Off the Shelf
Badgering Edmund Wilson
Pierre Tristam/Candide's Notebooks, January 12, 2006
The first thing to remember when reading Joseph Epstein, conservative snob and bigot extraordinaire (“If I had the power to do so,” said he in the pages of Harper’s in September 1970, “I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth,” to choose the one example that has, in Epstein’s words, “followed me around”) is that he ought not be confused with Jason Epstein, the near-genius of publishing and long-time editor at Random House, who could hardly be faulted for marrying Judith Miller; or even with Joseph Epstein, the Polish-descended French resistance fighter, whose fate at the hands of the SS in 1944 might have given the other Joseph a hint about wishing some people disappeared. Epstein has his qualities, editing the American Scholar for many years, even if a bit smugly, being one of them. Generosity is not one of them. Handing over to him an appraisal of Edmund Wilson, as Commentary Magazine does in the current issue, is like asking Mike Tyson to interpret the Goldberg variations on the keyboard. It makes for a good pounding. It won’t make for a good, even fair, interpretation. And so Joseph lets loose.
Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) is often referred to, Epstein tells us, as “our last great man of letters.” Epstein would have liked to be it. Never has been. Never could be, because Epstein never has gotten out much (unlike Wilson, whose curiosity took him from To the Finland Station , a book for which he learned German and Russians to write it properly, to The Dead Sea Scrolls to travels through America’s Depression, and so on. Epstein takes it out on the old pudge by badgering him for his looks and his drinking (he was “a bald, pudgy little man with a drinking problem and a mean streak”), his inability to type or “handle money,” his sex life, his marriage to Mary McCarthy (“the union of a true bitch and a genuine bully”)—in short, badgering him for all things petty and irrelevant to his substance as a writer and critic. Coming to that, Epstein isn’t much better. He cites old and discredited clichés about Wilson, such as: “Anti-Americanism had long since become a strong strain in Wilson’s intellectual make-up.” This about the man who birthed the idea of the Library of America, the most patriotic of literary projects immortalizing all the great and some not so great American writers, and the man who celebrated American literary life for most of the twentieth century in the pages of the New Republic, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books (like “ Every Man His Own Eckermann”).
Epstein faults Wilson for quoting too much the authors he reviewed, a habit too many reviewers have actually abandoned in favor of quoting themselves. And he blames Wilson’s books and journals for being “longueur-laden well beyond the legal limit; one of his specialties in his journals was great boring descriptions of landscape,” or even his criticism’s style, in which “it is difficult to think of memorable phrases, or powerful formulations.” Maybe Epstein hasn’t read him keenly enough. It’s rather memorable of Wilson to describe the Sierra Nevada as “the huge, rusty spine of the continent,” (rather more colorful and memorable than Steinbeck calling the Great Divide “the granite backbone of a continent” in Travels with Charley ), or to describe Newark’s “buildings strewn on the hill like the scum of a receding tide” (a description that could give Philip Roth a run for his Newarks, “whose very gutters,” he echoes Wilson in The Plot Against America , “gushed with the elixir of life”) , or the way Wilson heard the “melodious murmur of boat whistles heard from a back room in Washington Square,” or smelled “the first soft mysteries of the city summer,” proving his biographer Leon Edel right when he wrote that “Manhattan, in all its years of babbling journalism, never had so keen a mind and so sharp a pen survey its ephemera.” And we haven’t even touched on Wilson’s literary criticism, his granite backbone. But this summation of Hemingway, whom he somewhat discovered, serves enough to sum Wilson up as well, and also explain Espstein’s disdain: “Going back over Hemingway’s books today,” Wilson wrote, “we can see clearly what an error of the politicos it was to accuse him of an indifference to society. His whole work is a criticism of society: he has responded to every pressure of the moral atmosphere of the time, as it is felt at the roots of human relations, with a sensitivity almost unrivaled.”
And what does Joseph Epstein has in comparison? A forgettable article that only reminded us how much we’d missed Edmund Wilson, how fortifying he is to re-read, and how much we look forward to seeing his work immortalized in his own Library of America volumes. That’s as certain as knowing that the closest Joseph Epstein will ever come to the Library of America is on a float of resentment for knowing he’ll never make the club.