Thursday, December 20, 2007

Exploding a gilded age

  • Christopher Benfry reviews a new Library of America collection of Edmund Wilson essays in The New Republic.
Going back through these vivid and varied pages, where articles in praise of Houdini and Henry Miller are interspersed with dismissals of Kafka, one comes to realize that the foundation of Wilson's remarkable coverage of his own time was a deep preoccupation with the preceding Gilded Age. Axel's Castle is subtitled "A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930," and Patriotic Gore began as a study of American literature "between the Civil War and about 1910." Early and late, Wilson was a historical critic: his interest in Marxism, all but eclipsed by 1940, was as much a commitment to interpreting writers in historical context as to any particular political position. In his political writing as well, which will surely fill future volumes in the Library of America, Wilson looked to the past, and hence to the library, for guidance -- what he called "equipment for life." To the Finland Station (1940), his magisterial and conflicted intellectual history of revolutionary thought from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution, begins with a scene of sympathetic reading, as Michelet experiences a shock of recognition in reading Vico.

Wilson was determined to avoid the joylessness of his father's generation, blighted, he believed, by Calvinism, Big Business, and the lingering effects of the war. The disappointed hope for a Supreme Court appointment joined others in the life of Elgrim Sexton, as Wilson called his father in a story -- implying, none too subtly, that grim sex was another. As a shy boy growing up in Red Bank, Wilson listened for the nonexistent conversation between his hypochondriac father, reduced for long periods to bedridden gloom, and his deaf and status- conscious mother, who took him to polo games and belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Wilson wrote so well in The Wound and the Bow about childhood trauma in the lives of Dickens and Kipling that biographers have been quick to look for some lingering scar in his own upbringing. The book takes its title from Sophocles's account of the peerless archer Philoctetes and his suppurating wound, a symbol for Wilson of the deep linkage of suffering and creativity. But every childhood is unhappy, and Wilson's parents were hardly conspicuous in their momentary monstrousness. The "spoiling and controlling" mother that Lewis Dabney describes or the cold woman isolated by deafness in Leon Edel's account are hardly ogres out of Dickens. Wilson's childhood left the ordinary scars of loneliness, which he analyzed so well in the lives of Housman and Edna Millay. If Wilson's mother, two of whose brothers were distinguished physicians, once assured him that brilliant men "always had something wrong with them," it is just as true that plenty of mediocre men do, too.

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