Grumpy Good Samaritan: My Debt to Edmund Wilson

By Johnston, Paul K. | Commonweal, October 20, 2006 | Go to article overview

Grumpy Good Samaritan: My Debt to Edmund Wilson


Johnston, Paul K., Commonweal


The publication of Lewis M. Dabney's Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) has once again brought the critical mind of Edmund Wilson to our attention. Wilson (1895-1972) was an important figure in American literary and intellectual culture, but the truth is that since his death he hasn't proved to be considered as important as he should be. For those who admired his writing during his lifetime, it's hard to believe how quickly he sank from sight after his death. Who knows when he will bob up again? So I'm enjoying this reemergence while it lasts.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Wilson nearly twenty years ago, and it's still the rare week that I don't think of him. No one with his grasp, clarity, and honesty--not to mention his impatience for what he considered "twaddle"--has taken his place in intellectual or literary America, and we are the worse for it. It's not that Wilson was never wrong as a literary critic, cultural historian, or social observer--his declaration that with the advent of the Russian Revolution mankind had for the first time taken control of its destiny was pretty wide of the mark--but that he always held the highest expectations for those he wrote for or argued with.

Almost fifty years ago, when Wilson was sixty years of age, he wrote a passage I enjoy now more than I could have when I first read it. Born at the end of the nineteenth century, Wilson's generation was that of the 1920s, the generation of the flapper and of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wilson's classmate at Princeton. A new freedom was theirs, and yet, Wilson wrote, looking back from the perspective of the 1950s:

  ... my own generation in America has not had so gay a journey as we
  expected when we first started out. In repudiating the materialism and
  priggishness of the period in which we were born, we thought we should
  have a free hand to refashion American life as well as to have more
  fun than our fathers. But we, too, have had our casualties. Too many
  of my friends are insane or dead or Roman Catholic converts--and some
  of these among the most gifted; two have committed suicide.

Among the dead by this time was Fitzgerald himself, and among the insane, Zelda Sayre, the girl they had all found so liberated and entrancing and whom Fitzgerald had married. The identities of the unfortunate converts do not leap so readily to mind. Wilson knew both Robert Lowell, whose conversion was only temporary anyway, and Thomas Merton, but they were of a younger generation. The joke is wonderful nevertheless, and perfectly told, the progression from insane to dead to Catholic convert speeded by the repeated "or." And if converting to Catholicism wasn't bad enough (the culmination of the series), these utter failures came from among the most gifted.

My own recent conversion to Catholicism no doubt deepens my appreciation of Wilson's joke, but by no means do I think Wilson was only kidding. To the poet Allen Tate, the friend Wilson perhaps had most in mind, Wilson wrote,

  I hope that becoming a Catholic will give you peace of mind; though
  swallowing the New Testament as factual and moral truth seems to me an
  awful price to pay for it. You are wrong, and always have been wrong,
  in thinking that I am in any sense a Christian. Christianity seems to
  me the worst imposture of any religion I know of. Even aside from the
  question of faith, the morality of the Gospels seems to me absurd.

What Wilson did believe in was the necessity for humanity to progress beyond the barbarism of its origins, and for individual men and women to work for that progress. His hostility to religious belief in general and to Catholicism in particular is best seen, then, not in the outburst that follows his wish for Tate's peace of mind, but rather in the wish itself. Peace of mind was the last thing Wilson felt intelligent people need; in seeking it in belief, Wilson thought, Tate and others like him were abandoning the intellectual's obligation to engage in the hard struggle against the world's evils. …

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