50. "He spoke in a moving and imaginative fashion about the American writers of his generation, about Dante," Berlin writes in a short memoir focused on Oxford and on London literary life in the fifties. "He then talked about Russian literature in general, and particularly about Chekhov and Gogol, as well as I have ever heard anyone talk on any literary topic. I was completely fascinated; I felt honored to have met this greatly gifted and morally impressive man." They would become fast friends, seeing each other throughout the 1950s and '60s in London and Oxford as well as in Manhattan, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at Wilson's old stone house in upstate New York.

The following conversation took place in London on the afternoon of March 27, 1991. I had written to Berlin, telling him that I was editing Wilson's last journal, The Sixties, and beginning a biography of the critic. Sir Isaiah suggested we meet at the Athenaeum Club in London. There, at a table in the long, elegant drawing room, I proposed that he fill out the account of Wilson begun in the memoir a few years before. In this piece, he offers an impression of Wilson's "curiously strangled voice, with gaps between his sentences, as if ideas jostled and thrashed about inside him," emerging in "short bursts, emitted staccato, interspersed with gentle, low-voiced, legato passages." Sir Isaiah's own deep, soft voice also came in bursts, trailing off at the end of a breath and emphatically resuming. For two and a half hours (with an intermission for tea) he displayed a penetrating intelligence, warmth of heart, and moral seriousness that reminded me of the same qualities in his old friend.

I began by asking whether Wilson had changed over the many years the two knew each other.

Berlin: No, I think he was exactly the same. Intent, intense, passionate, serious, had no small talk, and everything he said meant something. How wonderful to be a man, every one of whose sentences conveyed something! With no chatter.

D: His conversational self matched his literary persona?

Berlin: Yes, he spoke as he wrote.

Berlin recalled arriving in the United States in February 1940 for a two-month stay, eager to meet the author of Axel's Castle and The Triple Thinkers, "excellent books, wonderful books." Talking in New York with people from Partisan Review, he was "shocked" to learn that they "were not pro-Edmund." "I mean, he was my hero, continuously. And I used to ask them, 'What about Edmund Wilson?' They would answer, 'Well. . . .'" At the time Berlin had no idea that Wilson had taken Mary McCarthy away from Philip Rahv, one of Partisan Review's editors. Later, while serving as a British official in Washington during the war, he had expressed his interest in Wilson to Felix Frankfurter and others whom the critic knew, but it turned out that Wilson "was unwilling to meet somebody contaminated by working in an embassy, above all the British Embassy," who "could only want to use him for propaganda purposes." We discussed the reversal of the New Republic's socialist isolationism by the magazine's British owner, Leonard Elmhirst, who in 1940 descended on the editors and began printing letters that favored intervention in the European conflict, at which point Wilson resigned. His bitter talk of a British-Stalinist alliance would seem less foolish when Michael Straight, the son-in-law whom Elmhirst left in charge, confessed in his autobiography to having been recruited at Oxford by the KGB. Wilson's To the Finland Station also appeared in 1940.

Berlin: I didn't read it then; it would have interested me. I would have disagreed with it, too, and did, in some ways. …

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