Shore to Shore
The most famous stretch of Boston’s Charles River Esplanade, the one you see in postcards, lies between the low-slung Harvard Bridge and the granite bulk of the Longfellow Bridge, on the southern bank of the river, where thin, man-made islands connected by arched stone walkways jut out from the shore, forming lagoons where Venetian-style gondolas pole amongst the ducks and geese. Walking east-northeast from the Harvard Bridge, take a left after the Gloucester Street Landing, a small pedestrian dock, over the little stone bridge, out from under the canopy of trees and onto the long, grassy island enclosing the Storrow lagoon. The footpath loops back to the east along the riverbank, but keep going straight, across the grass, and you’ll come to a wooden bench a few feet off the water. It looks toward the Cambridge skyline, and you can see down the river for a mile on each side. This is my favorite place to read.
I found the spot years ago, before I started writing. I was just out of college and aimless. A job at a bookstore paid the bills. There I was lucky enough to meet one of those strange creatures you sometimes find in bookstores: that worldly, slightly disheveled person who’s read everything and is eager to share it all with you. He would recommend the best books on any subject imaginable and steer me clear of the dregs. I had always read, but now I was reading more, and soon he was simply giving me books he thought I would like. One day he told me he was starting a literary review with some friends, and he suggested I contribute. It seemed like a nice idea, but with the exception of a few maudlin journal entries from youth (you know the kind), I had never written anything outside of school. I didn’t give the suggestion much thought.
So one summer afternoon I walked down to the river and saw the bench, which was happily empty. I had two books in my bag, gifts from my new friend. I sat down and pulled out the small one, Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout. I started reading – “In the spring of that year an epidemic of rabies broke out in Ether County” – and stopped right there. I took out the other book, a hefty white and tan-colored mass-market, its thick spine sun-faded and creased in a dozen places. It was The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the 1920s and 1930s, by Edmund Wilson, a man I had never heard of. Literary criticism was not something I read, but the era fascinated me – flappers and F. Scott Fitzgerald, jazz bands and fancy parties, all hurtling unawares to a tragic denouement – and Wilson’s preface pulled me right in:
I have aimed in the present collection to present a kind of panorama of the books and ideas, the movements and the literary life, of a period that was very much livelier and had a much more exciting development than the war-darkened years of the forties… I have even put in a few pieces that do not deal with writing at all, but these, too, are intended to contribute to a general picture of the culture of a recklessly unspecialized era, when minds and imaginations were exploring in all directions.
It had never occurred to me that criticism could be exciting – the word made me think of the dry, donnish articles my college professors would Xerox for class – but Wilson promptly dispatched that stereotype. For an unmoored young man, clarity and strong feeling are rare and precious things, and Wilson’s prose – confident, precise, personally addressed – floored me.
The first pieces in Shores were published in the early 1920s, when Wilson was only a few years older than his impressionable new reader, and yet he already seemed to know literature and what elevated it to greatness. “The good artist,” he writes apropos E. E. Cummings and the Symbolist movement, “in this as in any other style, is one who can create a work that has completeness and significance outside himself, that is not merely a literary ectoplasm imperfectly disengaged from his drift of consciousness.” Wilson had a gift for apt, idiosyncratic phrases like these, but you’re often halfway through the next sentence before you realize the previous one is still on your mind. At my bench, I would frequently stop to stare ahead and think. My eyes would eventually focus, I would take in the world around me, and then return to the past.
Great literature was a serious thing, and Wilson intended to use his platform to defend it. The critic must be honest above all else, and his friends knew that if their career grew big enough to bring their work across his desk he would not spare them. (Decades later, his friendship with Vladimir Nabokov would end over one such review.) His verdict on This Side of Paradise, the first novel of close friend and Princeton classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a notorious example. “It has almost every fault and deficiency that a novel can possibly have,” Wilson writes.
