Edmund Wilson's America

Edmund Wilson's America

GEORGE H. DOUGLAS
Copyright Date: 1983
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130jsz5
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    Edmund Wilson's America
    Book Description:

    When Edmund Wilson died in 1972 he was widely acclaimed as one of America's great literary critics. But it was often forgotten by many of his admirers that he was also a brilliant and penetrating critic of American life. In a literary career spanning half a century, Wilson commented on nearly every aspect of the American experience, and he produced a body of work on the subject that rivals those of Tocqueville and Henry Adams.

    In this book, George H. Douglas has distilled the essence from Wilson's many writings on America. An active reporter and journalist as much as a scholar, Wilson ranged from Harding to Nixon, from bathtub gin to marijuana. Douglas here surveys Wilson's mordant observations on the roaring twenties, the Great Depression, income tax, suburbia, sex, populist politics, the Vietnam War, the Great Society, the failure of American scholarship, pollution of the landscape, and the breakdown of traditional American values.

    The Wilson who emerges from this survey is a historical writer with deep and unshakable roots in Jeffersonian democracy. Among his most far-seeing and poignant books are studies of the literature of the American Civil War and of the treatment of the American Indian. Pained by the crumbling moral order, Wilson was never completely at home in the twentieth century. In politics he was neither a liberal nor a conservative as those terms are understood today. He endured those ideologies and their adherents, but his genius was that he could bring them into hard focus from the perspective of the traditional American individualist who was too pained to accept the standardized commercial world that had grown up around him.

    Edmund Wilson's Americaoffers a distinctive overview of the nation's life and culture as seen and judged by its leading man of letters.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5923-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-x)

    This book is a study of Edmund Wilson’s views about American life. It is primarily a work of exposition, but I have sought, through analysis and interpretation, to make intelligible a long and varied professional career, to synthesize Wilson’s moods and ideas over several generations.

    But why such a work at all? Wilson has spoken eloquently for himself, and there have already been several biographical and general studies of his work. My assumption is that the breadth and diversity of Wilson’s work has made it difficult to obtain a sharp focus on some of the most powerful and enlightening strains...

  4. 1 The Man and His World
    (pp. 1-21)

    For a period of almost ten years Edmund Wilson failed to file an income tax return. When the Internal Revenue Service finally caught up with him in 1955, a friend offered the advice that this neglectful and eccentric behavior had put Wilson in such a tangled legal mess that it would probably be best for him to move abroad and become a resident of some other country. But Wilson took the risk and stayed in the United States. As he later explained in his book,The Cold War and the Income Tax,the idea of going into exile “seemed fantastic....

  5. 2 The New Wilderness
    (pp. 22-44)

    The distinguished American historian Richard Hofstadter once remarked that “the United States was born in the country and has moved to the city.” He might have gone one step further to observe that America has always been shaken by change and tumult—we are a people born to one set of conditions and then rudely jostled into another. Like all people, Americans crave certainty, stability, a degree of permanence in social life, but perhaps more than any other people in history we have repeatedly faced economic upheaval as a result of the cycles of boom and bust that have characterized...

  6. 3 Women of the Twenties
    (pp. 45-71)

    Edmund Wilson’s reputation as a writer continues to rest largely on his work as a literary critic. On the other hand, toward the end of his life, and with the flurry of literary revelations in the years since his death, another, interesting side of Wilson has come to the fore. With the publication of his diaries and letters from the twenties (the most personal of the letters, unfortunately, are still being withheld from publication), we are able to identify a resurgence of Wilson’s poetic and imaginative side to counterbalance the somewhat misleading image of Wilson that held sway before his...

  7. 4 The Crumbling Moral Order
    (pp. 72-93)

    Edmund Wilson had a curiously ambivalent attitude toward the 1920s. It was an era of youthful vitality, of social upheaval: it was a great time to be alive, especially for young writers and artists for whom it had become easy to declare independence from the stale world of prewar America. On the other hand, as the decade wore on, Wilson became increasingly skeptical of the possibility that writers, artists, and intellectuals would be able to do anything to create a healthy society out of the tumultuous, unhappy, and ambiguous conditions that pertained in twentieth-century urban America.

    Many of Wilson’s journalistic...

