Like literature itself, literary criticism may be a thing of the past. Reading for pleasure has almost gone out of existence, replaced by web surfing and texting, exactly as, in the 1920s, musical evenings around the piano were gradually supplanted by record players and radios. Books—current books—are still consumed in quantity, and instantly forgotten, providing the same momentary pleasure as junk food; the notion of a permanent, constantly evolving literary heritage as a part of public awareness is slowly vanishing, along with the professional book reviewer and the magazines and newspapers he wrote for. Such tradition as remains is in the hands of academics, busily promoting their cockamamie theories and spouting their unreadable jargon. The literary critic, the person who loves and pursues the study of literature for its own sake, as an expression of the human spirit, must seem as antique, to this year’s college grads, as glassblowers, blacksmiths, and the lacemakers of medieval Bruges.
Unlike the mandarins of today’s English departments, critics approached a work, new or old, as something to be scrutinized first for sense, then for value, and lastly for its links to the literary tradition and to the world that, they were always aware, lived outside the world of books. If they had a strong ideology, or a fixed set of aesthetic principles, they used these to measure the work’s value—always conceding, if they had any brains, that in art rules are made to be changed, and that a work which alters them can still supply the lasting delight, wonder, and excitement that are the principal reasons people formerly read.
For more than half a century, everything intelligent Americans meant when they said “literary critic” was embodied by Edmund Wilson (1895–1972), whose Literary Essays and Reviews from 1920 to 1950 have just been assembled in two compact volumes by the Library of America. Other critics may have been read more widely or had greater influence on the best-seller list; none was more respected. The son of a prominent New Jersey lawyer, Wilson showed his affinity for literature early: In a memoir of his prep-school years, “Mr. Rolfe” in The Triple Thinkers, he recalls his disappointment when the headmaster’s wife, a fervent evangelical who gave the boys individual lectures on the dangers of sin, saw fit to warn him only of the temptation of being too bookish and neglecting the outside world. Her worries were groundless: After graduating from Princeton and serving as a hospital orderly in France during World War I, Wilson established himself quickly in a series of cutting-edge journalistic jobs that demonstrated his gifts as a sharp-eyed observer not only of the literary scene but of the arts in general, politics, and society.
In that era, rocked by the upheavals of a decade-long boom followed by a decade of economic depression and another world war, America was redefining itself culturally. Wilson, living in Greenwich Village and contributing to magazines like Vanity Fair, The Dial, and The New Republic, mingled with the young writers whose postwar disillusionment had caused Gertrude Stein to dub them “the lost generation.” His friends included F. Scott Fitzgerald (a Princeton classmate whose literary remains Wilson would later edit), Edna St. Vincent Millay (with whom he lost his virginity), John Dos Passos, e.e. cummings, Dawn Powell, and the playwrights of the Provincetown Playhouse.
Alert to the new American work being produced by these and other young artists, Wilson was equally responsive to the innovative art coming from Europe. His wide reading in childhood had given him a solid background in the great 18th- and 19th-century writers; his schooling had versed him thoroughly in the Greek and Latin classics. He was unfazed by the new: His first major book, Axel’s Castle (1931), collects a series of essays that constitute a history of modernism from the Symbolists to Wilson’s contemporaries Joyce, Eliot, and Stein. Yet he wrote it largely while serving as literary editor and cultural columnist for The New Republic (1926–31), turning out weekly columns on everything from New York’s vaudeville and burlesque houses to Hemingway’s early stories (his was the first American review of In Our Time) and Edith Wharton’s later novels.
The reviews and brief essays of this period, collected in The Shores of Light (1953), which shares Volume 1 of the set with Axel’s Castle, display Wilson’s staggering range and mental capacity: He is equally at home discussing Lord Byron and Thornton Wilder, the new-style comedies of George S. Kaufman and the early-19th-century French political philosopher Joseph de Maistre, the magic of Houdini and the diatribes of H.L. Mencken. On these and countless other subjects, what he says is accurate, thorough, and— allowing for quirks of personal taste-— reasonable. He brings each subject before you concisely but firmly, sums up its major qualities and faults, shows its importance in a larger context, cites significant works, and usually has space left over to mention intriguing minor works or arcane bits of fact that illuminate his topic from a different angle. The easy, assured balance of knowledge with the perception that comes from fresh discovery makes these pieces a model (and a source of despair) for any practicing reviewer.
The Depression and World War II stimulated newer facets of Wilson’s questing mind. He began to employ the twin analytic tools that were then coming to dominate the critic’s craft, Marx and Freud, but always as tools, never as dogmas. While his political columns of the 1930s (hopefully to be collected in a later volume) cover every current phenomenon from coal strikes to soup kitchens, his extended studies delved ever deeper into the causes, psychological and environmental, that shaped great writers’ careers. The two sets of long essays, The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow, that open Volume 2 of the new collection are nearly all seminal masterpieces: If you haven’t read Wilson on Dickens, Flaubert, Shaw, Kipling, and Henry James, you have yet to learn how criticism can enrich your love and respect for a great author while shining the harshest light imaginable on his defects. Almost better are the set’s two great abstract studies, “Marxism and Literature” and “The Historical Interpretation of Literature,” which lay down, with immaculate lucidity, a foundation for understanding the social meanings of art that’s still valid in today’s world of p.c. nitpickers.
As postwar America settled into corporate smugness and the Cold War, the middle-aged Wilson’s interests began to veer away from the modernist mainstream. The 1940s reviews collected in Classics and Commercials, which rounds out Volume 2, alternate rescue operations on obscure writers worth preserving, like Thomas Love Peacock and Ronald Firbank, with devastating slice-ups of the mass-market and genre kitsch that was slowly engulfing the book trade. These are never priggish: He finds a few kind words, along with many disdainful ones, for H.P. Lovecraft, and even his notorious “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, which still makes murder-mystery fans fume, pauses in its ire to praise Raymond Chandler, while the Marxist scalpels used so delicately on Flaubert get plunged with a ferocious (and justified) glee into Emily Post. Yet even this range, from Homeric epic to etiquette book, doesn’t display all of Wilson’s capacities: By my estimation, there should be at least three more volumes of Wilson still to come. Wilson on Turgenev and Navajo ritual, on the sculptures of Bomarzo and the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the IRS and the Marquis de Sade—many astonishments await.