In a beautifully shot reminiscence of Alexander Woollcott published in 1943 and originally conceived as a defense of this great critic against an ungenerous obituary, Edmund Wilson succeeded in turning what he admitted to be a slight acquaintance into a charming one. portrayal of a man and a moment – the moment being when the parents of both men were linked to a Fourierist socialist community in Red Bank, New Jersey. The memories of Woollcott the man of the theater, interspersed with reflections on the mysteries of the American left, combine to make a beautiful profile and a beautiful period piece: journalism at its best. What held me back and held me back, however, was an episode from the 1930s, when Wilson, fresh out of a front-of-the-job report for The New Republic, was invited to visit Woollcott at Sutton Place:
As soon as I entered the room, he shouted, without further greeting: “You have put on weight! It was his way of disarming, I thought, any horror I might have felt at his own pudding roundness, which had tripled since the last time I had seen him.
This, and other aspects of the evening, makes it clear that Wilson understood why not everyone liked Woollcott’s personality. But the preemptive strike on the girth issue also made me realize that there must have been a time when Edmund Wilson was thin.
It absolutely negated the image that my mind’s eye had been conditioned to invoke. Wilson’s prose, if not precisely round, was surprisingly solid. One cannot turn the pages of this heavy and beautiful set, produced by the Library of America, without having an idea of its mass, weight and gravity. He was the kind of man who, as they said, “broached” a subject. The vulgar, modern way to put it is to say that such and such is reading a book “so you don’t have to.” Wilson, however, assumed a certain amount of knowledge in his readers, kept them well stocked with allusions and cross-references, and was committed to helping them fill in the gaps in their education. Self-taught himself, he seems to have hoped to be the cause of the self-taught in others …
It is not easy to imagine Mr. Wilson (he almost invariably alluded to other writers such as “Mr.”, “Mrs.” or “Miss”) sending in his annual recommendation for the “beach bag” d summer, not to mention responding to the even more off-putting idea that people should be more likely to buy and enjoy books at Christmas. His famous pre-printed postcard, which he sent to supplicants of all kinds, showed him overwhelmingly indifferent to the petty attractions of literary celebrity:
Mr. Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to: Read manuscripts, write articles or books to order, write prefaces or introductions, make statements for publicity purposes, do any type of editorial work, judge literary competitions, give interviews, participate in writers’ conferences, answer questionnaires, contribute or participate in colloquiums or “panels” of any kind, contribute to the sale of manuscripts, donate copies of their books to libraries, autographing works for strangers, authorizing the use of his name on letterhead, providing personal information about himself, or providing opinions on literary or other matters.
But if that gives the impression of some sort of Jamesian nobility, then the idea is thwarted by Wilson’s decision to engage in popular fiction. His contempt for the neglected and shameful habit of “reading” detective novels – especially the dismal pulp produced by Dorothy L. Sayers – was matched by an admiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle …
A test of a serious man it is that it is possible to learn from it even when one is radically in disagreement with it. Wilson seems to me to underestimate the importance of Kafka in an almost disturbing way (disturbing as she shows a lack of sympathy towards those who come from knew on totalitarianism to come), yet I admit that I had never thought of Kafka as having been so influenced by Flaubert. When writing about Ronald Firbank, Wilson seems almost elephantine in his bulk. Often somewhat out of sympathy for the English school, and sometimes again for self-imposed political reasons, he very early and acutely understood Evelyn Waugh’s point of view. He was rightly rather critical of Brideshead revisited, and it makes me whine when I see how carefully he read the novel and how coldly he isolated unforgivable phrases such as “Always the clouds gathered and did not break.” Nonetheless, he predicts great success for the book and, discussing himself and his successor The loved one, managed to be both coldly secular and sympathetic, pointing out that Waugh was actually rather afraid of the consequences of his own Catholicism. An American critic might have chosen not to like the easy shots Waugh took in Los Angeles and “Whispering Glades”; Wilson was content to point out indulgently that Waugh’s Church practiced a far more whimsical and ornamental denial of death than any California funeral director.