  8. 5 Two Ailing Democracies
    (pp. 94-104)

    In the middle 1930s, having taken at least partial leave of his reporting duties on theNew Republic,Wilson embarked on a phase of his career that resulted in two books that add luster to his credentials as a critic of culture. One of these,To the Finland Station,has always been among his best-known works; the other,Travels in Two Democracies,although much less popular today, is nonetheless of considerable interest. In the usual pattern of Wilson’s travel books, it is clearly and forcefully directed to his fellow countrymen.

    In 1934, nurturing a belief that American society was in...

  9. 6 Back to the Native Ground
    (pp. 105-122)

    Following his disillusionment with Marxism and spurred by a growing doubt that his own destinies as a writer could be perfectly realized in the political realm, Wilson once again began to direct his energies toward the literature and culture of his native land. Not that he sought escape in a more ethereal realm ofbelles lettres,or that he returned to the kind of literary criticism he so nearly perfected inAxel’s Castle;rather, by the late thirties he seems to have reached the conclusion that the creative writer can make a contribution that is not necessarily political. Wilson’s superb...

  10. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  11. 7 The World of Hecate County
    (pp. 123-146)

    Memoirs of Hecate Countywas Wilson’s last major work of fiction and by all standards the best. In a preface to a revised edition of the work in 1959 Wilson said that “Hecate Countyis my favorite among my books,” a view he continued to maintain throughout his life. It is a somewhat neglected work today, but it continues to hold interest for anyone seeking an understanding of Wilson the Americanist.Memoirscontains moods and reflections that had been many years developing and it has deep roots in Wilson’s experiences of the twenties and thirties. It is a book of...

  12. 8 Our National Wound
    (pp. 147-165)

    Patriotic Goreis Edmund Wilson’s finest work. In every sense it is a perfect manifestation of his literary methods, a showcase for his highest talents, and a triumph of the historical style of literary criticism.

    The book was many years in the making. Wilson proposed it to the Oxford University Press in 1947, but apparently he had been thinking of it a number of years before that. In the midst of the composition he stated that “my original idea was to write a book about American literature of the period after the Civil War, but I became so interested in...

  13. 9 The Decadence of the Democratic State
    (pp. 166-194)

    In the last several decades of his life Edmund Wilson became an increasingly dyspeptic critic of democratic politics and of the generally lax moral tone of the government of the United States. His writings of this period reveal a growing disenchantment with big government in all its forms—not only the totalitarianism of the communist states but also the overblown bureaucratic democracy that he saw getting out of hand in his own country.

    Wilson’s attitude was somewhat perplexing to many of his friends and perhaps to the intellectual community at large. What had become of Wilson the liberal thinker of...

  14. 10 The Democratic Man of Letters
    (pp. 195-207)

    In his later years Edmund Wilson was a much less active journalist and involved social critic than he had been in his youth. But as a prophet of our intellectual life, as a demanding and often irritable critic of American scholarship, his powers increased with the passing of time. In his seventies he found himself recognized as a somewhat respectable national seer, but he never mellowed into his respectability. He remained as suspicious as ever of institutions and habitual patterns of thought. He kept up his attacks on government and politicans but never shied away from doing battle with his...

  15. 11 Upstate
    (pp. 208-220)

    It was Edmund Wilson’s great power and distinction that he was immersed in the America of his lifetime and curiously detached from it at the same time. In his later years, unkind critics found him to be an old curmudgeon who had lost the ideals of his youth and found no new ones to take their place—a faded and cantankerous aristocrat who scorned all of the alleged material and spiritual advances of America. But it was Wilson’s tenacious grip on the American past, his never-ending attempts to dredge up the values of his forebears and the ambiance of the...

  16. Epilogue
    (pp. 221-224)

    Edmund Wilson died at his old stone house in Talcottville on June 12, 1972. He was cremated and his ashes later removed to Wellfleet for burial. He was fortunate, as many writers are not, that some of his best writing had not yet been released to the public, with the result that interest in his work has continued unabated since his death. With the publication of his diaries from the twenties and thirties, withheld during his lifetime, a much fuller and richer picture of his life and outlook became available to the general public. But by 1972 it was already...

  17. Chronology
    (pp. 225-226)
  18. The Books of Edmund Wilson: A Checklist
    (pp. 227-229)
  19. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 230-243)
  20. Index
    (pp. 244-256)