George Orwell, wrote Edmund Wilson in 1946, "is often inconsistent; his confident predictions often turn out untrue; a student of international socialism, he is at the same time . . . not free from a certain provincialism; and one frequently finds him quite unintelligent about matters that are better understood by less interesting and able critics." If Wilson's commentary on Orwell's shortcomings is, like many of his observations, bold and accurate, it is also a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Indeed, Wilson was often inconsistent, his political diagnoses were frequently off-target, and despite his world traveling and wide reading he always remained a product of his provincial origins. His pre-1940 support for Soviet-style socialism was embarrassingly naive. His theory of history, derived in large part from his reading the French historian Hippolyte Taine's multivolume History of English Literature at a very young age, reflected a Spenglerian determinism that has little resonance today. And the curmudgeonly aristocratic pose he adopted late in his career bordered, at times, on the reactionary. Wilson was not, in short, a shrewd political or social analyst.
He was, however, an acute social observer, a brilliant journalist and literary critic descended from the same middle-class liberalism of "common sense and plain speaking" that had, according to Wilson, produced Orwell. Orwell, of course, occupies the more prominent position in the intellectual pantheon. His political reporting was more astute than Wilson's and the dystopian totalitarian visions of his novels Animal Farm and 1984 continue to exert a stronger hold on the popular imagination than anything Wilson wrote. If Wilson's literary criticism was in general far superior to Orwell's, his political insights and fiction never quite measured up.
But this has not prevented writers and scholars from trying in recent years to elevate Wilson to what they claim is his rightful status as this century's preeminent American man of letters. Russell Jacoby's 1987 book The Last Intellectuals (followed by jeremiads from other quarters) caused a minor stir over the supposed decline of the public intellectual, vaguely defined as the scholar-journalist who could write in an intelligent way about a wide range of subjects for a nonacademic reading public—the public intellectual being vaguely defined, that is, as Edmund Wilson. In an era of academic overspecialization and a perceived widening gap between intellectuals and the public, a growing legion of scholars and writers began to ask, Where Have You Gone, Edmund Wilson?
But in this orgy of lamentations, something got lost: Wilson himself. He has become so much a symbol to be invoked that what he actually wrote and thought sometimes gets buried. Liberals, in particular, would do well to unbury it.
But what relevance does the writing of a sometime socialist, sometime aristocrat have in 1996? Why, if so many of his political prognostications and prescriptions were embarrassingly wrongheaded, is he worthy of our attention?
For two reasons. First, despite his sometimes errant political judgment, Wilson's Depression-era reporting, in its indictment of the excesses of untrammeled capitalism, resonates uncannily today. Second, his literary writings go a long way to reconnecting history with literature and literature with life.
AN "INTELLECTUAL CONSCIENCE"
So who was Edmund Wilson? Born in 1895 in Red Bank, New Jersey, Wilson had a genteel northeastern upbringing that included a family vacation home in upstate New York and education at the preppy Hill School and Princeton University. At Princeton he became friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald famously called Wilson his "intellectual conscience," and although Wilson always acted the patronizing superior while Fitzgerald was alive, he did more than anyone to establish Fitzgerald's literary reputation after he died. After graduation from Princeton, Wilson went with the U.S. Army to France, as a stretcher bearer in the medical corps.
Wilson's career began in earnest when World War I ended. In 1920 he started as managing editor at Vanity Fair, and his essays began appearing everywhere. In 1925 he became literary editor of the New Republic, a position he held for six years, until its owners came to believe he had moved too far to the left. In 1931 he published Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930, the book that firmly established his reputation as a literary critic. That was also the first year he spent traveling around the country, writing the dispatches for TNR that would later be collected in his classic work of Depression-era reportage, The American Jitters.
The essays in The American Jitters marked the beginning of a decade-long detour for Wilson, away from literary criticism and toward reporting and political and historical writing. In 1935 he visited the Soviet Union and returned still sufficiently enamored of Soviet socialism to publish Travels in Two Democracies, in which he tried to equate American political democracy with Russian social democracy. But the Russian show trials of 1937, combined with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, thoroughly disillusioned Wilson and many of his peers on the literary left. By 1940 when he finally published his epic history of socialism, To the Finland Station, seven years in the making, he had completely repudiated Russian socialism. But Wilson's intense involvement with socialism was not without some lasting implications for both his politics and his literary criticism.
