Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"I have supressed the worst of my aberrations."

Oh, these are going to be fun: the Library of America has just issued two volumes of Edmund Wilson's literary essays and reviews. Just flipping through the first volume, I find, appropos of my realization yesterday that I needed to read more Edith Wharton, from the March 1923 issue of Vanity Fair:
Has Mrs. Wharton ever been given her rightful place as the foremost of living American novelists and one of the foremost living novelists of the world?
I don't know whether she reached that point during her lifetime, but her critical standing seems pretty solid now. Then, as if Wilson knows exactly what to write to get me to clap my hat on my head and light out for the bookshop, he continues,
Has Thomas Hardy ever done anything better than Ethan Frome?

Then there's a piece on Ring Lardner from the July 1924 issue of the Dial. Wilson takes Lardner, whom he, along with Fitzgerald, counted as a friend, to task for "being timid about coming forward in the role of serious writer." Comparing Lardner to Sinclair Lewis, he writes,
[W]hen Lardner comes closest to Lewis, as in the story called The Golden Honeymoon, he is less likely than Lewis to caricature, and hence to falsify, because he is primarily interested in studying a kind of person rather than in drawing up an indictment
--which seems to perfectly describe both Lardner's sympathetic openness and Lewis's brutally accurate satire, so vicious it's draining. But Wilson goes even farther, first leveling some more pointed criticism before taking what even eighty years later seems a breathtaking leap:
For all his saturnine tone, his apparent scorn of vulgar values, he seems committed to popular journalism. He does not even care to admit that he has tried to do work on a higher level. . . . Yet he would seem to come closer than anyone else among living American writers to possessing the combination of qualities that made Huckleberry Finn a masterpiece.
The whole essay reads as what it surely was meant to be: a direct, public challenge to a talented writer who was not, in Wilson's opinion, measuring up.

Sadly, we already know the answer to the question Wilson asks later,
Will Ring Lardner, then, go on to his Huckleberry Finn or has he already told all he knows?
For what Wilson wonders about in prospect in 1924, Fitzgerald would wonder about his friend in retrospect less than a decade later, in the obituary appreciation of Lardner that I wrote about recently. "So one is haunted," Fitzgerald wrote, "not only by a sense of personal loss but by a conviction that Ring got less percentage of himself down on paper than any other American of the first flight."

In my earlier post on that obituary, I pointed out that as Fitzgerald was writing about Lardner, surely he also was thinking about his own frittering away of his talent. And in fact, two years before challenging Lardner, Wilson had publicly challenged his friend Fitzgerald, too, who had just published his second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922):
[H]e has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express.
That's candidness to the point of brutality, and I wonder how Fitzgerald took it. (A task for my next library visit!) But even as he calls This Side of Paradise (1920) "a preposterous farrago," slashes Fitzgerald for his slack language, and even mixes in some personal criticism--"Conversations about politics or general ideas have a way of snapping back to Fitzgerald"--Wilson is clearly aiming to urge his friend to push past what is easy or comfortable. To that end, he mixes in serious, though measured praise. This Side of Paradise is "exciting" and "animated with life," and
[I]t would be quite unfair to subject Scott Fitzgerald, who is still in his twenties and has presumably most of his work before him, to a rigorous overhauling. His restless imagination may yet produce something durable.
He saves his strongest praise for the conclusion, where, though still couched in doubts, it obviously points a possible way for his friend to better understand--and thus deploy--his own talent:
But, in any case, even the work that Fitzgerald has done up to date has a certain moral importance. In his very expression of the anarchy by which he finds himself bewildered, of his revolt which cannot fix on an object, he is typical of the war generation--the generation so memorably described on the last page of This Side of Paradise as "grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in men shaken."

It's interesting to come across this pair of essays a week after
I lamented the news
that V. S. Naipaul dismisses the work of his longtime friend Anthony Powell in his most recent collection; while both writers are harshly criticizing friends, their differences in moral standing in doing so seem stark.

Powell, after all, is dead; nothing Naipaul says will make him a better writer. And while it is not incumbent on everyone to avoid speaking ill of the dead, a friend should surely hold fire in all but the most extraordinary circumstances. Though I've not yet read Naipaul's piece on Powell, his striking lack of generosity--especially when set in contrast to Fitzgerald's honest yet appreciative assessment of Lardner--will render it extremely difficult to approach without distaste, and even doubt.

Wilson's words, on the other hand, though surely hurtful at the time (possibly even unnecessarily so, as there's a sense in both essays of the brash overconfidence of youth, of words running away with him) are far easier to justify, aimed as they were at the stimulation of talents that he clearly admired--and delivered while the men were still around to take issue with them or even prove him wrong. It's easy to imagine both Fitzgerald and Lardner cursing Wilson, maybe even to his face, but it's hard to imagine them dismissing his critique out of hand.

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