Edmund Wilson – An American Perspective – Part 2


Edmund Wilson – An American Perspective, by two classic reviewers. Part 2
By Stephen Randorf

One of my favorite reviewers and critics of the past is Edmund Wilson (1895-1972). I use the general term “reviewer” because he reviewed not just fiction, but all the arts: painting, theater, culture. Most of his reviews were short and written in a clear, simple, direct–if not sometimes pointed–manner, and they always brought a fresh way of understanding the subject of discussion. His reviews were readily published in The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and others, and were then collected and published again.

Wilson arranged these collections by the decade in which the reviews were written, such as Classics and Commercials: A literary chronicle of the forties, which gives us a literary glimpse of that time period: what was written, read, and talked about. He also published longer articles, such as those in The Wound and the Bow (which is one of my favorites, particularly the article on Philoctectes) and Axel’s Castle (including articles on Yeats, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Stein, Rimbaud). The collection in The Shores of Light: A literary chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties is highly recommended. Mr. Wilson spent much of his later life writing about the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947 and held a fascination for him and other scholars of his generation.

In Classics and Commercials, he is referring to commercial fiction, the popular books who Mr. Wilson, like many critics during that time (and our time as well), found too often competing with more important literary works. His idea concerning this is expressed in an essay on Finnegan’s Wake:

  Today when we are getting so many books in which the style is perfectly clear
  but the meaning nonexistent or equivocal, it affords a certain satisfaction
  to read something that looks like nonsense on the surface but underneath
  makes perfect sense (Classics and Commercials 189).

A commercially successful novel did not mean that it always lacked merit. He chose one in particular, The Robe, to critique. His 1944 review opens:

  The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas has become, from the point of view of
  sales, one of the greatest successes of publishing history. Published in
  October, 1942, it stood at one time at the head of the best-seller list
  for fiction for eleven consecutive months . . . It has sold, in less than
  two years, one million, four hundred and fifty thousand copies, and the
  publishers estimate that it has been read by five times that number of
  people (Classics and Commercials 204).

Due to this novels popularity, Mr. Wilson decided to read it, or as he says “take cognizance of it.” He found the results surprising:

  Instead of the usual trash aimed at Hollywood and streamlined for the
  popular magazines, one is confronted with something that resembles
  an old-fashioned historical novel for young people (Classics and
  Commercials
204-05).

He mentions young people because he felt the novel diluted the “old grandiose language of . . . ancient Rome with a jargon which sounds as if Dr. Douglas had picked it up during the years when . . . he was a counsellor of college students at the Universities of Michigan and Illinois.” (Classics and Commercials 205-06). I find this comment interesting because it was during my college years (early 70’s) when I read it. I am not sure why I picked it up to read. I must have found a used copy. I do know that at the time, I was not in the habit of reading 500 page novels, even in paperback. But I do remember reading the whole book and enjoying it. Perhaps at the time, I did not know that the dialogue should have been written in the “old grandiose language” of ancient Rome. I do know that Marguerite Yourcenar’s historical novels, which I also enjoyed, were seeing a revival in translation around that time also.

In Mr. Wilson’s critique of The Robe, he does suggest answers for the book’s popularity.

  It is so difficult . . . to imagine that any literate person with even the
  faintest trace of literary taste could ever get through more than two pages
  of it for pleasure that one is astounded and terrified at the thought that
  seven million Americans have found something in it to hold their attention
  (Classics and Commercials, 206).

Well, that quote was not particularly complimentary to the novel. Perhaps it would be better to say, in spite of all its faults, which Mr. Wilson took time to delineate, that there was a moral aspect to it and it is that aspect which appealed to the readers. We should remember that the novel was published in 1942 and Mr. Wilson’s review was written several years later in August, 1944. The world at that time was not in too great a shape.

  It is quite natural that people should find it a relief to hear about some-
  body who was interested in healing the blind and the crippled rather
  than in blinding and crippling people, and in comforting the persecuted
  rather than in outlawing large groups of human beings (Classics and Commercials 207).

  When, therefore, one compares The Robe with the frankly faked publishers’
  goods with which the public is usually fed, one sees that Dr. Douglas’
  novel is a work of a certain purity and that the author deserves a certain
  respect (Classics and Commercials 208).

Mr. Wilson goes on to say, “It demonstrates that the ordinary reader, even in our ghastly time, does long for moral light, that he cannot live by bilge alone” (Classics and Commercials 208).