Wilson rounded out the final 30 years of his consistently productive career in much the way he began it, publishing an assortment of poems, plays, book reviews, essays, a novel, and nonfiction books on an astonishingly wide variety of topics, lecturing at various universities around the country, and contributing regularly to the New Yorker from 1943 almost until his death in 1971. Throughout all this, he traveled among empyrean intellectual and political company, influencing a circle of acquaintances that at times included, to name just a few, Vladimir Nabokov, Lionel Trilling, Isaiah Berlin, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Philip Rahv, and John F. Kennedy.
CRITICISM IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE
Wilson is best known for his literary criticism—for good reason. He effectively established the still-dominant terms of critical discourse for a number of writers (Proust, Joyce, John Dos Passos, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and especially Dickens), helped launch the careers and secure the reputations of several others (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Mary McCarthy), and contributed significantly—though less penetratingly and in less enduring ways—to our understanding of still others (Henry James, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot, Theodore Dreiser, Alexander Pushkin, and many, many others).
His explication of the international Symbolist movement in Axel's Castle did much to put the themes and techniques of modernism on the American cultural map and served as kind of a vanguard maneuver of the American radical intelligentsia in hijacking a hitherto right-wing aesthetic and placing it in a left-wing political context. Above all, Wilson's literary writings are notable—and useful—today for the way they link the political and the social to the literary. His writing is not political in the dogmatic way that much ideological criticism is today, reducing literature to mechanical political parts or distending literary works to make a political point. His writing is political, rather, in its presumption that it exists as part of the "public sphere," a kind of cultural town square where literature, public opinion, policy debate, and civic commitment intermingle. Wilson saw culture as an organic whole, bound up in and inseparable from political and historical circumstances. The job of the literary critic, in this view, is not to subordinate art to political ends but rather to mediate between a work of art and its audience, placing the work in its literary-intellectual-political-cultural context and exploring its social implications. Literary criticism, he wrote, "should deal expertly with ideas and art, not merely tell us whether the reviewer 'let out a whoop' for the book or threw it out the window." Literary criticism need not discuss social policy; it should, however, provide the hospitable ambient culture in which this discussion can take place.
Wilson offers a model for liberals. For one thing, his writing had none of the consciously opaque technical jargon that characterizes much academic writing in the humanities today. When he explains James Joyce's significance for modernism, for example, or Lenin's position in the socialist tradition, he does so in the way a well-spoken mechanic might explain the spark plug's position in an engine—clearly, plainly, matter-of-factly, yet in a way that does not fail to convey the complexity and interrelatedness of the surrounding machinery.
Wilson's literary criticism, situated at what Lionel Trilling called "the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet," is fundamentally criticism of life. His liberal (and, for a number of years, his socialist) politics figured prominently in his critical writings, but they did so in such a way that rarely distorted the works of art he examined. His criticism aims to study novels and poems as concatenations of politics, psychology, and economics without making novels and poems the handmaidens of these elements. Wilson's example offers a middle way between those (like the New Critics of the 1940s or the art-for-art's-sake types of the turn of the century) on the one hand who would isolate aesthetics in a separate realm, completely sealed off from considerations of politics, history, or economics; and those (like some Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytic critics of today, and like his fellow Marxist critics of the 1930s) who, on the other hand, believe art is or should be merely a transparent register of society and politics. Shakespeare's plays, for example, are political creations and there is value in reading them as such; they are more than just transcriptions, however, of Elizabethan imperialism.
LITERATURE AND SOCIETY
Wilson dedicated Axel's Castle to his Princeton professor Christian Gauss, who gave him a conception "of what literary criticism ought to be—a history of man's ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them." Wilson believed, with Gauss, that criticism should concern itself with the social conditions that had produced a book or poem. On the other hand, although Wilson practiced versions of what we would today describe as Marxist and Freudian criticism, he clearly saw the dangers inherent in taking these schools of literary analysis to extremes: They become reductionist, making novels into mere catalogs of the artist's neuroses, or registers of class conflict. In the end, Wilson believed, judgment of a literary work must rest on cultivated literary taste. "No matter how thoroughly and searchingly we may have scrutinized works of literature from the historical and biographical point of view," he wrote in The Triple Thinkers, "we must be able to tell good from bad, the first-rate from the second-rate. We shall otherwise not write literary criticism at all, but merely social or political history as reflected in literary texts, or psychological case histories from past eras." In this way, Wilson navigates an intelligent middle way—between the Scylla of political disengagement and the Charybdis of overpoliticization—that today's literary critics might do well to emulate.