It is really not about anything: its intellectual and moral content amounts to little more than a gesture—a gesture of indefinite revolt. The story itself, furthermore, is very immaturely imagined: it is always just verging on the ludicrous. And finally, This Side of Paradise is one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published (a fault which the publisher’s proofreader seems to have made no effort to remedy). Not only is it ornamented with bogus ideas and faked literary references, but it is full of literary words tossed about with the most reckless inaccuracy.
And yet there are no hit-jobs among Wilson’s writings: he doesn’t revel in shredding easy prey, as young critics often do. He tells us in one review that he prefers Ring Lardner’s vernacular fiction to Sinclair Lewis’ social commentary because “[Lardner] is less likely to caricature, and hence to falsify, because he is primarily interested in studying a kind of person rather than in drawing up an indictment.” Substitute “book” for “person” and you have Wilson’s approach to criticism. Even when a book grates, as Fitzgerald’s did, Wilson can be counted on to mention anything of worth he finds. As soon as he is done taking his friend to task, he pivots to dispense perhaps the best encapsulation of Fitzgerald’s immature work you will ever read:
I have said that This Side of Paradise commits almost every sin that a novel can possibly commit: but it does not commit the unpardonable sin: it does not fail to live. The whole preposterous farrago is animated with life. It is rather a fluttering and mercurial life: its emotions do not move you profoundly; its drama does not make you hold your breath; but its gaiety and color and movement did make it come as something exciting after the realistic heaviness and dinginess of so much serious American fiction.
It quickly becomes apparent that Wilson is writing for authors as much as readers. He needs them to succeed, as Fitzgerald would with The Great Gatsby, a novel written with Wilson’s advice in mind.
It wasn’t just that Wilson cared about an author’s success or even the production of great art, though both of those things are true. Literature for him was a thing in time, and he believed it had a triple duty to the past, present and future: to not break carelessly or cynically the old, and to say something about the present for the sake of a common future. Wilson’s second and closely related preoccupation in The Shores of Light is America itself: its culture, history, economy, and character. The twin obsessions feed each other. He wades into Marxist criticism of Thornton Wilder’s fanciful settings and the difficulties of representing American vernacular. He ties Houdini’s efforts to disprove supernatural phenomena with the waning of religious credulity, and employs the ambiguity of fiction to battle H.L. Mencken’s social prejudice.
It is almost as though, through the book’s 800 pages, Wilson is grappling with a single organism, and this imbues The Shores of Light with a linear quality that its chronological order can’t account for alone. The same authors often pop up, set against their forerunners and peers, measured and remeasured and put, after careful inspection, on their proper perch. Wilson is forever attempting to find their place in the continuum of American literature, a thing the reader finds growing brighter and more distinct with each visitation.
That temporal sensitivity was infectious, and as I was reading there on my own shore, stopping occasionally to reflect on something or drift in a reverie, the moody, shifting sky led me to consider my own movement in time. I read until the park lamps lit up, and at the end, as I was readying myself to leave, my long-inert body sluggishly waking for activity, the setting sun was making dark shapes of the Cambridge skyline, and behind me glass skyscrapers shooting up out of nineteenth-century brownstones were reflecting the day’s last light. A rush went through me and I thought about Boston (Puritan outpost, womb of the revolution, my adopted home), the wider world and then I came back to myself. Everything felt suddenly contextualized. At that moment I had few solid ideas, but I was beginning to think that could change – and when it did, maybe those ideas could be written down.
Edmund Wilson was a just boy when he began writing stories, but he seemed fated for the critic’s chair. There’s a charming, sad little anecdote about this in Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, Lewis Dabney’s definitive biography:
Margaret Edwards, a childhood friend, recalled that they would put on plays—“he would write the story and I drew the scenery and figures”… The critical temperament, however, already stood in the way of imaginative invention. In the schoolboy hand that Wilson soon abandoned there survives a revealing page headed “What I would like to Write [sic] about.” In fact he tells what he doesn’t want to do with what may have been an assignment: he will not make the story “too sad” or “make much plot to it,” or make the schoolboy hero “too successful” or “too good.” Discouraged by his own strictures, he concludes, “I don’t believe I shall ever write this story.”
