Monday, March 03, 2008

America's Critical Prometheus?

Last fall, the Library of America released a two volume set of Edmund Wilson's collected books and reviews from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. I've been making my way through the books as time permits, skipping around from review to review, in a rather hodge-podge manner. The one book of his I've read from start to finish is Axel's Castle, which fascinatingly traces the roots of modernist literature through French symbolism. He's a eminently readable chronicler of literature, especially of the modernist movement.

Michael Weiss '02 reviews both of the recently released volumes and, in addition, looks at how Wilson's reflexive Marxist sympathies informed his writing. Here are the first couple of paragraphs:

Edmund Wilson has been an object of saintly veneration and nostalgia by those old enough to remember when literary critics were arbiters of how people spent their time between meals and work. Who now, in the age of the hatchet job and the shrinking Books section, speaks of 'permanent criticism,' the criticism that endures because it ranks as literature itself? The Library of America has just published Wilson's collected works in an elegant two-volume set spanning the critic's most productive decades—the 20s, 30s and 40s. Coming a year after Lewis Dabney's definitive biography, the resurrection of such sorely missed volumes as The Shores of Light, Axel's Castle and The Wound and the Bow surely qualifies an 'event' publication. Now there's a term the owlish sage of Red Bank would have loathed to no end.


It's a shame, though, that Wilson's magnificent study of socialism, To the Finland Station, has been left out of this series because it represents not just the yield of seven years of hard study, for which he learned German and Russian, but also the culmination of one of the lesser examined leitmotifs of his interdisciplinary and breathtaking oeuvre: his political radicalism.

Read the whole thing.

P.S. James Wolcott also ponders the decline of book reviewing as an art form.

1 comment:

John Bruce said...

Well, OK -- but a bigger question, it seems to me, is why we had a fairly robust critical tradition by or about American writers up to roughly the time of Wilson's death (or maybe Lionel Trilling's death) -- but none since? We're talking 40-50 years here. There are things like Henry James's essay on Hawthorne or D.H.Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature that are simply part of the canon -- but nothing more recent, and no real candidates.

Why? And why should it be such an event to resuscitate Wilson, who is definitely uneven, certainly not someone with a favorable public persona?