Edmund Wilson   The Sixties: The Last Journal, 1960-1972.
Edited, with an introduction, by Lewis M. Dabney.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 968 pages, $35

reviewed by Jeffrey Meyers

Edmund Wilson carried on the cultural and critical tradition of Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold. His erudition, intelligence, and insight made him the most distinguished and influential American man of letters in the twentieth century. “He read,” as Thackeray said of Macaulay, “twenty books to write a sentence, and traveled a hundred miles to write a line of description.” His interests ranged from the biographical and historical interpretation of literature in his masterpieces—Axel’s Castle (1931), The Wound and the Bow (1941), and Patriotic Gore (1962) —to a study of the revolutionary personality in To the Finland Station (1940), from biblical scholarship to the traditional ceremonies of the Zuñis and Iroquois.

During the last twelve years of his life Wilson frequently shifted between his home in Wellfleet on Cape Cod and his ancestral Stone House in Talcottville, north of Utica, in upstate New York, between Boston and Manhattan, London, Paris, and Rome. He also took trips to Hungary in 1964 and to Jordan and Israel (where he read “Dick Tracy” at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in 1967, and spent a recuperative month in Jamaica in 1969. He taught the literature of the Civil War at Harvard, endured a fellowship year at “the blind little backwater” of Wesleyan, published Night Thoughts, Patriotic Gore, O Canada, The Bit Between My Teeth, A Prelude, Upstate, and A Window on Russia, and brought out revised editions of four other books.

Wilson had always engaged in controversy, which intensified as he grew older and more combative. He witnessed and reported the Harlan County coal-miners’ strikes in the early 1930s, quarreled bitterly with the Communists after his disillusioning visit to the Soviet Union in 1935, fell out with Evelyn Waugh in 1945, had his vividly erotic Memoirs of Hecate County burned and suppressed in 1946, threw himself into the battles about the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1955, and defended the Iroquois against dispossession by the New York State Power Authority in 1959. After being prosecuted and heavily fined by the United States government for not paying his taxes, he fought a spirited campaign against American involvement in Vietnam in The Cold War and the Income Tax (1963), bitterly disputed the Russian prosody of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin with his old friend and protégé Vladimir Nabokov in 1965, and opposed academic dullness and pedantry with his own humane learning in “The Fruits of the MLA” (1968).

Lewis Dabney’s competent, though derivative and rather dull, introduction to the last and longest of Wilson’s diaries lacks the style and insight of Leon Edel’s definitive prefaces to the previous four volumes. Dabney provides no explanation of what and how much has been omitted. His scrappy, haphazard annotations offer what information he possesses rather than what the reader requires. Though he annotates Lytton Strachey and Scrutiny, he does not explain, for example, the Nahum pesher, John Nevil Maskelyne, Charley Curtis, René Etiemble, Emilio Cecchi, and the Englishman who wrote about Esther Murphy in the New Statesman. Dabney also fails to identify the young man “interested in Dickens” (Steven Marcus), “the aunt who always hated Scott Fitzgerald” (Rosalind Sayre Smith), Lampedusa’s cousin (Lucio Piccolo), Svetlana Stalin’s irritating Montenegrin mother-in-law (Olgivanna Wright), and fails to explain that the “Brahmin-priest S. Ouza” is named Souza and comes from Catholic Goa, that the stuffed corpse of Jeremy Bentham is exhibited in a wheeled glass case in University College, London, that the fine scholar Newton Arvin was brutally fired by Smith College when his homosexual pornography was discovered, and that Private Meek in Shaw’s Too True to Be Good is based on T. E. Lawrence.

Ignorant of foreign languages, Dabney has littered the diaries of the multilingual and scrupulously accurate Wilson with many careless errors. The names of David Livingstone, Alexander Gerschenkron, and Gerold Frank, as well as the words rifiuto and Navona, are misspelled. “Siren from the sea” is tautological. “Lions” is omitted from an inscription at Bomarzo; belve (plural) is mistranslated as “beast.” The Russian poshlost, which Nabokov defines as “philistine vulgarity,” is variously rendered as “crassness” and “mediocrity”; Spanish and Italian are mingled and mangled when Holy Week in Seville, Semana Santa, becomes “Santa Settimano.” Chaim Soutine, the Lithuanian-born Expressionist, is called a “French Impressionist.”

But all the blemishes belong to the editor. Wilson’s intensely active social life, with ordinary folk in upstate New York and artistic eminences at the Kennedy White House, as well as with the many Hungarians and Russians whom he spoke to in their native languages, provides a cultural as well as a personal history of his time. He goes to numerous plays, concerts, and films, pays serious attention to food and drink (which causes many hangovers), and tries to recapture the intellectual ideal of the 1920s: “I still expect something exciting: drinks, animated conversation, gaiety: an uninhibited exchange of ideas.”