Wilson did as much as anyone to introduce modernism to America. He wrote late in life that one of his main concerns had been to be a "cross-fertilizer" between European and American culture, and his grouping of French, American, British, and Irish writers in Axel's Castle was part of this project. At a time when America was turning inward, Wilson remained the outward-facing cosmopolitan, looking at literatures on both sides of the Atlantic for comparative historical perspective.
After the crash in 1929, Wilson must have been tempted to retreat into art to escape from the harsh material realities of the Depression. It would have been easy for him to become merely a champion of the modernist aesthetic. But Wilson never saw modernism as a purely aesthetic concept. In fact, the Depression served to focus him even more intently on the connection between literature and political economy. Whereas many modernist critics were essentially conservative, pessimistically seeing the movement as reflecting the fractured and incoherent nature of reality, Wilson fused his modernism with Marxism. Thus he is able to analyze T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, for example, both in terms of its quintessentially modernist techniques and of the constellation of elements that produced Eliot—the social (Anglican church), political (conservative), economic (upper class), and psychological (a repressed puritan fear of vulgarity).
Wilson's relation to Karl Marx is particularly revealing. In an era of economic collapse, it seemed to make sense that the material base of society would heavily permeate literary projects—clearly, economic conditions influenced art and ideas and vice versa. "Marx showed," Wilson wrote, "how people's theories of society and economics—no matter how well—reasoned or sober-have a way of turning out to be a defense of their class position and financial interests." Wilson was keenly attuned to the correlation between a writer's social class and his artistic vision—as his explanation of Dickens's work, for example, as the product of his traumatic early experiences in a debtor's prison and a blacking factory, clearly illustrates. Yet he was wary of criticism or literature that was strictly ideological. He rejected the classic Marxist idea that the value of a work of art can be judged by the acceptability of its political position. In an essay called "The Literary Class War," he wrote that "a really first-rate book by an agonizing bourgeois may have more human value, more revolutionary power, than second-rate Marxists who attack it. . . . Personally I can testify that the writer who has made me feel most overwhelmingly that bourgeois society was ripe for burial was none of our American Marxist journalists but Proust"—whom he elsewhere described as perhaps "the last great historian of the loves, the society, the intelligence, the diplomacy, the literature, and the art of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture."
Wilson didn't just bring Marx to literary criticism; he brought literary criticism to Marx. In To the Finland Station, Wilson portrays Marx, Engels, and Lenin as revolutionary heroes who brilliantly combined history, analysis, and a program for social action. Wilson read Das Kapital, a work of political economy, as an epic. "It is the power of imagination as well as the cogency of argument which makes Das Kapital so compelling," he wrote. He comments on Marx's "keen psychological insight," and calls him "the greatest ironist since Swift." He explains how Marx "gets a certain poetry out of money," presenting us with "a picture of the world in which the commodities command the human beings" and in which mankind is caught helpless in a web of wages and profits and credits. Marx, to Wilson, was the "Poet of Commodities."
FROM LITERATURE TO POLITICS
Wilson clearly absorbed from Marx an understanding of how class and material conditions affect culture, an understanding he applied with vigor to his reporting for the New Republic in the 1930s. If Wilson's social journalism is relevant today, it is because the period in which he wrote it was in some ways strikingly similar to our own. Both periods are characterized by intense economic dislocation, caused in 1929 by total financial collapse, in 1996 by the vagaries of an international economy. (Today's "downsizings" find rough cultural and economic antecedents in the massive layoffs of the 1930s.) Both eras are also characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor. And the economic boom of the Jazz Age 1920s, christened the New Economic Era by boastful Hoover Republicans, has an equivalent in the go-go 1980s, the showpiece decade of boastful Reagan Republicans. But while October 29, 1929, marked a clear dividing line between the Jazz Age and the Depression, our current period has no such line—the ethos of the consumption-crazed eighties has carried over even into the downsized nineties. And if there is a broad connection between the Jazz Age and today, it is that ethos.
