Edmund Wilson, Boy Curmudgeon

Writing in 1921, Edmund Wilson wraps up a mixed review of F. Scott Fitzgerald by noting that he is, after all, not yet 30:

His restless imagination may yet produce something durable. For the present, however, this imagination is certainly not seen to the best advantage; it suffers badly from lack of discipline and poverty of aesthetic ideas.


And here is Wilson on Ezra Pound:

Ezra Pound’s new book of poems, Poems 1918-1921, is as unsatisfactory as his previous ones….[His style] remains patchy and uneven, and acutely self-conscious.


Here, as in many of his pieces from the ‘20s and ‘30s, collected in The Shores of Light, Wilson seems to think he is Dr. Johnson; one piece is in fact a letter written in Johnson’s style and signed with his name. So it is startling to realize that he was only one year ahead of Fitzgerald at Princeton. They grow up so fast.

His self-importance has a positive side, because it allows him to speak frankly and trust his own judgments. In the quotes above, he says things that I pretty much agree with, and which you won’t hear nowadays. Even where I don’t agree, it is fun to read assessments of canonical writers as though they were mere mortals:

Robert Frost has a thin but authentic vein of poetic sensibility, but I find him excessively dull, and he certainly writes very poor verse.

Wallace Stevens has a fascinating gift of words that is not far from a gift of nonsense,…and he is a charming decorative artist.


At times, though, the pontification just turns prissy and sour. His wish that poets like Hart Crane and John Crowe Ransom would write about more interesting subjects may have some merit, I suppose, the terms in which he frames it strike a false note. Apparently they have not chosen adequate careers, and thus lack suitable experiences to write about:

The poet would do better to study a profession, to become a banker, or a public official, or even to go in for the movies….[I]t is perhaps only the man of the world, like Catullus or Byron, who has the right to be insolent to the great.”

“the great” of course, does not mean great artists, but those who occupy positions of power. To his credit, Wilson includes a couple of negative responses to this piece, including a letter from Hart Crane to Yvor Winters:

It’s so damned easy for such as he, born into easy means, graduated from a fashionable university into a critical chair overlooking Washington Square etc….as though all the mames he mentioned had been as suavely nourished as he, as though four out of 5 of them hadn’t been damn well forced, the major part of their lives, to grub at any kind of work they could manage by hook or crook and the fear of Hell to secure. Yes, why not step into the State Department and join the diplomatic corps for a change?”


Wilson probably gives Gertrude Stein a more respectful hearing than a lot of critics did, and his distaste for her immense icy egotism is justified, but he also betrays the limitations of his liberal culture when he writes about her story “Things As They Are,” in which a lesbian love triangle descends into “…bitter altercations that seem to reach almost the hair-pulling stage. This inevitably becomes faintly comic, as if one were witnessing a triangle between three empty mislaid gloves, all intended for the left hand.”



On the other hand, here is Wilson on Hemingway in Africa, hunting potentially interesting animals:

We do not learn very much more about them than that Hemingway wants to kill them. Nor do we learn much about the natives….the principal impression that we carry away is that the Africans were simple people who enormously admired Hemingway.


On the other other hand, EW gets all snobby when talking about movies. He says that American cinema has never produced anything to rival the best German or Russian films, and even when it draws talent from Europe or Broadway, it simply ruins and destroys it: “How shall we ever know now, for example, whether Katherine Hepburn, or for that matter Greta Garbo, ever really had anything in her?” That Kate, she could have had a real career if she’d just stayed back East.


One of the last reviews in the book has me torn. Wilson praises Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer as a trenchant satirical novel. Apparently, at the end of the book, one of the main characters gets his girlfriend pregnant and ditches her by heading back to America, but leaves money with the hero to give to her. The hero, instead, blows the money on fancy food and drink, and wanders tipsily through Paris, vaporizing on philosophical topics. Wilson considers this an amusing portrait of the “authentic American bum.”

Henry Miller begged to differ, writing that the book is not a novel, and the “bum” is not the book’s ‘hero’ but is in fact Henry Miller. So Wilson gets a D for wildly misunderstanding the author’s project, but an A for calling Miller the douchebag he undoubtedly was.


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2 Responses to Edmund Wilson, Boy Curmudgeon

  1. Ann Foxen says:

    Robert Frost has a thin but authentic vein of poetic sensibility, but I find him excessively dull, and he certainly writes very poor verse.

    You can add that one to the prissy and sour column, IMHO. I want to stand in Hart Crane’s corner and shake my fist in EW’s privileged face. Was it while admiring it in the silver spoon he was born with that he came to think no one should ever dare express an idea that didn’t interest him? Apparently a writer has to be a douchebag (as you say) like Henry Miller to amuse EW–and can I just say an admiring MEOW to that whole last paragraph?

    • Roy White says:

      I found an account of meeting E. Wilson in a book by a certain Paul Horgan. Horgan describes the now-aging Wilson as a complete jerk, suky and rude, then notes that he had the unflappable good manners of the East Coast elite. Whatevs. He also makes EW out to be physically most unattractive.

      On Fri, Aug 14, 2015 at 3:20 PM, lippenheimer wrote:


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