Missionary; a Critic at Large

By Menand, Louis | The New Yorker, August 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

Missionary; a Critic at Large


Menand, Louis, The New Yorker


Edmund Wilson disliked being called a critic. He thought of himself as a journalist, and nearly all his work was done for commercial magazines, principally Vanity Fair, in the nineteen-twenties; The New Republic, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties; The New Yorker, beginning in the nineteen-forties; and The New York Review of Books, in the nineteen-sixties. Most of his books were put together from pieces that had been written to meet journalistic occasions. He was exceptionally well read: he had had a first-class education in English, French, and Italian literature at Princeton, from which he graduated in 1916, and he kept adding languages all his life. He learned to read German, Russian, and Hebrew; when he died, in 1972, he was working on Hungarian. He was also an extremely fast and an extremely clear writer, talents that, in the magazine business, are prized above many others, and that would have made up for a number of shortcomings if he had had shortcomings to make up for. These strengths, along with an ingrained indifference to material comforts, allowed him, from almost the beginning of his career, to write about only the subjects he wanted to write about.

Wilson had no interest in criticism as such. He wrote a few essays about the critical literature that had influenced him--Marxist and historical interpretation--but he paid little attention to the criticism being written by his contemporaries unless they were good writers themselves, in which case he read their criticism as a form of literature, which is how he preferred to read everything. He detested what he called "treatise-type" books--theoretical or social-scientific works--and avoided them, unless, again, they seemed to him to have literary or imaginative power. He read Marx but not Weber; he read Orwell but not Hannah Arendt. It was his practice, when he took up an author, to read the whole shelf: books, uncollected pieces, biographies, correspondence. When he lost patience with a book, he skipped around, and what he ignored he ignored without shame. "I have been bored by Hispanophiles," he wrote in The New Yorker in 1965, "and I have also been bored by everything, with the exception of Spanish painting, that I have ever known about Spain. I have made a point of learning no Spanish, and I have never got through 'Don Quixote.' " Though he wrote well-known essays on Dickens and on Henry James, he was uninterested in most Victorian fiction and didn't bother to finish "Middlemarch." He had a good knowledge of the theatre (he wrote a number of plays, and his first wife, Mary Blair, was in the Provincetown Players, Eugene O'Neill's company); he had a selective knowledge of art, a very selective knowledge of classical music, and virtually no knowledge of the movies. He loathed the radio.

"A history of man's ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them": this was the way Wilson described his ambition in his first major book, "Axel's Castle," in 1931 (the words appear in a dedication to his Princeton mentor Christian Gauss), and he was always keenly conscious of the conditions that had shaped his own ideas and imaginings. He liked to say that he was a man of the nineteenth century --he was born in 1895, in Red Bank, New Jersey--and to explain that his values and assumptions, his whole understanding of literary and intellectual life, were products of a particular moment. Because "Axel's Castle" has served many readers as a guide to the work of Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Valery, Proust, and Stein, the book's six subjects, it is natural to associate Wilson with the literary modernism that flourished between 1910 and 1930. This is a fundamental misapprehension. Wilson was not a modernist (a term he despised), as the conventional style of his own poetry and fiction makes plain. He admired the writers he treated in "Axel's Castle"-- Joyce and Proust especially--but he believed that they were going down a path of introversion and art-for-art's-sake, an honorable path but a wrong one, and his hope in writing about them was that the scope and sophistication of their achievement would be an inspiration for the more socially engaged American writing he envisioned for the decades to come. …

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