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Nashwaak Review - Volume 18-19

We Are All Historians Now

by Stewart Donovan

A review of Edmund Wilson: A Life In Literature (2005) by Lewis Dabney and Cultural Amnesia (2007) by Clive James

Salman Rushdie made an appearance on a recent episode of the Colbert Report where, among other things, he lamented the fact that several large American daily papers were no longer
going to employ permanent book review editors. He said he would not like to be starting his career today–without the reviews and notices, writers and artists, don’t get the attention they deserve, they don’t make the news. Few critics or reviewers in English (or any other language for that matter) made the news in the twentieth century quite they way Edmund Wilson did. It would be unfair to say he lead a charmed life as a literary man, but there can be little doubt that he was born at a time when critics mattered and print was preeminent. Much of this, of course, had to do with Wilson himself, with the nature of his genius.

His grandfather Thaddeus Wilson was a Presbyterian minister but the boy was also instructed on Sundays by his formidable paternal grandmother, a Calvinist of Dutch background. The origins of the first immigrant Wilson were Londonderry while his mother’s people came from East Anglia. Though he eventually tried “hard to keep God in my cosmos” he had never really “known what it was to feel faith as something vital.” His discovery early on of Shaw and, then of H.L. Mencken, the leading journalist of his day and a man whose specialty was ridiculing preachers, pretty much guaranteed that young Edmund would pursue a gospel of reason, and his
Evangelists, naturally enough, would be Marx and Freud. His biographer and friend, Lewis Dabney, reflects that “Literature became the source of light in Wilson’s Protestant ethic, the aura
of guilt and sin setting off the vitality of books and ideas.”

There was lots of occasion for sin but not much guilt in the Princeton of his undergraduate days. But among the predictable Latin, Greek, and myth-making-bicycle-tours of England there
would also be a lasting and important friendship with a student named Scott Fitzgerald and the influence of two professors: Kemp Smith who introduced Wilson to the work of A. N. Whitehead, especially his Science and the Modern World, and Christian Gauss who lectured on Dante and Flaubert. It is at this time too that Wilson begins to engage French national culture and French historical criticism, stimulated mostly by Taine and Sainte-Beuve. Wilson of course “lived in” The Nassau Lit office and cut his teeth writing poetry, fiction, and reviews for the undergraduate literary magazine. His intellect and artistic gifts made him the odd man out on the campus of well-heeled playboys on their way to becoming the bond salesmen and brokers of Gatsby’s world.

Although he could neither command men nor imagine killing strangers, Wilson signed up, Razor’s Edge-like, to join the hospital corps in June of 1917. And like the protagonist of Maugham’s story, Wilson soon came to see the war for the senseless slaughter that it was. Never indifferent to politics, the war would encourage the already critical if not radical strain that made him aware of the illusions of nationalism, the ignorance of the fighting men, and the nature of both imperialism and capitalism. The hospital business especially had changed him with “men dying (in large numbers) through pneumonia and improper care, before they so much as see the front, and being buried perfunctorily before their families know they are dead.” At the end of the war the young Wilson made a vow to never“live indifferently or trivially again” and “ to stand outside
society” in order that he might devote himself “to the great human interests which transcended standards of living and convention.” Wilson’s loyalty to the working class men he saw suffer and die would be part of the real life experience driving his critique of class and privilege so prevalent in works such as To the Finland Station. Though he would later distance himself from his story
of Lenin (largely inspired by the Crash and the Depression) the partnership of Marx and Engels would always be central for him as it “was founded on the belief that history had a meaning and
plot, that the suffering and injustice they described could be overcome by writing and action.”

After the war Wilson’s star rises quickly, even though it would take him some time to realize that he was a much better writer about literary and historical figures than he was a writer of fiction and poetry. Still, by the time Joyce has released Ulysses and his friend Scott Fitzgerald Gatsby, Wilson is regarded as the best literary critic of his generation. As a reviewer, he knew how to “orient the reader to a book’s storyline and texture” as opposed to giving a thumbs up or down (with all due respect to Ebert the writer) or, as academics are too often seen to do, “ hang one’s
own essay on the work,” which he regarded as amateurish. We know him best today because of those classic books he turned out over his long career: Axel’s Castle (1931), The Triple Thinkers (1938), To the Finland Station (1940), The Wound and the Bow (1941), The Boys in the Back Room (1941), Classics and Commercials (1950), The Shores of Light (1952) and Patriotic Gore (1962) to mention the best known. I will never forget my own astonishment as a graduate student studying Joyce in Dublin, not at Wilson’s critique of Ulysses, but rather of his reading of Finnegans Wake in The Wound and the Bow. It is perhaps the single most astonishing review of a book ever written. Students (I dare not say readers) familiar with the Wake know that the book was, in Terry Eagleton’s, words, “the non-Irish speaking author’s way of being unintelligible to the British.” A post-colonial statement. No one, however, seems to have told Wilson it couldn’t be read (I mean conventionally). A postscript to a later edition of The Wound and the Bow contains an unintentionally comic paragraph by the great reader where he admits that there was much more in the Wake than he had first surmised!