The temperament and literary interest were patrimony, along with a distaste for the corporate world and a sense of “The Duties of Educated Men.” The last is the title of a lay sermon given by his father, a popular public speaker and one-time Attorney General of New Jersey (he prosecuted the corrupt Atlantic City political boss Louis Kuehnle, predecessor of Enoch “Nucky” Johnson). Edmund Wilson, Sr. had political aspirations, and was offered posts in Washington after his success as Attorney General, but, as Dabney puts it, “such gentlemen reformers were uncomfortable in an age of business dominance, of party bosses and machine corruption,” and his ambition fizzled in that reality. Edmund Wilson, Jr. inherited this sense of embattlement and class-consciousness, but he would be able to see beyond it as his father, who turned inward and psychologically fragile in old age, could not.
The young boy went on to edit the literary magazine at the Hill School, where Wilson recalls being drilled “in sentence structure, grammar, the devices of ‘rhetoric’ and prosody, as if we had been studying a foreign language.” At Princeton he discovered ideals which could put that discipline to good use. The Shores of Light opens with “Christian Gauss as a Teacher of Literature,” a tribute to the critic’s mentor written on the occasion of his death in 1951. Gauss was a professor of European literature, and had something of a non-method method: he was the sort of teacher who
starts trains of thought that he does not himself guide to conclusions but leaves in the hands of his students to be carried on by themselves…. his own ideas on any subject were always taking new turns: the light in which he saw it would be shifted, it would range itself in some new context.
Wilson brought this sense of never-ending argument to his writing and joined it to an Olympian tone of his own; his best criticism resembles a Gauss lecture, which Wilson thought “made a kind of neutral medium in which everything in the world seemed soluble.”
It is possible, Wilson seems to suggest here, that if he had never crossed paths with Gauss, we would not know him today, or we would know him as another Mencken or Babbitt – as a Manichean. He took to heart Gauss’ understanding of
the artist’s morality as something that expressed itself in different terms than the churchgoer’s or the citizen’s morality; the fidelity to a kind of truth that is rendered by the discipline of aesthetic form, as distinct from that of the professional moralist: the explicit communication of a “message.” But there was nothing in [Gauss’] attitude of the truculent pose, the defiance of the bourgeoisie, that had been characteristic of the fin de siècle and that… Ezra Pound was to sustain through his whole career.
Wilson believed, as Judge Harold R. Medina, quoted here, says of Christian Gauss, in “language and literature as something representing the continuous and never-ending flow of man’s struggle to think the thoughts which, when put into action, constitute in the aggregate the advance of civilization.” Edmund Wilson left Princeton steeped in the European canon, and he was acutely aware that young America had nothing to match it. But he came upon the scene at a most propitious moment; the flux of postwar America, the sheer bigness of the times, gave him hope, and this is where we find him in The Shores of Light.
Wilson’s concern for the future of American literature is alive in the collection’s first piece, the Fitzgerald review quoted above, which was published in early 1922. “Even the work that Fitzgerald has done up to date,” he writes at the end,
has a certain moral importance. In this very expression of the anarchy by which he finds himself bewildered, of his revolt which cannot fix on an object, he is typical of the war generation…It may be that we cannot demand too high a degree of moral balance from young men, however able or brilliant, who write books in the year 1921: we must remember that they have had to grow up in, that they have had to derive their chief stimulus from the war, the society and the commerce of the Age of Confusion itself.
– an age, as Fitzgerald once wrote, where everyone has “grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in men shaken.”
Cynicism, best practiced in Mencken’s aristocratic condemnation or Lytton Strachey’s acid historical portraiture, was one popular reaction. Wilson appreciated their ability and valued their corrective function, but he was frustrated by their excess and had little respect for their followers, who had a model but no talent to bring it off: cynicism and sarcastic poses, Wilson felt, kept an author too far away from a subject to properly animate it. In the same vein he counsels followers of the Oscar Wilde/ Baudelaire school of shock to try other things, because Wilde and Baudelaire relied on a dual idea of sin as something to be feared and celebrated. Decades later, when Wilson is writing, society has moved on and so, he suggests, should these writers if they wish to genuinely provoke.