Indeed, the last time business values enjoyed such uncritical approbation was before the crash. Describing that period in The Coming of the New Deal, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. explained that "capitalism had transcended its individualism and materialism, becoming social and spiritual. . . . The new faith permeated the churches, the courts, the colleges, the press." But Wilson had at hand a language with which to combat this aggrandizement of business values. He worked, after all, at the New Republic, which had been founded by Herbert Croly in 1914 in the spirit of Progressivism, a political philosophy that aimed, as Croly explained in his influential book The Promise of American Life (1909), to curb the excesses of capitalism with "a more highly socialized democracy." But Wilson declined to deploy Progressivism; he went for a bigger gun.
"It seems to me that the time has come for liberals seriously to reconsider their position," he wrote in an essay called "An Appeal to Progressives" that appeared in the New Republic on January 13, 1931. The liberalism represented by Croly's magazine was outdated, he said. Wilson extolled Croly's goal of Hamiltonian centralization for Jeffersonian ends. But he chafed at the limitations of Crolyite Progressivism in combating "a system like ours in which everyone is out for himself and devil take the hindmost, with no common purpose and little common culture to give life stability and sense."
Liberals and progressives—and not just industry captains—Wilson said, were betting on the virtues of capitalism to see the country through the crisis of the Depression. But what does a liberalism that accepts capitalism as presently constituted have to offer beyond "a discreet recommendation of public ownership of water power and certain other public utilities"? Not much, in Wilson's opinion. Such a liberalism, he felt, was ineffectual. What was needed, he suggested in no uncertain terms, was socialism. He called on radicals and progressives who hoped to accomplish anything valuable to "take communism away from the Communists, and take it without ambiguities, asserting that their ultimate goal is the ownership by the government of the means of production."
Anyone saying this today would not be taken seriously. Socialism has been discredited all over. In 1931, however, Wilson's appeal was fairly standard stuff. The suffusion of capitalist values into all aspects of life during the twenties, followed by the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in August 1927 had, in Wilson's words, "made liberals lose their bearings." Thus the stock market crash and ensuing Depression were "almost like a rending of the earth," ripening it for radical solutions. As he traveled around the country in 1930 and 1931 filing his dispatches, the horrible poverty and suffering he saw—coupled with the stupid indifference of the still-rich industrialists—caused Wilson to move, in Daniel Aaron's characterization, "from pink to red."
From Marx, he had gleaned the idea of writing as action, and that's what he believed himself to be doing with his reporting, trying to goad readers into moral indignation and protest. The simple pathos of the descriptions Wilson wrote during this period rivals anything in Dickens or Orwell.
A family of five have three small rooms in a basement, and they have sunk below any standard: the father grinningly and glaringly drunk in the middle of the morning, the mother stunned and discouraged by her struggle against filth and poverty. They live around the stove with their small dirty children in the close sweetish sickish smell of cooking and boiling clothes. Where they sleep on two narrow cots, the bedclothes are old twisted gray rags that have not even been smoothed out flat. . . . All they know is that they are living in a dirty hole, from which they have not yet been expelled. . . .
[A] widow, who used to do housework and laundry but who was finally left without any work, fed herself and her fourteen-year-old son on garbage. Before she picked up the meat, she would always take off her glasses so that she would not be able to see the maggots; but it sometimes made the boy so sick to look at this offal and smell it that he could not bring himself to eat. He weighed only 82 pounds. ("Hull House in 1932")
Wilson's fervent revolutionary socialism was a product of his times; later, he strongly repudiated it, becoming a social democrat, an ardent anti-Stalinist and a proud, if cranky, patriot. He demurred from his harsh critiques of capitalism, recognizing that capitalism had brought great cultural as well as material benefits. In fact, in a pre-crash review lamenting how the socialist excesses of his friend John Dos Passos distorted his novels, Wilson wrote sagely that "there are moments in reading a novel or seeing a play by Dos Passos when one finds oneself ready to rush to the defense of even the American bathroom, even the Ford car—which, after all, one begins to reflect, have perhaps done as much to rescue us from helplessness, ignorance and squalor as the prophets of revolution."