The Portable Edmund Wilson presents a good sample of his writing style as well. Although it lacks many of the short book reviews and criticisms, which he does so well in The Shores of Light, it does collect a broad sampling of his literary essays and commentaries. One of these reprinted essays concerns D. S. Mirsky (1890-1939), a soviet writer/translator who Mr. Wilson visited in Moscow in 1935 when, as a footnote pointed out, Mirsky’s life was still protected my Maxim Gorky. Mr. Wilson gives us a firsthand account of the complications concerning his visit and then the conversations he had with Prince Mirsky. I do not want to make this visit sound too clandestine, like any visit to Russia in the 30’s, there was red tape involved and Mirsky, himself, had his moments of silence.

Mr. Wilson had a skill in capturing the mood of the times, which is why I particularly like this essay on Mirsky. Wilson met him in Moscow and describes it as follows:

  Almost anything might lurk in those neglected old houses, and a good many
  queer things did. I heard stories of outlandish religious cults, spiritualistic
  seances, dens of gangsters and houses of prostitution . . .The address
  I had took me, I found, through a dark and narrow passage that was cluttered
  by a secondhand bookstall. I came out into a cobbled court where the walls
  had once been painted pink . . . I located Mirsky’s door on the stairway of
  one of the entrances. It was covered–I suppose, for warmth–by what I took to
  be a piece of old carpet. This muted my attempt to knock, so I tried turning
  the bell, which did not seem to ring (The Portable Edmund Wilson 240).

Mr. Wilson had to make a second attempt before the Prince, the learned scholar, came to the door. At one point, Wilson showed Mirsky a list of poets an acquaintance in Lennigrad had drawn up, and after a few comments by Mirsky, Wilson “resolved to destroy the list” for the safety of those on it. They met on occasion for several weeks after that. They met at dinners with his friends, drank cognac, expressed differing views on James Joyce, T. S. Eliot (who Mirsky had known in England), on translating Milton’s Paradise Lost, etc. Evidently, these talks did not go as smoothly as Mr. Wilson had hoped, “I guessed that the constraints of our conversation as due to the difficulty of adapting himself to a visitor from the outside world, and one he did not know” (The Portable Edmund Wilson, 240 – 241). He also mentioned “the dislocation in Mirsky’s whole intellectual life that had been caused by his conversion to Marxism” (The Portable Edmund Wilson 243).

Sometimes in the conversations, Prince Mirsky criticized the well known critic Vissarion Belinsky and accused him of lacking “any real understanding of literary art.” During better moments, he praised the poet Vladimir Mayakóvsky. And there were also moments of foreboding:

  On the other hand, even people who had something in common with Mirsky could
  not afford to know him . . . He had been famous for his arrogance and his
  irascibility among his own social world,and I used to shudder to think of
  the effort of self-restraint that his relations with his Soviet colleagues
  must cost him, and of the consequences when it inevitably broke down (The
  Portable Edmund Wilson
244 – 245).

This was the same man who had lived in London and made tours in Canada and the United States to lecture on literature. Without prolonging this recounting of Mr. Wilson’s visit to the Prince, he ends the essay by attaching a letter that was forwarded to him by a mutual friend in 1952, which confirmed the supposition that Mirsky had died in 1939. The letter was written by a political prisoner who had first met Prince Mirsky in a “transit camp” in 1937, and later:

  I met some of the people from the Moscow group, and they told me that
  Prince Svyátopolk-Mirsky was then in that camp in the hospital barracks.
  He was violently insane. I several time asked for permission to get to
  the hospital barracks, but this was always refused. At the end of sseveral
  weeks, I was notified by the orderly that Prince Svyátopolk-Mirsky was
  dead. I suppose that this was at the end of January, 1939 (The Portable
  Edmund Wilson
252).

One last note on Edmund Wilson. Yes, he did read detective stories and commented on them. At least three of these essays are in Classics and Commercials, which I will be discussing at a later time. For now, let me say, I do not think any of them gave him much pleasure: “I did not care for Agatha Christie and I hope never to read another of her books” (Classics and Commercials 207).

The Internet Library has several of the books by Edmund Wilson mentioned above available to read on line. Located at https://archive.org/

~ ~ ~

Works Cited:
Wilson, Edmund. Axel’s Castle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1984.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: A literary chronicle of the forties.
  New York: Farr, Straus and Giroux, 1950.
Wilson, Edmund. The Shores of Light: A literary chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties.
  New York: Farr, Straus and Young, Inc, 1952.
Wilson, Edmund. The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies In Literature.
  Columbus: Athens University Press, 1997.
Wilson, Edmund, and Lewis M. Dabney. The Portable Edmund Wilson. New York:
  Viking, 1983.

There are many more books by Edmund Wilson than listed above.