But Edmund Wilson came onto the scene with his own prejudices, among them his distaste for the culture of the late nineteenth century, which produced a society that he felt had ruined his father, and produced a literature which he thought had grown stale in its imitation of Europe. On this subject Wilson’s observations, normally so sharply-defined, are clouded in a deluge of over-generalization. In a piece on a Stephen Crane biography he writes:
The eighties and nineties in America appear… perhaps the most provincial and uninspired moment in the history of American society… In the seventies, men were still living on the culture and believing in the social ideal which had survived from the founding of the Republic…But by the eighties Business was flooding in and ideals were in confusion… the men of the eighties, with whatever sound culture and honest aims, were finding themselves launched in a world where there was a great deal of money to be made and most people were trying to make money. Humanism went by the board; moral scruples were put to rout; and seriousness about man and his problems was abrogated entirely in favor of the seriousness of Business about things that were not serious. The State became identified with Business; ideas were shot on sight.
It took Wilson a long while to get past this, to find something to appreciate in the remote intellect of late Henry James, the stately disillusionment of Henry Adams, or the “indignant passion” of Edith Wharton. A few years later he would be able to write that “It may be said of these men, in general, that, though their ideas were less ‘emancipated,’ they possessed a sounder culture than we; and that, though less lively, they were better craftsmen.”
(Noticeable here, too, is Wilson’s other major weakness: women. Masculine pronouns were a literary convention of the time, but that doesn’t always account for the sense of exclusion we encounter, and there’s a particularly galling howler in his review of Fitzgerald, who he says “is extraordinarily little occupied with the general affairs of the world: like a woman, he is not much given to abstract or impersonal thought.” Wilson would grow out of this, and it is true that he wrote hundreds of reviews of female writers – many of them career making – but it is also true that some of these were compromised by the fact that he had a weakness for attractive female writers: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anaïs Nin, Mary McCarthy – the list is long.)
Outside of that period Wilson is on firmer ground, and though he would deplore “the pervasive ignorance and tepidity of contemporary American life” and “the rudimentary condition of our literature in general”; though his praise was never unqualified (one could do even better, he always seemed to be saying); he found much to celebrate, esteemed great ambition, and was always heartened to see a writer develop. John Dos Passos elicited all three of those feelings. Wilson was frustrated by his early fiction, frustrated that “so intelligent a man and so good an artist” allowed his political radicalism to overwhelm his good sense and “falsify his picture of life.” But
whatever diagnosis we may make of Dos Passos’s infatuation with the social revolution, he remains one of the few first-rate figures among our writers of his generation, and the only one of these who has made a systematic effort to study all the aspects of America and to take account of all its elements, to compose them into a picture which makes some general sense.
Dos Passos was able to slough off most of this two-dimensionality for The 42nd Parallel, the first book of his USA trilogy, which Wilson thought brilliant in its use of “colloquial American for a novel of the highest artistic seriousness.” It “succeeded…. in bridging the gap, which is wider in America than anywhere else and which constitutes a perpetual problem in American literature and thought, between the special concerns of the intellectual and the general pursuits and ideas of the people.”
But it would be a mistake to think Wilson’s interests were confined to realism. He was too open-minded to champion any particular method over another, or any specific subject over everything else; some facets of human life, he knew, belonged to every age, and each would invent new forms to explain them. The Symbolists, for example, fascinated him (he wrote the first epic study on the subject, Axel’s Castle, in 1931), and when their influence came to America in the form of Wallace Stevens and E.E. Cummings, he did his best to prepare his audience by explaining their technique and encouraging an open mind. “It is a question,” he writes, “not at all of method, but of the good artist of the bad,” and for all Cummings’ faults (“he never seems to know when he is writing badly and when he is writing well”), Wilson loves him because he is not indifferent to life … his poetry is the expression of a temperament … of a being who desires and enjoys, who reacts to everything that touches him with a tenderness or a mockery quite free from the inhibitions from which so much American writing is merely the anguish to escape.
