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
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 publicthe 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
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 criticismfor 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 significantlythough
less penetratingly and in less enduring waysto 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 notableand
usefultoday 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 engineclearly, 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 bea 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 waybetween the Scylla of political disengagement
and the Charybdis of overpoliticizationthat 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 Eliotthe 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 projectsclearly,
economic conditions influenced art and ideas and vice versa. "Marx
showed," Wilson wrote, "how people's theories of society
and economicsno matter how wellreasoned 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 visionas 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 linethe 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 progressivesand not just industry captainsWilson
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 sawcoupled
with the stupid indifference of the still-rich industrialistscaused
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 carwhich,
after all, one begins to reflect, have perhaps done as much to
rescue us from helplessness, ignorance and squalor as the prophets
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, bricksthe 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
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 workall 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" wasunderstandably,
given the circumstancesoverdone.
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 dispossessedthe moral failures in the
eyes of the capitalist systemare 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 politicsonly
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 marketand to draw force
from the moral standards for which he once stood
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