March 29, 2006
West End Wilson

Lincoln Park, Chicago. From the Parkway Hotel in Chicago, Lincoln Park, for all its black winter trees, seemed shadowy and soft under the snow and in the light of the lamps that hung everywhere like great round pearls. Occasionally, a taxi would thread its deserted ways.
--From The Twenties, Edmund Wilson

I must confess that I bought To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson's history of Marxism, for not-very-Wilsonian reasons: Because of the Pet Shop Boys (back in 1986, the heyday of "West End Girls," I did not know what the Finland station was, but I remembered the song). Even worse, I realized that despite my English-major background, I was not really sure I knew the difference between Wilson and Lionel Trilling, and this seemed like something I ought to remedy.

Having then bought the book, I forgot about it for a while until I stumbled upon Wilson's journals at the library. I dug into The Twenties (Wilson handily segmented his journals into decades) hoping for some good '20s-era literary gossip. I was not disappointed, but neither was it quite what I expected.

What I found:
While there is gossip (Wilson was friends with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others) there is less narrative and more snippets of talk and anecdote interspersed with descriptions of the scenery. This has its appeal, although it makes it hard to piece any kind of story together (though this shouldn't daunt blog readers, who have to put up with this kind of thing anyway).
Some seemingly random reflections of city life, primarily New York but also with jaunts to New Orleans, Boston, California, and Europe.
A great deal of skirt-chasing, a la Henry Miller but with more class issues.
Odd pop culture references (likely to provoke a few "so that's where that comes from!" from readers, even today).

What I didn't find:
Autobiographical detail; accordingly, this chronology is a useful tool.
Discussion of his own works, except in the most backhanded of references. He didn't seem to bring the experience of writing them into his diary-keeping.
Discussion of others' works, by and large--no reactions or responses, although he was a well-known critic.

Although this book had some rewards in terms of the quality of the writing, I found myself hankering for a plot. It will be some time before I return for The Thirties, but I may try something else ahead of time, perhaps Finland Station or perhaps Axel's Castle or Patriotic Gore, surely a title for our times.

A little reading shows I may be more in tune with the times than I believed, as a new biography of Wilson, A Life in Literature, has just come out and everyone is writing reviews. ) The fun began late last year with this New Yorker review, which had this interesting insight into Wilson the writer:
Wilson was opinionated and arbitrary about the subjects he covered because he was a writer, not an expert. He was not obliged, as professors are, to pick out a single furrow and plow it for life. His whole career was devoted to the opposite principle: that an educated, intelligent person can take on any subject that seems interesting and important, and, by doing the homework and taking care with the exposition, make it interesting and important to other people.

Bookforum also recently published a good article, noting as an aside that "it is my impression that he is not much read today, especially by the young, who seem to regard him as a patriarchal bore" which probably explains why despite a master's degree my grasp of Wilson was a bit shaky. Rounding out the critics, the TLS has a nice overview of Wilson's life and literature.

Could there be a less fashionable topic than Wilson in the blog world? Actually, he comes up a few times. Here are some recent cites:

Coudal Partners highlights this Wilson quote on Ulysses.

Wilson on American plumbing.I must say I am with him here.

Quote from Hyman, a critic Wilson disliked, on medical materialism and Finland Station.

Posted at March 29, 2006 07:10 PM