There are many biographies, of Wilson including one entitled Critic in Love, which chronicles his (too) many marriages and love affairs. It is probably a safe bet to wager that Lewis Dabney’s life will be the one for the ages (as Wilson might have put it). A literary critic and friend of the great man, what makes Dabney’s story so engaging is his affection for “the old reporter”. Throughout his five hundred odd pages Dabney never lets us forget that Wilson was a political writer of high pedigree, the George Orwell of New Jersey, a man who sought out injustice and reported on it, whether he was in the deep south of the 30’s supporting a strike (told not to sit next to the window lest he be shot), or writing protest journalism for Native Americans in Apologies to the Iroquois. He also tried, from his earliest writings to Patriotic Gore, to write, after his own fashion, an epic of America, a Cantos of criticism, a white whale of cultural history. His own best known fiction should be better known: though Memoirs of Hecate County was a best seller in its day it is now, in the words of Louis Menard, “one of the great lost works of twentieth-century American literature: an astringent, comic, ultimately devastating exploration of lust and love, how they do and do not overlap.” Dabney does not hide the contradictory or dark side of the man. He is not sanitized or, as his good friend Auden might have put it, the words of the dead man are not modified in the guts of the living. At one point, fed-up with modern America, the critic considered giving up the pen: Auden consoled him by saying that he wrote for Wilson alone. But Edward Said, shortly before he died, scolded the great critic and supporter of Judaism for his anti-Arab statements— it seemed to Said to have diminished the man, if not the achievement. There is also the alcoholism and the journals with their record of his private life, his loves and affairs. It is, at times, reminiscent of the sad story of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick.

Many of his books remain in print and many books continue to be written about him. He was, in Oscar Wilde’s phrase, a critic as artist. And his America? There is still plenty of good reporting,
much more than in Wilson’s own day (the blogs go on with their bloggy life) but literary criticism, cultural criticism, cultural awareness? Wilson could not have foreseen how quickly entertainment would crush, in Philip Larkin’s phrase, the hunger to be more serious. The attack carried on by television, especially in North America, was the proverbial frog in the warm water. And most of us had no desire to hop out of it. Some, like Clive James, insisted that the temperature could be controlled, at least in Britain.

Clive James was part of a generation of Australian talent, a fab four if you will, that left home for Britain and America to become more or less permanent expats. His fellow travelers included such luminaries as Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, and Dame Edna (Barry Humphries). Though he started as a poet and reviewer, there was always something of the performer, the
comedian, in James and he would, like Dame Edna, end up making an impact on British television, becoming, in fact, a celebrity. But James started out in high seriousness and has always insisted, throughout his long career as poet, novelist, critic, and writer of memoirs, on having it both ways: wanting to be both court jester and scholar/critic. He rose to international prominence when he was revealed to be the anonymous author behind the curtain of a long, valedictory article in the Times Literary Supplement about a man he had always wished to emulate—Edmund Wilson. That same year James was hired by The Observer to write a weekly television column; it soon developed a huge following. I followed it myself in Dublin during the late 70’s, turning to it after reading Conor Cruise O’Brien’s latest editorial missive. The Sunday Observer of those years may very well have been the high water mark of British journalism, past
and present. And James’column? He made television, or at least reading about it, an intellectual exercise. Much of this had to do of course with both the content of the BBC (I remember, one
month, watching all or almost all of the Australian New Wave films) and with James’ famous style: a combination of Groucho Marx, Evelyn Waugh, and Gore Vidal, the latter softening the
edge of the satirist with the urbanity of the metropolitan critic. Early on it was the satire that got him attention and some writers who came under his scalpel fought back, resisted what they felt
was invective— Robert Lowell talked to lawyers.

In his latest and most ambitious book to date, James the jester has taken a back seat to James the scholar, but the comic and witty style that he is famous for has not been abandoned it’s just that the subject matter does not lend itself as readily to humour. There are two things, especially, that have impressed early reviewers and readers of Cultural Amnesia: the first is its vast range, from Tacitus to Vargas Llosa; the second is its inclusion— on a more or less equal footing— of figures from pop culture, from Dick Cavett to Tony Curtis to Michael Mann. Given the direction of James’ later career, the presence of the pop cult should not be as much of a surprise as the concentration on intellectuals. For myself, the most interesting parts of the book are those where James grapples with the question of style in great detail, at times almost, as in his essay on Walter Benjamin, approaching a theory:

