Thursday, July 24, 2008

Edmund Wilson's permanent criticism - in other words, he's still readable

One more glance at a Hudson Review article, this time "Edmund Wilson's Permanent Criticism: 1920-1950," (not online) a review essay on the two Library of America volumes of Wilson's work. The article is by William Pritchard, himself a favorite critic of mine.

Pritchard acknowledges a real intellectual debt to Wilson (as does the more ambivalent Joseph Epstein in an essay that can be found in In a Cardboard Belt!). The question for Pritchard is why a reader should spend time with Wilson now; Pritchard concludes, roughly, that Wilson wrote well enough and was insightful enough, so why not? That may not be exactly it, but any Amateur Reader who spends too much effort reading any critics is probably misallocating his time. There're a lot of books out there.

In my experience, Wilson does write well enough, and is insightful enough. His long essay on Proust, in Axel's Castle, is as good an introduction to that writer as I know, and might give a burst of momentum to any reader stuck halfway through The Guermantes Way. Wilson has a particularly strong gift with plot summaries - he describes the plot of In Search of Lost Time in detail, but somehow weaves his criticism in with the synopsis. The final result is utterly un-encyclopedic.

The Shores of Light, a thick collection of essays from the 20s and 30s, was less interesting to me for its specific insights than for its sense of The Spirit of the Age. The Wilson of that period wanted to read everything, and tried. His reviews of the promising young writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald communicate the thrill readers found in their books better than anything else I've read. Wilson makes the new writers of the time sound so exciting.

Here's Mark Sarvas, describing his Summer of [Philip] Roth, a reading or rereading of all or most of Roth's books, all in preparation for reviewing the new one. Whatever you do Mark, don't calculate your hourly wages for that review. Anyway, this is exactly what Edmund Wilson would do, read an author all the way through before reviewing him, no matter how long the shelf of books. He even decided that he had to learn Russian before he could understand the great Russian novels, and then he did it, more or less. The man could pack away the books.

P.S. Look, the Letter-writing Librarian recently read Axel's Castle, and wrote about it here.

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