Copyright © 2017 Stephen Randorf

Van Wyck Brooks – An American Perspective – Part 1


I have decided to separate this topic, Edmund Wilson and Van Wyck Brooks, into two parts, and I will begin with Van Wyck Brooks (1886 – 1963).

Who is Van Wyck Brooks? Besides being a literary critic, I would say he was a well-read man. I say this because at one point in his life he scoffed at writers such as Lawrence of Arabia who bragged about the number of books he had read. Mr. Lawrence had reported to have personally read over 40,000 books at Oxford, and Thomas Wolfe allegedly claimed to have “devoured” 20,000 books. Mr. Brooks, to demonstrate the impossibility of such claims, used his own reading habits as an example.

  For the last twenty years I have been obliged to read on an average
  of six or seven hours a day. I have certainly read far more than these
  others have had time for, in the short periods referred to and how many
  books have I read in these twenty years? Something less than 6,000, I
  think, less than a book a day (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 11).

Of course, Mr. Brooks was probably a more careful reader, considering that many of those books were being read for reviewing purposes or historical research for his own writing projects.

He was born in 1886 and started his writing career in 1908. His early publications dealt with the American writers of the colonial period. I think most of us grew up with and learned about this period from the visual media and the historical dramatizations of it. That is, what we did not learn in fourth grade or ninth grade history, we supplemented by watching television, particularly such Disney programs as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Limited in its facts and heavy in adventure, its format was much easier to digest than pages from the Britannica. Now, films portraying this period are much more accurate and still maintain their ability to entertain.

The actual facts of this time period were sourced from the personal experiences and anecdotal stories recorded in letters, diaries, and personal memoirs. Parson Weems is one such individual who Mr. Brooks introduces us to in The World of Washington Irving. Parson Weems kept notes on the people he met and the stories he heard. He was a bookseller who traveled the rural countryside hawking books.

  With his ruddy visage and the locks that flowed over his clerical coat, one
  saw him bumping along in his Jersey wagon, a portable bookcase behind and
  a fiddle beside him. A little ink-horn hung from one of his lapels, and he
  carried a quill pen stuck in his hat; and he stopped now and then at a pond
  or a stream to wash his shirt . . . suspending his linen to dry on the frame
  of the wagon (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 1).

Wow, what a wonderfully drawn picture. Parson Weems needed ink and quill for his memoir that he later hawked with the other books. He is also attributed to having recorded the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.

  Nothing in the way of an anecdote ever escaped him. He had preached at
  the Pohick church, hard by Mount Vernon, and once he had even visited
  the father of his country; and he may have picked up in the neighbourhood
  the story of the cherry-tree that soon became so famous when he published
  his book (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 1).

And it is from these source documents that Mr. Brooks uses to retell the intellectual story of the early colonists. The book that interested me the most was his The World of Washington Irving. Although it has sections about Washington Irving, it is more about America in the times when Irving lived, about the book clubs and what the colonist read: “Everyone read Tristram Shandy, and the sensibility of its author was a topic discussed in New York and all over the country” (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 31).

He does more than give us book titles, he amazes us on how well read they actually were. Whether wearing tri-corner hats or a coonskin cap, from the east coast in the 1800’s to settlers of the west in the 1840’s, the list of books and their availability is quite astounding. Mr. Brooks discusses Jefferson’s library, the library in Lexington, Kentucky (a city known as “the Athens of the West”) as well as William Byrd’s, who had “the largest library in the country, with the exception perhaps of Cotton Mather’s” (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 71), and he also noted the various language many of these books were printed in.

  This was true even in the recently settled state of Georgia. An
  observant traveller in the 1800 found books in thirteen languages there,
  including Chaldaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Coptic and Malabar (Brooks,
  The World of Washington Irving 71).

I would like to continue on and on about how exciting this time period was in the creation and adoption of American literature, how the local people fastidiously recorded recollections and histories while at the same time reading the great English novels of Pope, Addison, Defoe, Swift, and discussing them in community book clubs, but this would bypass my initial interest in the writings of Mr. Brooks. And that would be his style, his use of simple prose to tell a story or to describe an event. This description of rural Virginia is an example:

  The taverns were like ale-houses in the remoter parts of Russia, where
  travellers slept three in a bed and six in a room, with bare bleak dirty
  walls and a few old broken chairs and benches, desolate, noisy, cold
  and alive with vermin. One recognized these taverns by the hogs at the
  door and the sign of an earthen jug suspended from a pole, and a corner
  of the public-room was railed off for a bar, with a rum-keg and a row of
  dingy tumblers (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 66).

