California Literary Review

Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature by Lewis Dabney

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June 4th, 2007 at 3:11 pm

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Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature
by Lewis Dabney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 656 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

Whatsoever Things Are True

In 1916 Princeton, a young and still slender Edmund Wilson was advised by professors to “seek the truth, no matter where it lay or who it hurt.” Forty-seven years later, Wilson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom “for literary merit but not good conduct” in the words of presenter JFK.

Had Wilson, somewhere along the way, disregarded the advice? Yes and no. Politically, he hardly merited a good conduct medal. Although he never participated in the more notorious–read characteristic–behaviors of the American left–the double crosses, the scapegoating, the rationalizations–he was nevertheless a true believer in Lenin fairly till late in the game (1971) and never abandoned his view that the US was morally equivalent to the Soviet Union. Dabney shows that for all of Wilson’s lauding of the scientific and objective nature of Marxism, his portrait of Marx and Lenin in To The Finland Station betrayed a religious exaltation–a charge Wilson lodged at the American Communist Party throughout the 1930s. His love of truth was put on hold during a hopeful visit to pre-purge trial Moscow and he later admitted soft-pedaling the brutality he saw when writing about the regime in 1935.

There was, admittedly, a dissident beneath the Marxist rhetoric. As early as 1931, he was urging progressives–in vain–to take Marxism away from the Marxists and Americanize it. And like Orwell, he never bought into the Soviet version of the purge trials. But he never abandoned his view that the Revolution might have worked, had the right people remained in charge.

Much of his support of the Revolution was linked to his identification with Lenin. But had Wilson pursued this identification to its logical end, as he did when writing about other topics, he would have found little commonality save an educated upbringing in the middle class. Wilson was interested in working people as individuals in a manner that Lenin would have written off as bourgeoisie sentimentality. He regarded a working class waitress and prostitute as more than a sexual object and spent evenings asking her about her life–not for fodder to attack capitalist America with but to truly get to know her. Wilson had little in common with any of the old Bolsheviks; it is true he had a temper but he was hardly a joiner. Hauled before the dock, Wilson would have stood apart from the eager confessors, made short work of Vyshinsky and would have been promptly “suicided.” But for him, the dream of the Russian Revolution was still alive, and could be reclaimed and realized by better people than Stalin.

If he was slow in abandoning Leninism, he was in positive suspension about his isolationist view of foreign policy. He regarded Hitler, even after the death camps had been revealed, as a threat magnified by Wall Street merchants seeking profit. And American behavior during the Cold War was motivated by dollar diplomacy and nothing else. America First may have called it a day after Pearl Harbor but Wilson didn’t.

But Wilson is of value today based on literary merit—in his own writings and in his judgment of others. While at Princeton—the Princeton not of Cornel West and speech codes, but of Christian Gauss—he was taught that good writing had little to do with political outlook. And this lesson took when he championed conservatives like T.S Eliot and Raymond Chandler, the proto-fascist Ezra Pound and the apolitical (at least till the Spanish Civil War) Hemingway. When the old and New Left were reviling the Old South as the natural breeding ground for American fascism, he found value in the works of such antebellum writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Joel Chandler Harris.

Like many on the Left, Wilson harbored guilt but it had nothing to do with his earlier support of the Soviet regime. No, his guilt stemmed from a literary murder. While alive, he was unfairly condescending of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s efforts. After Fitzgerald’s death, he tried to make amends, editing The Last Tycoon and writing glowingly of his Princeton classmate for the rest of his life.

That Wilson had second thoughts not about political commitments but his literary behavior, shows that the lessons of Princeton stayed with him. But after all, truth was to be found in literature for Wilson not the voting booth. And in this era of literature in the service of a candidate, he was worthy of an award.

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