Even as late as the Weimar Republic, the German universities retained their tacit quota system by which Jews found it hard to get a place on the faculty. Benjamin wanted a place on the faculty more than anything else in life. Other Jews of comparable critical talent, forced into journalism because the universities had shut them out, did what Benjamin could never bring himself to do. They accepted journalism’s requirements of readability, and found ways of giving everything they had to the article rather than the treatise. The books they wrote had a general public in mind. In retrospect, the journalists can be seen to have enriched German-speaking culture by saving it from the stratospheric oxygen-starvation of the
deliberately high flown thesis. Their written and spoken conversations were informal seminars that turned the cafés into universities, even as the universities were hardening further into hieratic structures where nothing mattered except the
prestige of position—a characteristic that made them fatally corruptible by political pressure. The journalists were well out of it, and the cleverest of them realized it: they took the opportunity to create a new language for civilization, a language
that drew strength from the demotic in order to cherish the eternal.

The passage is interesting for many reasons, not the least of which for what it says about James himself, his career, his way of writing, his attitude toward the academy, reading, scholarship, and general culture. Earlier in the same essay he remarks on the reason Benjamin wrote the way he did: “His life story gives us the answer: he was cushioning reality. It needed cushioning. Reality was anti-Semitism.” James is especially good on all those artists, activists and intellectuals who were (and are) victims of the totalitarian state, of oppression; many of the figures are famous, but just as many are not: Anna Akhmatova, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Sophie Scholl, Egon Friedell, and Marc Bloch:

It could be said that Bloc, as the founding annaliste historian, belonged to the bean-counting school of Braudel, and might merely have added to the future overstock of desiccated accountancy. But his subsidiary prose always promised something better. It promised a broadly human view, and had he lived he surely would have helped to sweeten an intellectual atmosphere turned sour by bad faith and fatigue. . . . All they had was what they had written, and all that their writings could do was wait. The waiting worked, eventually. The sleepers woke, eventually. Their books came back into print, and then there were books about them. In that bleated renaissance there is some encouragement, if small comfort. The heartening capacity of the tree of knowledge to replant itself in scorched earth does something to offset the depression induced by the spectacle of accumulated decades of bad conscience.

There are cultural heroes that James is hard on: he beats up on Borges in his blindness and accuses him of both moral myopia and the sin of omission. He is even harder on Sartre: “Like
Robespierre, he had an awful purity. Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize. He was living proof that the devil’s advocate can be idealistic and even self-sacrificing.” Later in the essay he links
Sartre with the man Wyndham Lewis accused him and Camus of stealing from, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger can hardly be accused of being called a cultural hero, but when he is lumped with Sartre James’s invective rises to comedy:

Hegel was trying to get something awkward out into the open. Heidegger was straining every nerve of the German language to do exactly the opposite. More than half a century later, the paradox has still not finished unraveling: it was Heidegger’s high-flown philosophical flapdoodle that lent credibility to Sartre’s. It was a paradox because Heidegger was an even more blatant case than Sartre of a speculative mind that could not grant itself freedom to speculate in the one area where it was fully qualified to deal with the concrete facts— its own compromises with reality. . . . Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazis was thought of as a flirtation. The means scarcely existed for anyone—philosopher, philologist,
literary critic, journalist or clinical psychologist— to point out the truth which has since become steadily more obvious, even if it does not appear axiomatic yet: that these two men, Heidegger and Sartre, were only pretending to deal with existence, because each of them was in outright denial of his own experience, and therefore had a vested interest in separating existence from the facts. Will it ever be realized that they were a vaudeville act? Probably not. Even George Steiner, who can scarcely be accused of insensitivity to the historical background, persists in talking about the pair of them as if they were Goethe and Schiller. Those of us who think they were Abbot and Costello had better reconcile ourselves to making no converts.

There is much of the either/or about Clive James: either you are with me or against me. He can hardly be accused of sitting on the fence (most of the time he is knocking it down). In this he is somewhat reminiscent of the early Christopher Hitchens, but also like two of his favourite writers, Evelyn Waugh and Kingsly Amis: satire and invective clearly inspire him, the prose
rises. I’m not sure how many of these 850 odd pages will survive: the homages to the forgotten figures of the past are noble pieces of retrieval, but they can be a little earnest, as Cummings said of Hemingway. And for all his detestation of the academy, there is some sleeve stretching of his own; the phrase “every student should be familiar” surfaces with all the regularity of a salmon at
a feeding farm. Has he not heard of television in the dorms? If they’re familiar with the idea or the book it will be because Homer mentioned it, not the blind Greek. Yes, there are times when his age is showing. We can hardly blame him for that. The book belongs beside the bed with George Orwell, David Thomson, George Steiner, Gore Vidal, and, last but not least, the man whose writing he so greatly admired, Edmund Wilson.