Magazine article The Spectator

High Life

Magazine article The Spectator

High Life

Article excerpt

Edmund Wilson was America's premier man of letters (The Wound and the Bow) during the mid years of the 20th century. To the Finland Station and Memoirs of Hecate County are still in print, as are his journals about the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. He was a literary critic par excellence, a friend of both Scott Fitzgerald (whose death at 44 years of age shook him greatly, as Wilson was one year older than the tragic Scott) and Hemingway, who counted Wilson as one of the few men he would not bully. Wilson was much married, his third wife being the very beautiful Mary McCarthy, as good a writer as he was, and one he divorced in 1946 for the equally intellectual champagne heiress Elena Mumm Thornton.

I like Wilson for many reasons, as well as for his prescient thoughts on Greeks back in 1945, when he flew into that tortured country with an American mission, reporting for the New Yorker. One of the first Americans he met on the ground asked him whether the war between Sparta and Athens was still going on (The Forties, page 144). Wilson does not comment on the breadth of the ignorance. He lets it stand by itself, which does the job perfectly.

Uncle Sam's foreign policy has always and will always be based on total ignorance of history. Mind you, there was a war going on back in '45, and it was a civil war, but Athens and Sparta were not the protagonists; nationalists versus communists were centre stage.

The poor ignoramus who asked the dumbest of all questions long before George W. asked about Sunnis and Shiites had an excuse: he was just a simple military adviser, not president of the United States.

Wilson sees a Kiosk on Syntagma Square with books on flagellation. While he looks at them, a British officer buys a whole lot of them. A GI in a truck going into Athens tells him that the city is a fine place, cleaner than Italy. He writes that this was a place where the people had nothing - 'but they were more self-respecting than in Italy: few beggars or prostitutes, little servility. Men somehow more decently dressed than in Milan [hard to believe that], people serious, cared nothing about making a show. Women not nearly as attractive as in Italy.' (Easy to believe. ) I was eight years old and living in Athens at the time, and his remarks bring back lots of memories, not all of them pleasant. But, yes, the people were still very proud back then, not a bunch of moochers like today, and, yes, we had beaten the hell out of the Italians, and, yes, we held out against the Germans for longer than the Dutch, Belgians and French combined - hence we could hold our heads high. …

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