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
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/
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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:
There are many more books by Edmund Wilson than listed above.
Copyright © 2017 Stephen Randorf