Wilson loves literary gossip and acerbic wit, and enlivens his diary by quoting or inventing many savage remarks about writers and friends: “Rilke was the greatest lesbian poet since Sappho,” Stravinsky is called “the insect,” Capote is “a not unpleasant little monster, like a fetus with a big head.” Silone is impotent, Sheilah Graham “as amoral as Moll Flanders.” The “Oxford-cliquish” Isaiah Berlin “behaves like royalty,” Cyril Connolly, who steals books from his friends’ houses, “has a queer mixture of lordly courtesy with boorishness and infantilism.” Auden’s creased face looks like “some kind of technical map.” Spender “occasionally makes little digs at [Auden] but is otherwise overcome by him.” Malraux’s method of argument is “to make a point, say ‘Bon!,’ then press on to another point without giving the other person a chance to discuss the previous one.” When Arthur Schlesinger blatantly asks the sozzled Stravinsky how it feels to be a guest at the White House, the composer replies: “It—feels—dronk!”—and Kennedy tells Schlesinger: “Go to your kennel.” Lowell’s precarious mania is “like hurricane warnings on the Cape.” But Wilson always enjoys “his wide range of reading and reference, and his feeling for the important things in literature. What he says is probing and witty, sometimes perverse, with a desire to startle.”

Wilson’s artistic judgments are more objective and (except for his blindness about Conrad) consistently sound. He praises the underrated work of D’Annunzio, Lampedusa, Malraux, and Max Beckmann; condemns as empty, bogus, and boring the films of Antonioni and Resnais, the plays of Hellman and Pinter, the novels of Susan Sontag. Goethe’s Faust is egoistic, pompous, and undramatic. Wilson, who greatly admires Auden’s technical virtuosity, believes that William Carlos Williams “ruined American poetry by leading most of the poets to give up verse altogether and lapse into ‘shredded prose.’” Fed up with a pretentious lecture by the trendy Ihab Hassan on “Metacriticism,” Wilson prophetically asserts: “Since we weren’t going to need literature, how much less should we need criticism? … It is utterly silly that the [Wesleyan] faculty should be feeding the students such stuff. They will make them into cultural delinquents.”

Wilson’s diaries mix memory and desire. He remembers Edna Millay, the first woman he ever made love to, telling him: “I know just how you feel: it was here, and it was beautiful, and now it’s gone!” He is also illuminating about his volatile third wife, Mary McCarthy, who was “temperamentally always in the opposition” and loved “a good old dramatized Irish scene.” With the orphaned McCarthy, he was “cast as the horrid false father, her uncle, and the things that, in her hysteria, she would accuse me of were usually his crimes and not mine.” When they meet in Paris, she regretfully says “I was too young” and he answers “I was too old.”

Wilson adores his beautiful, aristocratic, half-German, half-Russian fourth wife, Elena. He gives a vivid account of her background and character, and describes their sexual life. Her mother’s family were ladies-in-waiting at the Tsarina’s court, she was born into a champagne-manufacturing family in Rheims and was divorced from a Canadian businessman. Wilson, in old age, has evolved from the priggish young scholar, whom E. E. Cummings called “the man in the iron necktie,” into the Churchillian potentate with the fine features of a Roman senator. He is stocky, short-legged, and paunchy. His large square head is set on a solid short neck, his jawbone is slung forward, and his mouth resembles a letter slot. He is plagued by physical illness and suffers from lost teeth, deafness, an eye hemorrhage, a fractured vertebra, gout, arthritis, angina, an infarct, and several coronaries. But his sexual appetite, if not his performance, is as vigorous as ever. “I wanted to make love to Elena,” he records, “and greedily kissed her breasts and her lovely little rose. She came, but as now happens so often, I was unable to finish in her… . I told her that making love to her had been the most wonderful thing in my life.”

But their sexual life did not completely satisfy him. While Elena was on the Cape, he fell in love with two other young married women in upstate New York: his Hungarian teacher and his dentist’s wife. When he kissed Mary Pcolar and grappled with her armored underwear, she whispered: “I want to, but I won’t… . I’m afraid you’d have a heart attack.” He first sees Anne Miller swimming naked, soon proceeds to “further intimacies,” but is refused “the final favor.” He suggests fellatio and she demurely replies “I’m a lady.” Despite alcoholism and heart disease, Wilson continued to be a sexual predator and seduced another lady friend —disguised here as “O.”—at the Princeton Club when he was seventy-five.

Early and late, however, Wilson’s greatest passion was his work. He took all human learning for his province, and his method, he explained, was “the avoidance of generalization, the description of the events always in concrete detail. The larger tendencies are shown by a chronicle of individualized persons and actions.” Despite the honors and prizes bestowed by his grateful readers during his last decade, he would, while at stool, “read the folders of old reviews of my books, in order to support my morale.” S. Y. Agnon, whom Wilson met in Israel, identified the sources of his intellectual power by writing that he had “been graced by God with an eye to see and a heart to understand.” And Wilson, who retained a lifelong attachment to the Jews, had Moses’ exhortation to Israel in Deuteronomy 31:6—“Be strong and of a good courage”—engraved in Hebrew on his tombstone in Wellfleet.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 1, on page 88
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