In the famous essay, “A Preface to Persius,” Wilson narrates his encounter, as he is eating at an Italian restaurant, with the preface to an 18th-century translation of the Roman poet Aulus Persius Flaccus, which he happened to pick up on a walk. The translator is in the midst apologizing for the relative artlessness and difficulty of Persius’ verse when E.E. Cummings lopes over to Wilson’s table, babbling on incomprehensibly about explosions and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. “So Persius,” Wilson thinks as he returns to his salad, in another age that combined moral anarchy with harsh repression, had, it seemed, expressed himself confusedly, inelegantly and obscenely … Yes: like Cummings’s poetry and conversation … That was the paradox of literature: provoked only by the anomalies of reality, by its discord, its chaos, its pain, it attempted, from poetry to metaphysics, to impose on that chaos some order, to find some resolution for that discord, to render that pain acceptable—to strike some permanent mark of the mind on the mysterious flux of experience which escapes beneath our hand … How much, I wondered, was it due to the wine that I now myself felt so warmed by this sense of continuity with the past … by this spirit of stubborn endurance?
The “American literature” Wilson hoped and fought for would never materialize – at least, not in a way he would have liked. In “The All-Star Literary Vaudeville,” one of the more pessimistic articles in The Shores of Light, he worries that “We have the illusion of a stronger vitality and of a greater intellectual freedom, but we are polygot, parvenu, hysterical and often only semi-literate. When time shall have weeded out our less important writers, it is probable that those who remain will give the impression of a literary vaudeville.” But in the 1920s he could still stifle his disappointment: “Let us remember, however, that vaudeville has always been an American specialty…. Emerson, Whitman, Poe … who can say that we may not find their peers among our present bill of comic monologuists, sentimental songsters and performers of one-act melodramas?”
Wilson would go on to produce even greater work after the twenties and thirties. He was more mature and even better read (if such a thing is imaginable), and on top of the criticism were two masterpieces: To the Finland Station, an imaginative recreation of 150 years of Western revolution, and Patriotic Gore, a massive, sui generis survey of the literature of the American Civil War. There were nearly a dozen more collections of his literary writings, plus travelogues, novels, plays and five volumes of his journals. Little of that isn’t good or great, outside of some of the fiction.
But Wilson lost something as he aged. The Second World War, the consumerism and conformity of the fifties, the foreign interventions of the sixties – with each decade of setbacks Wilson became more and more detached from the currents of American life and literature, those crucial things he had spent so much time trying to understand and influence when he was young. By 1956 he could write, in A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty,
I have ceased to try to see at first hand what is happening in the United States … I do not want any more to be bothered with the kind of contemporary conflicts that I used to go out to explore. I make no attempt to keep up with the younger American writers; and I only hope to have the time to get through some of the classics I have never read. Old fogeyism is comfortably closing in.
I only read those words this past year. If I had read them all those years ago when I found my bench, I am not sure how they would have affected me. But I know I would have been disappointed.
Instead I returned to my spot on the shore every day for the next four days to finish the book. I couldn’t bring myself to read it anywhere else, and when I saw on my bookstore’s schedule a long stretch of work days coming up, I called out sick for the first few. A month later I wrote my first piece of criticism, one of those hit-jobs novices find so gratifying to produce. It wasn’t much good, but I was sure that could change. And all the while, I tried to keep in mind the young Edmund Wilson, the one who could still write, in a rare moment of charged optimism, that despite the maelstrom about us, there is “nothing to do save to work with the dead for allies, and at odds with the ignorance of most of the living, that that edifice, so many times begun, so discouragingly reduced to ruins, might yet stand as the headquarters of humanity!”
Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.