Although Edmund Wilson, who will be the topic of the next discussion, had not been too kind toward Mr. Brooks and repeated the charge that “he is not really a literary critic because he is not interested in literature as an art and lies indeed under serious suspicion of not being able to tell chalk from cheese (Wilson 13). He does have some kind words to say about The World of Washington Irving, that it “revived the intellectual ferment of the period just after the Revolution” and Mr. Wilson goes on to say, referencing this book and the previous one of Mr. Brooks, that they seem “to have a freedom of movement and an exhilaration of spirit, as well as a brilliance of writing” (Wilson 423).

Mr. Brooks was also a critic, and in his later years seemed to aim his criticism at other critics whom he often found himself at odds with. Even though he wrote about critics and criticism in general terms, at times he seemed to be defending his own books from critical attacks by others.

Mr. Brooks also wrote, From A Writer’s Notebook, which is a compilation of his notes and thoughts about readers, writers, critics, and literary life. This book consists of short paragraphical sections presented almost as aphorisms and also longer sections extending several pages. For example:

  It is difficult to understand living writers because they are involved in our
  own problems, which we cannot solve ourselves (Brooks, From A Writer’s
  Notebook
12).

  A writer is important not by the amount of territory he enters or claims, but
  by the amount he colonizes (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 16).

  There are writers who, as writers, ought to die, and the only way to contribute
  to this end is not to mention them (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 16).

In spite of being critical of some writers, Mr. Brooks did believe that an author’s background had little to do with creating good literature. This seems particularly topical in today’s e-book publishing world where fresh and interesting novels are derived from authors who have diverse educational backgrounds. Mr. Brooks argued against the concept that “great writing requires for its production a scholar’s training.”

  Something is wrong with this conception the common reader feels at once,
  and all the more when he considers how little education certain great
  writers have had even in our time, when education is virtually within reach
  of all, or how little Yeats had, or Kipling, Shaw, Lawrence, or George Moore,
  or Melville whose “Harvard and Yale,” as he said, was a whaleship (Brooks, The
  Writer
16).

And he raises the possibility of the critic’s hypocrisy when they do offer praise to such authors:

  When their work was well constructed, it was because they were craftsmen
  and not for reasons connected with university living, and when it was ill
  constructed it showed how far a writer can be a great writer without being a
  craftsman at all. That their work has often been ill constructed, like Dickens’s
  work or Dostoievsky’s, follows from the fact, –or what Melville took to be a
  fact,–that “all genius,” as he put it, “is full of trash.” Was not Melville partly
  right, at least, in this? (Brooks, The Writer 16).

Mr. Brooks continued with his own opinion:

  But when one speaks of the common reader and what he feels and likes, one
  takes issue with all the new critics at the very outset, though one has the
  sanction of Dr. Johnson who said that by the “common sense of readers . . . all
  claim to poetical honours . . . must be finally decided” (Brooks, The Writer 16-17).

He does have something to say about crime writers in the early 50’s, and particularly how the books are marketed:

  The present vogue of crime stories suggests the vast popular appetite for any-
  thing that assumes or proves the viciousness of man, and one might almost say
  now that popular success and critical success hinge equally on a low view of the
  human condition. To advertise a novel now, whether for popular or critical
  readers, one has only to call it “tough, sensational, brutal,” –I am quoting from
  the first book-supplement that is close at hand (Brooks, The Writer 161).

Why?

  This is created for him [the writer] by the climate of his time, its prevailing
  spiritual currents and modes of feelings; and in our time the unconscious minds
  of writers prompt them to see mainly the negative aspects of life (Brooks, The
  Writer
162).

Although most of the authors that he references have long since gone, the debate that he entered is not. He defended Frost, who was accused of being a “popular” writer, when he said:

  “. . . with Faulkner selling like bags of peanuts and in view of the enormous
  sales of Scott Fitzgerald, Wolfe and so many others, how can we feel that the
  question of numbers means more or less in our time than it meant fifty or a hundred
  years ago? As often as not, the best books have been the most popular books, and
  is that not really all one can say on the subject?” (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook
  121).

But he does say more: “Generally speaking, popular books have two traits in common, a subject of central human interest and a certain vitality in the presentation, and these traits may be found equally in good books and bad” (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 122).

~ ~ ~

Works Cited:
Brooks, Van Wyck. From a Writer’s Notebook. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.
— . The World of Washington Irving. New York : E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1944.
— . The Writer in America. New York, Dutton, 1953.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: a literary chronicle of the forties. New York:
  Farr, Straus and Giroux, 1950.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Reviews and Reviewers – Introduction


by Stephen Randorf.

