This excerpt from Wilson’s letter to Dos Passos contains his initial response to The Grand Design, which was the third novel in Dos Passos’s District of Columbia trilogy. The play Wilson mentioned he was working on was The Little Blue Light, first produced in Cambridge, Mass., in August 1950 and in New York in April 1951, (Edmund Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics 1912-1972, ed. Elena Wilson (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), 453-4).
I enjoyed The Grand Design—I think it is much the best of the three. It is enormously skillful in the writing (much less burdened by the naturalistic detail of which I used to complain), and in the swift and subtle presentation of social-political processes. But I do think it is true that your characters (in your words) are becoming less and less convincing as human beings. I feel that as you get older it costs you more and more of an effort to imagine the mediocrities that you insist on writing about. Everybody connected with the New Deal was not as mediocre as that, and even in the case of the ones who were, I don’t think you are the person to write about them, as you haven’t enough mediocrity in you to get into the spirit of the thing. I wish there were some Jeffersons, Joel Barlows, and Tom Paines in your fiction nowadays. Above all, as a brilliant conversationalist, why do you persist so in making everybody talk in clichés? Almost nobody talks like that. Sometimes you give the impression of those writers who like to show off their mastery of the idiom of some African tribe by retailing conversations with the natives. I think, though, that part of the hostility that The Grand