But Wilson always remained committed to championing the claims of the dispossessed and he salvaged from his involvement with Marxian socialism some important things. Socialism's noble goals, Wilson thought, should be adopted by liberals. Liberals should be fighting against worker exploitation, class privilege, and economic injustice, but they should be doing so within the context of American democratic institutions.
In The American Jitters, for example, Wilson frequently counterposed the mechanical images of capitalism with the flesh-and-blood people who, it seemed to him at the time, had been crushed by it. One of the most effective of these juxtapositions comes in "May First: The Empire State Building; Life on the Passaic River," which appeared originally in the New Republic in 1931. Wilson begins by talking about the majesty and beauty of the tallest building in the world, which has been newly dedicated. He lists statistics conveying height, number of stories, elevators, windows, bricks—the figures are impressive. He quotes the lofty comments of the president, the governor, the owner. And then, in a masterpiece of turnabout, he describes this pinnacle of capitalist achievement as a triumph of excess: It is the "latest pile of stone, brick, nickel and steel, the latest shell of shafts and compartments that outstacks and outmultiplies them all"—and it is the "most purposeless and superfluous of all."
And from there he goes on to describe Buchanan, a mill town viewable from the top of the building. John Dravic lives in a two-family house in Buchanan. He rents the first floor to Mrs. Berelli, a single mother who works in the mill to support her family. Dravic was going to kick Mrs. Berelli out because she couldn't pay her rent but the city intervened and started paying her relief money. Dravic is a good man. He wouldn't have threatened to put Mrs. Berelli out but he is out of work himself. He was laid off after five years in a car shop and hasn't been able to find steady work to replace it. One night, despairing of ever escaping from his financial straits, Dravic shoots his three children, then kills himself. Mrs. Berelli, who gets to keep the apartment, wonders "how the rich people could do such a thing as let the millworkers starve."
Dravic's is a tragic story. The American Jitters is full of them: suicides, attempted suicides, murders, maggot eating, people down to "their last bag of stale bread, their last heelless pair of shoes," and Detroit assembly-line workers whose arms are severed in the line of work—all of this caused, Wilson implies, by the excesses and indifference of the capitalist system. The effect of reading through all the essays in Jitters in sequence is deadening. Wilson's insistence on "the catastrophic breakdown of the uncontrolled competitive system" was—understandably, given the circumstances—overdone.
But not entirely unjustified. I have on my desk a pile of newspaper clippings from the last year describing the suicides of downsized or unemployed workers. "A 35-year-old woman who was said to be depressed about her family's financial troubles took her two young sons by the hands and walked with them into the Detroit River, drowning herself and one of the boys," begins a typical Associated Press report. We, perhaps no less than Wilson, inhabit a system in which everyone is out for himself and devil take the hindmost. As business values increasingly are vindicated by the end of the Cold War and our continuing relative prosperity, the claims of the poor and dispossessed—the moral failures in the eyes of the capitalist system—are pushed further aside. Pure capitalism lacks the vocabulary to contend with the down-and-out because "consumerism," as Robert Kuttner has put it, "quintessentially speaks the language of markets, not the idiom of social solidarity." It used to be that liberals would step in to protect the down-and-out. But as the consumerist din approaches pre-crash levels, liberal voices have gotten softer, not louder.
After completing To the Finland Station in 1940, Wilson turned away from political journalism; he now treated politics more obliquely, through a veil of literary criticism. If his legacy to us is more literary that political, it is not just because that was the area in which he did his best work: It is also because literature was the lens through which he viewed politics—only Wilson could have recognized that Marx's Das Kapital and Joyce's Ulysses share the same modernist techniques and morality. He was the rare journalist who approached even the most straightforward political reporting assignment as a literary occasion. But he was also the rare critic who could turn a book review into a serious political occasion. We should read Wilson today not only for his acute literary reflections, but also to be chastened by his criticism of the culture of the market—and to draw force from the moral standards for which he once stood
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