Not all readers check out the reviews for an author’s book before they purchase it. And authors often regard them, the reviews, as a nuisance, especially when they are critical. But for the readers who do read them, I believe what they want, what they are looking for, is some idea of what the book is about: Is this the type of story that I have liked in the past? Will I like these characters? Is this book or author similar to something else I have read? How long exactly will it take me to read this? However, for authors, particularly those in the burgeoning crop of indie authors, such reviews (any reviews) are quite significant for the sale and promotion of their books.

The use of opinions by other like-minded people to judge whether a book is worth their time to read or not – that is – to take that long journey through the pages of someone else’s words and thoughts and come out with a good feeling afterward, is not something new. But I doubt most readers understand the significance of these reviews to the authors. A 5 star review or even a 1 star review? An author parades them like a badge of honor. “Look! See? People like what I have done.”

So I have collected a few interesting thoughts and opinions of reviews from the publishing past of authors and critics who are long since gone. This discussion will be directed more toward reviews and reviewing in general than anything specific to writers of crime fiction.

The first one up in the queue will be Honore de Balzac and his novel Lost Illusions (1837), which is concerned with the commercialization of the publishing industry in the early eighteen hundreds. His characters are used as stand-ins for the wider commercialization of the growing bourgeois class in France at that time. This novel, a wonderful novel and of considerable length, is filled with an interesting cast of characters, including poets, publishers, critics, and reviewers. As one such character in the novel, a reviewer, states: “It’s a dirty business, but I live by it, and so do hundreds of others.” He is referring to taking bribes and selling review copies on the side.

And then I move on to Soul and Form, a short book and one of the earlier ones by Georg Lukacs, an Hungarian writer who frequently wrote on theories of the novel and questioned the commercialized state that our world has moved into. Many of his books are a bit dry and hard trudging, but in Soul and Form his writing is much more lyrical, and in this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form.) he uses a dialogue method to review a volume of Laurence Sterne’s work. As we will see he does this by presenting two young men who intellectually compete for the attention of a woman. This dialogue format gives us – the reader – dramatic tension, and with each young man taking opposite sides of each argument, both the pros and cons of Sterne’s work are fully discussed. It is only this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form) which I will be referencing.

I personally love the book reviews by Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) almost more for his clear use of language than their content. I think he is read less today because of the fact that most of the books and authors which he reviewed have either become mainstays in our culture and have been written about more fully by others or that the author reviewed has slipped into obscurity and no one cares to write anything more about him. I am grouping Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963) in this same category of reviewers. He is another writer who one wishes to read just for the pleasure of his use of the American language. Most of Brook’s commentary concerns the early American authors of the 1800’s. Did you ever wonder where the farmers in rural New England or the South bought their copies of The Vicar of Wakefield, Robinson Crusoe or Tristram Shandy? There is a book I would like to tell you about.

Finally, we have Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848) and his circle of friends, including Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov. And what is there to be said about these people? Perhaps that they took literary criticism to the extreme? They argued that the merits of a book should be judged on a moral basis by what it contributes to society. If it does not contribute in a positive, moral way, then is it lacking. This may appear like a good argument at first or at least one worth giving some thought to, after all, most of us writers would like to believe that literature does matter, but what happens to books and novels, under that criteria? What happens if they fall short of this measure? Or what if an author does not wish to influence society in any way? What becomes of their work? Or of them?

There was a time when critics, these critics and their school of thought, actually had an influence on what books should be read and what books were harmful to society. These men might not have been alive when this attitude was institutionalized by others, such as Maxim Gorky, or when fine writers such as Isaac Babel and others who were silenced or disappeared, but they did plant the seed. I will not be discussing the extremes in which others took this school of thought, but I do think that there is a door which we can open safely to consider the idea that literature does matter, and it can be discussed as a counterpoint to the idea of “art for art’s sake” as Vissarion Belinsky did.

Topic headings:
Honore de Balzac – A Cynical View, with examples from Lost Illusions.
Georg Lukács – Soul and Form, presenting an interesting method for reviewing.
Edmund Wilson & Van Wyck Brooks – An American Perspective, by two classic reviewers.
Vissarion Belinsky – A Russian Idea (or when critics go wild.)

Works Cited:
Balzac, Honoré de. Lost Illusions, trans Herbert James Hunt. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971.
Brooks, Van Wyck. From a Writer’s Notebook. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.
———. The World of Washington Irving. New York : E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1944.
Lukács, Georg. Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1978.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: a literary chronicle of the forties. New York: Farr,
  Straus and Giroux, 1950.
Proctor, Thelwall. Dostoevskij and the Belinskij school of literary criticism. The Hague ;
  Paris : Mouton, 1969.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf